Q&A: Political science prof Richard Joseph on Obama’s upcoming meeting with Nigerian president

Political science Prof. Richard Joseph, Nigeria expert and Brookings Institution fellow, discusses President Barack Obama's Monday meeting with the president of Nigeria.

Source: Department of Political Science

Political science Prof. Richard Joseph, Nigeria expert and Brookings Institution fellow, discusses President Barack Obama's Monday meeting with the president of Nigeria.

Madeline Fox, Summer Managing Editor

In preparation for President Barack Obama’s Monday meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, The Daily spoke with political science Prof. Richard Joseph about what to expect from Buhari’s visit. Joseph, a fellow at The Brookings Institution who specializes in African politics with an emphasis on Nigeria, has also taught at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Joseph’s answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily Northwestern: What might we expect from the White House meeting?

Richard Joseph: There are some obvious issues, the first one being counterterrorism because of the conflict with militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which has been going on for several years now.

A second one is what I call inclusive growth — by which I mean most African economies now, including Nigeria, have been growing for well over a decade, but that growth I call discordant because there are many people not benefiting from it.

A third issue is that Nigeria is a democratic federation, like the United States. We have very similar systems, and Nigeria has adhered to that commitment despite all its difficulties — and that’s especially important today as you have so much backsliding from democracy and human rights in other countries. The recent election of Muhammadu Buhari really reflects democratic processes — they had a very good election.

So I would put counterterrorism, the issue of inclusive growth, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and then two others could be added to that list: anti-corruption — Nigeria has suffered from very high levels of corruption, but the government is acting in a very expeditious way to address the way the country loses so much resources to it. And then finally, institutional efficiency — the setting up and maintaining of fundamental institutions.

The Daily: Buhari recently fired the country’s top military and security leaders, who have been under fire for incompetence and human rights abuses in the fight against Boko Haram — what does that mean for Nigeria and its relationship with the U.S.?

Joseph: These are military operations, so you have senior officers who are ready to step into their places, so the country doesn’t lose anything operationally when you remove people at that level, but it’s very symbolic. It will not affect the functioning of the country, but it’s a very important element in establishing new strategies and approaches, especially to dealing with Boko Haram.

Buhari is himself is a career military officer, and so he wants to have people who have his highest trust, and that gives him an opportunity to bring those people together. All those people who would be appointed to fill those positions would be individuals who are very seasoned.

It restores trust — relationships between the United States and Nigeria have very much declined in the past few years, and this restores trust and confidence between the two countries and between the American military leadership and those in Nigeria.

The Daily: What issues might be glossed over or avoided at the meeting?

Joseph: It’s not an issue that I follow closely in Nigeria, but the issue of gay rights is where there is a real disagreement between not only the United States but a lot of Western states and the governments of Africa.

This has been a point of friction because we in the U.S. and other Western countries have moved very rapidly in the last few years in terms of expanding gay rights, and even in the United States, it’s just been a few years since we’ve seen such tremendous progress on gay marriage, and it’s now seen as a fundamental right.

The United States and most Western democracies are out of step with prevailing feelings in Africa, including Nigeria, so it’s definitely an issue that might come up, but I don’t see the government spending a lot of time on this in this particular meeting because they have so much that is much more pressing.

The Daily: What are the greatest challenges Buhari faces in his presidency, and what role can the U.S. play in helping him meet those challenges?

Joseph: One of the challenges is that Nigeria suffers a lot from deficiency in the generation of electricity. It’s not the only country like that, but Nigeria has been a major oil producer and it also has large reserves of natural gas, so Nigeria of all countries should now be making electricity available from the national grid for the greater majority of Nigeria, but the opposite is the case. This is a big issue for the Obama administration, enhancing electric power generation in Africa.

Another major challenge Buhari is facing — and here the US cannot be of direct assistance, but a strong relationship with the US and other external countries will be to his benefit — is that he has come to power leading a party that was only formed a little over two years ago. He was able to put together a coalition with other political groupings, especially a major one in southwest Nigeria, but holding a grand party coalition together like that is very difficult. To the extent that his authority, his popularity is enhanced, then it will bolster him in dealing with what he wants to do.

Another major challenge is that Nigeria has north-south divisions, and those divisions have religious and ethnic dimensions to them. Buhari is a devout Muslim, but is, like most leaders in Nigeria, very democratic in his convictions and very opposed to the extremists that we see in Boko Haram and other organizations. He has to act as a national president, so it’s going to be a big challenge for him, a big challenge for anyone elected president in such a country, to be able to deal with some of those religious, ethnic and regional differences — but all of these challenges have been in Nigeria for some time, so this is a moment of real hope that it will get a good government.

One of the very important things about Buhari is that his personal life is fine. Many people who become president of Nigeria or hold any senior positions in government, including state government, when they leave office they’re very rich people, just given the nature of how the system works. He has no interest in that, and he can set an example for many others at the federal and state and even local level.

The Daily: What must both parties bring to the table in order to foster greater cooperation?

Joseph: They have already had opportunities — Buhari was elected at the end of March, so in the last three-plus months there’s obviously been a lot of conversations taking place within Nigeria with people in the American embassy. They’ve had high-level visits to Nigeria, and a lot of these conversations have already started taking place, so they would have already worked out a lot of the elements of the new partnership on strategic issues, on counterterrorism, prior to the meeting on July 20, but a meeting between Obama and Buhari will enable them to seal all of these elements.

Similar to conflicts in other countries, whether Iraq or Afghanistan, Pakistan, not to mention other places in Africa like Somalia where you have a complete state failure, these conflicts (with Boko Haram) are not going to be ended in a very short period — it will take many years.

Meanwhile, while (Buhari) is stepping up the military and security aspects of (conflict with Boko Haram), you also have to be dealing with a lot of the social and economic issues. Nigeria has in the northeast alone over a million people who are displaced because of the conflict. During that period, a lot of economic activity has come to a halt and a lot of young children have not had an education in an area that was quite educationally backward anyway.

It’s going to be a long relationship, and it’s going to well extend beyond President Obama’s remaining years in office. They have an opportunity to really establish a relationship, and the Nigeria-United States relationship has been a really critical one, not only in Africa but globally, because this relationship and the issues between Nigeria and the United States are of global significance.

The long-term benefits from this relationship, especially given a lot of global conflict, could be substantial for both countries. So I am very delighted that with all the matters being dealt with in the world — Yemen, Greece, Iran, the Islamic State and so on — that we can have some attention devoted to the extraordinary progress that has been made in Nigeria, progress that has been made by democratic means.

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