The FG/Marino spat over arms, human rights

The release of a critical communication about Nigeria by US Congressman Tim Marino has sparked some concerns among government circles. Group Politics Editor, Taiwo Adisa, examines the facts and possible fiction tied to the controversial letter.

What is the motivation behind the critical letter released by United States’ Congressman Tom Marino against Nigeria on September 1? That is the question on the lips of many Nigerian officials in the wake of the publication of the letter, in which he criticised the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, for allegedly sliding into dictatorship.

Thomas Anthony Marino, an American politician and lawyer, is currently serves as the Representative for Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district. He is a member of the Republican Party, who assumed office on January 3, 2011. In his letter to the US Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, he raised the alarm about what he called some emerging warning signs about the Buhari administration.”

His outburst should jolt many Nigerian officials, going by the level of acceptability the Nigerian President enjoyed among American political class just a year ago. Ahead of the March 2015 in Nigeria, Buhari was the toast of the Americans. The President upon assumption of office, also acknowledged American support for his election when he claimed “America made me” in a speech on his visit to the United States.

But in his two page letter, Marino asked  the US authorities to strip the country of possible military assistance that could help it tackle the menace of Boko Haram insurgents. His proposal was that the US State Department should stop the sale of war planes and other military equipment to Nigeria. Though it would not be the first time a US official would be pushing for arms freeze on Nigeria, it was more than just a push during the wee days of former President Goodluck Jonathan, when the US went frontally against the country’s bid to procure arms to combat the insurgency in the North East. At that time, the US practically frustrated moves to procure arms from other countries, especially South Africa.

But it would be a shock find to see a US Congressman calling for a return to the trenches, barely a year after its favoured candidate had won the Nigerian election. Marino however appears to be resolute about his convictions. He wrote in the letter to Kerry, who just left the Nigerian shores after a visit that the government in the pace was not being inclusive, and that the acclaimed anti-graft war, which is the hallmark of the administration, was being fought in a selective manner.

The Congressman said that the Nigerian government should “hold accountable those members of the Nigerian Police Force and the Nigerian Military complicit in extra-judicial killings and war crimes,” while also alleging selective anti-corruption war and the growing hostility among the segments of the country.

The letter read in parts: “Dear Secretary Kerry, I am encouraged by the personal interest you have taken in aiding Nigeria and its administration as it takes on endemic corruption, multiple insurgent movements, and a faltering economy. However, I believe there are a number of warning signs emerging in the Buhari administration that signal “the man who once led Nigeria as a military dictator might be sliding towards former autocratic tendencies.

“I would urge the U.S. to withhold its security assistance to the nation until President Buhari demonstrates a commitment to inclusive government and the most basic tenets of democracy: freedom to assemble and freedom of speech. A logical start towards this commitment is for the Nigerian government to hold accountable those members of the Nigerian Police Force and the Nigerian military complicit in extra-judicial killings and war crimes.”

The letter also touched on appointments made under the administration. The Congressman wrote: “Of President Buhari’s 122 appointees, 77 are from the North and control many of the key ministries and positions of power. Distrust is already high in Nigeria and favouring Northerners for key appointments has only antagonized the issue. These appointments are also primarily Muslim in the north and Christian in the south, adding a religious aspect to long-held regional biases.

“Of additional concern is President Buhari’s selective anti-corruption drive, which has focused almost exclusively on members of the opposition party, over-looking corruption amongst some of Buhari’s closest advisors. Politicizing his anti-corruption efforts has only reinforced hostility among southerners.”

Such comments coming on the heels of the release of a United Nation’s Common Country Analysis, (CCA) reports on Nigeria is sure to catch more than a glimpse of top Nigeria officials. The UN report had indicated that Nigeria was becoming an increasingly “divided country” along ethnic, religious, political and social lines. The report indicated that, “Nigeria is a deeply divided society considering the plurality of ethnic, religious and regional identities that define her political existence. Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has struggled to build and sustain national integration.”

The UN report further said: “For decades, different segments of Nigeria’s population had, at different times, expressed feelings of marginalization, of being short-changed, dominated, oppressed, threatened, or even targeted for elimination…”

“Nigeria is one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world, with over 80 million or 64% of her population living below poverty line. The situation has not changed over the decades, but is increasing. Poverty and hunger have remained high in rural areas, remote communities and among female –headed households and these cut across the six geo-political zones, with prevalence ranging from approximately 46.9 percent in the South West to 74.3 percent in North West and North East.”

Was Congressman Marino speaking the minds of a silent American majority, on the incumbent government? Is he simply a minority voice? These are the questions that pervaded government circles in Abuja during the week.

Reacting to the controversy, a former Senate President, Ameh Ebute, advised the federal government to to file a formal complaint against Marino, saying that assisting Nigeria is in the US’ own strategic interest. In a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geodfrey Onyeama, on Tuesday, Ebute said: “A Nigeria free of terrorism will contribute to a more secured world and the Americans would actually be helping themselves by offering this assistance since that country is the one in the crosshair of terrorists. The era of imperialism is over and discussions about mutual cooperation should not be exploited to pass ignorant judgment on Nigeria or any other nation for that matter.”

However, a public affairs commentator, Michael Nwakalor, backed Marino’s comments. Nwakalor said: “Nigeria needs all the help it can get to conquer Boko Haram in such trying economic times. Nevertheless, the words of the congressman, a seemingly objective analyst, should ignite a shift towards more responsible governance.”

But the government is not taking things for granted. Minister of Information and National Orientation, Alhaji Lai Mohammed attempted to rescue the relationship between Washington and Abuja, when he concluded that Marino was speaking for himself. He insisted that the Congressman’s views were outdated and no longer in tune with current realities.

Mohammed released a statement indicating that Marino misplaced facts and figures in his letter to Kerry. The minister asked the US to ignore the call by Marino that the country should stop selling war planes and other military equipment to Nigeria until President Muhammadu Buhari “demonstrates a commitment to inclusive government and the most basic tenets of democracy: freedom to assemble and freedom of speech.”

According to the spokesman of Nigerian government, the US lawmaker “engaged in propaganda of his own imagination and was sadly out of tune with reality.” He insisted that Marino was poorly informed about the issues he commented on, wondering why he did not take the pains to get firsthand information from the US Embassy in Nigeria or any other credible source before writing his letter. Mohammed noted that by asking the US to refrain from selling warplanes and other military equipment to Nigeria based on a faulty premise, the Congressman demonstrated a poor understanding of global security issues.

The Minister said: “The Boko Haram insurgency that Nigeria has decisively dealt with under President Buhari is not just a Nigerian problem but a regional and international crisis. An Administration that operates purely on the basis of respect for the rule of law and a strict adherence to constitutional order is not one to deny the citizens of their constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

“This administration therefore does not need the goading of Congressman Marino or anyone for that matter to do what is right. “Concerning running an inclusive government, had Congressman Marino done his homework before dispatching his letter, he would have realised that no part of the country is left out in the distribution of political appointments, for example, or in the appointment of ministers, which was done in accordance with the Constitution that mandates that the President must appoint at least one minister from each of the 36 states North West (7) and South.”

Though the minister had attacked Marino’s claims frontally with his statistics, it needs to be stated that the Congressman’s letter did not emanate from the cloud. The sentiments he expressed are certainly the reading of some views already emanating from Nigeria which perpetually seek to justify the conclusions in the UN’s CCA report.

The government of the day can most practically address the situation that give rise to such sentiments through inclusive communications and actions that relieve ethno/political tensions.