Nigeria, U.S. begin talks on resolving visa row in Washington

Officials from both countries are meeting in Washington as part of the Nigeria-US Binational Commission talks meant to strengthen ties.
Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama speaks to the press with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo(R), at the Department of State on February 4, 2020 in Washington,DC. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP)

Nigerian and US authorities on Tuesday began talks and expressed optimism that President Donald Trump’s administration would soon lift last week’s visa restrictions slammed on Africa’s most populous country.

Officials from both countries are meeting in Washington as part of the Nigeria-U.S. Bi-National Commission talks meant to strengthen ties. 

On a previously scheduled visit to Washington, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said he sought more information on Trump’s latest immigration crackdown announced last week which targeted Nigeria and five other countries.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meeting Onyeama, said Trump took action partly due to the “terrorism threat” in West Africa, where Nigeria has fought alongside the United States against terrorists, an AFP report said.

Nigeria remains a “strategic partner” but Trump restricted visas as it has “room to grow in sharing important national security information.” 

“I’m optimistic that’s going to happen,” Pompeo told reporters.

Smiling and striking a diplomatic tone, Onyeama said his talks were “very gratifying” but acknowledged that many Nigerians put “different spins” on why Trump was moving against them.

“We were somewhat blindsided by the announcement of the visa restrictions,” Onyeama said.

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He said that Nigeria had already been looking to address U.S. concerns, such as providing information on suspected terrorists and embedding electronic data into passports.

“We know, and the U.S. officials have also confirmed, that we have been able to tick most of those boxes,” he said.

The lingering problem, he said, involved how to handle lost and stolen Nigerian passports.

He said Nigeria was putting in place a system that would make data from such passports “immediately available” to all members of Interpol, the global law enforcement body.

“We hope to have that up and running very soon,” he said. “Hopefully, once that has been achieved, we look forward to being taken off this visa restriction list.”

Trump came to office vowing to impose border restrictions and notoriously was quoted as using a vulgar epithet for African and other developing nations that send immigrants to the United States.

Unlike a controversial order days after he took office that essentially banned entry to citizens from a number of Muslim-majority countries, the latest restrictions primarily involve foreigners who seek to immigrate rather than visit.

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Along with Nigeria, Trump imposed the curbs on nationals from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Sudan and Tanzania.

– Strengthening defense ties –

Despite the visa row, the Trump administration has stepped up cooperation with Nigeria as it cracks down on Boko Haram, the terrorist group notorious for suicide attacks against civilians.

The Trump administration has agreed to sell to Nigeria twelve A-29 Super Tucanos, which are light attack aircraft frequently used by the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan, and accompanying weapons for nearly $600 million.

The previous administration of Barack Obama had suspended aircraft sales over human rights concerns, but Pompeo said Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had promised to uphold standards.

“The United States will hold Nigeria to that pledge and will help you achieve it,” Pompeo said. 

In January 2017, a botched Nigerian air strike intended to hit extremists in the remote northeastern town of Rann killed at least 112 people as aid workers were distributing food.

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On Monday, the United States and Jersey, a self-governing British island off the coast of northern France, announced the return to Nigeria of $308 million that had been stashed abroad by former military dictator Sani Abacha.

Under the agreement, the money will go to build three infrastructure projects under outside oversight, with Nigeria paying back any funds lost to corruption.

Buhari “has made the fight against corruption one of the real key areas and priorities of the government,” Onyeama said.

“It has not been easy, but it is one that we are determined to win.”

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