Buhari’s arrival in the US was announced by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, who tweeted: “Pres. @MBuhari has just arrived the Joint Base Andrews International Airport, Washington D.C. for tomorrow’s meeting with Pres. Obama #PMBmeetsOBAMA”
This week’s visit to Washington by Buhari is viewed by the US administration as a chance to set the seal on improving ties since he won a March election hailed as Nigeria’s first democratic power transition in decades, reported Reuters.
US cooperation with Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, had virtually ground to a halt over issues including his refusal to investigate corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian military.
“President (Obama) has long seen Nigeria as arguably the most important strategic country in sub-Saharan Africa,” US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told Reuters. “The question is would there be an opportunity to deepen our engagement and that opportunity is now.”
Improving ties with Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, come as US relations have cooled with two other traditional Africa powers - Egypt and South Africa.
US officials have said they are willing to send military trainers to help Nigeria counter a six-year-old northern insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist movement.
Since Buhari's election, Washington has committed $5 million in new support for a multi-national task force set up to fight the group by Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroun. This is in addition to at least $34 million it is providing to the countries for equipment and logistics.
Buhari’s move last Monday to fire military chiefs appointed by Jonathan clears the way for more military cooperation, US officials have said.
“We’ve made clear there are additional things that can be done especially now that there is a new military leadership in place,” a senior US official said.
Another senior US official said Washington was urging Buhari to step up regional cooperation against the militants and to provide more aid to afflicted communities to reduce the group’s recruiting power.
Buhari has said his priorities are strengthening Nigeria’s economy, hard-hit by the fall in oil prices, boosting investment, and tackling the biggest monster of all - corruption.
“Here too he is looking to deepen collaboration and one of the things he is focused on is asset recovery,” the official said. “He is hopeful we can help them recover some of that.”
In 2014, the United States took control of more than $480 million siphoned away by former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and his associates into banks around the world.
Washington has broad powers to track suspicious funds and enforce sanctions against individuals.
Jonathan fired former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor and now Emir of Kano, Mohammad Sanusi II, in February last year after he raised questions about the disappearance of about $20 billion in oil revenues.
Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state, said Washington should not let security issues overshadow the need for closer trade and investment ties.
“Nigeria is the most important country in Africa,” said Carson, currently an adviser to the US Institute of Peace.
Now more than ever, “the relationship with Nigeria should not rest essentially on a security and military-to-military relationship,” he added.
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, an Africa specialist with the non-partisan Congressional Research Services, said the US challenge was to work with Buhari while giving him time to address the country’s vast problems.
How Buhari will handle the campaign against Boko Haram is still unknown, Blanchard said.
However, suicide bombings and village attacks blamed on Boko Haram extremists have killed hundreds of people at home and in neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroun just in the past two weeks.
Buhari’s May 29 inauguration was followed by a surge in attacks by the six-year-old uprising that aims to form an Islamic state and has killed more than 15,000 people while driving 1.5 million from their homes.
As a retired army major general who put down a small Islamic revolt in the 1980s, Buhari is expected to have more success motivating troops demoralised by poor equipment and bad leadership.
“Privately, the new security commanders are warning of no quick fixes ... arguing that Boko Haram infiltration of the army and civilian structures is a major unresolved difficulty,” political analyst Antony Goldman wrote in African Arguments.
Goldman said a military overhaul could include returning procurement to the Defence Ministry, a duty usurped by the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, who is now being investigated for “felony, corruption, misuse of power and possession of firearms,” according to the Department of State Service (DSS) on Saturday.
Cleaning up the military may also unblock sales of US attack helicopters, reported the Associated Press (AP) yesterday.
US law forbids the sale of certain arms to militaries accused of gross human rights abuses and Amnesty International has accused the army's leadership of complicity in the death of 8,000 detainees in the battle against Boko Haram.
Buhari has promised to investigate and prosecute perpetrators. He has also pledged to tackle root causes that fuel Islamic extremism. The North-east is the poorest part of the country with some of the world's highest illiteracy rates.
“We’re looking forward to what we can do with a president who has staked out an agenda that we think is the right agenda at the right time,” the US National Security Council's Grant Harris said last week.