INTERVIEW: Nigeria is dancing on the cliff — Ex-U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria
December 22, 2016
By Bisi Olanipekun*
Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria and an expert on Nigerian and African affairs, John Campbell, in this one-on-one interview with PREMIUM TIMES Washington Bureau reporter, Bisi Olanipekun, discusses Nigeria, his new book on South Africa and the U.S.-Africa relations especially with the incoming Trump administration.
PT: As a former ambassador and political counsellor to Nigeria and South Africa respectively, how would you assess the importance of these two countries to the United States and the world?
Campbell: I would argue that Nigeria and South Africa are the two African countries of the greatest strategic importance to the United States. Nigeria because of its sheer size, but also because it is, I think, a noble experiment. A multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy in a continent that is part of the developing world. Nigeria’s sheer size, I think, also raises the possibility that Nigeria can have a seat at the table with the other big powers around the world. In the case of South Africa, there you have a highly-sophisticated economy. A country, which has in the past been bitterly divided along racial lines. And a country with a history of white supremacy and its consequences, not unlike the history of the southern parts of the United States. Very interesting parallels, I think, between the two. Well, I first actually served in Nigeria from 1988 to 1990 as a political counsellor. I was then political counsellor in South Africa from 1993 to 1996 and then ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.
PT: How would you rate the Buhari administration in terms of the fight against terror, corruption and the dwindling economy?
Campbell: Well, I think the elections of 2015 were enormously important, because in Africa’s largest country the opposition came to power through the ballot box. After the elections of 2015, I think one can genuinely say that Nigeria is a democracy. I mean, if you define ‘democracy’ as a political system in which the opposition stands a reasonable chance of coming to power through the ballot box, Nigeria now meets that criteria. So, the fact of the elections is enormously important. Now, President Buhari campaigned essentially on two major planks. The first one was to restore the security situation with specific focus on Boko Haram. And the other was anti-corruption. In the case of Boko Haram, Boko Haram has been cleared out of the territory that it once occupied. But, Boko Haram is far from having been destroyed. And in fact, Boko Haram operations are continuing. President Buhari, I think, quite rightly has put an emphasis on a multilateral approach to Boko Haram with Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. But, Boko Haram is going to be very difficult to actually rout out. With corruption, he has taken some really quite dramatic steps to address corruption at the highest levels. The difficulty is, corruption in Nigeria is structural. In other words, it infuses the whole political system. And therefore, it’s much more difficult to root out. And in a sense, everything’s related to everything else. Take the police, for example. Okay. The police set up checkpoints, and basically they shake down people that are passing through those checkpoints. That’s a form of corruption. But the police are so poorly paid that unless they man checkpoints and shake down people, they literally will not have enough money to keep their families alive. So, if you’re going to address police corruption, you also have to address police salaries. You also have to address the poor levels of police training. So in other words, it’s complicated. And corruption in this sense is not just simply people being bad, but it is rather people trying to adjust to extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
PT: Would you then say, to paraphrase the title of your book on Nigeria, that Nigeria is still dancing on the brink or have we fallen off it completely?
Campbell: It’s dancing on the cliff, not falling off. If the elections in 2015 had not been regarded by most Nigerians as credible, then I think there would have been a danger of going over the brink. That didn’t happen. The security challenges that the Buhari government faces continue to be Boko Haram in the north, now the unrest in the Delta, plus a resurgence of interest in Biafra, which it’s hard to see how that’s going to play out. Nigeria is an extraordinarily difficult country to govern, but it has not gone over the brink.
PT: On Nigeria-U.S. relations, what are your thoughts, especially as the United States no longer depends on Nigeria’s oil? Are there other areas of cooperation or bilateral relations?
Campbell: Well, you’re perfectly correct, that the United States is no longer dependent on Nigerian oil, primarily because of the increase of American oil production, but also increases in the production of countries that are closer in field, such as Canada or Venezuela. So, the energy relationship is, I think, a much less important component in the bilateral relationship. That said, Nigeria still remains, I think, of central importance to American policy in Africa, because it is a functioning democracy and as such, has a leadership role on the continent.
PT: Away from Nigeria, Ambassador, can we briefly touch on your new book, Morning In South Africa? How has South Africa fared post the Nelson Mandela era, considering you witnessed first-hand the transition period from apartheid to black majority rule?
