UNITED States (U.S.) Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken has given an insight into the likely outcome of today’s talk between President Muhammadu Buhari and his host President Barack Obama in Washington DC.
Blinken said the meeting of the two leaders offered an opportunity for Nigerian and the U.S. not only to renew but to deepen their relationship.
The U.S. specifically said the removal of all Service chiefs and the National Security Adviser (NSA) appointed by former President Goodluck Jonathan on July 13 cleared the way for more military cooperation.
“The question is, would there be an opportunity to deepen our engagement and that opportunity is now,” Blinken told Reuters.
At today’s talk, the U.S. will offer to help President Buhari in tracking the billions of dollars in stolen assets and in raising U.S. military assistance to fight Boko Haram militants, U.S. officials said.
President Buhari’s four-day visit has been viewed as an opportunity for Washington to “reset” its ties with Nigeria’s economy, arguably Africa’s largest.
The visit is viewed by the U.S. administration as a chance to set the seal on improving ties since Buhari won the March 28 presidential election, Reuters said.
U.S. cooperation with Buhari’s predecessor, Dr. Jonathan, went sour over among other issues, his refusal to investigate corruption and human rights abuses by the military.
“President (Barack Obama) has long seen Nigeria as arguably the most important strategic country in sub-Saharan Africa,” Blinken said.
U.S. officials have expressed willingness to send military trainers to help Nigeria counter the six-year-old Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast.
Since Buhari’s election, Washington has committed $5 million in new support for a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) set up to fight the group.
This is in addition to at least $34 million it is providing to Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger for equipment and logistics.
“We’ve made clear there are additional things that can be done, especially now that there is a new military leadership in place,” a senior U.S. official said.
Another senior U.S. official said Washington was urging President Buhari to step up regional cooperation against the militants and to provide more aid to afflicted communities to reduce the group’s recruiting power.
Buhari had listed the strengthening of the economy – hard-hit by the fall in oil prices-, boosting of investments and tackling “the biggest monster of all” – corruption as his priorities.
“Here too, he is looking to deepen collaboration and one of the things he is focused on is asset recovery,” the official said.
“He is hopeful we can help them recover some of that,” the official added.
In 2014, the U.S. took control of more than $480 million public funds siphoned during the administration of the late Gen. Sani Abacha.
Washington has broad powers to track suspicious funds and enforce sanctions against individuals.
Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state, said Washington should not let security issues overshadow the need for closer trade and investment ties.
“Nigeria is the most important country in Africa,” said Carson, currently an adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Now more than ever, “the relationship with Nigeria should not rest essentially on a security and military-to-military relationship,” he added.
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, an Africa specialist with the non-partisan Congressional Research Services, said the U.S. challenge was to work with President Buhari while giving him time to address the country’s vast problems.