Buhari and U.S. President elect Joe Biden

By Tolu Ogunlesi

1. Preamble:
The 47th Vice President of the United States has just been elected the 46th President of the country, to take office in January 2021.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and largest economy. For decades, Nigeria was one of the leading suppliers of crude oil to the US; the decline of that oil-trading relationship started in the mid-2000s, and was virtually complete by the time President Buhari assumed office in 2015.

April 6 this year marked 10 years of the US-Nigeria Binational Commission, one of the legacies of the Obama era, which one supposes we are now set to reprise, as Senator Biden assumes office. And 20 years since the signing of the Trade & Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between both countries.

Relations tend to ebb and flow between Nigeria and the United States.

Here’s the bilateral landscape President Biden will be inheriting:

2. Multilateral Politics:
First, there was the African Development Bank saga, where the US presented itself as a stumbling block to the second-term ambition of the Nigerian President of the Bank, Akin Adesina. Nigeria threw its weight fully behind its candidate, and eventually emerged victorious amidst intrigues that pushed the election well behind schedule. Barely three months later, a replica scenario, this time the World Trade Organisation, where Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the frontrunner for position of DG. But the United States is refusing to endorse her, in spite of the fact that she’s won the votes of the majority of the member countries, as well as near-consensus support. The way the WTO works, it likes full consensus in its leadership selection, which means the US action remains the final obstacle to be conquered. Fingers crossed.

3. The Immigration Visa Ban:
Earlier this year the US added Nigeria to a list of countries on an immigrant visa ban, citing a number of concerns, including Nigeria’s handling of lost and stolen passports. Justifiable concerns, no doubt, but Nigeria has also been quick to start addressing them, successfully uploading 150,000 Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) details to the INTERPOL database, among other steps.

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4. Visa Bans for Electoral Malpractice:
Still on visas. Another highlight of 2020, announcements by the US State Department (in July and September 2020) that a number of high-profile Nigerians have been slammed visa bans for “undermining the Nigerian democratic process or for organizing election-related violence.” With how the 2020 US elections have now played out, a few trolls have wondered aloud about the possibility of Nigeria responding with visa bans for US officials implicated in attempts to undermine electoral integrity in the United States.

5. Tourist Visa Restrictions:
The Trump Administration has been rolling out measures to restrict “birth tourism”. Beyond this, I’m also aware of very strong anecdotal evidence that suggests that the US has been denying tourist visas to some Nigerian women who’ve had babies in the US recent years. It appears that persons who got a hospital ‘discount’ at the time they went to give birth in the US, have been targeted. (It’s not documented/official policy as far as I know).

6. Security:
At the end of October, the US, working with Nigerian intelligence agencies, carried out a daring rescue operation for a US national abducted in neighbouring Niger Republic and then moved by the abductors into Nigerian territory. (It has sparked quite a bit of commentary; I’m inclined to see it as a commendable effort at intelligence cooperation). US-Nigeria intelligence and military cooperation cannot be over-emphasized — a failure of this reportedly allowed Boko Haram get away with the Chibok schoolgirls’ abduction. (One of the highlights of cooperation in recent years was the joint hosting by Nigeria and the US of the African Land Forces Summit in 2018).

This year, the first of twelve A-29 Super Tucano aircraft ordered by Nigeria in a Government-to-Government deal, rolled out of the factory, and completed its inaugural flight. All things being equal delivery should start by next year. (A good time to note that Nigeria has ordered no fewer than 20 new aircraft in the last few years, as part of efforts to build out a worthy Air Force.

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7. Anti-Corruption Cooperation:

This year also, the United States Government, working in concert with the Bailiwick of Jersey, repatriated $311.7 million to Nigeria, being monies quarantined from looted funds stashed abroad by Nigeria’s former military ruler, the late General Sani Abacha. That money has come in handy, the terms of the agreement stipulated management by Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA). The NSIA has assumed greater visibility in recent years, by its involvement in managing the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund (PIDF), the Presidential Fertilizer Initiative (PFI), as well as its pioneering healthcare investments around the country.

The FBI has also in recent years set its sights on Nigeria, in a bid to curb transnational financial crime originating in Nigeria or by Nigerians and targeting US nationals. (Operation Wire Wire in 2018; Operation reWired in 2019). This year saw the takedown of one of the most brazen cyber-criminals in Nigerian history, the Dubai-based ‘Ray Hushpuppi’. Closer future cooperation between the FBI, US Justice Department, and the EFCC should help bring even more kingpins down.

8. Economic Investment:
One of the most important Nigerian infrastructure deals of the outgone decade would have been a GE contract to upgrade Nigeria’s century-old narrow-gauge national rail network. It almost happened, and then fell apart at the last minute, because of GE’s own internal issues (exiting the transportation business). A lost (great) opportunity for America to gain a coveted foothold in Nigeria’s burgeoning rail sector.

But the US remains the largest foreign investor in Nigeria, largely on account of its historical dominance in oil and gas operations, through Exxon Mobil and Chevron. (For close to forty years, until sometime in the 2000s, Nigeria was one of the biggest suppliers of crude oil to the US).

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Nigeria’s exports to the US continue to primarily be crude oil and agricultural produce, while imports are largely wheat, vehicles, machinery and plastics.

Both countries did around 10 billion USD of trade (goods and services) in 2019, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative.

We are seeing an uptick in foreign investment in the technology start-up space (eCommerce, FinTech, Logistics, etc) in Nigeria, with the US playing a leading role.

9. Aviation:

United Airlines is on course to resume direct flights between the US and Nigeria, in 2021, after a four-year hiatus. Nigerians love their America travel, and direct flights are understandably much sought after.
Very recently Nigeria ratified its Air Transport Agreement with the United States; President Buhari signed the ratification document in September 2020.

2021 will be interesting in that it should throw up foreign investment opportunities as Nigeria pushes to launch a new national carrier. Will the US of A get involved?

10. Covid-19:
With Ebola, the US had to be careful about the influx of travellers from West Africa. With Covid, it’s the other way round. America appears to have quite a bit to learn from Nigeria in terms of Covid-19 response. A counter-argument would be that Nigeria would not win any prizes for the aggression of its testing, which means that there’s likely to be an underestimation in recorded numbers. The US donated 200 ventilators to Nigeria — the Nigerian trajectory of the disease has so far, thankfully, not necessitated a mass deployment of ventilators.

*Ogunlesi, a journalist on sabbatical handles Digital Communications for Nigerian Government