Next week, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari travels to Washington for a two-day visit, which culminates in an Oval Office meeting with President Obama on July 20. Buhari is expected to travel light — not on luggage, but advisors. Since he has appointed no ministers as of yet, only a handful or two of advisors is expected to make the trip. Dubbed an “official working visit,” the meeting of the two presidents comes at an important time for Nigeria with its faltering economy and a renewed Boko Haram now teaming up with ISIS. These two important issues promise to be front and center in the discussions.
What else will be on the agenda? A lot of the spade work was done last week in Nigeria. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, along with senior officials from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury spent a few days in Nigeria with their Nigerian counterparts hammering out an agenda for the Obama meeting. Blinken explained to the Nigerian press that the U.S. wanted to hear from the new government what assistance needs it has and its ideas on future engagement, rather than the U.S. offering up expanded programs, especially in the North. Insecurity and underdevelopment in the Northeast states need careful thought as a winning strategy against Boko Haram has to encompass more than a military campaign. Rather, local governments need to govern better, health care and education need to be significantly expanded and improved, and the youth need jobs. Finding funds for these priorities will prove difficult, however, given Nigeria’s financial crisis.
Corruption in the public sector will no doubt be discussed. President Buhari campaigned on a promise of rooting out corruption, and the energy sector seems to be his first target. Approximately, 200,000 barrels per day are lost through “bunkering” and subsequent illegal sales. Some have even speculated that the president will retain control of the Petroleum Ministry and the oil portfolio, as he did when he was head of state in the early 1980s.
A fourth topic on the agenda will be transparency and accountability of government. In a highly decentralized federal system, such as Nigeria’s, state governments and local government authorities control substantial budgets, yet oversight of local spending remains weak. A strong vibrant civil society can often serve as a check on government, and so the two sides may use the visit to explore ideas on cooperation in that area. As for the downturn in the economy, the parties will seek ways of accelerating the diversification of the economy. Oil revenue accounts for 70 percent of overall government revenue, and with oil prices still in the $50 a barrel range, Nigeria is experiencing a fiscal crisis that affects not just the federal government, but also state governments, which rely on national pass-downs to pay salaries and other expenses. Former Nigerian Ministers Adesina and Aganga pursued smart policies and good programs to grow the agricultural and industrial sectors, but more is needed to diversify further.
The power sector is on the brink of crisis, as new deals have stalled. Private developers are anxiously sitting on the sidelines watching what happens with the $900 million, 450 MW, Azura-Nedo project. The project was about to close at the end of 2014, but the former Attorney General decided not to authorize a sovereign guarantee to back the project. Five Power Africa private sector partners have invested millions of dollars to date to develop a project whose fate is unclear. This issue may rise to the level of the two presidents, both of whom are committed to expanding access to power for the tens of millions who lack reliable power in Nigeria.
It is a rich and full agenda, and the hope is that the visit will pave the way for improved cooperation on many fronts.
Welcome to Washington, President Buhari.