W. Alade Fawole, a professor of International Relations, is a former Dean, Faculty of Administration at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State. He speaks on how African countries especially Nigeria can enjoy maximum cooperation of the United States’ new President, Joe Biden
Do you think Joe Biden’s Presidency is the beginning of better US, Nigeria relations?
Firstly, I think this will be the beginning of a better, perhaps more robust mutual relationship between the United States of America and Nigeria. When there is a new administration, especially in a big country like United States, it comes with fresh ideas, tactics and strategies to do things. In this case, Joe Biden’s personality is different from that of Donald Trump.
If you look at what happened in the last four years, not just in relations to Nigeria or any particular country, the personality of Donald Trump was odious, rude, crude and ill-mannered even to leaders across the world. His behaviour was based on white supremacy and racism and therefore, that coloured his judgment, not just on Nigeria but several African countries that he referred to as shithole countries.
He has once referred to President Muhammad Buhari, although he denied it, as lifeless. Those are characteristics that were peculiar to Donald Trump and that affected the way he related with other leaders in the world and with other countries.
Now we have a Joseph Biden who is an experienced Senator for about 36 years and former vice president for eight years. Therefore, he has spent all his life in politics and public service. He is very knowledgeable and his characters from what we can see at the inauguration does not betray the kind of ruthlessness and aggressive manners of a Donald Trump.
So, if we look at it from that perspective alone, we will be able to discover that things will be done better. But that will still depend on circumstances and issues between the two countries. However, there is going to be a mutual respect between the two leaders. That will be very obvious because Biden is not an acrimonious personality.
In what areas do you think Africa, especially Nigeria will benefit from the Biden presidency?
Joe Biden or any American elected as President is elected to pursue, defend and advance the interest of the United States first and foremost. The rest of the world can seek to benefit in terms of mutual relationship, but we must not be starry-eyed that Biden is elected for Africa, no he was not. Even while Obama was there, he was not elected for Africa, so we shouldn’t be starry-eyed about what Africa will stand to gain. But now that we have a new President in the US, his approach to the world, his worldview is different from Donald Trump’s restricted, transactional worldview. This man has larger worldview. You can see from the Executive Orders that he signed on Wednesday. A number of the reckless and irresponsible policies of Donald Trump have been reversed. Now, America will re-join the World Climate Accord and the World Health Organisation which Donald Trump angrily removed America from, not for any reason but just for his personal whim and idiosyncrasies.
So, what that means is that we can look at Biden as not a transactional President, but a President who realises the essence of multi-nationalism and cooperation. He also said so in his speech, that American would reassert itself and integrate itself into the world. So, unlike Donald Trump’s ruthless America first and America only, this man realises that even America’s pre-eminence is predicated upon its relationship with the rest of the world. Its membership of the international organisations and institutions where it provides leadership is the basis for a sustainable world order. So, if we look at it from that point of view, we will discover that Africa as a continent will gain. But we still have to look at America’s foreign policy towards Africa in much more specific terms because there is no such thing as a one- size-fit-all America’s foreign policy to Africa.
There are 55 countries in Africa -tiny, small, medium, big, large, populous, not so populous, economically buoyant and all that. Now, America does not have one policy dealing with the continent. America has several issues to deal with, to address on the continent of Africa. If you go to North Africa for example, we are talking about the Arab Magreb North Africa. We are talking about Arab countries that also dovetail into America relationship with the Middle East, especially with Egypt being the most strategic of the countries.
So, the relationship with North African countries, the relationship with Egypt will be different from the relationship with the rest of the Sub Saharan Africa. Even in the context of Sub Saharan Africa, the relationship with countries in Sahel Sahara region, where it is engaged in fighting Islamic insurgency in Mauritania, Niger Republic and other places will be different from other Sub Saharan African countries, where such insurgencies are not going on.
Relationship with countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya that are facing insurgencies will be different from Angola that does not face such a thing. So, we cannot pigeon-hole American policy and say this is precisely what is going to be for Africa.
Let’s take Nigeria for instance, what kind of relationship do you expect?
Relationship with Nigeria for example will be taken on strategically important issues. Nigeria is the largest concentration of black people all over the world. That is a consideration for American policy. Biden will have to put that into consideration. Secondly, Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. Thirdly it is the largest market in Africa. So, when you look at trade, commerce and things like that, Nigeria occupies a significant position in American thinking. So, we can look at all other areas, we can look at the Horn of Africa, where America is competing with the Chinese in establishing military bases in Djibouti. We can also look at other parts of Africa where the US forces are located sometimes clandestinely in different African countries through what we call the US African Command. So, those are specific foreign policy matters that America will have to address as each one comes, as important.
