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Former Foreign Affairs Minister talked about Biden’s win

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, talks to ALEXANDER OKERE about the intrigues in the ongoing US presidential election, how the outcome will affect Nigeria and why South Korea’s relations with the US as an ally could influence the emergence of a new director general of the World Trade Organisation

The US presidential election has not been officially concluded, though the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, emerged as president-elect after surpassing the 270 electoral college votes needed to win. What is your assessment of the exercise so far?

There cannot be any quick assessment of this American election. I think that what has happened is so overwhelming. I’m sure that scholars all over and diplomats as well are scratching their heads as to where this is coming from and the consequences of it. I think that Americans themselves by now must have started to ask when the rain started falling on their heads. I have been following American elections since 1959 and I don’t think I ever saw something like this. But when you have in office someone who doesn’t believe in any values except himself, a man who believes the end justifies the means and a man who is prepared to exploit everything to crack the system, and he is in charge of a system, you have asked for disaster. That is what the Americans are getting now.

Are you referring to the President Donald Trump administration?

On the surface, we will say that the Trump administration is responsible for this. But on a deeper level, I think it is the system itself; it is a system that was designed in 1776 (and this is the most important thing that people seldom pay attention to) by a bunch of people who owned slaves, had no respect for human rights and humans, did not believe in equality of women, did not believe that women should have rights, did not believe that native Americans had rights and did not even believe that white people who did not own property had rights. This is the system they designed and put in place, and this is the system they have been using since then. The system worked because there were decent people who were prepared to manage the system because they had overriding decent values.

But when you have the most powerful man in America and in the world who shares the values of the 1776 founders of the United States, this is precisely what you would end up with. Let me expand a little bit on this. Do you know that votes are still being counted in some states, since November 3, 2020? And even in other states where they have finished counting votes, the system says if there are objections and the victory is within a narrow range, you can have a recount, like in Georgia, where they are starting to count all over again. If this were another part of the world, even the Americans themselves would be talking about an archaic and anachronistic system. But this is what the US is doing; you are allowing counties and states to have different rules about the electoral process and that allows you to play games with those (ones).

Many saw the controversies that have trailed the US presidential election and claims of electoral fraud by the incumbent president as incidents that have hugely affected the reputation of the country as a bastion of democracy and role model to others. Do you also see it that way?

It has, of course, and you don’t need to take my word for it. Take the word of the president-elect, Joe Biden. When he was asked this same question, he was being tactful and diplomatic. He said it was embarrassing. Americans don’t like criticising their country or looking for faults in the system. So, he (Biden) was being tactful when he said it was embarrassing. It is more than that. It dented America’s reputation in the world. America is no longer regarded as a shining light on the hill, as ex-US president, Ronald Regan put it. In a way, a lot of people knew there was an ugly side to the American reality that had been hidden. That is one of the characteristics of America. Like I said, they don’t like to criticise their country, so they buried this ugly side of them. And the CNN, NBC and Hollywood always show the bright side of the United States, and that is not the total picture. The fact that about 72 million Americans voted for Trump showed this ugly side of the US. John Pepper Clark, our late iconic, literary man, saw through it as far back as the 1960s when he wrote the book, ‘America, Their America’. He drew attention to the fact that the American image which was being painted all around the world was a mirage.

Are there lessons that Nigeria and Nigerians can learn from the outcome of the US presidential election?

Let us wait until next January and see whether the system will work. What people don’t realise, which Trump realised, is that by not conceding, he could force the declaration of who won and who didn’t win to the House of Representatives where, under the American constitution, it is not one vote, one elected representative. There are 50 states in the US, so 50 votes will now determine who will be the president of the US. It will be like the election never took place. It will be like Biden never had 77 million votes. Right now, out of 50 states, Republicans control 33 states. So, Trump will get 33 votes and Biden will get 17 votes. The Supreme Court could say it doesn’t want to get involved because the constitution is clear and could tell the parties involved to go to the House of Representatives. That is in the American constitution and that is the constitution that is often shown around the world as the epitome of democracy, a constitution that will allow 33 votes instead of over 77 million votes. That is what will happen.

There have been several allegations of human rights abuses against the Nigerian government in the last four years, with many not satisfied with the response of the Trump administration. Do you think the US government, under a democrat, will push Nigerian leaders to be more accountable?

Yes, it would. The Democratic Party has always had as its flagship of its foreign policy support for democracy and human rights. There is nothing wrong with the principle. But the application of that principle is what often got America involved in shady foreign policy escapades. Don’t forget that former president Barack Obama never visited Nigeria. Obama never sold weapons to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. It was under Obama that they got into this foreign policy escapade that led finally to the overthrow and assassination of the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. It was under Obama that they wanted to encourage the overthrow of the president of Syria, which eventually led to the war in Syria and the mess is still there till today, all under the support for human rights and democracy. So, one needs to be careful. Whatever you may say about Donald Trump, he never got America involved in any new wars in the world.

Do you also see the Biden administration imposing sanctions on Nigeria or certain political leaders for rights violations, especially with reference to the alleged clampdown on #EndSARS protesters and supporters, which the president-elect has condemned?

Yes, I can see accounts of prominent members of the Nigerian administration being frozen, whether they are in the US or Dubai, UAE. I can see the Biden administration refusing to sell weapons to Nigeria. Don’t forget that we paid for, I think, about 20 air force planes. I can see the Biden administration refusing to deliver them. At the end of the day, it is the people who suffer.

How would you rate Nigeria’s relationship with the Trump administration? Did we fare better?

No, I don’t think we did. I don’t think Nigeria was that important to the Trump administration. Trump never visited Africa, in any case, let alone Nigeria, and the US Secretary of State limited his trips to Africa to countries in North Africa, like Sudan, and countries they wanted to recognise and have relations with Israel.

