INTERVIEW: Nigeria is dancing on the cliff — Ex-U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria

Former American Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell

Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria and an expert on Nigerian and African affairs, John Campbell, in this one-on-one interview with PREMIUM TIMES Washington Bureau reporter, Bisi Olanipekun, discusses Nigeria, his new book on South Africa and the U.S.-Africa relations especially with the incoming Trump administration.

PT: As a former ambassador and political counsellor to Nigeria and South Africa respectively, how would you assess the importance of these two countries to the United States and the world?

Campbell: I would argue that Nigeria and South Africa are the two African countries of the greatest strategic importance to the United States. Nigeria because of its sheer size, but also because it is, I think, a noble experiment. A multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy in a continent that is part of the developing world. Nigeria’s sheer size, I think, also raises the possibility that Nigeria can have a seat at the table with the other big powers around the world.  In the case of South Africa, there you have a highly-sophisticated economy. A country, which has in the past been bitterly divided along racial lines. And a country with a history of white supremacy and its consequences, not unlike the history of the southern parts of the United States. Very interesting parallels, I think, between the two. Well, I first actually served in Nigeria from 1988 to 1990 as a political counsellor. I was then political counsellor in South Africa from 1993 to 1996 and then ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.

PT: How would you rate the Buhari administration in terms of the fight against terror, corruption and the dwindling economy?

Campbell: Well, I think the elections of 2015 were enormously important, because in Africa’s largest country the opposition came to power through the ballot box. After the elections of 2015, I think one can genuinely say that Nigeria is a democracy. I mean, if you define ‘democracy’ as a political system in which the opposition stands a reasonable chance of coming to power through the ballot box, Nigeria now meets that criteria. So, the fact of the elections is enormously important. Now, President Buhari campaigned essentially on two major planks. The first one was to restore the security situation with specific focus on Boko Haram. And the other was anti-corruption. In the case of Boko Haram, Boko Haram has been cleared out of the territory that it once occupied. But, Boko Haram is far from having been destroyed. And in fact, Boko Haram operations are continuing. President Buhari, I think, quite rightly has put an emphasis on a multilateral approach to Boko Haram with Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. But, Boko Haram is going to be very difficult to actually rout out. With corruption, he has taken some really quite dramatic steps to address corruption at the highest levels. The difficulty is, corruption in Nigeria is structural. In other words, it infuses the whole political system. And therefore, it’s much more difficult to root out. And in a sense, everything’s related to everything else. Take the police, for example. Okay. The police set up checkpoints, and basically they shake down people that are passing through those checkpoints. That’s a form of corruption. But the police are so poorly paid that unless they man checkpoints and shake down people, they literally will not have enough money to keep their families alive. So, if you’re going to address police corruption, you also have to address police salaries. You also have to address the poor levels of police training. So in other words, it’s complicated. And corruption in this sense is not just simply people being bad, but it is rather people trying to adjust to extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

PT: Would you then say, to paraphrase the title of your book on Nigeria, that Nigeria is still dancing on the brink or have we fallen off it completely?

Campbell: It’s dancing on the cliff, not falling off. If the elections in 2015 had not been regarded by most Nigerians as credible, then I think there would have been a danger of going over the brink. That didn’t happen. The security challenges that the Buhari government faces continue to be Boko Haram in the north, now the unrest in the Delta, plus a resurgence of interest in Biafra, which it’s hard to see how that’s going to play out. Nigeria is an extraordinarily difficult country to govern, but it has not gone over the brink.

PT: On Nigeria-U.S. relations, what are your thoughts, especially as the United States no longer depends on Nigeria’s oil? Are there other areas of cooperation or bilateral relations?

Campbell: Well, you’re perfectly correct, that the United States is no longer dependent on Nigerian oil, primarily because of the increase of American oil production, but also increases in the production of countries that are closer in field, such as Canada or Venezuela. So, the energy relationship is, I think, a much less important component in the bilateral relationship. That said, Nigeria still remains, I think, of central importance to American policy in Africa, because it is a functioning democracy and as such, has a leadership role on the continent.

PT: Away from Nigeria, Ambassador, can we briefly touch on your new book, Morning In South Africa? How has South Africa fared post the Nelson Mandela era, considering you witnessed first-hand the transition period from apartheid to black majority rule?

