On Monday 23 March US President Obama released a video addressing Nigerians about the upcoming national elections. The nature and context of this video are quite interesting. We will examine this in 3 parts. The video itself, US interests in the world and US interests in Nigeria.
The video was just under 2 and a half minutes and started with the US President saying positive things about Nigerians, he then moved on to his expectations for the election (free, fair, peaceful credible and free from fear or intimidation). He then specifically addressed political leaders and their supporters, stating they must refrain from violence before, during and after the election. He then states that a successful election will help Nigeria meet its challenges such as Boko Haram. He then ends curiously with the Civil War era Federal Government slogan, ‘To Keep Nigeria One is a Task that must be done’. He ends by enjoining all Nigerians to come together to advance the security, prosperity and human rights of all Nigerians, and states in this task we will always have a friend in the USA.
This video is a classic example of strategic media and influence operations, used to disseminate a specific message to distinct audiences in support of a particular narrative.
There were at least 3 distinct audiences for this message; the Nigerian Government, Nigerian politicians and the Nigerian people.
There were several distinct messages which were for the awareness of all audience groups but targeted at specific groups.
Message 1: the US wants the elections to happen peacefully for this to happen they must be credible, for them to be credible they must be free and fair (all audience groups)
Message 2: The US will hold political leaders accountable for inflammatory statements, violence or malpractice (Nigerian politicians)
Message 3: the tenor of future US/ Nigerian relations will depend on a free, fair credible election (Nigerian government)
Message 4: the US desired end state is a united, secure, prosperous Nigeria (All)
To further understand these messages we must understand the US’s current geopolitical reality.
The US in the World
The US has recently come out of the two longest wars in their history which have cost them 6, 849 killed, 52,312 wounded and are estimated to have cost $6 trillion.
All this blood and treasure did not bring a clear cut victory and helped create a dramatic reordering of the Middle East, with Iran in the ascendant and once stable regimes of Syria, Egypt and Libya struggling with internal strife.
Just as important, is that in the 12 years that the US deployed the bulk of its military, diplomatic and intelligence resources to the Middle East and Central Asia, other powers filled the vacuum left elsewhere to exert themselves mainly at the expense of the US. Overtly hostile powers such as Iran freed of the fear of Iraq have flexed their muscles across the Middle East, Russia took on US client Georgia and recently Ukraine, whilst more benign powers like Turkey, Brazil and India have begun building spheres of influence across the Middle East/ Central Asia, South America and The Indian Ocean respectively. All of these powers have been spreading aggressively across Africa.
This period also coincided with a recession in Europe, causing Europeans to focus inwards on economic and social issues, whilst contending with a resurgent Russia and terrorism.
This presents the US with is a series of problems they do not have the power or inclination to solve, yet no power has the military, diplomatic or economic strength to operate a global strategy.
Thus most continental or sub continental region have seen a dominant power rising with enough strength to destabilise the region but not enough to control it, leading to rival regional powers either aligning with or against it, economically, militarily or asymmetrically.
This jockeying for power frequently spills over into proxy conflicts, which not only create insecurity or misery risk creating full scale wars. For example Saddam Hussein’s fall removed an existential threat from Iran allowing them to redeploy military, intelligence and diplomatic resources from countering Saddam to sponsoring political and religious allies around the region, leading Sunni Kingdoms to combine forces to try and counter Iranian influence, whilst the Turks essentially played both sides against each other. This struggle of powers has led them to tap into sectarian and tribal links, most of which have reignited or exacerbated conflicts that previously lay dormant, with Syria in turmoil and insecurity in Lebanon.
This kind of confused geopolitics has brought about the resurgence of a US doctrine that is so old its new. The Balance of Power doctrine, in which a power alternatively supports or opposes powers in a region in such a way that no one power is strong enough to dominate the area thus ensuring cooperation within the region and no massive distortions that might require a US intervention.
