Tag Archives: America

Flattered Trump achieves little in Asia

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Donald Trump, the American president, concludes his 5-country Asian trip in The Philippines today (14 November). Heralding his arrival in Beijing a week earlier – his third stop after earlier ones in Japan and South Korea – was a reminder of China’s trade surplus with America, data for which came out at US$26.6 billion for October; about US$223 billion thus far this year. And if he thought his trip would make China buy at least as much American goods and services as go the other way, he was a tad disappointed. Of course, there was much pomp about the US$253.4 billion in deals signed between the two delegations. But much of these were not substantive. And some were actually just old deals. The extent of the divergence in the views of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and President Trump, would become writ large in Da Nang, Vietnam, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where they both headed afterwards. They provided sharply contrasting visions on trade in their speeches to the gathering of Asian-Pacific leaders. While President Xi espoused multilateralism, openness, and globalisation, Mr Trump was unapologetically insular in his views. Brief incidental interactions with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at the APEC summit, in place of a much anticipated formal meeting, did not yield much either. Because even though the Kremlin published a joint statement on the crisis in Syria, there was not much there that was new; a missed opportunity. It did not help of course that the controversy over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential elections would not just go away; no doubt made worse by Mr Trump’s equivocation on the matter. In fact, what little progress that was made during his time in Asia was actually on matters antithetical to his agenda. A deal was reached by the 11 countries remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement he ditched, for instance; albeit there were a few hiccups here and there before that came about.

Playground rhetoric
Mr Trump came out a little bruised on the North Korean matter as well. After initially striking a somewhat conciliatory tone towards the communist regime, urging it to do a deal over its nuclear weapons programme, he adopted an aggressive posture shortly afterwards in his address to the South Korean legislature; defiantly telling the volatile man up north not to test America’s might. Unsurprisingly, the North Korean regime replied with insults, calling Mr Trump an ‘old lunatic’, ‘warmonger’ and ‘dotard.’ Not one to take such expletives lying down, the American president threw back a few of his own, suggestively referring to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as ‘short’ and ‘fat’. Even so, if there is a slight chance of some deal with the communist regime, Mr Trump’s unusual style probably makes him best-placed to make it happen. China remains crucial to any potential progress, however. Unfortunately, they did not offer more than they already had on the matter.

Flatter to naught
The Japanese were more gracious at least; they imposed additional unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Not that this could necessarily be attributed to Mr Trump’s powers of persuasion: North Korea fired missiles over Japan in mid-September. And this was despite Mr Trump’s taunts at prime minister Shinzo Abe: He went on unabashedly about how the Japanese were inferior to Americans and wondered aloud why the Japanese did not shoot down the North Korean missile, suggesting how if they had American-made weapons, they would have been able to do so easily. (The Japanese are officially pacifist but have a military for self-defense purposes.) Little wonder then his Japanese trip turned out to be a failure somewhat. He did not get much from them on trade; a major issue for him. (Like China, Japan also maintains trade surpluses with America; albeit at 9 percent of the total American trade deficit, it pales in comparison to China’s 47 percent.) As if to buttress the point, the Japanese ruled out a potential Free Trade agreement (FTA) with the Americans, Mr Trump’s preferred route to dealing with trade imbalances. Instead, Japan led the effort to ensure a deal was reached on the so-called TPP-11. The Asians were all smiles but gave him little.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/flattered-trump-achieves-little-asia/

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G20 v Africa: Still same old tokenism

