Africa Needs Strong Institutions, Not Strongmen

President Barack Obama’s election brought jubilation to the streets of Nigeria. However, hopes for a new U.S. engagement with Africa under the Obama administration are dimming. Nigerians are rankled by two high-profile events that illustrate how U.S. foreign policy still ignores the opinions and perceptions of African people.

Former President George W. Bush joined his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the 15th annual THISDAY Awards, which commemorated Nigeria’s golden jubilee anniversary as an independent nation. While one would expect Bush to fete Nigerian military dictator Muhammadu Buhari and other Nigerian oil elites as he did on February 24, a short distance away, Obama’s Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and U.S. Ambassador Robin Sanders traveled to discredited former president General Ibrahim Babangida’s estate for a “secret” unscheduled meeting. These meetings are disappointing for those that anticipated a more just and transparent Africa policy.

Former military dictator Babangida left a legacy of brutality and corruption that’s etched in the minds of most Nigerians, and they fear that the U.S. may support, or worse, seek his return to power. With the advent of AFRICOM, which signals further militarization of U.S.-Africa policy and a growing U.S. military presence in Africa, many Africans are paying close attention to U.S. relationships with former and current dictators. Indeed, the United States has a history rife with support for ruthless dictators, many of whom are responsible for much of the poverty, misery, and conflict on the continent today.

The State Department has yet to acknowledge the visit of Carson and Sanders. But if it sees the strong negative reaction from Nigerian civil society as an overreaction, it has either underestimated the potential fallout or simply doesn’t care what the Nigerian people think. It baffles the mind that foreign policy would be conducted this way in the age of Obama, especially considering his speech in Ghana in July of last year. He said, “Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Having a meeting with Babangida isn’t at the heart of the issue. Clearly, the United States believes the former president to be instrumental in resolving the country’s current political woes, a fact that the government has recognized. Meeting with him doesn’t necessarily signal U.S. support for Babangida’s return to power. The Obama administration could be simply informing the established political players of its support for Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s acting president. However, the careless manner in which this was handled has created suspicion and anger.

Nigeria is the third-largest petroleum exporter to the United States, and its political stability is vital to our own economic welfare. With President Umaru Yar’Adua’s illness and apparent incapacitation, the United States must engage with Nigerian actors who are capable of both supporting and endangering its interests. Leaders of powerful factions within Nigeria, some of whom are capable of ensuring a turbulent reign for Jonathan, may all receive such visits soon. While oil has always been a crucial issue for American interests, the current recession has exacerbated its importance. Higher oil prices have often followed Niger Delta conflicts — known as the “fear premium.” Naturally, the United States will support whatever power arrangement is most likely to bring calm to the oil-rich region of the Niger Delta, as evidenced by “Unified Quest 2008,” in which the U.S. Army simulates how it would respond to a collapsed Nigeria set in the year 2013.

Since the U.S. government didn’t bother to assess how Nigerians might feel about this, here are the questions Nigerians must be asking themselves: Why would the two most important U.S. diplomats to Nigeria visit a former dictator at his home? And why would such a visit not be made public to the Nigerian people and media?

In Nigeria, corruption walks on four legs in daylight. Transparency has been the prescription touted by developed countries for decades, especially the United States. The “secret” visit, even for purposes other than those outlined above, affiliates Obama’s administration with a cancerous cell in Nigerian politics. How are Nigerians, especially those from the Niger Delta who were victims of Babangida’s reign, to view this development? How would you if you were in their shoes?

Gerald LeMelle is the executive director of Africa Action and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.