By Obi Nwakanma
If you talk to Nigerians, you’re bound to hear an increasing chatter; a perception in Nigeria that the United States of America is currently waging a covert economic and cultural war on Nigeria. This is not even in the north – but in the south – traditional bastion of pro-America sentiment, where they love all things America.
It is startling, this creeping view, given the long history of friendship, cooperation, and partnership between Nigeria and the United States. There is the danger of a real thawing of relations which might see each of these nations reducing diplomatic contact and the significance of their embassies.
At the moment, Nigeria sees Washington still as its most important diplomatic mission in the world, and accords this mission all the weight of seriousness that suggests that what America thinks about Nigeria still matters.
From 1965, America increasingly became Nigeria’s most important trading partner. By 1971, much of Nigeria’s crude oil shipment went to America, and remained so up till July 2013 when the United States stopped importing Nigerian oil. Nigerians valued, “made in America” too – they called it “American spec,” and the United States was, and even now still remains at the top of Nigeria’s social imaginary. Two factors drove this: Nnamdi Azikiwe – Nigeria’s charismatic first president and nationalist leader. He brought America right into the living rooms of West Africans, particularly Nigerians, through his newspapers.
Azikiwe’s American education, and his deep involvement in Black political and cultural life in the 1920s and ‘30s gave stimulus to his leadership of the anti-colonial nationalist movement in Africa; and he modeled American notions of liberty, democracy, and enterprise, in his speech, in his lifestyle, and in his journalism.
He built the first American-style University in Africa, and compelled a new generation of African “Argonauts in search of the golden fleece” like Nkrumah, Ojike, Mbadiwe, and so many more to follow his steps, and look towards America, and not to Europe. Secondly, the end of the Second World War placed the United States in a historical position, and Roosevelt’s support for the colonies and for decolonization, earned America great regard in the newly decolonized nations, particularly in Africa, and by Africans, who saw in their African-American kins, a historical continuity of kinship with America.
If Carl Lewis wins an Olympic Gold medal, Nigerians would rush into the streets and celebrate wildly because “our brother won the gold! Nigerian travelers to America, have of course, also been vital in giving great credence to the Nigerian view of America. Nigerians are certainly not unaware of America’s stature and might in the world, but Nigerians themselves are equally proud, perhaps even have an exaggerated sense of importance, if not in the world, but certainly in Africa.
They are Africa’s behemoth, and they have sought to play that role, and are jealous of their sovereign identity and independence. Those who do not understand Nigeria have often been misled by the fierce ethnic wranglings among Nigerians, and are often shocked to see Nigerians quickly close ranks and become fiercely Nigerian, once they perceive external meddling or threat. This is the part the US must be careful with in dealing with the Nigerian reality.
The US influence in Nigeria is bound to decline with the end of its trading partnership, and Nigeria is bound to develop new, more vital partners for its own survival, and invest in these new partners, the grandeur and regard of mutual benefits. As the significance of US relation wanes in Nigeria, there’s bound to be a waning of the importance of America in the Nigerian imagination, and perhaps even the possibility of conflict. Nigeria is going through a rather rough patch. But Nigeria is still a very proud and fiercely independent nation, with vast reservoirs of the nationalist spirit. Not many found John Kerry’s recent visit to Nigeria three weeks ago very funny or useful.
There is the feeling that the US Secretary of State came to lecture Nigerian political leaders on elections and democracy, and about the US likes and dislikes, as would a headmaster to his errant boys. There is evidence also that Nigerian authorities are beginning to get impatient with what government insiders now increasingly see as the US government’s increasing meddlesomeness in Nigeria’s domestic affairs.
Evidence of this is in the strongly-worded statement by the office of the President of Nigeria warning the US to steer clear of issues of Nigeria’s election which had been postponed over security concerns.
There is little doubt that we are slowly entering the winter of a once old and firm friendship, and it is important for these two nations to find grounds for future and even more enduring partnership. Nigeria remains Africa’s powerhouse and will survive her current challenges. But it was quite startling watching Helima Croft, Head of the RBC Capital Markets Commodities Strategy on Bloomberg, predicting with something close to glee that Nigeria “could be the first petro-state to fall” followed, of course, by Venezuela.
It was immediately clear that Ms. Croft and her fellow conferees on Bloomberg had very little knowledge about Nigeria, and like most western “Helicopter experts” on Africa, Croft seems to base her Nigerian permutations on indexes invented in airconditioned hotel rooms in metropolitan redoubts; has never visited places like the Ochanja market, nor the vast crevices of this vast and diverse country.
Nigeria is no longer merely a “colonial contraption,” it is a nation that has a vast network of internal exchanges; its formal economy is actually its secondary economic platform. The depth and scope of Nigeria’s economic activity and transactions are beyond the current litmus of Helima Croft’s interpretation, because it is what we call the “invisible economy” with its own internal controls, credit systems, exchanges, and commodity platforms.
Loss of petrodollar will severely limit the lifestyle of significant segments of the Nigerian elite, who are the great beneficiaries of the oil business, but as Nigerians themselves say, it might prove to be a great blessing in disguise. The collapse of oil offers Nigeria the opportunity to develop other sectors of its vast resources, expand its hold on the vast African market, and seek new opportunities. Nigerians can now possibly direct the oil it once sold to its own domestic energy needs, and stimulate industry. Decline in oil will lead to a massive reduction in corruption – the so called oil curse. That is a good thing.
But Nigerians viewing Helima Croft on Bloomberg can only assume, with the increasing onslaught in the US media about a Nigerian Armageddon, that America wishes Nigeria dead. That cannot be true because America too stands to lose a great African market and partner. These two countries must avert what might only be an unfortunate disentanglement, and find new ways to renew a mutually beneficial partnership and amity.And Nigeria, Ms. croft, is far more complex. It is like the bole of the Iroko. It might be shaken by the wind, but it tends to stand resilient.