At a hearing Monday on Nigeria, members of the House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on Africa questioned the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of African Affairs. A key issue is how much the Honorable Robert P. Jackson and the State Department knew about the Nigerian presidential candidate and former military dictator before he met with John Kerry this weekend.
Despite the policy against state visits near election time, Mr. Kerry lent the political legitimacy of his office as the president’s representative to the opponent of the current elected leader of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, on Sunday. Gen. Buhari was hosted at the U.S. consulate after Mr. Kerry’s meeting with President Jonathan on January 25th less than a month before the February 14 election.
The title of the hearing, ‘Nigeria on the Brink?’, is both sad and ironic in the context of this recent flurry of diplomatic activity. If executed poorly, Mr. Kerry’s trip is the exact type of diplomatic behavior that precedes deadly unintended outcomes and so defies diplomatic best practices. If Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Gen. Buhari is interpreted by any actor as tacit support or affirmation of future cooperation, than it could be the precise thing that pushes Nigeria over the brink.
This can play out in several ways. Gen. Buhari can use it in his campaign, voters can draw that conclusion independently, and it could draw out political and military defectors from supporting Mr. Jonathan. All further destabilizing the Nigerian president’s ability to challenge Boko Haram.
Gen. Buhari has no record of respecting democracy. His resume is marked with an agenda to the contrary. He ruled Nigeria after a military coup in 1983 for 20 months in which he forged his legacy of human rights abuses. The thrust of his opponent’s campaign in this election has been to remind Nigerians that Gen. Buhari was hell bent on imposing Sharia law. The Buhari campaign has been clever enough to highlight the stability of his military rule rather than the religious agenda that came with it. In fact, Gen. Buhari claims that he has the experience to bring the Nigerian military back to the disciplined force that it once was in order to challenge Boko Haram.
Such a claim strikes squarely at the heart of the issue for the hearing. If the Nigerian military can be galvanized properly at all then U.S. diplomatic efforts should pressure the current president to do so. Getting the current security cooperation arrangements to work should be the sum and total of diplomatic initiatives at this sensitive time. The supposed intent of Mr. Kerry’s visit was meant to urge each party that peaceful elections would determine further U.S. willingness to cooperate and to discourage political violence. Considering Boko Haram’s agenda against the West playing out violently during Mr. Kerry’s visit, the prospects for a peaceful election are grim at the start. Did the secretary think his presence and stern warnings would make the difference?
Why is diplomatic meddling like this so destructive? Take the case of South Sudan. In a speech last October on South Sudan, U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth took pains to deny rumors of U.S. favoritism as a cause of the conflict. Instead he attributed it to a corrupt elite on both sides. However, the State Department’s frustration with the democratically elected president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, was not kept discrete. His vice president, Riek Machar, who had been in the past and is still likely a proxy of Khartoum must have calculated some U.S. deference towards him before he plunged the nation into violence in a 2013 coup. He is currently being treated as a moral equivalent of Mr. Kiir in State’s diplomatic efforts for peace. These were not problems that South Sudan needed in the shadow of the ever hostile and genocidal Khartoum regime in Sudan. If similar fallout in Nigeria can be avoided at this late date, it will be thanks to informed congressional oversight.
Nicholas Hanlon is chief Africa analyst at the Center for Security Policy.
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