A classic example is Asia, in which China’s rise terrifies Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and irritates India. By themselves India and Japan could become (and once were) regional hegemons. Yet as long as a significant portion of their strategic attention is devoted to countering China and each other they cannot rise to the point where China would take dramatic action leading to military confrontation. China has Pakistan and until recently Sri Lanka to keep India honest whilst South Korea and Japan are constrained by North Korea and Taiwan by the PLA waiting over the Taiwan Straits. This balance of power allows the US to preserve its main military and diplomatic forces while holding an external trump card with its virtually unbeatable Navy and Airforce, sweetened with preferable trade deals with select nations.
Another example is the Libyan Civil War, in which the US literally ‘led from behind’, allowing European Mediterranean powers such as France and Italy to be the public military and political lead, whilst the US provided overwhelming logistic support and air power. Other interested powers such as the Gulf States also provided air support and Special Forces to train, lead and coordinate Libyan rebels on the ground. Whilst the US got its desired outcome it avoided the moral responsibility of having to deal with the aftermath.
This strategy of creating or utilising regional powers to balance each other is a direct repudiation of the policies of US President Bush who happily disrupted power structures all over the world in Iraq and Somalia, creating unforeseen and uncontrollable 2nd and 3rd order consequences such as the rise of Al Shabaab and the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its evolution to Daesh.
By allowing regional powers which have greater local knowledge and greater interest in the outcome to balance themselves out, the US hopes that each region will exist in a state of creative tension, with competing powers using hard and soft effects to compete and counter each other ensuring stability.
In the event of a crisis the US provides US diplomatic and political support. If the crisis deepens the US can up its support to logistics (France in Mali), training or non-lethal equipment (i.e. Syria), lethal equipment (Kurds in Iraq), and then niche specialties like intelligence, reconnaissance, communications or coordination (Libya), remote air strikes and Special Forces raids (i.e. AMISOM in Somalia) and then finally air strikes (Iraq/ Syria).
For this Doctrine to work the US needs strong, dependable allies in the different parts of the world. As well as these allies the US will have bases in surrounding countries, mainly in smaller countries surrounding the main regional powers. This again aids the balance of power theory as the presence of US or Western bases in these countries constrains any ambitions the larger, regional power might have towards it smaller neighbours.
US and Nigeria
US interests in Nigeria are two fold. First Nigeria is a huge market for the US importing $6bn worth of goods and exporting $3.9bn. Nigeria accounts for the majority of US imports from sub Saharan Africa and is the second largest market for US exports.
The faster Nigeria urbanises and regenerates its middle class, the more people will seek quality over price, making US products more desirable.
Even more importantly to the US, Nigeria is the wealthiest and most populous nation in Africa, with one of the largest and most experienced Armed Forces in sub Saharan Africa. Since Independence Nigeria has sent units on UN PKOs to the Congo (1960-64), Lebanon (1978-83), Somalia (1992-94), former Yugoslavia (1992), Rwanda (1993) and Darfur (2003). Military observers have deployed to Papua New Guinea (1962-63), India/Pakistan (1965-66), Iran/Iraq (1988-91), Iraq/Kuwait (1991), Namibia (1989-90), Western Sahara (1991), Cambodia (1992-93), Mozambique (1992), Aouzou Strip (1994), Darfur (2003-) and Israel (1995).
This is a fairly stellar record for any country but even more relevant are Nigeria’s unilateral peace keeping and support operations to Tanzania (1964), Chad (1981-82 and then under the OAU till 1983), Liberia (1990 -), Sierra Leone (1992-), Gambia (1993), Angola (1991-92), Mali (2012) and Guinea Bissau (2012).
These multiple expeditionary peace keeping/ peace support operations, combined with hard and soft power to maintain and enforce peace would naturally make Nigeria the classic regional ally that the US seeks to maintain stability in the sub region.
However a paradox has emerged. As Nigeria returned to civilian rule it has become progressively more inward focussed as the strategic imperative of the leadership has turned from regional stability to internal political brinkmanship. Trying to keep the various groups of financial and political interests that make up Nigeria’s elite on side, takes up far more time for civilian leadership than for the military who did not have to worry about accountability (to the elite at least if not the people).