Campbell: Depends on the area you look at. What are the achievements? One: the rate of extreme poverty has been cut in half. Two: three million new houses have been built. Further, those houses built by the government are distributed to people in fee-simple ownership. Now, what that means is that those houses can be bought, sold, and mortgaged, which means they also become a way of accumulating capital. And amongst black South Africans, particularly under apartheid, it was almost impossible for them to accumulate capital. So, the ability to accumulate capital through home ownership, which is how most Americans accumulate capital, is I think a major achievement. Three: the altogether dismantling of the apartheid structures. Extraordinarily difficult. There were some 19 different educational systems inherited from apartheid. You had black schools, coloured schools, Indian schools, white schools. The list goes on and on and on. And in fact, they have now, I think, relatively successfully been amalgamated. Next: there have now been — how many — one, two, three, four national elections, all credible. At least as many local government elections, all credible. There is a general acceptance of the South African Constitution, generally regarded as one of the most liberal in the world. You have among the most complete protections of human rights of any constitution in the world. These are not minor achievements.

One can argue, one should argue, that the fundamental issues of inequality continue. In fact, the gulf between the net worth of white people and everybody else in South Africa is greater now than it was at the end of apartheid. In other words, whites have gotten richer. So, too, has everybody else. But whites have gotten richer than everybody else. So, the part of this is bound up in a major area, which has to do particularly with primary education, where the backlog of the shortcomings of Bantu education, education for black people under apartheid, those shortcomings have still not been adequately addressed, and far too many black children are in schools that are inadequate to prepare them in the modern economy. So education is a shortcoming. Continuing inequality largely based on race is another shortcoming. South Africans tend to shy away from what is a fundamental reality in contemporary South Africa, and that is, most, not all, but most rich South Africans are white, and most poor South Africans are black. That’s a reality which South Africans are hesitant, I think, to confront head on.

PT: What is your current assessment of the US-South Africa relations, considering it was not rosy during the period of Apartheid in the 80s and 90s.

Campbell: Oh, it’s quite bad. The official relationship. It’s a very interesting question. At the time of the transition, when I was living in South Africa, everybody assumed that the bilateral relationship between two multi-racial democracies was bound to be very close. Well, it wasn’t. And part of that is because there were unreal expectations on both sides. Mandela and Mbeki both, I think, anticipated much larger, even transformative, investment from the United States in South Africa. They overlooked the fact that the American government has no power to command American companies to invest anywhere. And investment decisions by American corporations are largely economically driven. On the American side, there was disappointment that the Mandela and Mbeki administrations continued to have close relations with people like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Disappointments on both sides. On the South African side as well, particularly for the ANC, there was the widespread feeling that the United States came late to the anti-apartheid struggle. The relationship is correct, but not particularly warm. I think that’s how I would characterize it. In the late apartheid period, the apartheid government didn’t like the United States very much, because of what it perceived as its support for the anti-apartheid effort. But, the ANC and the PAC didn’t like the United States very much, because of what it perceived as its support for the anti-apartheid effort. But, the ANC and the PAC didn’t like the United States very much either, because they thought that the American effort was pretty weak. So, both groups are not really very happy with the Americans.

PT: How do you see the U.S.-Africa relations play out under a Trump Presidency?

Campbell: U.S.-Africa relations and where it’s going to go? Yes. Where to start? The first place to start is that in the presidential debates, Africa was mentioned not once. I mean, it was as though Africa was altogether absent. So, if you ask about what we can anticipate from the Trump administration with respect to Africa, my answer to you will be, “We don’t know.” We have absolutely no idea. Who Mr. Trump chooses as his Secretary of State will be quite important. If, for example, it were to be Mitt Romney, then I think we could anticipate that the, at least, the formal diplomatic relationship with African countries will continue much as it has been. But, if somebody is selected who has very little foreign policy knowledge or experience, then who knows what direction it will take?

PT: Could a Trump administration jeopardize or halt the recently extended AGOA (African Growth Opportunity Act) by the U.S. Congress?

Campbell: Not much, as a practical matter. I mean, it’s there in place. I suppose in theory it could try to repeal it, but it’s unlikely to try to do that. So, I think AGOA will remain in place. Now, I have no idea whether it will be expanded. In a Clinton administration, I think it probably would have been, but now I don’t know.

