John Kerry’s Visit: Beyond the cover story
By Reuben AbatiEssential elements of intelligence and the intelligence cycle in overseas relations include what is better described as “the cover story”. It is an old conundrum referring to the story that is put out to the public and sustained as a narrative to mask far more strategic interests in government-to- government relations. It is based on that established thin line between the right to know and the need to know and indeed in diplomatic relations, if ordinary people are allowed to know everything, there will be utter chaos on the streets around the world. I make this point in the light of the excitement that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit appears to be generating. He will visit Nigeria, August 23-24, after Kenya, 22-23, and from here, he will jet off to Saudi Arabia, 24-25.
The cover story is that he will hold talks with President Muhammadu Buhari, Northern Governors and religious leaders, give a speech on “countering violent extremism” in Sokoto, and thematically focus on “counter-terrorism efforts, the economy, the fight against corruption and human rights issues” during the trip. Nicely, correctly crafted cover story! America loves Nigeria. America wants to help Nigeria. And once we are told this story, even our foreign ministry officials get really excited. They tell the President: “this is big! It shows America is supporting the administration. Mr. President, America loves you, don’t mind those tweeps on social media.” They would have forgotten most conveniently that Secretary John Kerry has been visiting Africa since 2014, and before him, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did so too. We tend to be overly impressed by the recognition, but we often fail to look beyond the cover story.
The Americans don’t consider a visit such as this the circus that we think it is. And that is why the Foreign Affairs Ministry must put up its thinking caps in preparing the briefing notes for President Buhari. They must anticipate one critical question that the cover story does not cover: what does America want? What is in this visit for the United States? And what does Nigeria want? And what should the Nigerian President say to Mr. Kerry at that critical moment when he suddenly requests for a one-on-one and all Presidential assistants are asked to leave the room?
That is usually where the rub is, that critical moment when the Nigerian President is left alone with a strategic guest and he may not know exactly what to say to messages and statements for which he had not been prepared. And when the American envoy makes requests, what should he say at that very moment? We have a lot at stake, and it is important that this particular visit is not treated as another opportunity to have a nice dinner party and showcase Nigerian culture and arts.
John Kerry attended President Buhari’s inauguration in May 2015. This is what he wrote, inter alia, after the visit: “Last May, I shared in an extraordinary moment. I had the privilege, together with many leaders from across Africa, of bearing witness to the first peaceful, democratic transition of power between two parties in Nigeria. I traveled to Lagos earlier this year to emphasize that for the United States, Nigeria is an increasingly important strategic partner with a critical role to play in the security and prosperity of the region. I also said that it was imperative that these elections set a new standard for democracy in the continent. There is no doubt that this is a decisive moment for democracy in Africa…In Africa, as elsewhere, there is a deep hunger for governments that are legitimate, honest and effective….”
Secretary of State Kerry will be visiting Nigeria tomorrow I believe, to carry out a year-after, on-the-spot, hear-see-for-yourself assessment. He must have heard that a year after his last visit, so much has happened in Nigeria, and the rest of Africa. Africa itself is at a tipping point, growth has slowed down tragically, commodity prices have declined, old problems and wounds have resurfaced, and democratic renewal has not resulted in “honest and effective” governance, and in all this, Nigeria faces special challenges; it is at the outmost edge of that tipping point. The threat level in the country has gone up, policy uncertainty is high, the people’s voices are not being heard and generally, things are hard: unemployment, security issues, human rights, and an economy in recession capable of exacerbating social crisis and so on.
America will expect President Buhari to defend his administration. The briefing notes must take care of that, but let no one be fooled: no one may have talked about behind-the-scene meetings, the truth is that the American team will not listen to only one side of the story. There will be undeclared meetings with civil society, the opposition, the business community and other interest groups, who in typical Nigerian fashion will speak their minds. Right now, that may not be complimentary. Non-state actors are perhaps more important sources of intelligence because intelligence is neither mere information nor publicity or a strictly state-based activity. Take this: John Kerry may be visiting to enable the American government make up its mind about the Buhari government.
