Tough talk, candor and resilience are admired in my country. The president is perceived to have these traits.
By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani . The Washington Post
President Trump doesn’t want Africans flooding into his country. But let’s be honest. Who really does? Certainly not any other world leader of this era. Trump just happens to be the one bold or uncaring enough to say the quiet part out loud. He’s the rare white politician sparing us the trouble of deciphering what he might think. And Nigerians love him for it.
Nigerians are generally dismayed by his latest travel ban, which severely restricts immigration to the United States from our country and five others. The reason given for this collective punishment is our government’s failure to share certain relevant security information with the United States and international security agencies. But the ban is not likely to dent the prevailing attitude toward Trump here. The data has been consistent for the past three years, and the most recent survey, published by the Pew Research Center in January, shows that almost 6 in 10 Nigerians believe that Trump will “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”AD
My hairdresser, Yimi Kolo, a 37-year-old mother of four who speaks little English but listens almost all day to a radio station that transmits in pidgin English, told me last week that she just loves Trump for his toughness. He says what he is going to do, and he goes ahead and does it. Her opinion was unsolicited, inspired merely by the mention of Trump’s name on the radio while she was plaiting my hair. The perception of Trump as tough, no-nonsense, blunt, pro-religion and entertaining could be in part why a majority of people in this deeply religious and most populous country in Africa like him. Like a fire eater, he swallows every challenge that comes his way: Stormy Daniels, Russia, Ukraine, impeachment. Each time it appears as if he’s down, he rises, seemingly stronger. It’s like watching an action movie, or the best reality show Nigerians have ever seen — expressions of wonderment and wild laughter can be heard when people gather to discuss him.
Utterances that make Americans cringe don’t seem to faze. When he says or does something that Americans consider racist, I receive emails from American friends, most of whom proudly hate their president. They apologize on his behalf or express their embarrassment. And they expect that this will surely be the turning point, when Nigerians finally begin to join them in detesting Trump. “Hopefully his approval rating will go down over there,” wrote my novelist friend James Hannaham. “This guy, we gotta get rid of him. So toxic! So unbearable!” But the 45th president of the United States has so far not done or said anything that Nigerians have not been able to rationalize. Not yet. Not even the travel ban.
Trump once described African nations as “shithole” countries. Many Africans agree. Ask the multitudes risking death by drowning to escape to Europe. In 2017, the bodies of 26 Nigerian young women and girls were recovered from the Mediterranean Sea, following their attempt to reach Europe in a rubber boat. Out of 181,000 migrants who arrived by sea in Italy from Libya in 2016, about 11,000 women and 3,000 children traveling alone were from Nigeria, according to the United Nations. In 2015, the European Union agreed to a nearly 2 billion-euro trust fund for African countries to help stop migrants from reaching Europe. “EU development aid is increasingly being spent to close borders, stifle migration and push for returns of migrants to Africa,” according to a report published by Oxfam in January. “European governments seem determined to prevent migration at any cost,” said Raphael Shilhav, who wrote the report. Trump is giving voice to a sentiment apparently shared silently by others.AD
Nigerians have never been under any illusion about the world wanting to welcome random Africans with wide-open arms, but that has not stopped us from dreaming and trying anyway. In a 2018 Pew survey, 45 percent of Nigerian adults said they planned to move to another country in the next five years — the highest percentage of any nation surveyed. On reporting trips between 2016 and 2018 to Edo state in the south, the origin of most Nigerians crossing the Mediterranean, I came across villages where the majority of the youth had left for Europe, and the people who remained were mostly elderly. I saw advertisements for church services proclaiming themes like “Abroad Must Favour My Family This Year!!!” Across Nigeria, religious meetings offer special prayers to influence the hearts of consular officials. Those seeking divine intervention in their migration plans or visa applications are invited to attend.
In the past year, Nigerians I know have had cause to pray for God’s intervention, after acquiring a U.S. visa suddenly became a task more herculean than ever. People who have traveled freely to the United States for decades were suddenly being denied visas without explanation. Newspaper columns registered their shock and anger, and local media covered the alarming situation widely. Even securing an appointment at the U.S. Embassy has become difficult, with applicants sometimes waiting up to five months for a chance to be interviewed. I confess to having needed emergency prayers myself as I waited at the American Embassy in Abuja some months ago and watched as dozens ahead of me were denied visas by the consular officers sitting behind glass screens. After I stood for three hours in a queue that snaked all the way out of the building, my tourist visa was successfully renewed.
International media reports on the travel ban have described Nigeria with glittering phrases: It’s “Africa’s largest economy” with a “booming tech ecosystem,” whose migrants are “among the most educated and successful immigrants in the United States.” But it is also a greatly diverse country that has produced the Boko Haram terrorist group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and now parades as its West Africa arm; the “Underwear Bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a flight headed to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009; and the crowds that poured into the streets of northern Nigeria (a mostly Muslim region) to celebrate the attacks on the twin towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. I was chatting with a group of people in Abuja recently, and every one of us agreed that it would be unwise for Trump to pretend that threats from northern Nigeria don’t exist. He needs to protect Americans from Nigerians whom even we Nigerians need to be protected from.AD
But Trump would surely have been accused of amplifying the fissures in our country if he had banned travelers from only a particular region, we conceded. And so we all must suffer for the transgressions of some.
Most local frustrations about the travel ban are directed at the government of Muhammadu Buhari, rather than at Trump. Multiple local media reports have said that the Trump administration tried for more than a year to work with the Nigerian government to upgrade our country’s information-sharing procedures and avoid the ban. But Nigeria failed to meet the minimum security requirements for verifying travelers’ identities and singling out those who may pose a national security threat. “The current Nigerian administration may have its deficiencies and deep faults,” said Atiku Abubakar, an opposition leader and former presidential candidate, in an open appeal to the United States on Twitter, “but the Nigeria people ought not to be punished for their inefficiencies.”
As soon as the ban was announced, quick action replaced lethargy. Buhari immediately set up a committee to “study and address” the security requirements that will get Nigeria off the list. In a meeting with the U.S. State Department this past week, Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, promised that the government would soon complete the process of making information on criminal history, links to terrorism, stolen passports and the like available to Interpol and other relevant international agencies. It’s frightening to think that none of this was being done before now. Nigerians’ romance with Trump may end someday, but not over this travel ban, not when it is so difficult to prove beyond any doubt that Trump’s motive was simply bigotry and malice.AD
During the 2016 presidential election, a prominent Nigerian politician tweeted that it would be good if Trump won because America would become too busy dealing with him and his drama to poke its nose into other countries’ affairs. That joke went viral in Nigeria. Perhaps that is another reason Nigerians love Trump: With all the outlandishness his presidency has unleashed, he has shown that America isn’t some ideal place where leaders and the media and the opposition always conduct themselves with decorum. He has exposed the “African” in all of you.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a Nigerian writer and journalist based in Abuja. Her debut novel, “I Do Not Come to You by Chance,” was named a best book of 2009 by The Washington Post. Her latest novel is “Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.
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Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a Nigerian writer and journalist based in Abuja. Her debut novel, “I Do Not Come to You by Chance,” was named a best book of 2009 by The Washington Post. Her latest novel is “Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.”