PT: Your take on Trump’s policies on immigration and the banning of Muslims.

Campbell: Banning Muslims, that is to say, people who adhere to a specific religion would almost certainly be unconstitutional. So, you couldn’t do it. You could, at least in theory, deport illegal aliens in the United States who are Muslim, on the basis they’re illegal aliens. I think it would be very difficult to ban Muslim visitors to the United States. I think it would be difficult to prohibit Muslim immigration to the United States, because of the guarantees of freedom of religion that are in the constitution. But the rhetoric is certainly unfriendly to Muslims. By the way, an interesting aspect, the Nigerian community in the United States has done extraordinarily well- it’s one of the most successful of the immigrant communities here. But, there are very few Muslims. I mean, they’re mostly from the south and west of Nigeria.

PT: Your thoughts on the currently concluded U.S. election. Do you think the Electoral College system should be eliminated as suggested by some Americans and even by the former Vice President, Al Gore?

Campbell: Well, Al Gore, like Hillary Clinton, won the most votes, but lost in the Electoral College. The Electoral College has been in the constitution since day one. It would require a constitutional amendment to remove it. That would be politically very, very difficult to do. What the Electoral College does is it puts a thumb on scale, as it were, for the smaller states in the Union. So, you get lots of support for eliminating the Electoral College in New York or California, but you’re not going to get it in Wyoming or Delaware or other small states.

PT: How would you assess the Obama Presidency and its relations with the African Continent?

Campbell: I mean, that’s right. Obama’s widely criticized in Africa for a seeming lack of attention. I would suggest that African expectations there were unrealistic. Too many Africans thought that simply because Obama had an African father, he would have some kind of orientation towards Africa. In fact, he visited Africa two or three times altogether over eight years. And one of them was for Mandela’s funeral. He never visited Nigeria. Though, the period that he was president, the Nigerian government was particularly problematic. Those were the days of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, massive human rights’ abuses connected with the struggle against Boko Haram, and so forth. He did visit Kenya, which also had, and has, a problematic government, the Kenyatta administration. They didn’t stay very long, and he certainly tried to minimize contact with the Kenyatta administration. So, in other words, I think African expectations were unrealistic. I mean, Obama was president of the United States, he wasn’t president of Africa. He had one or two other things to worry about. He had Iraq, Afghanistan, and preventing the collapse of the American economy. So, just how much can you do?

PT: Your thoughts on Obama’s POWER AFRICA and YALI initiatives.

Campbell: That’s right. Interesting African initiatives. Power Africa addresses a very fundamental problem. The Young AfricanLeaders Initiative also, I think, may well bear fruit sometime in the future.

PT: Again, on the Trump Presidency, for a man with no prior military or political background as is the norm with previous presidents of the US, how would he fare four years down the road?

Campbell: We just don’t know. This is new. Just as you say, it’s new. Very few of his announced appointments have been people with a deep knowledge of the U.S. government. I worry about the lack of experience. It could be that Nigeria’s not the only country dancing on the brink. And also, which Trump are we talking about? Because, sometimes, his statements are reassuring. Other times, particularly his tweets, are alarming. Part of the alarming dimension of his tweets may be that you only have 140 characters. Well, it’s hard to be subtle in 140 characters.

PT: On a lighter note and in conclusion, Can you say what your favourite dish and genre of music were while you served as Ambassador in Nigeria.

Campbell: I like jollof rice. I enjoy High life music, which, of course, is Nigerian. People often don’t recognize that. And I particularly like the painting and the sculpture that’s associated with the art school at LSU. I have a small collection of Nigerian paintings. But, it tends to be abstract expressionism. It’s highly sophisticated. It’s not a painting of a lady carrying a jug on her head. It’s much more, you know.

PT: Favourite Nigerian politician(s) if any.

Campbell: I admire President Buhari. I think that, given the enormous challenges that he faces, I do admire him. I also admire Donald Duke, who was governor of Cross River. I admire Fashola, who I think actually was able – look at Lagos, 22 million people, built on a swamp. I mean, one would have thought, it’s almost impossible to govern. And yet, he did, with improvements in the way people actually lived – trash collection, and that sort of things.