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Evidence that America’s stature has diminished under the leadership of the erratic incumbent, Donald Trump, was writ large at this year’s heads of state meeting of the group of 20 major world economies (G20) in Hamburg, Germany. (Together, they constitute more than 80 percent of global economic output.) Mr Trump was a sorry sight to say the least, isolated consipicously from other leaders, with less seeming ones like Russia’s for instance, far more at ease. Even as world leaders are beginning to learn how to work around or without Mr Trump, America’s divergence from the other 19 members (and indeed the world) on hard-fought global consensus on trade and climate change is going to cost everyone. In contrast, Mr Trump very happily obliged four African countries US$639 million in food and other humanitarian assistance. Almost 20 percent of the funds would go to Nigeria to deal with the desperate situation in the northeast. When summed with earlier declared aid, the total American pledged assistance for Africa in the 2017 fiscal year comes to about US$1.8 billion. When proposed Trump aid cuts to United Nations’ African peacekeeping operations and the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), a major funder of crucial family planning programmes on the continent, and the closure of some African-focused government agencies (like the US African Development Foundation), and so on, are considered, the announced American aid at the G20 summit rings hollow somewhat. The South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose country is the only African member of the G20, shed more light on the African gains from the summit. They were mostly related to aiding youth and women development. One initiative aims to create 1.1 million new jobs by 2022, with a skills programme for more than 5 million youths over the period. Another would finance women entrepreneurs and boost the technological savvy of girls. With one-third of Africa’s 420 million youths unemployed and another third in vulnerable employment, these initiatives would barely scratch the surface of the problem. Agriculture and labour-intensive manufacturing remain the most viable way to create jobs. Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, already recognises the urgency and opportunity, and has announced plans to invest US$4.6 billion in the Nigerian Agricultural setor. The level of his commitment is a good way to assess the relative pittance of such nonsensical assistance like the announced American one. Quite frankly, until the world’s advanced economies genuinely desire that African countries succeed, their initiatives would continue to fall short.

Self-interested intentions
Still, much credit must be given to the German presidency of the G20 this year, which tried against daunting odds to focus on African issues. Considering myriad tensions among members over more pressing issues, German Chancellor Angela Merkel must be applauded that Africa managed to feature as prominently as it did. Unfortunately, it did not seem like her colleagues, Mr Trump for instance, shared her vision that what Africa needs is not more aid but partnerships. Of course, the symbolism of German city, Berlin, being were the fabled “scramble for Africa” was decided adds a tinge of irony to her advocacy. With illegal African immigration to Europe continuing unabated, there is a recognition that should Europe and other developed economies not do their utmost to make living in Africa more palatable for the continent’s youths, there is not much that can be done to stem the tide. It makes sense then that the focus of the G20 German presidency’s African initiatives were on youth and women. Simpler but more far-reaching moves could have been made, however. The advocacy made by Nigeria’s acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, ahead of the summit, did not receive the much deserved attention, for instance. Prof Osinbajo thought to reiterate how often these summits end with nice pledges for African countries but hardly translate into concrete action. Aptly titled “It’s time to move beyond pledges to back Africa’s future”, Prof Osinbajo was primarily interested in what the G20 would do to ensure information about beneficial owners of secretive companies and trusts used to hide illicit wealth is made public. Corruption investigations by African governments on the trail of treasury looters who have stashed their ill-gotten wealth in Europe and elsewhere would continue to prove difficult otherwise. Of course, it is probably foolhardy to expect these advanced economies would simply block at least US$50 billion in financial inflows, though illicit, from African countries. Fortunately, there is much more African countries can do to recover the significant portion of stolen public funds within their borders.

