The recently concluded presidential elections in Nigeria have captured the attention of London and Washington. As Africa’s largest economy and projected to be the world’s third most populous country by 2045, Nigeria holds significant strategic interests for both the UK and the US.
However, these interests are threatened by the country’s kleptocratic ruling class, which has shown tolerance and complicity in democratic backsliding, widespread corruption, and gross human rights violations. The new administration faces a host of challenges, from underdevelopment and insecurity to fiscal pressures and poor governance, which were largely unaddressed during outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure.
In recent years, the UK and US seem to have shied away from focusing on democracy and governance in their bilateral engagement with Nigeria. Instead, they have deepened their connections with the country’s heavily corrupt military, while doing little to deter Nigerian kleptocrats from spending ill-gotten wealth in London, New York, and elsewhere. They have also attempted to minimize fallout from contentious episodes like the #EndSARS protests, the Twitter ban, and the Nigerian army’s forced abortion program.
When confronted with contentious issues, London and Washington’s reactions follow a predictable pattern. Their calls for accountability and reform are met with pushback from the Nigerian government, leading to muted public criticism and private entreaties to like-minded Nigerian officials. Eventually, bilateral relations return to business as usual without sufficient follow-up or meaningful progress.
A notable example of this cycle is the response to the killing of unarmed #EndSARS protesters by Nigerian soldiers in October 2020. The US Embassy remained silent for over a year until a judicial panel of inquiry report prompted a delayed and cautious call for addressing the alleged abuses. However, this call did not lead to substantial follow-up or a reassessment of military cooperation. Instead, the US intensified security assistance by agreeing to sell $1 billion in attack helicopters to Abuja.
Similarly, UK policymakers expanded their Defence and Security Partnership with Abuja a few months after the inquiry report, despite repeated failures by Nigerian officials to uphold promises regarding human rights and civilian protection.
To improve their relations with Nigeria, US and UK policymakers should move beyond seeking quick wins such as photo ops, arms sales, and trade deals. Instead, they should prioritize Nigeria’s perennial democracy and governance challenges and maintain a consistent stance on human rights and corruption. Articulating clear red lines and avoiding short-term gains at the expense of long-term progress will be crucial in resetting their engagement with Nigeria during its presidential transition.