PT: Thank you Ambassador for your time.

Campbell: Thank you for coming.


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  • jon

    Please our people should wise up this man served in nigeria 5 years and he know about everything his America is so good They elected Trump to sort them out please stop interviewing jobless people like they have Notting to offer simple corruption is embedded in America as system our own is bad corruption while there own is good corruption when big cooperation is paying statesmen to pass law oh is called lobbying our own is corruption American buy more illegal drugs than anywhere in the world how do they pass through borders bribe police and army and customs oh no is system not corruption please educate yourself not PhD

    • hummm

      Totally agree with you and who the hell is going to buy his useless book? He stayed in Nigerian for only 5 years and already an expert on the country? How interesting !! . Waste of time interviewing him .

      • Nigeriamovingforward

        I’m sure he’s not expecting people like you to buy his book in the first place. Someone looking from outside sometimes can read a situation better than those knee deep in the mess. Just like a football coach can see the game better from the sidelines than the players. He made valid and accurate observations. But I’m sure that the fact that he likes Buhari makes him bad in your little brain.

        • share Idea

          Valid and accurate observations like this …”Those were the days of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, massive human rights’ abuses connected with the struggle against Boko Haram”

  • Parrot

    John Campbell is from the UK

    • Nigeriamovingforward

      This John Campbell is from the US. He was appointed by Bush as ambassador to Nigeria in 2004.

      • Nkemdilim Ngozi Ogbodo

        What happened to your tantrum this time? or have you managed to take your medication cos i’m surprised to see your comment devoid of your usual name calling.

  • Factsay

    Few northern Muslims in US according to oyibo ambassador. Hmm

    • Rommel

      Remember that this man said Nigeria was relevant simply because of its size,GEJ had made it clear to agitators that should Nigeria split today,many tribes will simply disappear from world affairs but animals will never understand because they are prepared to seek asylum in developed nations

      • VERITAS_ the rock of ages_

        You are also correct Rommel. listen to what Mr Campbell said “”””Nigeria’s sheer size, I think, also raises the possibility that Nigeria can have a seat at the table with the other big powers around the world””””. This is what i also knew and people like me are working towards to make sure we remain one Nigeria without the existence of our primitive Barbaric cannibalistic Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba tiv, idoma, kanuri etc tribes. But what annoys me is that our generation havent seen this bright future yet. It might no happen because we keep electing Buhari’s backward war generation whom are subconsciously still Fighting the Biafran war and are dividing us on the same grounds that started the war. During OBJ time there were no tribal sentiments, Just one Nigeria. Nigerians think to small. I think of a Nigeria that controls Africa and is truly the african super power.

      • Factsay

        We no wan b in same country with animals in human skin. Na by force?

        • Rommel

          Have you thought that perhaps,you may be among the animals in human skin,what is the difference between Niger delta militants,IPOB and Boko Haram? if you have noticed one thing with Arabs and Islamist fanatics,they blame everyone else but themselves for their situation,this is also the overwhelming opinion among Ndi Igbo today,to what extent have Ndi Igbo contributed to the situation we are in today? in the first republic,how did problems in the western Nigeria within ethnic yoruba end up with Ndi Igbo carrying out a very bloody military coup that decimated Northern Nigeria political leadership? if you can answer that question,perhaps,you will begin to realize what the problem is,the great Zik of Africa and political father of Igbo was born in northern Nigeria ten good years before amalgamation of 1914 and the north was Muslim then as now,how come our people were comfortable then with them?

          • Factsay

            ur killings over the years never stopped igbos living in ur midst.
            Under the British Rule u were tamed. Ur wildest were unleashed after independence.

            Those who carried out coup did it as patriots. They were not the first people to carry out coup in the world. It was unfortunate that you guys deceitful turned it into ethnic coup and destroyed the country further. Fine, you killed Ironsi and co as retaliation, why then killing ordinary Igbo civilians?

            Your blood sucking appetite has no limit as the killings have continued long time after the coup. Someone in Denmark will make common cartoon and u jihadists will turn and start killing igbos, arent u guys demonic?

            Was Murtala, IBB, Buhari, Gideon Orka and other coupists Igbos? Why their own coup didn’t result in killing of innocent civilains?