Campbell: Depends on the area you look at. What are the achievements? One: the rate of extreme poverty has been cut in half. Two: three million new houses have been built. Further, those houses built by the government are distributed to people in fee-simple ownership. Now, what that means is that those houses can be bought, sold, and mortgaged, which means they also become a way of accumulating capital. And amongst black South Africans, particularly under apartheid, it was almost impossible for them to accumulate capital. So, the ability to accumulate capital through home ownership, which is how most Americans accumulate capital, is I think a major achievement. Three: the altogether dismantling of the apartheid structures. Extraordinarily difficult. There were some 19 different educational systems inherited from apartheid. You had black schools, coloured schools, Indian schools, white schools. The list goes on and on and on. And in fact, they have now, I think, relatively successfully been amalgamated. Next: there have now been — how many — one, two, three, four national elections, all credible. At least as many local government elections, all credible. There is a general acceptance of the South African Constitution, generally regarded as one of the most liberal in the world. You have among the most complete protections of human rights of any constitution in the world. These are not minor achievements.
One can argue, one should argue, that the fundamental issues of inequality continue. In fact, the gulf between the net worth of white people and everybody else in South Africa is greater now than it was at the end of apartheid. In other words, whites have gotten richer. So, too, has everybody else. But whites have gotten richer than everybody else. So, the part of this is bound up in a major area, which has to do particularly with primary education, where the backlog of the shortcomings of Bantu education, education for black people under apartheid, those shortcomings have still not been adequately addressed, and far too many black children are in schools that are inadequate to prepare them in the modern economy. So education is a shortcoming. Continuing inequality largely based on race is another shortcoming. South Africans tend to shy away from what is a fundamental reality in contemporary South Africa, and that is, most, not all, but most rich South Africans are white, and most poor South Africans are black. That’s a reality which South Africans are hesitant, I think, to confront head on.
PT: What is your current assessment of the US-South Africa relations, considering it was not rosy during the period of Apartheid in the 80s and 90s.
Campbell: Oh, it’s quite bad. The official relationship. It’s a very interesting question. At the time of the transition, when I was living in South Africa, everybody assumed that the bilateral relationship between two multi-racial democracies was bound to be very close. Well, it wasn’t. And part of that is because there were unreal expectations on both sides. Mandela and Mbeki both, I think, anticipated much larger, even transformative, investment from the United States in South Africa. They overlooked the fact that the American government has no power to command American companies to invest anywhere. And investment decisions by American corporations are largely economically driven. On the American side, there was disappointment that the Mandela and Mbeki administrations continued to have close relations with people like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Disappointments on both sides. On the South African side as well, particularly for the ANC, there was the widespread feeling that the United States came late to the anti-apartheid struggle. The relationship is correct, but not particularly warm. I think that’s how I would characterize it. In the late apartheid period, the apartheid government didn’t like the United States very much, because of what it perceived as its support for the anti-apartheid effort. But, the ANC and the PAC didn’t like the United States very much, because of what it perceived as its support for the anti-apartheid effort. But, the ANC and the PAC didn’t like the United States very much either, because they thought that the American effort was pretty weak. So, both groups are not really very happy with the Americans.
PT: How do you see the U.S.-Africa relations play out under a Trump Presidency?
Campbell: U.S.-Africa relations and where it’s going to go? Yes. Where to start? The first place to start is that in the presidential debates, Africa was mentioned not once. I mean, it was as though Africa was altogether absent. So, if you ask about what we can anticipate from the Trump administration with respect to Africa, my answer to you will be, “We don’t know.” We have absolutely no idea. Who Mr. Trump chooses as his Secretary of State will be quite important. If, for example, it were to be Mitt Romney, then I think we could anticipate that the, at least, the formal diplomatic relationship with African countries will continue much as it has been. But, if somebody is selected who has very little foreign policy knowledge or experience, then who knows what direction it will take?
PT: Could a Trump administration jeopardize or halt the recently extended AGOA (African Growth Opportunity Act) by the U.S. Congress?
Campbell: Not much, as a practical matter. I mean, it’s there in place. I suppose in theory it could try to repeal it, but it’s unlikely to try to do that. So, I think AGOA will remain in place. Now, I have no idea whether it will be expanded. In a Clinton administration, I think it probably would have been, but now I don’t know.