Holier than thou
In the Nigerian case, for instance, the authorities have recorded greater success in recovering looted funds locally. A whistle-blowing policy, increasinlgy a double-edged sword, also proved to be helpful initially. With whistleblowers now realising that the government’s protective measures for them underwhelm in the face of greater resources in the hands of beneficiaries of corruption, the initial momentum has begun to slow somewhat. If Nigeria, which is in dire need of funds for its ambitious budget this year and later on, hopes to secure greater recoveries in the quickest time and lowest cost possible, there needs to be a wiser approach. Just this week, for instance, finance minister Kemi Adeosun announced the country could not borrow any further this year, asserting that needed funds for the 2017 budget would have to be sourced internally. The recent tax amnesty executive order for those who either are currently not within the tax net or have underreported their assets hitherto, which the government hopes would bring at least US$1 billion in additional revenue, is a little step in this direction. It is highly unlikely, however, that treasury looters that have thus far managed to escape the long hands of the law, would be willing to take the risk of disclosing their ill-gotten wealth. The only way this set of thieves would be willing to confess their sins is if they are assured of amnesty backed by law. So those who have been railing against the proposed economic amnesty bill in the Nigerian lower legislature should think again. Most are hypocrites, anyway, barely cringing when similar initiatives were proposed for people who committed murders and destroyed crucial infrastructure because it bordered on their personal security. If Truth and Reconciliation commissions can be instituted to grant amnesty to people who committed genocide in exchange for their confessions, what is the difficulty in an arrangement that allows us recover our stolen wealth from these shameless thieves in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. If it is made time-bound, and the tax on the declared stolen wealth set very high, 90 percent, say, would it be so bad an outcome? To be effective though, the law should be in tandem with blocking the loopholes that allowed the pilferage to occur in the first place. During the Goodluck Jonathan presidency, central bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi claimed at least US$20 billion had been stolen, a move that cost him his job. Now Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi II has been vindicated. Of course, that was just the hole he could see. Much more was pilfered. But tell me, how much of that has been or would ever be recovered? About half thus far; US$9.1 billion in assets and funds. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates Nigeria’s stolen wealth almost forty years since independence to 1999, when the country embarked on its most recent democratic experiment, at about US$600 billion. Another USD$125 billion is believed to have been embezzled since 1999. The sum, US$725 billion, is almost twice of the size of Nigeria’s economy in 2016 of about US$406 billion. There is no way a punitive approach would succeed in recovering even a quarter of that. Unless we start taking pragmatic approaches to solving our problems, we will continue to flounder.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column (13 July 2017). See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/07/13/g20-vs-africa-still-same-old-tokenism-by-rafiq-raji/

Can Africa win Trump over?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

In mid-May, at the Africa Finance Corporation’s 10th year anniversary infrastructure summit (“AFC Live 2017”) held in Abuja, I asked Jay Ireland, the president and chief executive of GE Africa – the subsidiary of the American industrial giant on the continent – about his thoughts on whether Donald Trump, the American president, would be good or bad for Africa. Specifically, I wanted to know if President Trump would be worth the trouble of winning over. As Mr Trump does not know much about Africa, if the little mention the continent got during his election campaign is anything to go by, engaging with him early on might spring pleasant surprises, some pundits argue. Despite such assurances, I remained a little sceptical. So the opportunity to ask Mr Ireland, who incidentally is also the chair of former President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa and co-chair of the US Africa Business Centre, which leads the American business community’s engagement activities on the continent, was huge. In a sign of the times and the peculiar style of the current American president, Mr Ireland demurred, humorously wondering if his answer might not become the “subject of a tweet.” More importantly, he said a strong case was being made to the Trump administration to continue ongoing initiatives. I was particulary interested in the “Power Africa” programme initiated during the Obama administration; especially since even during Mr Obama’s tenure, it was floundering, talk less that of Mr Trump. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), is not as vulnerable to a Trump rethink, albeit the administration could still exercise certain prerogatives over the choice of beneficiary countries and so on. My interpretation of Mr Ireland’s comments are as follows: Should Africa indeed not be a priority for Mr Trump, ongoing African initiatives may simply continue under the aegis of able and experienced technocrats at the American State department. And in the event Mr Trump suddenly develops a keen interest on African issues, proactive engagement with the administration like his and the business people he represents may be hugely differential. It has also been argued that African heads of state should do likewise.

