Funmi Feyide John
Friday 9 July 2010 14.30 BST
Nigeria is the largest black nation, with approximately 150 million people. So it was little surprise that when Barack Obama became the first black president of the US, Nigeria's then-president, Umar Yar'Adua, attempted to visit him. A visit with Obama, arguably the most popular man on the planet at the time, would have benefited Yar'Adua, who faced questions about his health and competence as a leader.
That visit never happened and instead the public relationship between Yar'Adua and Obama was practically nonexistent. A Nigerian news outlet indicated that Obama was unwilling to meet with the Nigerian leader because of a lack of democratic and human rights progress in the country. Instead, the American president chose Ghana as his first stop in sub-Saharan Africa, where he spoke sternly about democracy, good governance and leadership in a speech that was interpreted as a condemnation of Nigeria's leadership.
Tensions were further inflamed when Yar'Adua's political party accused Obama of seeking to destabilise the then-president's government. Flash forward a year and, following Yar'Adua's death in May, the Obama administration has chosen to be very vocal in its support for Nigeria's new president, Goodluck Jonathan. On his first day in office, Jonathan was visited by the American undersecretary of state in what can only be interpreted as a show of support. America quickly signed a bi-national agreement with Nigeria, the first with an African nation in decades.
Jonathan was also invited by Obama to attend a nuclear summit in Washington, DC, where he was heralded as an example of African democracy at work. Even the "terror prone" classification afforded to Nigeria after a citizen attempted to blow up a plane was soon scrapped, and Nigeria went from being on a list with the likes of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, to being touted as an example of countries with US-approved enhanced screening technology. Unfortunately, America's support for Jonathan risks sabotaging him and even creating problems for the US and President Obama.
While oil remains an important factor in the Nigeria-US relationship, America's military aspirations are equally a reason for the change in America's tune. In 2007, Yar'Adua had formally rejected a request by the Bush administration to house United States Africa Command (Africom) in Nigeria. However, now that Yar'Adua is no longer in power, the US has another opportunity to reintroduce Africom to the African audience. If Nigeria were to get on board, there is the likelihood that other countries will view the military command more favourably, thus paving the way for an Africa-based Africom headquarters. This could also prove beneficial to American private military companies that are expanding their presence in the region, and especially in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.
These possibilities are even more likely now that the US has a black president. Although his popularity ratings have slipped in the US, Obama remains a very popular figure on the African continent. This popularity, coupled with the new treatment being meted out to Nigeria and its president, could increase the chance of a public declaration of support by the Nigerian government.
It would be detrimental for Jonathan to be seen as an American puppet, a perception that has already taken root. In early 2010, American officials insisted on a change in the leadership of the Nigerian electoral body and its controversial chair, Maurice Iwu, was soon removed, fuelling concerns that the removal was at America's request.
America has also proclaimed its support for a 2011 Jonathan ticket. If indeed Jonathan runs for president and wins, the credibility of this win will be diminished and America will be accused of tampering in the domestic elections of an independent nation. This would be detrimental not only to the resulting Nigerian administration but also to the credibility of the American government, which asserts that it hopes for true democracy in Nigeria and the region.
In addition, obvious American support for Jonathan, a southern Christian, could reinforce negative religious and tribal divisions. Considering that many believe Yar'Adua, a northern Muslim, was snubbed by Obama, the new attitude towards Jonathan could foster the already widely held belief that America is anti-Muslim. Such an attitude, if further entrenched by opportunists, would destabilise any future Nigerian government and encourage intertribal friction in a country with over 250 different languages and groups. In 2010, a North African al-Qaida group offered to train Nigerian Muslims to kill Christians. This was during a period when socioeconomic, religious and ethnic tensions fuelled repeated fighting in the country's middle belt.
If these and other negative possibilities were to come to pass, America's support could be interpreted as a failure of its Africa policy. This would not only weaken the African belief in Obama's leadership and vision for the continent, but make him prey to further foreign policy criticism by opponents at home.
America's carefully crafted but public preference for Jonathan could very well serve to complicate Jonathan's position as president and even the possibility of him running again. It could also have repercussions for President Obama who can hardly afford more missteps considering the challenges he already faces at home. And, most significantly, such support could create more problems for Nigeria, a country recently listed as the 14th most failed state in the world, and, undoubtedly, with enough issues to deal with.