This momentous visit, which became the single most important defining moment in altering the hitherto adversarial bilateral relationship between the United States and China, gave rise to the expression “Nixon Goes to China” in America’s political lexicon, and underlines the significance of certain American presidential visits—how they define and redefine the foreign policy of the United States and, in some cases, modify the course of history.
Of course, not all American presidential visits are this historically significant. Nor are all American presidential visits political instruments to make statements in foreign policy. For instance, President Bill Clinton made 54 overseas presidential trips during his two-term presidency (and this is considered a record) but none of them has been adjudged as either politically consequential or history-altering.
However, given the historic nature of Obama’s presidency and his ancestral affiliations with Africa, Africanists and watchers of African politics had waited with eagerness to see which African—or, if you like, sub-Saharan African—country President Obama would first choose to honor with a presidential visit. And, if the eminent American scholar and philosopher Kenneth Burke is right that “any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality,” people are also interested in knowing what country or countries he has “snubbed” in his choice of a country to visit in Africa—and what this selection and deflection might foreshadow in his relationship with African states.
Ghana’s reward, Nigeria’s punishment
Pundits familiar with the politics and symbolism of American foreign presidential visits posit that Obama’s choice of Ghana as the first country to visit in black Africa could very well be a signal of the tenor of his relationship with Africa, about which he is yet to articulate a well-defined foreign policy. It will be defined, they say, by a show of enthusiastic approval for countries that are adjudged to be making noticeably measurable progress towards democracy and good governance and of “tough love” to those countries, such as Nigeria and Kenya, that are adjudged as squandering their potential and being mired in the mud of corruption and inept leadership.
This much became apparent in the May 16, 2009 three-paragraph statement by the Office of the Press Secretary in the White House on Obama’s upcoming three-nation tour. “The President and Mrs. Obama look forward to strengthening the U.S. relationship with one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlighting the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development,” the statement said in reference to Obama’s forthcoming two-day visit to Ghana scheduled for July 10-11.
The reference to “sound governance” and “lasting development” as a justification for visiting Ghana is decidedly a tribute to the country’s successful, relatively rancor-free democratic transfers of power over the past couple of years and a thinly veiled indictment of Nigeria and Kenya (Obama’s late father’s home country which many people had expected he would visit first), which have attracted international notoriety for their conduct elections that are fraught with massive voter fraud and internecine violence.
Peter Lewis, senior associate with the Center for Strategic International Studies and director of African studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies observed that Obama’s choice of Ghana for his first presidential visit to a black African country conveys a “sense of optimism about Ghana’s economic and political direction, particularly their recent completion of peaceful and credible elections.” He argues that Obama’s apparent disdain for Nigeria’s leadership is a consequence of the “lingering problems from the badly flawed 2007 elections, including the recent electoral travesty in Ekiti”.
Darren Kew, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies and writes on Nigerian politics, agrees. “Yes, I believe that the Obama administration is definitely sending a message to the Yar’adua government that Abuja has dropped the ball regarding their own promises of democratic reforms—and praising Ghana for its leadership in these matters,” he said.
He located the Obama Administration’s lukewarm attitude to Nigeria in “the refusal of the Yar’adua administration to implement the main recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee for sweeping change at INEC, as well as their refusal to work toward the removal of the discredited Maurice Iwu—and now the most recent election fiasco in Ekiti.” These events, he points out, have led the Obama administration to conclude that President Yar’adua has “no intention of cleaning up INEC before the 2011 elections.”
The Ghanaian Black Star News, in its May 18, 2009 editorial, rubbed it in. “Ghana is being rewarded for good governance, good economic management, and the rule of law, with a visit by President Barack Obama and Michelle in July,” the paper said. “Nigeria… was eliminated because of the rigged elections that ushered Umaru Yar’Ardua [sic] into office. The country also has terrible PR as a result of the ongoing conflict in the oil rich Delta region–the millions of dollars spent on “rebranding” will never be a substitute for good leadership.”
