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.