This article originally appeared in The Hill on 2/18/2017.
President Trump’s phone call to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday signified the critical importance of the open and supportive relationship between our two countries. Nigeria is an important political and economic partner for the United States: it is the world’s fourth-largest democracy, with a population of almost 200 million people; it runs a trade surplus and imports over $5.5 billion U.S.-originated goods per year; and is home to the Nollywood film industry, which has cultural and social influence across Africa. To forge a strong, new partnership, leaders from both countries should look holistically at how to improve Nigeria’s economic and security resiliency as well as maximize its enormous potential as a regional leader and long-term partner for the U.S.
In the call, the two presidents reportedly emphasized the importance of collaboration and partnership on security, governance and regional leadership. These three priorities are interrelated and are of critical importance to increased partnership between the two countries. Despite significant strides to address Boko Haram as a fighting force, violent extremism remains a major challenge in addition to other growing tensions between and among communities along social, ethnic, religious and economic lines.
However, the core Nigerian government policies and practices have been reactive rather than proactive in addressing vulnerability and violence. Weakness in the criminal justice system, poorly funded local government structures, corruption, and detached federal policies have eroded trust between communities and government, further diminishing the ability of government to mitigate tensions within and between communities. Dropping commodity prices and unprecedented and unpredictable inflation (18.55 percent in December 2016, up from 9.6 percent in January 2016) have underscored the shortcoming of social and economic policies, resulting in reactive responses to crises only as they explode or long after they have exploded.
The current failure by both the U.S. and Nigeria to prioritize the causes rather than the consequences of crises is bad for Nigerian and U.S. interests. Because of the urgent needs once crises have exploded, we have seen over-reliance on the deployment of security forces, leading to tensions and potential flashpoints that undermine security.
In pockets of the country, large-scale violence has erupted. Decades-long agitations for resource control, development, and environmental maintenance continue to fuel militant attacks on oil and gas facilities in the Niger Delta region, which slashed oil production from 2.2 million to 1 million barrels per day in 2016, leading to lost billions of dollars in oil revenue for the country. Militancy in the Niger Delta gives rise to criminality and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, where attacks on vessels and abduction of crew members disrupt interconnected shipping supply networks, not just for oil, but also for cocoa, metals, and other commodities destined for world markets. The recent rise in food insecurity, fueled by the inability to locally meet food demand, scarcity of foreign exchange, and double-digit inflation, has potential to stimulate protests and social unrest that the government has yet to prove they can handle.
A destabilized and crisis-ridden Nigeria has negative impacts for American businesses, international security, and the stability of the entire region. These crises already are expanding across Nigeria’s borders and into neighboring countries, demonstrating the ease with which Nigeria can export criminality and violence, as well as import it from its neighbors in crisis. As the U.S. pushes to eradicate ISIS and its affiliates, preventing violence from groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as the Lake Chad Basin are critical to this effort.
Yet the United States should not view Nigeria as a set of problems to be eradicated, but as an opportunity to invest and strengthen the ability of Nigeria to handle national and regional crises on its own. The U.S. must engage Nigeria as a partner and resource in the region through political, economic, development, and security cooperation. It should support Nigeria in strengthening detection and response to early warning signs, practical security reforms to improve response and community-trust, and respect and tolerance to religious freedom and ethnic diversity. Security cooperation between our two nations should focus on preventing violence at all levels, including through community-led security initiatives and investments in crisis management.
Nigeria is the trendsetter in West Africa and an important partner for the U.S. government and American businesses. Security, governance, and regional leadership are three areas where the U.S. and Nigeria must work together to address Nigeria as more than the sum of its parts. Together, our two countries need to progress our partnership beyond the reactive response to segmented crises to forge a holistic partnership that promotes the long-term growth and stability that is in our mutual interests.
Olubukola Ademola-Adelehin is a Conflict Analyst at Search for Common Ground, based in Abuja, Nigeria.
Katie Smith is a Research Associate at Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, D.C.