By Moses E. Ochonu

Last week, Farooq Kperogi’s Saturday Tribune column compellingly debunked Ambassador John Campbell’s coy defense of President Buhari and his inner circle against credible allegations of corruption. Kperogi demonstrated that, contrary to Campbell’s claims, neither Buhari nor members of his inner circle are free of the stain of corruption.

Moses E. Ochonu

I do not intend to re-litigate what Kperogi has analyzed persuasively. Instead I’d like to extend his analysis by establishing that there is a historical pattern to Ambassador Campbell’s pro-Buhari treatise, and that the man has a history of using his platform and perch at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to propagate a pro-Buhari agenda rooted in a deeper discourse tradition.

Take Campbell’s recent claim on Buhari’s austerity and the absence of a credible allegation of corruption against Buhari, for instance. This is a recycling of a claim Campbell made in a CFR video posted to YouTube on June 1, 2015, in which he stated that Buhari “has never been tarred by credible allegations of corruption.”

In the same video, Campbell claims that prior to 2015, Buhari lost elections in questionable circumstances, insinuating that in the previous elections of 2003, 2007, and 2011, Buhari could and should have won. This, of course, betrays Campbell’s ignorance of Nigeria’s recent presidential electoral dynamics, which, prior to 2015, marooned Buhari to his northern Muslim base as an unviable provincial candidate incapable of winning national electoral contests. 

This pro-Buhari disposition has now morphed into pro-regime activism, activating in Campbell an impulse to attack and discredit Buhari’s critics. This, in turn, is grounded in a paternalistic zeal to protect and defend the regime from what he sees as the criticism of traducers.

One thing is discernible in Campbell’s writings on Nigeria: He believes that southern Nigerians are out to get Buhari, the allegedly honest, austere Muslim president. That’s the context in which he made the recent claim that widespread corruption in Buhari’s inner circle “is a widely held trope in Southern Nigeria.” 

There is a method and a pattern to Campbell’s proverbial madness.

The former ambassador projects himself as a friend of the Northern ruling class, of which Buhari is the present embodiment, and advances himself as a paternal defender of the North. 

In a March 2015 lecture, he attempted to answer the question of “where did Boko Haram come from?” by repeating the discredited claim that Boko Haram was a Northern protest against bad governance and corruption!

Similarly, in 2014, he signed a letter to then US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, urging her not to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, a move now widely considered ill-advised at best and catastrophic at worst.

At the heart of Campbell’s commentaries on Nigerian affairs then is a pro-regime loyalty that is part of a broader public intellectual profile that purports to protect the North from allegedly unfair Southern Nigerian and international actions and narratives. 

Accordingly, Campbell seeks to delegitimize criticisms of Buhari’s incompetence, corruption, nepotism, and provincialism by ascribing malicious and primordial motives to them. In Campbell’s simplistic terms, a critique of Buhari’s failures is a plot by “Christian” Southern Nigerians and their Western sympathizers to get at the Muslim North through Buhari.

Every opportunity he gets he burnishes this public persona of defender of Buhari and the North. Writing in The Atlantic in June 2011, Campbell and Asch Harwood claimed that then President Goodluck Jonathan’s “outreach to the North has so far been disappointing.” 

They were suggesting that Jonathan had been unfair to the North in appointments, a dangerous rhetoric that stoked the grievances of the North against Jonathan, a Southerner, and exacerbated Nigeria’s regional and religious fissures. What’s more, it was not even factual, given how inclusive Jonathan’s administration was in comparison to Buhari’s clannish and unprecedentedly nepotistic regime.

If Campbell’s hypotheses about Southern Nigerian assault on the North and a Northern president sounds conspiratorial, that’s because it is. Not only are Northerners now fed up with Buhari’s failures and not only are they some of his most vocal critics, the idea that there is a Southern Nigerian trope of Buhari’s corruption and incompetence flies in the face of the mess that Buhari has made of Nigeria, a fact which enjoys pan-Nigerian currency and provenance.

Campbell has always postured as a “friend” of the North, but northerners do not need those who condescendingly defend the current corruption and incompetence, of which they are the primary victims. 

Either Campbell harbors animus against Southern Nigeria or his is an incorrigible impulse to defend a North that can and does defend itself robustly. The last thing the North needs at this time is some foreign “expert” telling them that Buhari, who has failed to protect their lives and treasure, is an honest, austere leader who is being maligned by Southern Nigerians.

What are the historical and ideological antecedents of this pro-Northern pretensions?

For those of us who study Northern Nigerian history for a living, Campbell’s attitude and commentaries reveal and recall the British colonial attitude of patronizingly extolling the “authentic Islamic and African” virtues of northerners while denigrating southerners as troublesome, rabble-rousing radicals who were allegedly corrupted and separated from the restraining influence of African culture by Western education and worldly ambitions. Campbell is still operating in that avuncular colonial racist frame.

In colonial times, Frederick Lugard and other British colonial officials barred Christian missionaries from setting up schools in the Muslim North. They regularly discussed the need to protect northern Muslims from the alleged dangers of unbridled Western education and from the contagion and criticism of the Southern Nigerian intelligentsia. They were determined to protect the North, a region they “loved” because they claimed it had order, authority, and hierarchy.

Their alliance with Northern emirs and aristocrats further intensified this determination to protect the North from both Western modernity and Western-educated Southerners. The effect of that policy and that colonial attitude exists today in the Western educational gap between North and South.

Colonial officials would lash out at Southern Nigerians who criticized the failures and rapaciousness of the Northern aristocratic and political classes. They would in turn venerate the North and its aristocracy. 

This was a paternalistic racism that infantilized Northern Nigerians, making them out to be naïve, impressionable, vulnerable, and contaminable children who should be protected from the influence and attacks of Southern Nigerians. 

Colonialists were not “protecting” Northern Nigerians because they were less racist towards them but because the North’s sharply stratified society was more amenable to their rule than the South.

This is the historical colonial discourse that Ambassador Campbell is resurrecting. Campbell’s pro-North and pro-Buhari pronouncements are the postcolonial iteration of this colonial avuncular racism. 

Today, this project grows out of several impulses. One of them is white liberal guilt and the accompanying desire to protect supposed Muslim victims of an alleged Western and local Christian Islamophobic conspiracy. 

The other motivation is what scholars of Africa call the white savior complex, a phenomenon in which liberal white “experts” feigning sympathy and empathy for Africans are always looking for vulnerable African groups to “save” and “protect” as a do-good, feel-good endeavor to assuage their conscience. 

The third motivation is what is called the soft bigotry of low expectations, a benign, sometimes well-intentioned, racism in which a Western actor considers African interlocutors to be so incapable that he/she believes that it is better to hold them to a lower standard of leadership, ability, and performance than one would impose on a white person or a black person considered “white” in character, skill, and learning.

Campbell’s insistence on defending Buhari’s incompetent and corrupt regime and on ignoring Northerners who have demonstrated the ability to fight their own battles and hold their kinsman president accountable shows clearly that he is operating in this patronizing neocolonial mode.

Ochonu, Professor of African History and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, can be reached at 

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