Focus on first-order issues
In light of the recent exit from the Paris climate accord by Mr Trump, however, some are now beginning to think whether there is a need to even try. I would not be too quick to give up. True, with African countries already beginning to see the negative effects of climate change via droughts and so on, the recent American action is a setback. And of course, African countries initially had their own reservations about the accord. Not a few wondered why they should have to be environment-friendly at the expense of their development; especially as currently developed countries were not similarly cautious. But with research showing a nexus between climate change and increasing incidents of conflict in a number of African countries, there is a growing consensus about the need to be more caring of the Earth we live in. Still, to do this, African countries would require financial and technological support. To this end, the Paris agreement makes substantial provisions. With the American exit, however, also goes its financial commitments. It is also evidence that a Trump presidency would (at least for now) have second-order negative effects for Africa when the issues relate to broader international and multilateral arrangements that Mr Trump is averse to. So it is on the more specific African initiatives that African leaders should hope to influence him on.

Show respect
At the recent G7 summit in Italy, it was all too clear Mr Trump was not enjoying himself. He was particularly irritated by Emmanuel Macron’s (the French president) “macho-diplomacy”: Mr Macron’s overly firm and lingering handshake with Mr Trump at their very first meeting since the former’s inauguration was well-reported. As if determined to rattle the American president or put him to size, Mr Macron also made sure to refer to the incident afterwards as deliberate. That and another, where Mr Macron seem to be moving towards Mr Trump to shake hands, as the G7 leaders and invited guests did their traditional group-walk in front of the press, but at almost the last minute swerved to shake that of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, must have been a little unnerving for a man known for his fragile ego. Thus, it is very likely that unpleasant experience was at least a secondary motivation for his action on the Paris accord. In his speech announcing the decision, Mr Trump was almost certainly taking aim at Mr Macron when he said: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” (The Washington Post did a very insightful article on the dynamics leading to Mr Trump’s decision.) At the G7 summit it turns out, one of few instances where Mr Trump seemed to be enjoying himself was when he ran into some of the African delegates: Yemi Osinbajo (Nigeria), Alpha Conde (Guinea), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Hailemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia) and Akinwumi Adesina (African Development Bank). With deft handling, Mr Trump could become an ally.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/can-africa-win-trump/

Itinerant Nigerians

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

It is almost always true that when abroad and you sight a black man, it is well worth taking the risk that the person is Nigerian. You’d be surer if in response to polite entreaties, the passerby is deliberately snubbish. It depends on the setting though. Wait long enough, there would soon be the occasional irritation, the response to which would almost definitely confirm his origins. One out of every five blacks on planet earth is Nigerian. And no matter how much he feigns the perfect British or American accent, his archetypal Nigerian mannerisms are hard to conceal. Some argue we travel a lot because of our chaotic situation back home. Not necessarily. Yes, a lot seek the good life. Most are just curious. But a lot really travel just to show off. Take away the pictures of them at popular foreign landmarks, showing how ‘they are enjoying life,” some Nigerians might consider the trips a waste of money. Even the uber wealthy ones want to show how much ‘jollofing’ they are doing, posting pictures of themselves in their first or business class plane cabins or seats on social media. And these are the ‘small boys’. Big boys fly their private jets, with our stolen foreign exchange neatly tucked in their luggage it turns out – pictures of their vanity never include those for sure. You’d think with that much wealth they wouldn’t need the phony gratifications that soon pour afterwards. Nigerians are very curious and vain cats. We want to know: Where is it? What is it? What do they do there? Who runs things? (That curiosity, unfortunately, has not extended to science, innovation and progress. And it is not because of a lack of capacity for hard work. We are rarely slothful. In that vanity that we all seem to share perhaps lie the answer to our continued suffering, well-hidden under forced but outwardly believable smiles.)

Act, not bicker
So, imagine the anxiety of itinerant Nigerians when the nightmarish campaign promises of now American president, Donald Trump – especially on immigration – began to become reality. In the typical Nigerian fashion, our officials – when they are not busy behaving like we don’t exist – took to bickering over jurisdiction. The presidential adviser (‘senior special assistant’) on foreign affairs and the diaspora, the ever dynamic Abike Dabiri-Erewa – whose long-earned reputation for candour and palpable compassion from her days as a government-employed journalist is well-known – in her characteristic way, took to her first constituency, the media, advising Nigerians to re-consider non-essential travel to America, after a number of Nigerians were detained upon arrival at American airports and subsequently returned; even as they had valid visas.

