Clad in white and blue — the same shades as the Israeli flag — his supporters thronged the streets of the city, waving American flags and holding high placards that read: “Make America great again” and “President Trump: America needs a man like you”.
These were scenes from a pro-Trump march in Onitsha, a city in Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra state, where the majority are Igbo and Christian, and where some believe themselves to be linked to Israelites.
He may never know it, but as United States President Donald Trump fails to impress at the polls in the US, diehard fans in the populous West African state he once categorised as a “shithole country” continue to rally for him.
“I like him because he forces people to stay in their country and build it instead of running to America for green pasture,” says Osita Obeta, 30, a pro-Trump electrician in Asaba, an hour from Onitsha. “You cannot go to another person’s country and take all they have.”
Pro-Trump sentiments in African countries such as Nigeria have grown since Trump won the 2016 election. His outspoken nature and conservative leanings draw him support from these most unlikely quarters. A majority in Nigeria and Kenya, both very religious countries, have confidence in Trump to do the right thing regarding world affairs, a 2020 survey revealed.
Trump’s racist rhetoric may have given Obeta pause, but God forbid that former president Joe Biden take his place, he says.
There are as many reasons as there are groups who love Trump in Nigeria, where half the population is Christian and where many align with the Republican Party’s religious and conservative positions.
A small community of Igbo Jews in the country’s south who believe they are descendants of ancient Israel see Trump’s aggressive support for present-day Israel — particularly his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital — as something akin to leading them back to the promised land. It is said in this community that exiled Israeli tribes roamed the earth and settled in southeast Nigerian towns such as Umuleri and Arochukwu, and that the word “Igbo” is itself a corruption of “Hebrew”.
Then there is the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), a group in southern Nigeria pushing for secession. On the morning after the Brexit referendum, when president Trump took to his Twitter page to tweet in support of self-determination for the United Kingdom, he unknowingly signalled to Biafran activists that he might support their cause too.
In November 2016, after Trump was voted in, 200 Massob members gathered in an Anambra church for thanksgiving. They prayed that Trump would bend the will of President Muhammadu Buhari (aka “Pharaoh”), to grant Biafra freedom. After all, one cleric had said, “it was the prayers of the Biafrans that stopped Hilary Clinton from winning the presidential election”.
Nigerian clerics, among them big names such as Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, also form a good portion of Trump’s cheer team abroad, just as evangelical Christians are a key component of his base at home. Trump is compared by some to a modern-day messiah conquering a world descending into immorality and damnation.
Trump’s tough stance on gay rights and abortion and his scarcely-hidden Islamophobia have won him major cool points in these conservative circles. Trump played well to that base when he questioned Buhari on “Christians who are being murdered in Nigeria,” choosing a non-nuanced approach to a complicated conflict brewing in the country’s middle belt.
“Trump is the modern-day Cyrus,” Archdeacon Emeka Ezeji of Missionary Christ Anglican Church in Enugu, southeast Nigeria, told the BBC earlier this month, referring to the biblical Persian king who conquered Babylon and freed Jewish captives. “God is saying … he’s my servant who will do my will.”
Even as the American vote nears and Trump’s tone grows a tad desperate — “Will you please like me?” he pleaded at a recent Pennsylvania rally — his Nigerian supporters remain undeterred.
It appears to matter little that Trump has not shown equal love to Nigeria. Although his administration overturned an Obama-era arms embargo on Nigeria, it has barred Nigerian migrants — the highest-achieving immigrant group in the US — and lobbied to keep Nigerians from top positions in the World Trade Organisation and the African Development Bank.
In Onitsha, the white-and-blue-clad crowd — members of the Living Christ Mission Church — are still singing the president’s praises, carrying banners that read: “Trump 2020: Keep America Great”.
Shola Lawal is a Lagos-based journalist and filmmaker.
This story first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here.