From your submissions here, the policy of America first which Trump Presidency pursued remains even with a new man in charge. Does that further tell African countries not to expect much from the Biden Presidency?
No, that is not the point that I was making. Donald Trump’s policy was American first but even without saying it, every country is supposed to be first in its own priority, such that Nigeria foreign policy to the rest of the world is based on its interest.
So, that is how it should be, but with the way Donald Trump went about it, it was not just about America first, which has always been the case, but it was like America alone; America against the rest of the world. With that posturing, he did succeed in bringing America out of several multilateral agreements. He cancelled North America Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. You will remember the Transpacific Partnership with Asia, he pulled America out of it. You remember the Iran Nuclear Deal which was negotiated and agreed and signed by all the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, he pulled out not because it was not a good agreement, but because he did not like the signature of Obama or another person that was on it. He pulled out of the World Health Organisation for no reason, except he probably does not like the African who is the head of the WHO.
He pulled out of the Climate Change Accord which was negotiated and signed by 192 countries in the world. He claimed that all these were scientific hoax and Chinese hoax. You see, that is not what Biden is going to do.
Biden realizes that there is no reason America should get out those organisations, because wherever America does not step in to provide leadership and guidance, there may be chaos and that is what has happened. What I believe Biden is going is to do is to take America back into the global mainstream.
So, will Nigeria and Africa benefit from it?
Of course, they will because you are not going to get punished because Donald Trump does not like what you say or you do. You are not going to get punished because you are concerned with the Climate Change Accord, you are not going to get punished simply because you are trading with Venezuela or Iran that Donald Trump doesn’t like. I am not saying that things are going to be so radically different, but first and foremost the approach will be different.
Issues will now come up for negotiations and the same platform of international institutions will be utilised. This is where Africa can then canvass their own specific interests.
The Obama Presidency had problem with Goodluck Jonathan-led FG because Nigeria refused to endorse gay issues. Don’t you think these issues may cause another strain in Nigeria-US relations given the liberal policies of Democrat presidents?
I would think not in the sense that though Democrat has pushed the issue of LGBTA and other gender issues across the globe. I don’t think that Biden will push it very hard in the sense that Obama tried and it failed. Even in his father’s own country, Kenya, they told him it was in violation of their culture. In other parts of Africa, they said they were not even discussing it because it violates their culture. In any case, as far as Nigeria is concerned, it was not even the decision of President Goodluck Jonathan. It was a law passed by the National Assembly, assented to by the President, which means, it is we the people of Nigeria that made it a law. So, nobody can impose anything on us from abroad. Remember also that the formal British Prime Minister, David Cameron, did the same thing. He said no country will receive British aid anymore unless they support LGBTA thing. Nigeria told him he can keep his loans and grants and things like that. I don’t think that Biden that wants to reintegrate America back into the world will necessarily go out to offend the sensibilities of other countries, especially their cultural sensibilities. When his cabinet is eventually approved, you will see the cabinet is diverse, full of people of African origin, Asian origin, of Latinos origin, of minority origin and things like that, which is reflective of the realities in America
Even having said that, don’t you think the Nigerian government should still prepare for any eventuality, in case these issues come back and strain its relations with the US?
Even if these issues come back, there is nothing really for Nigeria to be preparing for. The relationship between Nigeria and US is not predicated upon whoever is in power. It is predicated on mutual interest of the two countries.
You want to do business in Africa, there is no better place to do it than Nigeria. The population is there, the resources are there which everybody wants. So, Nigeria is a country that cannot be ignored. No need for any leader to be panicking whether America will say this today or another tomorrow.
The relationships are mutually strategic. If you look at the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria is the most pivotal country. There is nothing anyone can do in the Gulf of Guinea without Nigeria being involved. So, it is not a question of one person’s personal preferences. Country’s interests are mutually determined.
But having said that, Donald Trump practically imposed his personal preferences. Don’t you think Joe Biden may also choose to bring his own personal preferences into dealing with the rest of the world, especially Africa rather than the mutually strategic issues you have talked about?
