Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the twosome who rule two of the formerly greatest nations on the face of this planet are two of a kind. Both are lawyers, both are in their early forties, and both have told the world that they are unwilling to re-open the old wounds that capitalism and communism unleashed on post World War II affairs. Their respective countries, the United States, US, and the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR were champions of the two dogmas – capitalism and communism – platforms from where the rest of the world entangled itself in a diplomatic and military web. For instance, the military alignments, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, SALT, were a complicated spy network that worked assiduously in the reciprocal pinching of vital state and intelligence secrets, funded chiefly by the CIA and KGB. Both the USA and the defunct USSR did not see eye to eye, they did not visit each other, they did not speak to each other much and if they did, it was laced with innuendos and double-entendres that were further complicated by the use of interpreters, a clear interpretation how dense the iron curtain between both countries was. But even with all of their similarities, both men and countries without a doubt appear radically different from each other, different from their predecessors in both the White House and the Kremlin of the Cold War era, different in their approaches to tackling the realities of the post-Cold War world that they inherited from the Leonid Brezhnevs, the John Kennedys, the Andrei Gromkyos and the Henry Kissingers – think-tanks whose personalities helped sustain the cold war. Before he visited Russia recently, Obama accused Vladimir Putin, the real Russian strongman of still standing with one leg in the past and the other in the present; his antagonist quipped that Russians do not have a habit of standing as awkwardly as Obama alleged.
Cold relations between the former [and could be argued, current] debutantes reached an all-time high when talks crashed during after the Bay of Pigs incident. When he was asked after the semblance of talks between the former Soviet Union went, John Kennedy promised, ‘It’s going to be a long winter’. But it is to Ronald Reagan’s credit that much of the cold and the silent war of that era began to thaw. He did this in the classical style of shaking Mikhail Gorbachev’s hand with this hand and boxing his ears with the other. After having met him in the White House and in the Kremlin, Reagan’s game plan with Gorbachev was to trust him with the trust reserved only for rattlesnakes. He consistently fired verbal missiles from his Star Wars arsenal, at Gorbachev urging him to tear down the Berlin Wall. And when it did, the Berlin Wall did not just fall – the rumble generated reverberated right through the whole of Europe, and weakened the foundations of the former USSR. Before long the USSR crashed too. Today, the former USSR, now Russia, is till wondering what hit it. Its new Russian leadership never forgave Gorbachev, and still appear to nurse the wounds that the collapse of the former union did to their ego.
Now to understand the undercurrents of the game being played by the rest of the world in the West African sub-region, it will be expedient to look a little closer at the backgrounds of these two men. Firstly, [not in any preference or otherwise], let us consider Dmitry Medvedev, the current Russian leader who recently visited Nigeria as part of what was taken to be a ‘familiarization’ visit. Before May 7, 2008, Medvedev was head of Putin’s chief of presidential staff. A technocrat of note, Medvedev ran Putin’s campaign in the 2000 elections with a slogan, ‘freedom is better than non-freedom!’ In the election that brought him in as a political appointee of the incumbent, Medvedev clinched 70.28 percent votes in an election that had a turnover of just over 69 percent voters. But it is not the quarrel that this generated in Russia that should be of interest to Nigerians. Rather, it the fact that the biggest appointment he held before becoming Putin’s chief of staff was being chairman of Gazprom, the biggest gas company in the world today, and which is interested in harnessing the associated gas flared in the Niger Delta.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, became the first black man to take power as president of the USA. In the worldwide hypertension generated by the prospect of his becoming president, two schools of thought emerged in Nigeria. While one group held that America was not yet ready to have him as president, the other group collected monies to help him get to the White House. For Nigerians in both camps, it was really heartbreaking that Obama chose to go to Ghana instead of visiting the giant Nigeria, not minding that President Obama even ignored the Luo, his Kenyan kinsmen for the choice of Ghana. But there is something in Obama’s ‘refusal’ to visit Nigeria and Medvedev’s visit that we have not really grasped. And it is this: while it can be said that the Russians beat the Americans in the acquisition of Nigeria’s vast gas reserves, it did seem as if Obama was looking beyond the acquisition of gas reserves to something much more challenging than the acquisition of gas reserves.
A few weeks before Obama visited Ghana, the Defence intelligence school, Kuru, Abuja organized a 12-week ‘military intelligence basic officers’ course. That course, the third that had taken place, first in Mali and Botswana respectively, was actually sponsored by the controversial United States African High Command, AfriCom, ‘to meet the rapidly changing complexities in Nigeria and in Africa at large’. Formerly having its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, AfriCom, recently shifted base to Ghana, particularly because of a two-pronged order by president Obama: one, to contain Al Qaeda strongholds in Africa, and secure the vast crude oil deposits in the West African sub-region. Notice that Ghana, a relatively stable country of less the 20 million people will soon begin to produce oil next year and expects to export just about a quarter of what Nigeria produces per day by year 2014. Therefore, those who assume that Obama’s visit to Ghana was mostly because he needed to visit his fellow black men in Africa got it all wrong. In simple ABC, the visit was an attempt to outmaneuver two long-time foes, Russia and China, in the new race to secure markets and interests in Africa. The United States realized that while it engaged the defunct USSR in an ideological warfare, China had a field day acquiring strategic markets and building diplomatic ties with Africa that has helped to strengthen its economy against that of the United States’. An online publication put things this way: Obama has made it clear that if the US wants to out-muscle China it will need to commit more to projects like the 421-mile-long West African Gas Pipeline, which is scheduled to begin delivering gas early next year from Nigeria’s Niger River Delta to Benin, Togo and Ghana’. So, even if it seemed to those with a discerning political acumen that the race was really to outsmart the Russians, Obama ‘ignored’ Nigeria and his home country Kenya because the race was not about Kenya and Nigeria but about American interests against China and Russia.
While in Ghana, Obama said that what Africa needs now is not strongmen but strong institutions. And it should not be too difficult to realize that the ‘strong institutions’ that he was referring to included a strong military arrangement like the AfriCom, that could checkmate the rising Chinese profile in Africa and battle religious forces like the Al Qaeda. It had nothing to do with Nigeria’s flawed electoral process nor had it anything to do with the fact that Ghana conducted a free and fair election
. Believe it or not, if Nigeria was where the challenge to the United State’s vital interest lay, whether or not there was a moribund election process, Obama would have come here. And indeed, herein lie the lesson for us all, to wit that the choice of Ghana for the relocation of the global headquarters of AfriCom came by first of all because that country works. Nigeria doesn’t and no serious businessman wants to invest in an environment that is dormant.