Other understated reasons Obama is visiting Ghana
Observers of US-Africa relations point out that Obama’s choice of Ghana may be more than mere presidential acknowledgment of Ghana’s progress; it may also be an oily affair. Ghana just found oil – estimated at over 600 million barrels — making it one of Africa’s largest future producers. Production hasn’t started yet, but when it does, oil industry experts say, it will bring in an estimated $1 billion in revenue annually.
As editors of Foreign Policy, America’s influential foreign policy magazine, wrote in a March 19 editorial, “Who knows if this is really part of the reason for the visit, but it does seem like something that could figure into that ‘range of bilateral and regional issues’ the White House plans to discuss with Ghanaian President John Atta-Mills.”
Nigeria currently exports 40 percent of its oil to the United States, but the ever-present crisis in the Niger Delta has been a source of concern for Americans. “Wouldn’t it be nice to buy oil from a country with a relatively clean record in human rights, governance, and economic management?” the American Foreign Policy magazine enthused in an editorial. “That’s a far cry from the United States’s third-largest current supplier, Nigeria.”
Obama denies snubbing Nigeria
In the midst of growing insinuations that Obama has chosen, for any number of reasons, to deflect Nigeria by selecting Ghana, high-level officials of the Obama administration have issued tongue-in-cheek assurances that America’s respect for Nigeria has not diminished. At a world press conference this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton assured that the exclusion of Nigeria from Obama’s itinerary in Africa in no way implies a change in America’s policy toward Nigeria. “Our relationship with Nigeria is an important anchor in Africa, and Nigeria has a central role to play in its own democratization and development,” she said.
But that’s mere diplomatese. Clinton’s subsequent statement betrayed the Obama administration’s nascent ice-cold disdain for the Yar’adua administration. She declared that the Obama administration’s relationship with Nigeria “will no longer be limited to government to government, but will now include more and more government to people and people-to-people.” Foreign policy experts have interpreted this statement as a ringing expression of loss of confidence both in the legitimacy and competence of the Yar’adua administration, especially because Clinton also added that the factors that would determine the Obama administration’s warm relations with any country would be good governance, social inclusion, transparency in government, fight against corruption, and tolerance for opposition—factors the Yar’adua administration is accused of being sorely deficient in.
A history of “dissing” Nigeria
However, although the Yar’adua administration’s unflattering record is the immediate trigger of the Obama administration’s serial diplomatic snub of Nigeria, Obama’s dissing of Nigeria predates his ascension to the presidency of the United States. His first notable affront on Nigeria occurred in June 2005 when he tied his support for debt relief for Nigeria to our government’s release of Charles Taylor who was then in Nigeria’s protective custody.
When the world’s wealthiest countries clinched a deal to wipe out more than $40 billion of poor nations’ debts in 2005, Nigeria was one of the few countries that was noticeably absent from the list to win an automatic debt relief.
At a time former President Olusegun Obasanjo was working hard to get Nigeria included in this list, Obama, who was then a senator, said debt relief from the United States is not automatic and that in the past, debt relief has come with conditions, including making progress in fighting corruption and on economic reform. In the case of Nigeria, Obama said, “this means turning over Charles Taylor–an indicted war criminal who has the blood of thousands on his hands and threatens, once again, to destabilize the region–to the Special Court.”
“No nation,” he continued, “should be permitted to willfully ignore an indictment issued by the special court.” Never mind that his own country, the United States, habitually ignores UN-appointed special courts.
Then again, on May 2, 2008, in the heat of the presidential campaigns, Obama made a gratuitously insulting reference to Nigerian email scams in response to a question about mass smear emails questioning his patriotism. According to the Chicago Sun Times, Obama’s hometown newspaper, a farmer in an Illinois village asked Obama if it’s true that he refuses to say the American Pledge of Allegiance. Obama told the man not to believe that internet rumor:
“That is bogus. These e-mails being sent around, each state, depending on what state I’m about to go into, suddenly you start seeing this smear campaign,” he said. “I lead the pledge of allegiance when I’m presiding in the Senate …. I’ve been saying the pledge since I was 3 years old. If you get these letters from Nigeria saying, ‘We’ve got a lot of money for ya, don’t give ‘em your bank account number.”
What have “letters from Nigeria” got to do with the question? Perhaps the answers are becoming apparent in the contempt Obama has continued to show toward Nigeria.