But why should anyone care about what America thinks? We are after all, a sovereign nation, and Secretary of State John Kerry should not even be talking to President Buhari, he should meet with his counterpart in our own foreign ministry. Hold it. The difference is that America remains the world’s superior power and it does not joke with its self-assigned role of the world’s police, even if at the centre of that mix, is the paramount element of America’s national interest. Nigeria, being the most populous country in Africa, and an oil-rich country with international investments, is of strategic interest to the United States.
We are, by that fact also, a threat to America’s interest in a number of ways. The first is the threat of Nigeria becoming a festering spot for terrorism, and home of the world’s deadliest terror group. Since May 2015, the Buhari administration has made efforts to curb terrorism in the problematic parts of the North, but in the past few weeks, with the re-appearance of Abubakar Shekau, the factionalisation of the Jama’t Ahl as-Sunnah lid Da’wah wa’l Jihad with a faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, and the further confirmation of a linkage with the ISIL, it seems obvious that the threat of terrorism in Nigeria is far from being resolved. The potential of that threat getting worse is even far more evident now more than ever.
The second threat is the Niger Delta, and the resurgence of violence in that volatile part of the world. America may have discovered Shale oil and its reliance on Nigerian Brent crude may have reduced, but American multinationals still have significant investments in Nigeria. America has every reason to protect American investment and citizens. The third threat is Nigeria’s continuing romance with China. The Jonathan administration did not hide its interest in China and Sino-Nigerian relations. I believe his administration paid dearly for this open, and well-intended friendship with America’s rival in Africa.
The Buhari administration continued in this regard, where the Jonathan administration left off, since in any case, Nigeria is non-aligned, but the sub-text is that the United States may not be too comfortable with the Chinese encroachment on spaces it once occupied and the open complicity of traditional allies in undermining American interest. President Buhari should be briefed to listen very carefully to both what is spoken and that which is unspoken.
The fourth threat is the security situation in the country. In the last month alone, both the United States and the United Kingdom have released, perhaps the most damaging travel warnings to their nationals living in or doing business in Nigeria. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel by British nationals to 11 states of the Federation, and strictly essential travel to another seven states. The United States warns against travel to about 20 states. Both countries cite “high threat from terrorism, kidnapping, violent crime and demonstrations/civil unrest.” What is left? It is as bad as both major partner-countries alleging that Nigeria is not safe for anyone. Their European allies and other countries may not have issued any travel warnings, but the disclaimers from the US and the UK can be taken as a reflection of the assessment of the Nigerian situation and international reaction to Nigeria’s change agenda since 2015. Whoever is preparing the briefing notes for President Buhari should take this into consideration.
And may I advise that the briefing should avoid the initial reaction by Information Minister Lai Muhammed. He dismissed the travel warnings as untrue and advised the Nigerian media to ignore and not promote the story. It actually seems as if the local media acted as directed. Which is stupid. What has been overlooked is that foreign embassies in Nigeria from where intelligence about local situations is sourced are non-partisan. Ahead of the visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry should have engaged the relevant embassies and assured them of the administration’s efforts. They could have issued ahead of John Kerry’s arrival, a reasonable account of what has been done so far, in a manner that does not compromise the sovereign, but which deals with the perception issues thrown up by the pre-Kerry visit build up by America and its allies.
And of course, whatever the tone of the diplomatese, always look beyond the cover stories. John Kerry’s visit may be the tipping point for the Buhari administration and it may well not be, considering the fact that the United States is itself in transition, but if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton becomes President, we would be dealing from January 2017 with someone who knows Nigeria too well. In the meantime, President Buhari should have something specific to say to the United States through Kerry. It’d be wrong to treat this as a farewell visit by a lame-duck American administration. Not yet and certainly not so. President Barack Obama will leave office in November without ever visiting Nigeria!