I don’t think so in the sense that Biden is a consummate politician of over four decades, actually like five decades. He has been a Senator for 36 years. He was Vice President to Obama for eight years. He has been in different committees of Senate and has travelled around the world. He is not an illiterate. Donald Trump is such a person who thinks he could bully everyone and just get whatever he wants. But you see, not all his personal preferences worked. All that he wanted against Iran, he never got. He had wanted to overthrow government of Venezuela, but he did not succeed. He tried to verbally bully North Korea, until those ones showed him their military and nuclear capabilities, that they don’t take kindly to threats from outside. Then he relented.
Joe Biden is not likely to run US foreign policy based on persons he likes or dislike but on generalise America interest, what serves the interest of America. I have to say this again, Donald Trump was a stark illiterate. He never read, he never studied, he never took anybody’s advice, otherwise if he did any of those things, why would somebody who is knowledgeable about America and the rest of the world, advise Americans to use aerosol disinfectant, maybe to drink it in order to kill COVID 19? This is the same person who told scientists that this coronavirus was a hoax. He called it Chinese hoax. This is somebody who said there is no such thing as climate change. I mean what kind of illiterate are we talking about? We must not overplay this thing. It is not everybody that operates foreign policy based on personal preferences. There are institutional mechanisms in America that Biden will follow. Foreign policy establishment, the National Security Establishment, the Defence Department, the economy and things like that as they affect the rest of the world. Those are the things that dictate US policies. This is the first time in American history, that they will have an illiterate as President and so we should not spend so much talking about Donald Trump. He is not a good example to be used.
Do you think the US will work well with a Buhari-led FG considering the fact that America has accused FG under Buhari of persecuting and killing Christians?
Accusations like that have always been there. It is Christians and Muslims today, it used to be about gay and no gay, it used to be about Boko Haram and Chibok girls and all kinds of things. All those accusations are always there, but the point is this, since all those accusations have been made, has the US ever severed diplomatic relationship with Nigeria?
Even under the crudest Mr Trump? Why didn’t they do it? It is because the tie that binds countries together are stronger than the discretion of an individual President. They may not like each other as individuals, but the thing is this, basic interest of the countries will have to be pursued.
What does America require from Nigeria? The basic things will still be there. What does Nigeria require from America? Those basics are the one that will determine the direction of policy. It is unfortunate that people are using Donald Trump as an example. Trump was a momentary aberration with an expiry date. He shouldn’t be used as an example at all, if you know America history and foreign policy in the past 230 years.
Biden on Wednesday signed an Executive Order reversing 15 of Trump policies. What kind of foreign and immigration related policies should Africans, especially Nigerians expect from Biden’s Presidency?
First and foremost, we are not going to have the kind of prejudicial policies by Donald Trump. Mr Trump, remember that even during the time of campaign, was accusing Muslims of being terrorists, Latinos of being sexual perverts, drug addicts and everything bad in the United States. He labelled Muslims and when he got to power, one of the first things he did was to restrict immigration from so-called Muslim majority countries. They were not for any reason except that he just doesn’t like Muslims.
Now, Biden is going to reverse all those things. Not because they are now going to allow mass migration of Nigerians into the United States or from any other country, but that immigration is going to be based on objective reasoning.
Do you have a reason to migrate to the United States? Do you have the objective factor to be there? Those are the critical issues that will be examined. But under Trump, you are from Mexico, therefore you are a drug addict. You are from Somalia; you must go back to the shithole country where you came from. Those were illiterate decisions by an illiterate mind.
It pains me to have to even talk about it.
Boko Haram insurgency and banditry have become a major problem Nigeria is finding difficult to address. Do you think it is time Nigeria beg Biden to send US troops down to the country and help fight alongside our soldiers, considering the swift manner the American troops rescued a kidnapped American in Nigeria last year?
Firstly, Nigeria or any country is not in the position to ask US to deploy troops for anything, that is number one. Number two, American forces are deployed in countries where America has national interest that cannot be accomplished by any other means except the use of its own troops. Americans do not shed blood for other people, they only shed blood when American interests are involved.
If Nigeria needs America’s help, it can ask for it and the help does not have to be in terms of bringing in soldiers. It could be in form of bringing in military advisers, trainers to train people in counter terrorism. It could be by way of supplying intelligence, it could also be by way of giving economic aid to booster the economy, it could be by way of supplying needed weapons.
Nigeria has always asked for those things, but no country is in the position to ask the US to deploy troops. No, America don’t take order from other countries, but I think Nigeria needs to ask for international assistance, whichever way it is because the security situation in Nigeria is so overwhelming that it appears nobody is safe anymore.