PT: Your take on Trump’s policies on immigration and the banning of Muslims.
Campbell: Banning Muslims, that is to say, people who adhere to a specific religion would almost certainly be unconstitutional. So, you couldn’t do it. You could, at least in theory, deport illegal aliens in the United States who are Muslim, on the basis they’re illegal aliens. I think it would be very difficult to ban Muslim visitors to the United States. I think it would be difficult to prohibit Muslim immigration to the United States, because of the guarantees of freedom of religion that are in the constitution. But the rhetoric is certainly unfriendly to Muslims. By the way, an interesting aspect, the Nigerian community in the United States has done extraordinarily well- it’s one of the most successful of the immigrant communities here. But, there are very few Muslims. I mean, they’re mostly from the south and west of Nigeria.
PT: Your thoughts on the currently concluded U.S. election. Do you think the Electoral College system should be eliminated as suggested by some Americans and even by the former Vice President, Al Gore?
Campbell: Well, Al Gore, like Hillary Clinton, won the most votes, but lost in the Electoral College. The Electoral College has been in the constitution since day one. It would require a constitutional amendment to remove it. That would be politically very, very difficult to do. What the Electoral College does is it puts a thumb on scale, as it were, for the smaller states in the Union. So, you get lots of support for eliminating the Electoral College in New York or California, but you’re not going to get it in Wyoming or Delaware or other small states.
PT: How would you assess the Obama Presidency and its relations with the African Continent?
Campbell: I mean, that’s right. Obama’s widely criticized in Africa for a seeming lack of attention. I would suggest that African expectations there were unrealistic. Too many Africans thought that simply because Obama had an African father, he would have some kind of orientation towards Africa. In fact, he visited Africa two or three times altogether over eight years. And one of them was for Mandela’s funeral. He never visited Nigeria. Though, the period that he was president, the Nigerian government was particularly problematic. Those were the days of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, massive human rights’ abuses connected with the struggle against Boko Haram, and so forth. He did visit Kenya, which also had, and has, a problematic government, the Kenyatta administration. They didn’t stay very long, and he certainly tried to minimize contact with the Kenyatta administration. So, in other words, I think African expectations were unrealistic. I mean, Obama was president of the United States, he wasn’t president of Africa. He had one or two other things to worry about. He had Iraq, Afghanistan, and preventing the collapse of the American economy. So, just how much can you do?
PT: Your thoughts on Obama’s POWER AFRICA and YALI initiatives.
Campbell: That’s right. Interesting African initiatives. Power Africa addresses a very fundamental problem. The Young AfricanLeaders Initiative also, I think, may well bear fruit sometime in the future.
PT: Again, on the Trump Presidency, for a man with no prior military or political background as is the norm with previous presidents of the US, how would he fare four years down the road?
Campbell: We just don’t know. This is new. Just as you say, it’s new. Very few of his announced appointments have been people with a deep knowledge of the U.S. government. I worry about the lack of experience. It could be that Nigeria’s not the only country dancing on the brink. And also, which Trump are we talking about? Because, sometimes, his statements are reassuring. Other times, particularly his tweets, are alarming. Part of the alarming dimension of his tweets may be that you only have 140 characters. Well, it’s hard to be subtle in 140 characters.
PT: On a lighter note and in conclusion, Can you say what your favourite dish and genre of music were while you served as Ambassador in Nigeria.
Campbell: I like jollof rice. I enjoy High life music, which, of course, is Nigerian. People often don’t recognize that. And I particularly like the painting and the sculpture that’s associated with the art school at LSU. I have a small collection of Nigerian paintings. But, it tends to be abstract expressionism. It’s highly sophisticated. It’s not a painting of a lady carrying a jug on her head. It’s much more, you know.
PT: Favourite Nigerian politician(s) if any.
Campbell: I admire President Buhari. I think that, given the enormous challenges that he faces, I do admire him. I also admire Donald Duke, who was governor of Cross River. I admire Fashola, who I think actually was able – look at Lagos, 22 million people, built on a swamp. I mean, one would have thought, it’s almost impossible to govern. And yet, he did, with improvements in the way people actually lived – trash collection, and that sort of things.
PT: Thank you Ambassador for your time.
Campbell: Thank you for coming.
*Culled from Premium Times
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