The development of Nigeria-U.S. relations.

Author:Ayam, John A.


The emergence of Nigeria as an independent country in 1960 and its admission into the United Nations Organization (UN) signaled the beginning of the development of foreign policy positions on key issues of international significance. Nigeria-U.S. relations began within the context of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Interaction between the two countries in the 1960s was influenced by U.S. policy of containment and Nigeria's non-aligned posture. Containment had been used as a policy by the United States to stop the spread of communism. While communism did not gain any foothold in Nigeria, even at the height of Soviet support for the federal government during the civil war, the desires of both countries was for good and cordial relations. America's high level of development, technology and wealth, remain a source of assistance to Nigeria. In a similar vein, the United States has benefitted-and would continue to benefit-from friendly relations with Nigeria, a country that possesses a wealth of natural resources and the largest population in Africa.

With the end of the Cold War, the circumstances of Nigeria-U.S. relations have undergone significant transformation. Relations between the two countries have been dictated by the need for democratization in Nigeria, trade, the fight against the sale of illegal drugs, and peace keeping within Africa. In the specific case of peace keeping, the United States is increasingly becoming hesitant to deploy its military forces in Africa, especially after the fiasco in Somalia. This has paved the way for Nigerian peace-keeping forces to intervene in conflicts within the West African sub-region as the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone have shown.

A cogent point about Nigeria-U.S. relations is the fact that even when political and diplomatic relations were at their worst, economic relations seem to continue unhindered. Robert R. Shepard observed, in relation to the diplomatic conflict between Nigeria and the United States over the independence of Angola in 1975 that "political relations remained acrimonious while economic relations were left undisturbed by the two governments and continued to flourish." (1) Even at the height of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, when the United States selectively imposed sanctions on Nigeria, the sanctions, however, did not extend to other crucial aspects of the economy, such as trade in crude oil. Both countries have been hesitant in undertaking policies that could jeopardize their economic self-interests despite serious diplomatic and political disagreements.


The first officially recognized contact between Nigeria and the United States was when Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York represented President Eisenhower at Nigeria's independence ceremonies on October 1, 1960. U.S. policy towards Nigeria in the Cold War was guided by two key issues: (1) containment of communist expansion; and (2) the provision of aid and the strengthening of bilateral economic ties. Then U.S. President Eisenhower's message, for instance, assured Nigeria's leaders of U.S. support but cautioned on possible threats coming from without--an ostensible reference to the former Soviet Union. (2) But Nigeria's Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, did not wish his country's newly won sovereignty and independence to be dragged into the Cold War rivalry between the East and West. In his speech on the admission of Nigeria into the United Nations, the Prime Minister stated that the country, as a matter of policy, would not be a member of any power bloc. (3) Subsequently actions by Nigeria at the international level proved the country's relative neutrality. During the Congo crisis of 1963, Nigeria supported the work of the U.N. by providing troops to the peacekeeping efforts in that crisis-ridden county. Nigeria also demonstrated moderation when the Brazzaville and Casablanca groups emerged as options to a future Organization of African Unity (OAU). Nigeria, along with Sierra-Leone, Liberia and Togo called for a separate meeting in Lagos, whose moderate blueprint was subsequently adopted at Addis Ababa in 1963 as the Charter of the new OAU.

Much as the country professed political neutrality as far as East-West rivalry was concerned; it, nonetheless, was receptive of Western economic aid. (4) It was in this context that a five-man U.S. delegation visited Nigeria in June 1960 to study areas of possible economic cooperation. On the basis of the economic mission's recommendations, the United States announced that it would provide Nigeria with $225 million in economic development aid over five years. According to the U.S. State Department, "the primary interest of the U.S. in Nigeria is to see it grow and prosper, within the Free World, as a leader and good example for other African countries." (5) Although the U.S. share of trade and investments in Nigeria during the early years of independence was small compared to Britain's, these bilaterial ties were to sow the seeds of future economic relations. On the whole, diplomatic relations between Nigeria and the United States remained generally amicable.

By January 15, 1966, a military coup had overthrown the government of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and a gradual, though clearly discernible slide toward disunity and civil war was imminent. General Ironsi's military administration which lasted a mere six months had itself been overthrown in a counter coup leading to the emergence of Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon as Head of State, who was not recognized by Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu of the Eastern region. The outbreak of war in 1967 did not initially mean much to the United States because the Vietnam War was on and Israel had launched a pre-emptive air strike on Arab capitals, which touched off the Six-Day War (6)--the United States was a staunch ally of Israel and supported the latter in its struggles against the Arab states. President Johnson's approach to Nigeria's civil war was that it was a "British Affair," and considering that there were no tangible American interests at stake, it was better to steer off the conflict as much as possible. An arms embargo was imposed on both sides and no serious consideration was given to recognizing Biafra. The Nigerian Federal Government's request for arms from the United States and Britain was refuted, compelling Nigeria to turn to the Soviet Union. U.S. criticism of the Soviet supply of aircraft was that it was an act in self-aggrandizement and was condemned by Lagos, which accused the United States of disguised support for the Ibos. (7) As the war intensified, and although the Federal government's criticism continued unabated, American reaction to the Civil War remained one of minimal intervention that was restricted to relief supplies through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and urged compromise and settlement by the conflicting parties. At the end of the war in 1970, and despite the slight hitches in Nigeria-U.S. relations, diplomatic relations remained cordial. Moreover, increased oil revenues for Nigeria after the Civil War increased trade with the United States, which was worth some $1.65 billion by 1974. (8)

Much as the Civil War did not result in any serious rupture in Nigeria-U.S. relations, by 1975, when General Murtala Muhammad overthrew Gowon, the calculus on foreign policy had changed. Murtala took hard foreign policy positions unlike Gowon who relied more on building consensus among African states. The differences in style were manifested in Nigeria's recognition of the MPLA as the sole representative of the Angolan people after it became clear that the United States supported South African military intervention in support of UNITA. At an extra-ordinary O.A.U. Summit, Nigeria launched a diplomatic offensive, which resulted in the recognition of the Movimento Popular da Libertaca de Angola (MPLA) by most African governments. A letter sent to Nigeria by U.S. President Ford offering to use his influence on South Africa to withdraw its troops while Nigeria used its good offices to get the Cubans out of Angola was publicized in the press as an "insult to the dignity of the black man." The issue that was decisive in persuading Nigeria to change its reconciliation policy in Angola was the military intervention of South Africa in support of the Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola (FNLA) and Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA). In addition, the United States began to pressure African states not to recognize the MPLA as...

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