Since US president Donald Trump took office in 2016, Nigeria has been one of the targets of several of his administration’s anti-immigration policies and negative comments. But he remains quite popular in the world’s largest Black country by population.
Take the most recent move: a proposed change to student visa rules by the US Department of Homeland Security which will mean Nigerian students (alongside 35 other African countries) will only be issued with initial two-year visas even if their degree programs will take longer. While they can apply for extensions which will come at extra costs, there is no guarantee they will be granted.
The proposed restrictions come even though the number of Nigerian students studying in the US has doubled over the past decade and the economic impact of their spending topped half a billion dollars last year alone.
Other high-profile moves from the Trump administration have included an indefinite suspension of a visa interview waiver for Nigerian applicants, an increase in visa fees charged to Nigerians and a ban on issuing immigrant visas to Nigerians.
Despite these however, Trump still retains a vocal support base among Nigerians early on with more than 69% of Nigerians viewing the US favorably in 2017. A more recent marker of Trump’s popularity in Africa’s largest country came in a January Pew Research poll which showed that Nigeria ranked as the fourth highest globally among countries whose citizens have confidence in Trump’s handling of foreign affairs, behind only the Philippines, Israel, and Kenya.
Much of the support is rooted in Trump’s recent political image as representing conservative values. Policy stances such as being anti-abortion and projecting these values are a pull among swathes of Nigerians where the population is largely conservative.
“Most Nigerians grew up in deeply religious homes so we’re definitely more conservative than liberal,” says Ayobami Adekojo, a Trump-supporting political communications strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns in Nigeria. “Both Christians and Muslims align on a lot of things when it comes down to core conservatism and it goes a long way in fostering Trump support in Nigeria,” he tells Africa.
Indeed, Nigeria’s Christian population—already the largest on the continent—is projected to double by 2060. In fact, Nigeria will be home to the third largest Muslim and Christian populations globally and will be the only country on the list on top 10 largest populations for both religions by 2060.
Given the deep roots of religious conservatism in Nigeria, it’s not a country that’s particularly split based on political views like the US. In fact, unlike the US where the Republican and Democratic parties have clearly different political ideologies and policies on a multitude of issues, Nigeria’s two main political parties have no such major distinction. If anything, they have more similarities than differences as evidenced by rampant political cross-carpeting (switching allegiances from one party to another) in Nigeria. It’s a reality that means both of the major parties have over time been led and populated by the same crop of politicians.
Perhaps the most prominent example is former vice-president Atiku Abubakar who has contested for the presidency on the platform of Nigeria’s two major parties twice each between 2007 and 2019. (The equivalent in the US would be Joe Biden switching between the Republican and Democratic parties and contesting for the presidency on those platforms two times each in the last 12 years.)
For Christians in particular, the support for Trump also stems from his carefully crafted persona as a pillar for US evangelicals. But they have been even more moved by Trump’s perceived empathy for their plight.
Over the past few years, rising cases of communal clashes in parts of Nigeria, including its Muslim-majority north, have developed religious undertones with many believing that Christians are being persecuted. It’s a sentiment that was trumpeted by Trump himself during a 2018 state visit to the US by Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari as the US president his administration has “had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria.”
While the soundbite was primarily intended to rally his American evangelical base, it inadvertently stirred Nigerian Christians too. “If they’re feeling persecution at home and the leader of the free world, a bible-waving guy, stands for them, he’s going to get support in Nigeria,” Adekojo says.
“Trump mouths his religious affiliation very loudly and it resonates with the average Nigerian even though some of his policies are seen as anti-Nigerian,” says Leonard Akinribido, an Ondo state legislator who also supports Trump.
In a similar vein, some of Trump’s appeal is also rooted in this tough stance on “radical Islamic terrorism.” It resonates in Nigeria where an insurgency by terror sect Boko Haram has devastated the country’s northeast over the past decade. And Trump’s approval of the sale of $500 million worth of fighter jets and military gear to Nigeria (a move that was delayed by the Obama administration citing human rights violations by Nigerian soldiers) to boost its fight against Boko Haram deepens his popularity.
While Trump’s anti-immigration policies on Nigeria are evidently hard-hitting—Nigeria recorded the largest global drop-off in visitors to the US in 2019, it is often overlooked that the most affected segment of the country’s population are firmly in the privileged minority. In a country that’s home to the most people living in extreme poverty globally and where there are lingering concerns over the actual size of the middle class, anti-immigration policies are unlikely to be of broad concern with international travel out of reach for a majority.
“A lot of people cannot even afford student visas to the US in the first place, so they don’t really care,” Adekojo says. “They don’t care if Trump is saying you should not come for your holiday anymore.”