American diplomacy often requires a delicate process of balancing competing needs and objectives, says a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who has cited that nation’s fight against the Boko Haram extremist group as an example.
John Campbell, author of a new book on Nigeria, served as Washington’s top diplomat in Africa’s most populous nation from 2004 to 2007, following an earlier tour as political counselor there from 1988 to 1990.
In a talk this past week at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, Campbell cautioned policymakers and diplomats to take a “granular” approach toward complex international problems that “do not lend themselves to simplification.”
Offering an example, he said the United States is working with the Nigerian government to counter the rise and expansion of Boko Haram, an Islamist group based in that nation’s northeast which is blamed for killing tens of thousands of people and displacing more than 2 million. Boko Haram was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2013.
But, he explained, Washington is constrained by public attitudes in Nigeria and needs to keep those attitudes in mind as it decides how to interact with its state institutions.
“I’m extremely nervous when either Nigerians or Americans advocate a closer ‘security relationship’ because [then] we’re talking about a relationship with the army, the police, the state security services,” he said.
The problem, Campbell added, is that “most Nigerians have very little confidence in, and very often a great deal of hostility towards” those institutions. He maintained that until the security forces gain the trust and confidence of the Nigerian people, it serves the U.S. interest to not get too deeply involved.
Campbell pointed out that the national police force in Nigeria was first established by British colonial rulers “to keep the population under control” and that, to this day, its essential function remains to protect government’s interests against any opposition.
Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), agreed there is “public distrust and growing anger over abuses and corruption” in Nigeria and said the United States “should approach Nigeria's security sector with open eyes.”
The objective should be more constructive, not necessarily closer, ties, he added in in a written response to questions from VOA.
Devermont, who served as the national intelligence officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018, said he does not see a “moral hazard” in U.S. engagement with the security sector in Nigeria “as long as we are candid about the security sector's failings and align ourselves with the Nigerian public's demands for reform.”
James Barnett, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute who specializes in Africa and parts of the Middle East, agrees with Campbell that it is important to engage with Nigeria on institution and nation building, saying in a written interview that “little efforts can pay off over time.”
Campbell suggested in an interview with VOA that a better way for the United States to help Nigeria might be to help the country to strengthen its judicial branch.
“Nigeria’s court system still operates with pen and pencil,” he told VOA. “We could provide them with computers” to help expedite the processing of cases and in so doing, bolster rule of law which is essential to democratic institution-building.
Despite the challenges facing Nigeria, Campbell said he sees the trajectory of “democratic federalism” in the country as moving in a positive direction. He noted that substantial democratic “forms” are in place, including regular elections, a civilian-led government and a multi-state federal structure. “In time, form encourages the development of substance,” he said.
Campbell pointed out that Nigeria not only has one-fifth the population of the African continent, it also has been a leading voice on behalf of Africa in international forums such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the African Union.
The United States has had diplomatic relations with Nigeria since 1960, the year it became independent from Britain. The country suffered a series of military coups over the next four decades, with millions in casualties. A civilian president came to power in 1999 and an opposition candidate won a presidential election in 2015, marking a milestone in Nigerian history.