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Nigeria’s New President, Hoping to Host Obama, Visits White House Instead
By PETER BAKERJULY 20, 2015
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Obama Hosts Nigerian President
President Obama hosted Nigeria’s recently elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, at the White House on Monday, where the two discussed cooperation between the two countries. By AP on Publish Date July 20, 2015. Photo by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »
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WASHINGTON — President Obama kicked off a week of renewed focus on Africa on Monday by welcoming the new president of Nigeria in an Oval Office visit full of praise for his democratic election and his avowed commitment to fighting corruption and the extremist group Boko Haram.
The White House visit by President Muhammadu Buhari was something of a consolation prize for Nigeria, which has been displeased that Mr. Obama will skip the continent’s most populous country once again, when he heads to sub-Saharan Africa this week to visit Kenya and Ethiopia.
But White House officials said that Mr. Obama’s decision to welcome Mr. Buhari to Washington just under eight weeks after his inauguration was itself an honor, not to mention more useful for the visiting leader since he will be able to sit down with other American officials here who can help him with his top priorities.
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Bodies of Nigerians killed in two bomb blasts were prepared for burial Monday in the north-central city of Jos. Attacks by the Boko Haram militant group killed at least 44 civilians on Sunday.Boko Haram’s Civilian Attacks in Nigeria IntensifyJULY 6, 2015
interactive How Boko Haram Courted and Joined the Islamic StateJUNE 10, 2015
“President Buhari comes into office with a reputation for integrity and a very clear agenda, and that is to make sure that he is bringing safety and security and peace to his country,” Mr. Obama said as he sat beside his Nigerian counterpart. “He is very concerned about the spread of Boko Haram and the violence that’s taken place there and the atrocities that they’ve carried out, and has a very clear agenda in defeating Boko Haram and extremists of all sorts inside of his country.”
Mr. Obama commended Nigeria for what has been a rare occurrence in much of Africa, the peaceful transition at the ballot box from one party to another. “It was an affirmation of Nigeria’s commitment to democracy, a recognition that although Nigeria is a big country and a diverse country with many different parts, nevertheless the people of Nigeria understand that only through a peaceful political process can change take place,” he said.
Mr. Buhari credited Washington and its allies for helping make that happen. “The maintenance of pressure by the United States, mainly, and Europe to make sure that the elections were free, fair and credible led us to where we are now,” he said. He added that he was “very grateful” to Mr. Obama for the invitation to the White House.
Mr. Buhari is a complicated figure for American policy makers, a former military ruler who was overthrown in a coup in 1985 after about a year and a half of harsh rule but is now recasting himself as a champion of democracy.
American relations with his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, became strained last year after the United States refused to sell military helicopters to Nigeria, citing a law restricting such deals involving militaries with human rights violations. Nigeria rebuffed a team of American trainers sent to help teach one of its battalions.
The United States has taken a strong interest in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group that has waged a campaign of terror in the country’s northeast. Obama administration officials said they hoped that Mr. Buhari would adopt a more comprehensive approach to the fight against Boko Haram and vowed to help him.
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Mr. Obama is scheduled to leave on Thursday for Kenya, his father’s home country, and then visit Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa. It will be his third planned trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president, after a 2009 trip to Ghana and a 2013 trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia has been a beacon of democracy lately. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was charged in the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for instigating and financing ethnic clashes after disputed elections, but the case was dropped in December for lack of evidence. Ethiopia just conducted elections in which the ruling party won every single seat in Parliament.
All of this has made Nigerians question why they have been left off the president’s itinerary. Grant Harris, Mr. Obama’s Africa adviser, said the invitation to Mr. Buhari should make clear how much Mr. Obama values Nigeria.
“The fact that he is visiting less than eight weeks after taking office is historic in and of itself,” Mr. Harris told reporters before the visit. “This is the signal of the importance that the United States places on the relationship.”
Mr. Harris noted that Secretary of State John Kerry had traveled to Nigeria for Mr. Buhari’s inauguration and added that no other African head of state had been invited to the Oval Office by Mr. Obama so soon after being elected. “And so it’s an unprecedented action on our part in response to an unprecedented moment in time,” Mr. Harris said.
Mr. Buhari was also invited to meet with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch; Jack Lew, the Treasury secretary; Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary; and Michael Froman, the trade representative.
Human rights activists warned the White House against rushing forward with security help without demanding reforms by the Nigerian authorities. Government forces have been implicated in incommunicado detention, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, the activists said, while noting that Mr. Buhari replaced top security officials last week.
“Any closer ties and assistance should be approached with caution,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “If the U.S. is discussing further financial or technical support for Nigeria’s security forces, it should insist on clear benchmarks on how they will ensure respect for human rights.”