The ebb and flow of U.S.-Nigeria relations

By Tolu Ogunlesi

American popular culture has consistently captured the imagination of Nigerians for a while now. One of Lagos’ most notorious robbers in the 1990s styled himself ‘Shina Rambo’; and one well-known Nollywood trope is the recasting of Hollywood blockbusters.

That Nigerian fascination with America reached its apogee in the age of Barack Obama, son of an African father. On election night in 2012, the US Mission in Nigeria assembled guests at Eko Hotel for an evening to commemorate the presidential elections that would be taking place across America later that day. Speaker after speaker what America meant to them. In the mock voting that followed Barack Obama floored Mitt Romney with 219 votes to 30.

Americans on their own part might trace a collective interest in Nigeria to the Nigerian Civil War, when President Lyndon Johnson, overwhelmed by his citizens protesting the widespread starvation in the war zones, reportedly ordered aides to “just get those nigger babies off my TV set.”

In the decades since the image of Nigeria has evolved considerably: Biafra’s helpless children have been replaced by an immigrant community of high-achieving professionals and students on the one hand, and on the other an obsession with the ‘Nigerian Letter’ – to wit US Senator Ted Cruz’ October 2013 quip about the Obamacare website being run by “Nigerian email scammers.”

Changing equation

America opened its first Consulate in Nigeria in 1928, but did not begin to show active interest until Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. Trade volumes between Nigeria and America tripled between 1960 and 1970.

But even then, writes Ayo Olukotun in a 1992 paper for the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, “the general tendency of officialdom in the United States was to continue to treat Nigeria as mainly a British responsibility for which the United States had only token interests, and this was linked to its global mission in these years of keeping communism at bay.”

Until the 1970s, when Nigeria first emerged as an oil power. Tensions in the Middle East in October 1973 raised the price of oil, almost quadrupling Nigeria’s monthly oil revenues by May 1974, when prices peaked.

Since then Nigeria, one of the world’s ten biggest producers of crude oil, has been of strategic economic importance to the US, the world’s leading importer.
That dynamic has altered dramatically in recent years; US oil imports from Nigeria have dropped 70 percent in the last decade.

“Given the continuous rise in the price of crude oil to the point where it’s now profitable for it to develop shale oil, and the tweaking of policy to focus on being a strategic reservoir for oil and gas as a way of dealing with future possible global conflicts, right now there’s a change in the equation,” says Sam Ohuabunwa, President of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, founded in the 1960s, and based in Lagos.

Problems Inc.

In recent years relations between the two countries have ebbed dramatically on occasion, largely on account of two issues – security and corruption.

“The challenge we have is that there is a feeling in the United States that the Nigerian government is not doing its best in dealing with security issues,” says Ohuabunwa.

Similar sentiments exist regarding corruption. The 2013 presidential pardon granted Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former Governor of the oil-producing Bayelsa state convicted of money laundering, elicited a disapproving tweet from the US Embassy in Abuja. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly railed against “massive, widespread and pervasive corruption” within the Nigerian government.

But she was also the driving force behind the launch, on April 6, 2010, of the US–Nigeria Binational Commission, created to focus on partnerships across issues like transparency, good governance, security, agriculture, and the Niger delta. The Commission came at a difficult time for Nigeria; caught up in a constitutional crisis triggered by the extended absence of President Yar’Adua from office on account of ill-health.

When the then Secretary of State Clinton and Nigeria’s Secretary to the Federal Government Yayale Ahmed signed the commission agreement the President had not been sighted in public for five months.

It was during that time that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the ‘Underwear bomber’ as he would come to be know – tried to blow up a US airliner travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit, earning Nigeria a place in America’s list of “countries of interest” in the global war on terror.

Aid and trade

Away from geopolitics and hard diplomacy things have been far less tumultuous. The United States runs an active range of aid, educational and cultural diplomacy programmes in Nigeria. One of the latest is a training project in filmmaking targeted at young people in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region; the site, between 2006 and 2009 of a militant insurgency that almost crippled the country’s oil industry.

The project, funded by the US government through its Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, is in anticipation of the winding down next year of an amnesty programme that has seen the government issuing generous monthly payouts to surrendering militants.

Gbenga Sesan, an activist and social entrepreneur who sits on the board overseeing the project says the aim is to keep “at-risk” youth busy and prevent them from returning to militancy.

Since America emerged as Nigeria’s biggest sovereign provider of aid in the early 1960s, there have been several philanthropic interventions of this nature. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is very visible in the country, most recently in the power sector.

But amid a growing emphasis across the continent on the “trade, not aid” mantra, a focus on previously unexplored commercial frontiers is to be expected. Mr. Ohuabunwa for example sees Nigeria’s loss of the American oil market as “an opportunity for Nigeria to revamp the [access] offered by the US through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), to take advantage of that that preferential opportunity to export agriculture-related products: leather, garments, textile products.”


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