Obama snubbed us – so what?

2013-06-30 14:00

‘Not since the Camelot years of John F Kennedy in the White House has black Africa been so fascinated by an American president. He held up high hopes for the black man in America and the oppressed peoples of Africa when he ascended to the American presidency last year.”

That was Nigerian journalist Olufemi Ogunsanwo writing in the Daily Times (April 1 1978) about then US president Jimmy Carter, billed to visit Nigeria at that time.

Ogunsanwo might as well have been writing about Barack Obama. If votes from African countries counted, Obama would have made his way into office through a Nigerian landslide.

In 2008, the then head of the Nigerian Stock Exchange organised a fundraising dinner for him, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars that American funding rules did not permit him to accept.

In 2009, Nigeria was one of 11 countries across the world in which Obama’s popularity rating was higher than in the US.

At the mock election held by the US diplomatic mission in Lagos to commemorate last year’s US presidential elections, Obama polled 219 votes to Mitt Romney’s 30.

But Obama doesn’t appear to be much moved by Nigerian love. In his fifth year as president, and on his third trip of Africa, Nigeria is not on his itinerary.

There are many who regard this absence in Nigeria as nothing less than a snub – the second in four years (Obama visited nearby Ghana in July 2009).

When the Africa tour was announced, Nigerian newspapers assumed Nigeria’s exclusion was because of the controversial presidential pardon that was granted to a former Nigerian governor who was convicted of corruption in Nigeria, the US and the UK. The US government has denied this.

In the days leading up to the trip, a US government official hinted that Nigeria’s precarious security situation might be responsible for the decision to settle for Senegal instead.

There are, of course, those who welcome the snub, because they see in it a strong message to the Nigerian government that it does not deserve the attention and presence of the world’s most powerful man.

And they would be right.

When Obama stopped over in Ghana the last time (it was the briefest of visits, lasting only 20 hours), Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was quoted as saying: “If Obama decides to grace Nigeria with his presence, I will stone him. The message he is sending by going to Ghana is so obvious, it is so brilliant, that he must not render it flawed by coming to Nigeria any time soon.”

An Obama visit to Nigeria at this time, or any other time, would be eagerly seized upon by a Nigerian government struggling to convince its citizens of its commitment to good governance. An Obama visit would likely trigger a government propaganda machine that would seek to somehow convert the presence of Obama into an endorsement of the Goodluck Jonathan government.

The US government is no doubt aware of its carrot-and-stick powers – George W Bush used it to dramatic effect in 2003 when the White House privately threatened to cancel a planned meeting between Bush and then Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo if the latter refused to give up Liberian warlord Charles Taylor (who had asylum in Nigeria) to the International Criminal Court.

To worsen matters, Nigeria’s economic importance to the US has taken a nosedive in recent years. Although Nigeria remains the US’ largest African trading partner, its share of US crude oil imports has dropped by about 50% since 2011.

Obama is promising to step up US trade with Africa and is bringing his new trade ambassador along on the trip. His government has also spoken enthusiastically of Nigeria’s strategic importance to the US, and in 2010 established a US-Nigeria binational commission.

But it remains to be seen what specific plans Obama has for Nigeria on the economic front, considering that US interest in Nigeria appears to have recently shifted towards military intervention, amid fears that west Africa is on the threshold of becoming a militant hub. (A US drone base is being established in Niger, just north of Nigeria).

On Obama’s trip to Ghana in 2009, Reuters reported “angst” and “a bout of self-questioning” in Kenya and Ghana. In Nigeria, that would be only partly true.

There’s evidence Nigerians are conflicted about the so-called “snub”. On the one hand, there is the excitement that an Obama visit would generate; on the other, a questioning of the actual value of such a visit beyond the symbolic significance.

And admitting to being hurt by an Obama snub would imply a fragile sense of national self-esteem – a clear case of “colonial mentality”.

It would make more sense to say: Obama isn’t coming to Nigeria – so what?

» Ogunlesi is a leading Nigerian journalist

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