But that international assistance seems not to be coming from US because we have had two Presidents now complaining that US refused to sell weapons to them. Jonathan as President complained of such from US. Buhari also has not been getting such aid from US. Should we expect it now that a rather ‘literate’ President is in the saddle?
Two things are involved. First, buying weapons and giving aid are two different things. If we are buying weapons from them, that is not aid. There are national, as well as international reasons why countries sell weapons or why they do not sell weapons. Under Jonathan for example, there were several military installations that were swiftly attacked by Boko Haram, soldiers driven out and weapons captured. One of the things that the US does not like is its weapons falling into the hand of terrorists.
So, if the Nigerian Army could not persuade them that they will utilise and safeguard those weapons from getting to wrong hands, US is not going to either donate or sell them. But since the Buhari government, remember Nigeria applied for either 12 or 15 Tucano jets, some of them have been delivered. The thing with weapon sales is, unless you are buying from illicit arms market, it has to be negotiated between nations, the terms and conditions, the end user conditions and things like that must also be sorted.
The service agreement, the replenishment, all those are things that are complicated to work out. They are not like you just walk to a car mart and say give me two cars and you walk away with them.
Even for you to get a fighter jet, you have to apply, they have to look at the grade that they can supply to you. You have to ensure that the facilities for maintenance are there. Who is going to supply you the spare parts? Who is going to maintain it for you? And then you are going to have to train the pilots who are going to use them.
A fighter jet or military aircraft, they are not like ordinary cars that if you can drive a brand, you can drive any other brand, it is not so. People have to be trained for this thing. So, it is not something that you snap a finger and you just get the weapon that you want.
If you want to buy AK47 riffle, those are different things, although it is a military grade weapons, but those are expendable ones. More strategic weapon have to be negotiated. If Jonathan government didn’t get them, it was because the US was not convinced that the Nigerian Army was doing enough to safeguard the weapons and they don’t want their weapon to get into wrong hands. They would rather have them destroyed than the Tucano jet gets into the hand of Boko Haram and then the jihadists are flying it to kill Nigerian soldiers. US will not want anything like that.
What do you think Nigeria must do in order to get the best out of Biden’s Presidency?
Diplomacy is a very complicated act and it needs careful handling by experts, by those that are knowledgeable. Nigeria must learn to put its best feet forward always; send knowledgeable diplomats and ambassadors to the United States. At our embassy, make sure that whenever a request is going to be made, enough research has been done to back up the request and then get people to negotiate.
Unfortunately, many Nigerians believe that diplomacy is something you carry out on the pages of newspapers. It is not done that way and for Nigeria to be able to get anything out of United States, it must be able to use the best people and that is why scholars are used in other countries, not necessarily as diplomats, but as part of backup. They need people to explain things, to do the research, to feed them with the information. Unfortunately, Nigeria often acts as if it is an anti-intellectual society.
What immediate change are you expecting with Biden’s presidency as it touches on relationship with Africa?
Changes are never immediate in foreign policies. The thing is that the interests that are there will continue. American interests to different African countries have been there before Biden and will still be there after him. But the changes you can see immediately is the civility, decorum, decency in dealing with one another. Not abusing other leaders, not calling them names, not being arrogant and bullish. What will happen is that African countries will have a more solid platform to have discussions with the American leaders and negotiate their interest. They won’t be afraid of going to Washington to negotiate, knowing that nobody will abuse them and call them people from shithole countries. The only thing that will change immediately is the reintroduction of civility and decorum which have been age-old part of diplomacy.
Whether there will be substantive immediate changes, no!
What areas of relations will you want Buhari’s government to improve on so as to get better deal from new US government?
The questions that we must interrogate are -what are the subsisting issues? What are the key issues of trade and commerce between us? Economic cooperation, industrial cooperation and things like that. Strengthening of democracy, the rule of law and other relevant issues are also germane here. It is more about tactics and strategies than about substantive policies. What are the things that will make America wants to cooperate with us? If they don’t see that our democracy is growing, that we are respecting rule of law, that insecurity is being curbed in Nigeria, that corruption is being seriously addressed, nepotism being seriously addressed, it will be very difficult for us to get their cooperation. So, we need to do certain things before they will lay out their money, either as economic aid or grant to you. They want to make sure their money is not down the drain. They want to make sure if they give economic aid, it won’t end up in the bank account of a senior government officials. The measures are domestic for Nigeria to be respected by the rest of the world.