      • Peace Forall

        We Biafrans don’t have any intension to dissappear from World affaire and we have all it takes both human and natural resources to remain visible in the World affaires. Dissapear from world affaires is not important to us than our FREEDOM. In contrary to your point of view and fears, We the Biafran people can be more visible to the world with FREEDOM, where there will be no calculated policy to frustrate any tribe or groupe of people. FREEDOM is important to we agitators than disappearance.

        • Rommel

          If you want freedom,then fight for it like what all normal human beings do instead of this keyboard militancy,do you think internet trolling will give you BIAFRA?

          • Peace Forall

            You are yet to understand the power of keyboard. You people are making reference of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, syria (Arab Democracy Spring) and today Donald Trump victory over odds. In this 21 century Normal and Civilized human beings fight diplomatically in contrary to uncivilized marauding barberian who believed that every meaningful change can be only achieved by guns and bullets. Biafra will be achieved before your eyes.

          • Rommel

            You can only achieve in getting an internet republic if you think social media can give you a nation,wake up and get real,all the examples you showed were people fighting for a change in social other which is what social media is for,freedom means there is slavery and if nobody is enslaving you but you have it in your mind that you are a prisoner or slave,then not even the gods can save you.

  • Rommel

    These were the people that predicted 2015 as possible end for Nigerian union

    • Peace Forall

      May The Almighty God punish and break nigeria for shedding Innocent blood of men and women in other to keep them in an unwanted unity. This Nigeria floundering without vision and purpose must break Insha-allah.


    Ambassador John Campbell has been writing Nigeria’s obituary for as long as i can remember.

    In one breath he commends you and in the next he tells you that you have but a few days left before you die.

    Please go back home and tell them that NIgerians told you that they are SURVIVORS!

    Nigeria will survive and thrive

  • Stella Dominic


  • share Idea

    I stopped reading after encountering this quote…”Those were the days of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, massive human rights’ abuses connected with the struggle against Boko Haram”

    If what GEJ was doing then was massive human right abuse, can he describe what is going on now in Nigeria?

  • thusspokez

    Boko Haram has been cleared out of the territory that it once occupied.

    Cleared out to Niger Republic, one might add.

    PT: What is your current assessment of the US-South Africa relations, considering it was not rosy during the period of Apartheid in the 80s and 90s.

    Oh yes, It was very rosy indeed, otherwise the apartheid regime would not have lasted as long as it did if the English-speaking western countries weren’t backing the regime. Israel would never be able to transfer US military and nuclear technology to the apartheid SA without the US consent. After all, it was US technology given to Israel and therefore required US consent before it could be passed on to a third-party.

  • thusspokez

    Obama was president of the United States, he wasn’t president of Africa. He had one or two other things to worry about. He had Iraq, Afghanistan, and preventing the collapse of the American economy. So, just how much can you do?

    Tell that to the primitive minds and nincompoops — including Obama’ own bitter brother, Malik Obama — who were expecting Obama to embezzle US tax payers’ money and splash on gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Africans.

    Look, Africans should just get on with their own lives and stop wanting to know what the US thinks about them. Imagine if the US were to be hit by a comet. After the tears and mourning, life on earth will continue. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. Besides, before the US, there was Africa.

  • paul irumundomon

    …We are dancing on the cliff and you are the real the man playing the drums

  • Azubuike nwadei

    Northern peoples and western peoples can remain in joined as Nigeria if they so choose. As for we Biafrans the time has come for freedom.

    As we understand it, Nigeria cannot work because it is based on a system in which the different ethnic poles of the country attempt to dominate the federation instead of having self determination for themselves. This domination oppresses all other groups.

    Hoping Nigeria can work is like asking 3 different families to live in one house and share finances. Good luck with that! As for we Biafrans, we say goodbye Nigeria. We do not hate you, but we are better off separate.

  • thisnigeria

    Nigerians who are fond of claiming that the “whole world is watching us” needs to learn from what the ambassador just said especially that Africa was not mentioned once during the American presidential debate that no one is watching. We are entirely on our own. If we like, we promote our progress and comfort, if we like, we obstruct it. Know also that if you run to another man’s country, you will surely be discremenated against. Hunger and poverty knows no tribe. Heaven helps those who help themselves.