Trump finally hosts African leader at White House

Sam Olukoya
Associated Press

Lagos, Nigeria – After more than a year in office, President Donald Trump for the first time is hosting an African president at the White House. The meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday comes after an uncomfortable start to the Trump administration’s approach to the world’s second most populous continent.

Security and economic issues top the agenda for the bilateral meeting and working lunch. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with almost 200 million people, is the largest economy on the continent and the leading crude oil exporter. Buhari was one of the first two African leaders Trump called after he took power, along with South Africa’s president.

Nigeria is also one of Africa’s most troubled when it comes to extremism. Extremist group Boko Haram launched a violent insurgency in the northeast nine years ago with the aim of creating an Islamic state, and tens of thousands of people have been killed. Mass abductions of schoolgirls brought Boko Haram international notoriety and one faction has declared allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Boko Haram is now active in neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Chad and poses one of the most severe security threats to West Africa’s vast Sahel region.

With Nigeria nowhere close to fully defeating Boko Haram despite government claims of having “crushed” the extremists, Buhari is expected to seek further U.S. military assistance. Already the Trump administration has made a $600 million deal to supply military planes and security equipment, one that was stalled under the Obama administration because of allegations that Nigeria’s military has been involved in human rights including rape and extrajudicial killings.

“Absent clear evidence of a systematically abusive regime, moral preening is of little utility in dealing with situations like this,” J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said in a blog post on Thursday, saying Buhari’s administration has taken a “much more decisive approach” to Boko Haram.

Buhari, facing elections early next year, is under pressure to deliver on promises to defeat Boko Haram that helped him win office in 2015 in a rare democratic transfer of power in Nigeria.

In addition to seeking greater security collaboration, Buhari and Trump also will “discuss ways to enhance the strategic partnership between the two countries and to advance shared priorities, such as promoting economic growth,” the Nigerian presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, said in a statement.

Nigerian newspapers report that a team of government officials that travelled to the U.S. ahead of Buhari have signed an agreement to provide four companies led by General Electric the opportunity to invest an estimated $2 billion to modernize key railways between Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos, and the northern city of Kano and between Port Harcourt in the oil-rich Niger Delta and the northern city of Maiduguri – the birthplace of Boko Haram.

China, the top investor in Nigeria, already is deep into similar infrastructure work in the country.

Officials in Buhari’s delegation also will try to strike a deal with U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing for a new state-owned airline project that Nigeria’s junior aviation minister, Hadi Sirika, has said will be the largest in Africa.

Nigerian officials are also expected to explore financing arrangements with the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

While Nigeria seeks closer military and security ties with the U.S., it can’t overlook the difficult moments since Trump came to power – not least Trump’s firing of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just hours after Tillerson came to Nigeria on the highest-level U.S. visit to Africa since Trump took office.

In December, Nigeria and several other African countries that are traditionally friendly with the U.S. at the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In January, Nigeria was one of a number of outraged African countries to summon the U.S. ambassador to explain Trump’s reported vulgar remarks likening the continent to a filthy toilet.

The U.S. president already had caused anger in Nigeria in June when he reportedly said Nigerians wouldn’t want to return to their “huts” if allowed to visit the U.S.

Such utterances have left Trump with a low rating among many Nigerians, though some in the country with a sometimes tense Muslim-Christian divide have said they support the U.S. president’s wary stance on Muslim immigrants, notably his administration’s travel ban.

The stricter immigration policies, however, also make it more difficult for many Nigerians to travel to the U.S., doing nothing to give Trump a positive perception in a country where many youths want to escape economic hardship at home.

In light of the Trump administration’s perceived neglect of Africa, with key posts including assistant secretary of state for Africa and several ambassadorships remaining unfilled, “the administration may see the Buhari visit as an opportunity to make some amends, though they are unlikely to say as much,” a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, wrote Friday for the Council on Foreign Relations.