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Boosting US-Nigerian Ties at Heart of Obama-Buhari Meeting


Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari (C) is shielded by security after prayers at the Abuja praying ground on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, July 17, 2015.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari (C) is shielded by security after prayers at the Abuja praying ground on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, July 17, 2015.

When they meet at the White House Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari will no doubt discuss ways of beating Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. But their second, equally important priority is ending the strain in U.S.-Nigerian relations that has hampered efforts to fight the militants.

U.S.-Nigerian relations clearly declined during the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan, who Buhari defeated in Nigeria's March election, said E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based global analysis firm.

The main problem, Hogendoorn said, was the inability of the U.S. and Nigeria to cooperate in the battle against Boko Haram.

"There was a lot of willingness in the U.S. government to try to provide assistance to the Nigerian government security forces," Hogendoorn told VOA.

"Some of that was taken, much of it wasn't," he added. "That had to do with personalities and the [Jonathan] administration itself. Buhari has clearly signaled he wants to start over. He's fired all the senior military chiefs.... And the fact that he's here relatively soon into his administration suggests he wants to discuss seriously with the U.S. where they can work together."

"That said, the U.S. needs to recognize that Nigeria is a proud nation and that we will need to treat them as partners rather than as someone that can be lectured to," Hogendoorn said.

Boko Haram not the only concern

President Obama reached out to Buhari immediately after he was declared the winner of the election, congratulating him on his victory and thanking him for his efforts to ensure Nigeria's election process was peaceful. He also called Jonathan and thanked him for conceding the poll and calling on supporters to accept the outcome.

The White House has said Presidents Obama and Buhari will discuss "shared priorities" at their meeting Monday, including cooperation to advance a "holistic, regional approach to combating Boko Haram" and Nigeria's efforts to advance important economic and political reforms.

"Unfortunately, there are major concerns about the Niger Delta [region] and how stable that will be," said Hogendoorn. "There are major concerns about the economic stability of the Nigerian state with the decline in oil prices, and problems with chronic corruption. My understanding is that the U.S. government is discussing all these issues with President Buhari."

But Boko Haram unquestionably remains the top concern. Nigeria and four nearby countries are currently setting up a multi-nation task force to fight the extremists, who have periodically launched attacks in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Earlier this year, those three countries helped the Nigerian army drive Boko Haram out of towns and cities it had seized across northeastern Nigeria.

But after a short lull, the militant group resumed its attacks soon after President Buhari assumed office on May 29. In one of the largest attacks blamed on the group, twin blasts rocked a market in the northeastern town of Gombe on Thursday, killing nearly 50 people.

"I think the real issue for President Obama and President Buhari is how do you sequence the enormous challenges that President Buhari is facing," Hogendoorn said.

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