You would think the Nigerian foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, a meek personality, would be a little pleased. He was not amused. Ordinarily, there is usually a power-play of sorts between presidential advisers and ministers. In most cases, the advisers prevail; because they often have the mandate of the chief of staff, who functionally acts for the president in most administrations. One does not know if Mrs Dabiri-Erewa consulted Mr Onyeama before going on air about her concerns. Bear in mind, the American incidents came not too long after the most recent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians by South Africans. Considering how slow the wheel of governance turns in the public service, I would not be surprised at all if what actually transpired was that the no-nonsense Mrs Dabiri-Erewa finally lost her patience. And quite frankly, she is a more credible figure. After spending an entire career exposing untruths, advice coming from her is instantly credible. By his own admission to a local radio station, Mr Onyeama did not have a conference with her before his ministry issued a counter-advisory asking Nigerians to ignore her advice. The stakes are much too high for such pettiness. Mr Onyeama is a gentleman. But leadership requires dynamism as well.

Between getting an American visa, purchasing a ticket and so on, a Nigerian would have parted with at least a million naira (more than US$3,000), never mind the unbelievable stress in between. And upon getting to the American airport, the Nigerian typically has to endure myriad questions by security officials. With the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance, however, this scrutiny has taken on gargantuan proportions. So is the Nigerian better served by being told to travel only just to be served the bitterness of the many indignities Africans tend to endure at foreign airports? Or is it better to wait till one is sure all that toil ahead of the trip would not come to naught at just the time when one was beginning to sing praises? Surely it makes more sense for Mr Onyeama to focus on addressing the latter concern.

Give more than hope
There are numerous tales of woe by Nigerians, who upon reaching a foreign airport, are made to go through all sorts of screening. And this scrutiny is even more enhanced in Asian airports. Some candour here though. It is said Asians have difficulty differentiating African faces, hence why if you land in a Chinese airport, say, they single out Africans for more ‘enlightening’ pictures. At least that was my experience at the Shanghai airport some years back. Most Nigerians would ordinarily bear this (not that we are left with much of a choice) – as did I – if at the end of it all, with their documents deemed valid, they are allowed to go about their legitimate business. The uncertainty that comes with the possibility that even after all these, one may be ‘returned’ is hard to imagine.

Could it be that Mr Onyeama, a blue-passported minister, has so soon forgotten the experience of what it feels like to be a Nigerian abroad? Perhaps it is true then that not until our leaders compulsorily experience our daily challenges, they might not be more sensitive to our plight: our undeservedly pampered government officials must now ply the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, after the forced closure of the Abuja international airport for repairs. Needless to say, the road has become virtually anew overnight. Regardless of what motivates Mrs Dabiri-Erewa, the passion with which she does her duty is refreshing. Undeterred, she gave South African politicians covertly encouraging xenophobic attacks against Nigerians a piece of her mind only this past weekend. Stars just shine. Those who can’t bear the glare should shut their eyes.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/itinerant-nigerians/

Reflections on Obama (1): Caution as courage

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

As the sun sets on Barack Obama’s presidency, questions are already being raised about what he really achieved. Never mind that there might not be another black American president for a very long time to come. Over the course of the year, I hope to reflect on his decisions and what motivated them in the hope that there might be lessons for those of us who seek success in leadership amid vicious opposition. When President Obama took over the American presidency in 2009, the country was in a recession and mired in two messy wars. He leaves office amid a resurgent economy and more manageable military engagements around the World.

