President Buhari’s meeting with Donald Trump was all about staying on message

New best friends.
New best friends.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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During a joint press conference yesterday (April 30) with Donald Trump as part of a working visit to the United States, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari appeared to have one mission: staying on Trump’s good side no matter what.

President Buhari notably passed up an opportunity to respond to reports of Trump’s “shithole countries” comment saying he was not certain Trump made the comment as alleged. “The best thing for me is to keep quiet,” Buhari said. In response however, Trump did not deny making the comment and, in fact, seemed to double down saying some countries, supposedly in Africa, are in “very bad shape and very tough places to live in.” Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman tweeted on Monday, “He said it.” For his part, Trump’s flattery included describing Nigeria as the “most beautiful country.”

Indeed, both gaffe-prone leaders spoke off the cuff for much of the media briefing and appeared careful to stay on message without yielding unwanted headlines. Only two weeks ago, during a trip to the United Kingdom, Buhari suggested millions of jobless Nigerians were lazy while at a business summit.

Trump was also bullish on “opening Nigeria to trade,” particularly allowing US agricultural produce into Nigeriaa stance that’s at odds with Buhari’s known preference for protecting Nigeria’s agricultural industry and stopping agricultural imports.

And despite noting the negative effects of climate change on Nigeria in an op-ed for Newsweek published earlier in the day, Buhari also did not mention the subject during the briefing. In his op-ed, Buhari noted clashes between nomadic herdsmen and farmers as well as the shrinking of Lake Chad in the northeast as major consequences of climate change. Trump has publicly railed against climate change policies and, last year, pulled the US out of the Paris climate deal to cut global emission levels. Neither president mentioned discussing the issue during bilateral talks.

But speaking to the press at the White House, president Trump commented on the recent killings of Christians in Nigeria’s middle-belt and northern areas. “We have had very serious problems with Christians who are being murdered in Nigeria, we are going to be working on that problem very, very hard because we cannot allow that to happen,” said Trump.

While the Trump administration has done little to give any indication that Africa is of importance to its agenda the one issue where Trump and Buhari will see eye to eye will be on security. The Trump administration’s only actions on Africa have typically been related to security matters. Buhari’s own agenda has had to bring security to the fore as the country faces several key security challenges including the herdsmen attacks and Boko Haram terrorists.

Matthew Page, a Chatham House fellow and former US State Department official, says “Buhari’s ‘stoop-to-conquer’ diplomacy was painful and disillusioning to watch.” But one possible reason for it is that talks with the Trump administration are crucial to winning support as Nigeria continues to battle a deadly insurgency against Boko Haram in the northeast. In addition to accessing military equipment which the army has solely lacked, Buhari has also appealed for humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons as well as aid for the reconstruction of swathes of devastated towns in the northeast.

Indeed, the United States has already approved the sale of half a billion dollars worth of military ware, including fighter jets, to Nigeria. That’s a change in tack from the Obama administration which did not sell some weapons to Nigeria citing alleged human rights abuses by the Nigerian army including arbitrarily detaining and killing civilians. Page says Buhari’s “ring-kissing” could also be strategic for another reason: ” Trump is popular among many Nigerians and his praise could help Buhari’s re-election prospects.”