The Trump administration provoked another international outcry when it announced late last month that it was adding six new countries to its list of nations that face broad travel restrictions to the United States: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.
The inclusion of Nigeria, generated immediate outrage among many observers. But the reaction from the Nigerian government was more muted than expected.
While Eritrea’s foreign minister, for example, said the ban was “unacceptable,” his Nigerian counterpart merely said he was “disappointed.” Nigerian authorities may be calculating that a soft touch with the Trump administration will prove more effective in getting the travel ban lifted than a defiant display of disapproval.
Stressing his desire for “productive relations” with the U.S., President Muhammadu Buhari said Nigeria would address the security issues that the Trump administration claimed as justification for the new travel restrictions. Last week, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama led a Nigerian delegation to Washington for a meeting of the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission, which the State Department bills as “the premiere platform of engagement” to expand cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria. After meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Onyeama told reporters that Nigeria was “somewhat blindsided” by the travel ban announcement. But he added that it was “very gratifying” to speak with Pompeo directly “and to understand more clearly the reasoning.” Neither Buhari nor Onyeama seemed to want to add to the tensions generated by the travel ban.
The Trump administration’s justification—that Nigeria is not adequately sharing public safety-related information with U.S. authorities, and that it “presents a high risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States”—is dubious. Certainly, the violent jihadist group Boko Haram is an abiding menace in Nigeria, but it shows virtually no sign of trying to reach or threaten the U.S. Washington has been providing military assistance to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram for years, so U.S. officials have a clear picture of the security situation in the country and the reality of Boko Haram’s capabilities.
Nigeria has other problems to contend with, most of all widespread poverty and corruption. But from what is publicly known about Trump’s thinking on Nigeria, it is not unreasonable to suspect this decision was made with something else in mind: prejudice. Alongside his infamous comment about “shithole countries” in Africa and the Caribbean, Trump reportedly complained in a June 2017 Oval Office meeting that 40,000 Nigerians had received U.S. visas that year and that they would not “go back to their huts.”
Nigeria also has the fifth-largest Muslim population in the world. So it is hard to escape the conclusion that the administration’s decision to restrict travelers from Nigeria is not about stated security concerns, but instead about Trump’s original justification for the travel ban: his campaign call to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.
Nigerian authorities may be calculating that a soft touch with the Trump administration will prove more effective in getting the travel ban lifted than a defiant display of disapproval.
However it is justified by the administration, barring Nigerians from traveling to the U.S. will be counterproductive. Nigeria may be associated in many Americans’ minds with terrorists kidnapping young girls and internet scammers posing as temporarily inconvenienced princes, yet the Nigerian diaspora in the U.S. is actually much more educated than the American population as a whole. A 2015 study found that of the estimated 376,000 Nigerian immigrants in the U.S., 29 percent had an advanced degree, compared with 11 percent of the general population.
Then there is the demographic, economic and political weight of Nigeria itself. With nearly 200 million people and a GDP of almost $400 billion—the highest in Africa on both measures—Nigeria’s global importance is undeniable. Its population, which is set to double by 2050, may well overtake that of the U.S. sometime this century. Nigeria would seem to be an indispensable partner and even peer of America.
The most likely effect of the travel ban for Nigerians will be to impose a huge set of burdens on families. The ban will also have an economic impact, potentially disrupting the more than $6 billion in remittances that flow from the U.S. to Nigeria each year and obstructing numerous other forms of commerce and economic exchange. To make matters worse for Nigerians, the ban, which covers immigrant visas, comes on top of existing, de facto restrictions on their travel to the U.S. Nigeria had one of the highest denial rates of any country for short-term, non-immigrant U.S. visas in 2018, and last year the Trump administration raised fees for Nigerians’ visa applications.
Why, then, has the Nigerian government reacted with conciliation rather than condemnation? One reason may be that the Buhari administration is keen to preserve cooperation with the U.S. on other fronts. During his visit to Washington last week, Onyeama signed an agreement to facilitate the return of $308 million in frozen Nigerian assets, money that was initially stashed in American banks by former military dictator Sani Abacha, who ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. Buhari’s efforts to recover stolen assets from overseas has been one of his administration’s highest priorities and arguably the most successful initiative of his presidency.
Nigerian officials may also be betting that a patient and methodical approach to its relations with the Trump administration will pay off. There is no exact precedent for Nigeria’s inclusion in the travel ban, but a rough analogue could be the system of “enhanced screening” that was imposed on travelers to the U.S. after the failed Christmas Day bombing of 2009, in which al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula recruited a 23-year-old Nigerian man to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear on a flight to Detroit. The plot failed, and while the U.S. government subsequently mandated additional security protocols for travelers from Nigeria and 13 other countries, those measures lasted for only four months, from January until April 2010. The Buhari administration may calculate that the current measures are similarly just a passing storm, especially with Pompeo stating he is “optimistic” that Nigeria will take the steps deemed necessary by the Trump administration to get itself off the travel ban. Nigeria has ample reason to think that Washington is fickle—and that the Trump administration is particularly so—and all it has to do now is make a show of compliance.
In a more practical sense, Nigeria’s muted response to the travel ban listing may simply reflect the government’s lack of bandwidth. Throughout his presidency, Buhari has confronted a range of sometimes distinct and sometimes interlocking challenges. They currently include not only longstanding problems like poverty and insecurity, but now the threat of the Wuhan coronavirus spreading to Nigeria—something Buhari appears to take quite seriously even though no cases have yet been confirmed there. Policymakers in Abuja likely feel that this is the wrong time to be dragged into a war of words with Washington.
Alex Thurston is a visiting assistant professor of political science and comparative religion at Miami University in Ohio. He is the author of two books, “Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement” and “Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.” He holds a doctorate in Religious Studies from Northwestern University and a master’s in Arab Studies from Georgetown. Follow him on Twitter @sahelblo
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