At one point during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party flagbearer, hugged each other warmly in front of the press. It was a most genuine moment of affection. About eight years earlier, Mrs Clinton gave Mr Obama much grief, as they fought for their party’s nomination. To put it bluntly, she barely hid her racism. And it is opined that Bill Clinton, her husband, never got over her defeat by ‘Barack’. The conclusion I came to was that perhaps it finally dawned on her, as she now faced another type of discrimination, sexism in her case, how much hurt she must have inflicted back when they were competitors. Mr Obama’s magnanimity (or sagacity) in not only appointing her to perhaps the most influential appointed office in the American government, but also in allowing her ample room to succeed, may have also taken on a greater significance.

Naturally, John Kerry, another competitor, would be a natural replacement when Mrs Clinton needed to go prepare for what then seemed like a sure – her best chance certainly – shot at the presidency. There is probably a much comprehensive contrast to be made about the Obama-Clinton relationship, especially within the context of one of the most vicious presidential campaigns in US history. That Mr Obama let go of his legendary calm to campaign in the most emotional way (we’ve ever seen of him) for Mrs Clinton makes one wonder whether what motivated him was his angst at Donald Trump, the foul-mouthed Republican Party flagbearer, who was also a stone in his shoe, or empathy for Mrs Clinton, a woman trying to break the highest glass ceiling in the land, or both. I do not want to focus overmuch on that at the moment. I am more interested in those pivotal decisions that shaped his presidency for better and some might say, for worse.

Mr Obama would hardly enjoy a quiet retirement. Efforts are already afoot to unravel his signature health insurance policy, ‘Obamacare’. And by who else but those ardent foes of his: the Republicans – they gave him much grief. But for this inaugural piece, I want to focus on the dynamics behind what is now widely argued to be his biggest foreign policy mis-step. That is, choosing not to order air strikes against Syrian targets after evidence emerged that Bashir Al-Assad, the embattled (and now resurgent) Syrian president, used chemical weapons against his own people. In my view, it was perhaps the most difficult decision of his presidency. And his albatross.

Even a symbolic airstrike in Syria would have been better than the public humiliation of allowing America’s bluff to be called, some argue. And to add insult to injury, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, another Obama foe, would do just that afterwards. As a human being, especially considering how many lives were lost to America’s inaction, Mr Obama must have been enraged. It is a testimony to the strength of his character that he did not seek to regain the initiative. Otherwise, Syria could have been for Mr Obama what Iraq became for George W. Bush, the 43rd American president.

Would President Bush have called off the Iraq war if evidence of chemical weapons (and others of mass destruction) was not found just as he was about to give the order? As it turns out, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have chemical weapons. And the jury is still out as to whether Mr Bush knew this before giving the order for attacks to commence. American presidents wield so much power that it takes a man of great courage and respect to carry it lightly. And in Mr Obama’s case, the easy thing would have been to order the Syrian airstrikes. By choosing not to, Mr Obama was well aware he would have to endure taunts of timidity long afterwards. President-elect Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is in part a rebuke of Mr Obama’s caution. Incidentally, what Mr Trump may soon learn is that power is best wielded lightly: it is the perception of power that is more effective. The moment you allow adversaries test your supposed clout overmuch, as Mr Bush did in Iraq, you become vulnerable. True, they might find that indeed you are as powerful as you say. But having put a finger in your nose, they no longer fear you. And after a while, they find weaknesses they can exploit. The Iraq war proved to be humbling for America. There is also a sense I get that Mr Obama did not want the first black American president to leave a mess. And as far as achievements go, Mr Obama turned out to be a pair of safe hands indeed. Some argue otherwise: they say the World is a more dangerous place because of Mr Obama’s caution. Time will tell.

It is probable Mr Obama’s enduring legacy would be in his being, having made nonsense of myths about the limits of black achievement in American society. Even the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him came before he ever achieved anything of significance. He got the prize before the deed: America didn’t start any new major war, a conventional one at least, under his watch. Addressing the military during their farewell tribute to him, Mr Obama, in that ever sing-song tone of his, put his doctrine succinctly: military action “should be compelled by the needs of our security, not our politics.” After a likely turbulent Trump presidency, Americans may come to see the wisdom in those words.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/reflections-obama-1-caution-courage/