As external interest decreased, West Africa’s problems increased with insurgencies, terrorism, narco trafficking, desertification and climate change, food insecurity, piracy, transnational crime, political instability etc.
In the old days Nigeria would have managed a lot of these crises yet virtually all recent crises have been managed by extra regional powers such as the AU, UN or external powers. The fact that an internal crises in Nigeria has spun so far out of control as to require a multinational alliance organised by is indicative of how far Nigeria has retreated from its regional hegemonic role.
For the US this is a problem. The vacuum left by Nigeria has been filled by France, with outliers such as Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, however Burkina Faso has seen regime change and political instability, while Chad and Niger teeter on the edge of their weak economies and food insecurity. None of these countries can undertake or more importantly sustain the type of battalion, brigade or divisional level unilateral intervention Nigeria could. Whilst France has the contacts, capabilities and political will to intervene in West Africa, it is limited geographically to the Francophone countries by its colonial legacy in the type of interventions it can undertake. There is no country that can fill the cultural, economic and diplomatic gap left by Nigeria. It is the only power in West Africa capable of dominating the Sahel, Gulf of Guinea, West and Central Africa and influencing the rest of sub Saharan Africa.
What does the US want in Nigeria?
Stability. On a practical level it matters very little to the US if Nigeria is ruled by a Christian or a Muslim, is a democracy or a dictatorship, what they need is a stable political system that is at ease with itself that can redirect its strategic focus from political manoeuvres to internal security and regional stability.
If Nigeria returned to its regional hegemonic role; securing the Gulf of Guinea and ensuring stability in the sub region, it would free up French and US resources towards their own main effort of securing the Mediterranean and counter terrorism.
However to the US, Nigeria’s regional indifference is actually the lesser of two evils. The nightmare scenario for the US is a crisis that leads to wide spread ethnic and regional violence that would lead to sustained instability or even worse a total break up. Unlike the Civil War which was between two nation states using conventional armies, means and tactics, such a crisis in Nigeria would generate a multiplicity of groups fighting with, for and against each other with Nigeria’s vast diaspora funding and continuing the conflict in places as far flung as Sudan, Brazil, China, the US or UK..
This would generate a catastrophic humanitarian disaster in the sub region, giving rise to calls for an intervention. Any such intervention would need a coalition of powers, which as we have seen would need US logistics, support and most likely ground troops.
In other words, if Nigeria imploded, the US could find itself in a situation where it is forced to intervene in a conflict which would make DRC look like a minor playground disagreement.
Whilst this scenario might seem far fetched and apocalyptic, we have the North East insurgency as a perfect demonstration for how such a crisis would play out
Displaced persons are already overwhelming neighbouring countries, a coalition to intervene has been formed but only with the pestering of an external power and still personal and national objectives predominate the campaign rather than regional ones. Each of these coalition members are now dealing with terror attacks, abductions and expensive disruptions to trade, business and normal life on their territory.
All of this is happening in a remote, economically unimportant, sparsely populated corner of the country. Imagine the second, third, fourth and fifth order effects of a sustained outbreak of fighting in Lagos, Kano or Port Harcourt.
Thus President Obama’s message becomes clearer; it acknowledges Nigeria’s importance, it clearly highlights that the US wants stability. It mentions the things it considers to be ‘red lines’ (free, fair, credible election from violence, before, after and during), it specifies who it will hold responsible (political leaders) and hints at rewards (improved US/ Nigeria relations).
The ending is the most curious bit. It is unclear as to whether the inclusion of the Civil War era slogan was a deliberate act to remind Nigerians of the consequence of the failure of the people to rein in the ambitions of the elite or a clumsy effort to familiarise oneself with the audience without awareness of the phrases unfortunate antecedents.
The cynic in me favours the former, the Civil War and its preceding genocide were the direct result of a selfish, greedy elite using ethnic tensions to further their ambitions, the same lack of foresight will not lead to handshakes at Dodan Barracks at the end but a slaughter of unimaginable proportions.
Keeping Nigeria peaceful is a task that must be done, not for US interests but for Nigeria’s.