Sam Ohuabunwa, National President of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce (NACC) says the US will show increasing presence in the Gulf of Guinea because it is a strategic area to protect, both in terms of trade and geopolitical stability.
What’s your view of US-Nigeria business relations at the moment?
The United States has been a major trading partner of Nigeria, and was the leading importer of Nigeria’s crude oil for several years. But given the continuous rise in the price of crude oil to the point where it’s now profitable for it to develop shale oil, and the tweaking of policy to focus on being a strategic reservoir for oil and gas as a way of dealing with future possible global conflicts, right now there’s a change in the equation. Nigeria for a long time had the balance of payments in its favour when dealing with America, because of the outflow of exports.
But with the decline [in US oil imports from Nigeria] that balance has highly changed now, and we’re getting to the level where maybe the balance will be in favour of America. Nigeria and America are conscious of that, and on both sides are pushing to see that this change in the dynamics does not imperil their long-lasting trade relationship. America is constantly promoting its exports into Nigeria in the area of technology and IT and knowledge products; Nigeria of course is looking at how it can shore up other areas of exports to see the possibilities of at least having a balanced trade, even if things do not return to the previous position.
What do you think is most likely to fill up the gap created by the changing trade dynamics in oil and gas?
I think that we may not find anything in the short term to fill it up, [at best we'll] minimise the shortfall in the trade deficit or balances. I think Nigeria is looking at agriculture as a major opportunity to deal with that. Nigeria is also looking at solid minerals, and at entertainment; cultural exports in terms of music and such things. Certainly because of the growing population of diaspora Africans in the United States, Nigerian entertainment – music, films – have a fairly good market there. But the major area is in agriculture, ensuring that we have products, especially fresh products, vegetables, [horticultural produce], such things that America is in constant need of.
I also think this is an opportunity for Nigeria to revamp the [access] offered by the US through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), to take advantage of that that preferential opportunity to export agriculture-related products: leather, garments, textile products. I think Nigeria has now also began to pay some more attention to that area, because when oil was dominating the trade, it wasn’t significant.
In light of the challenge of Boko Haram, how do you think security issues and geopolitics will affect US-Nigeria relations?
The challenge we have is that there is a feeling in the United States that the Nigerian government is not doing its best in dealing with security issues. That has affected the relationship in some ways because America is regularly issuing advisory notices to its nationals on the insecurity in Nigeria. And of course you know that some high-ranking politicians in America including John McCain have made unsavory statements about President [Goodluck Jonathan] and the way the government is handling security. We cannot deny that this has ruffled some feathers. But I also believe that given the sense of balance that I see with the US government under Barack Obama, there’s a greater understanding in terms of the needed support for fighting the kind of war that Nigeria is fighting.
Barack Obama understands that the war against terror is not like fighting in Vietnam; against a known enemy that has a definitive apparatus and is delineated geographically. We’re fighting an enemy that is faceless. The American government understands that, and have volunteered to offer technical and intelligence assistance to Nigeria, and even maybe selection and sale of security equipment.
In the area of security and terrorism today nobody has better experience than the US, and Nigeria would do well and I think is doing well to learn from that expertise and experience. By and large, yes, America will show some increasing geopolitical presence because they believe the Gulf of Guinea is still a strategic area to protect, not only because of global oil but also because of other issues related to geopolitical stability. If Nigeria is destabilized in any way America understands what impact it will have on the global economy and on demographics.
There have been accusations that President Obama has not done a lot for Africa, especially for a person seen as a ‘son’ of the continent. People point to programmes like AGOA under President Clinton and PEPFAR under George Bush, a Republican President. What are your thoughts on this belief that President Obama hasn’t offered any landmark assistance to Africa?
The point is that there were expectations, and it’s not out of place for Africans to expect that if past American Presidents, who were not of African descent, could take certain policies that were pro-Africa – I know how much hurdle it was to get AGOA through – that an African-American [President] would do something spectacular. That hasn’t happened, so I believe it is a legitimate disappointment for Africans and they are entitled to that opinion. That doesn’t make it right – he’s not an African president, [but] we live in a world where we have expectations.
We were campaigning for Obama here and all over Africa as if our votes would have counted. It was because it was exciting to know that a second generation African could take that position. So we’re entitled to feel that way that Obama on the balance hasn’t done anything spectacular for Africa; he hasn’t even visited Nigeria. He hasn’t spent enough time in Africa, I’m hoping he’ll do so since he’s now in his second term; he has proven that he is a true American, he’s balanced, he can handle geopolitical issues as well if not better than his predecessors. Now nobody will doubt his American-ness and [how] fit he is for the job. I would wish on behalf of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, and all those who do love America in Nigeria, and who do business with America, that he should spend some time in and focus a little bit on Africa, and do something for which Africa would be grateful to America.