What impression does the direct involvement of US forces in the rescue of an American citizen, who was held hostage in Nigeria, give about the Federal Government’s handling of insecurity in the country?

Those of us who are scholars in the field have read a lot about what has been written about American involvement in the attempt to fight Boko Haram in the time of former President Goodluck Jonathan and how they were frustrated because inside the administration itself were Boko Haram sympathisers, who were leaking both tactical and strategic information to Boko Haram. I laughed when I heard Nigerian officials saying that they were involved in the rescue of the American and that they were consulted and knew about what the Americans were doing. Come on! Excuse me! For something like that?

When the Americans don’t trust the military establishment in Nigeria, there is no way they would have involved it in the operation; absolutely no way. Did they involve the Pakistani military establishment when they decided to go after Osama Bin Laden? The Pakistanis didn’t know. The American forces had taken the man out before the Pakistani government was made aware of it, and that is standard operational procedure. There is no way they (US) would have told Nigeria beforehand.

What is your reaction to the recent conviction of six Nigerians in the UAE for funding Boko Haram, especially when Nigeria has yet to make any major conviction in this regard and even granted amnesty to some members of the terrorist group?

Nigerians will continue to get to know more about this Boko Haram issue from whatever happens abroad, I think, as foreign governments decide that this terrorism issue is global and that stamping it out has to be global if it is going to be successful. That is about the only way; cut off the financial and weapons support to the Boko Haram insurgents. And we will then get to know more and more about who is financing Boko Haram, who is making weapons available to them. I am not sure you need to be a scholar to have come to the conclusion that there is no way a ragtag insurgent group would have taken on the Nigerian Army and succeeded in the theatre of operation for years unless they had this vast network of support, both internal and external. And I have said as much over the past seven years. I served on what I will call the Boko Haram committee under ex-President Jonathan and some of the information that was available to us did show how vast the network of Boko Haram support was.

The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it was exploring various options to help the defendants. Do you consider this a right step to take?

I don’t know what that means, whether that means that if Nigerians are involved in terrorist activities, Nigeria is under an obligation to protect them. I don’t believe that that is the intention. But then, I am not in the ministry, so I do not know exactly what they mean or what they want us to believe they mean.

What opportunities can a US presidency under a democrat bring to Nigeria?

I believe that the democrats are going to be more liberal on immigration. You know that Nigerians are queuing up to go to the US, whether they are professionals, traders or students. So, a more liberal immigration policy will benefit Nigeria.

How can Nigeria take advantage of the economic opportunities?

If Nigeria really wants more involvement of American investors in the Nigerian economy, it will be left to Nigeria to decide the kind of policies that will attract American investors. I expect that the Biden administration will not allow the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which was passed under former president George Bush to allow African goods to enter the US, to lapse. It may even increase its coverage. So, economically, Africa and Nigeria should benefit. I said ‘should’ because if foreign investors want to bring in their money, they will look at your economic and trade policies and see whether they will benefit them. It’s not going to be Father Christmas just bringing money and flaunting that money around.

What about financial aids?

When was the last time American foreign aid came into Nigeria? If it is from private quarters, like the Bill Gates Foundation, targeting health areas, yes. But economically, is America going to buy more of our oil, when they are producing and selling their oil in the international market?

Many saw the victory recorded by Nigerian-Americans in the US legislative elections as a win for the country. Will these victories translate to any significant advantage for Nigeria, in terms of protecting and projecting the socioeconomic interests of the country in policymaking by the US authorities?

No. First, they are too few. Only one won into the House of Representatives; all the others are at the state level and they will only be involved in local issues. And don’t forget that they got in there through election and they have their local constituencies to satisfy. They have to devout themselves to the local politics, not Nigerian issues which may be of no interest at all to their constituents.

The US was criticised for interfering in the re-election bid of the President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina; and is being blamed for the delay in the emergence of a former Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the Director General of the World Trade Organisation. Do you think the election of Biden will help Okonjo-Iweala become the DG?

She is running against a South Korean. South Korea has a more robust relationship with the US than Nigeria. South Korea is a strategic ally of the US in the way that Nigeria is not an ally of the country. I think these are the issues which the new administration, just like the outgoing one, will put on the table. America is a big trading nation and they will be interested in the vision for the WTO in American trading area. So, they probably have nothing against Nigeria or Okonjo-Iweala as such. I think it is just a strategic assessment of interest.

And this may influence who will emerge in the end?

Yes.

Nigeria currently has an activism policy, with its interest in intercontinental and global politics through the AfDB and the WTO. Do you think the country needs a review of its policy in dealing with world powers to reposition itself better?

If you want to do what I will call an electoral analysis paradigm – consider how Nigeria got its person, Adesina, as you said early on, in the AfDB, even though Dr Okonjo-Iweala has not got in yet – Nigeria succeeded in getting vast support for her globally. So, I think that Nigeria’s international involvement is not a bad one, if it has yielded such positive results. But Nigeria’s involvement, through the Economic Community of West African States, in Mali (and it’s probably going to be involved in Côte d’Ivoire and in Guinea) probably shows that the Americans and Europeans are basically happy for the role of Nigeria as a regional power.

Foreign policy is designed as a response to issues. There are some issues you can predict. I don’t think that there are issues that have arisen on the African continent where Nigeria has behaved in a negative way. On environmental issues, Nigeria behaved positively. Nigerian troops and police still continue to get commendations for their involvement, either under the African Union umbrella or the United Nations umbrella. I know the policies are rather low-keyed but I think one has to separate the mode of delivery of the policy from the policy itself. Obviously, the policies we are pursuing are satisfactory. Don’t forget we have a Nigerian as the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, and from what I understand, she is performing creditably well.

Source: Punch

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