President Barack Obama will host Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the White House on Monday, just days before he travels to Kenya and Ethiopia, and the timing of their meeting is no accident.
Buhari was elected in May, defeating incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, in a relatively peaceful process free of major fraud. “The administration needed to show some immediate recognition to the achievement of the democratic process and to the will of the people,” said Johnnie Carson, former U.S. ambassador to several African countries and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Since President Obama will not stop in Nigeria on his fourth trip to Africa next week, it made sense to invite the new Nigerian president to the White House before he left, Carson said.
The two will discuss Nigeria’s security problem and how the U.S. can help its counterterrorism efforts, said Carson. Buhari has pledged to crack down on terrorist network Boko Haram, which has stepped up attacks in the northern part of the country since his election.
One of the hurdles to any collaboration is the so-called Leahy law that prohibits the United States from providing military assistance to foreign entities that violate human rights, something the Nigerian security forces have been accused of doing, said Princeton Lyman, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa and a former State Department official.
The law kept the United States from allowing the sale of attack helicopters to the Nigerian military, which the previous leadership cited as crimping its ability to fight Boko Haram, said Carson.
Buhari has cleaned house, removing the defense chiefs of all branches of the military. He also dismissed the previous administration’s ministers and has yet to appoint new ones.
The defeat of Boko Haram depends not only on military power, Carson said, but on redeveloping the northeast by improving its water, health care, education and jobs “to bring hope and opportunity to what is probably the most impoverished region in Nigeria.”
Presidents Obama and Buhari are expected to discuss investment opportunities and repairing corruption in the government system as well.
In general, Buhari’s arrival marks a positive shift in U.S.-Nigerian relations, Lyman said. “We had difficult relations with (former President) Goodluck Jonathan,” he said. “This offers an opportunity to go back to historically what was a very good relationship between Nigeria and the United States.”