Essential elements of intelligence and the intelligence cycle in overseas relations include what is better described as “the cover story”. It is an old conundrum referring to the story that is put out to the public and sustained as a narrative to mask far more strategic interests in government-to- government relations. It is based on that established thin line between the right to know and the need to know and indeed in diplomatic relations, if ordinary people are allowed to know everything, there will be utter chaos on the streets around the world. I make this point in the light of the excitement that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit appears to be generating. He will visit Nigeria, August 23-24, after Kenya, 22-23, and from here, he will jet off to Saudi Arabia, 24-25.
The cover story is that he will hold talks with President Muhammadu Buhari, Northern Governors and religious leaders, give a speech on “countering violent extremism” in Sokoto, and thematically focus on “counter-terrorism efforts, the economy, the fight against corruption and human rights issues” during the trip. Nicely, correctly crafted cover story! America loves Nigeria. America wants to help Nigeria. And once we are told this story, even our foreign ministry officials get really excited. They tell the President: “this is big! It shows America is supporting the administration. Mr. President, America loves you, don’t mind those tweeps on social media.” They would have forgotten most conveniently that Secretary John Kerry has been visiting Africa since 2014, and before him, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did so too. We tend to be overly impressed by the recognition, but we often fail to look beyond the cover story.
The Americans don’t consider a visit such as this the circus that we think it is. And that is why the Foreign Affairs Ministry must put up its thinking caps in preparing the briefing notes for President Buhari. They must anticipate one critical question that the cover story does not cover: what does America want? What is in this visit for the United States? And what does Nigeria want? And what should the Nigerian President say to Mr. Kerry at that critical moment when he suddenly requests for a one-on-one and all Presidential assistants are asked to leave the room? That is usually where the rub is, that critical moment when the Nigerian President is left alone with a strategic guest and he may not know exactly what to say to messages and statements for which he had not been prepared. And when the American envoy makes requests, what should he say at that very moment? We have a lot at stake, and it is important that this particular visit is not treated as another opportunity to have a nice dinner party and showcase Nigerian culture and arts.
John Kerry attended President Buhari’s inauguration in May 2015. This is what he wrote, inter alia, after the visit: “Last May, I shared in an extraordinary moment. I had the privilege, together with many leaders from across Africa, of bearing witness to the first peaceful, democratic transition of power between two parties in Nigeria. I traveled to Lagos earlier this year to emphasize that for the United States, Nigeria is an increasingly important strategic partner with a critical role to play in the security and prosperity of the region. I also said that it was imperative that these elections set a new standard for democracy in the continent. There is no doubt that this is a decisive moment for democracy in Africa…In Africa, as elsewhere, there is a deep hunger for governments that are legitimate, honest and effective….”
Secretary of State Kerry will be visiting Nigeria tomorrow I believe, to carry out a year-after, on-the-spot, hear-see-for-yourself assessment. He must have heard that a year after his last visit, so much has happened in Nigeria, and the rest of Africa. Africa itself is at a tipping point, growth has slowed down tragically, commodity prices have declined, old problems... Read on