Imagine a world where travelling with a green passport accorded you respect, not suspicion. Or, administration where foreigners married Nigerians for citizenship.
The world is more interconnected than ever, and it is why evaluating foreign policy is important, and for a country like Nigeria, ensuring that a vibrant and active one is in place.
Many of us ignore how affairs abroad affect us at home, but the world we live in is smaller than it seems. Our relationship with other nations is why petrol prices increase when a coalition of other oil producing countries say so and why travelling to the United States became more difficult when a certain gentleman tried to stick too much in his pants. It affects where students can go to school, where staff can go for training and even just generally where people can go to find better economic opportunities. We've all heard the refrain that one in every five sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian, surely that means that any issue for concern elsewhere will affect Nigerians and Nigeria at large.
But despite what we may believe, Nigeria isn't a global superpower. Regional power yes, but no superpower. Our press will not grill the President over action or inaction on international matters. But because Nigerians thrive everywhere, we should be concerned about our neighbours. This concern materialised with the contagiousness of coups in West Africa during the sixties, and since then, Nigerian officers have served in foreign missions under ECOWAS to preserve this peace.
We must understand that just as we upgrade security and form community watch groups after a spate of robberies, we should make sure our foreign policy takes care of us.
The Giant of Africa
Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who doubled as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in 1960, was an active foreign commentator on the world stage. From his analysis on how foreign aid and trade affected independence, we see the foundation of Nigeria’s approach to international relations. "We belong to Africa, and Africa must claim first attention in our external affairs," he said, firmly linking Nigeria’s identity to Africa.
Additionally, our past military leadership also explains Nigeria’s dominance of the ECOWAS military peacekeeping operations (ECOMOG) in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Murtala/Obasanjo leadership played a key role in the Angolan crisis by swinging support for the MPLA while Nigeria’s former Foreign Minister Joseph Nanven Garba served as Chairman of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid. Unsurprisingly, these are a few of the hallmarks that encouraged many Africans to think of us as the big brother, a role we may now struggle to keep.
The Jet-setting President
After his inauguration, President Buhari spent a quarter of his first 100 days in office outside the country. Nigerians had to deal with two issues with Buhari's foreign trips – the occasional faux pas such as when he displayed his ignorance of Germany's leader and the fact that Nigerians hear more from the President when he travels abroad. The latter is even more frustrating when Buhari addresses issues that are domestic and could be easily covered at home. Thanks to his firm control, the perception is that President Buhari drives foreign policy personally, which will no doubt stagnate now that his ill health has hindered his ability to travel.
The trips were spun as a blitz to repair foreign relations with countries that the previous administration had mishandled. A closer inspection shows the flaw in this rationale. Of the nine countries Buhari visited in his first 100 days, seven were African; all of which could have been handled with adequate representation from the Foreign Ministry if Buhari did not wait for six months before naming a Foreign Minister. In short, his delay set the scene for a President-led approach to foreign policy.
The Gambia, an opportunity missed
One of the biggest African crises that the Buhari administration encountered was in the Gambia. American Presidents are popularly identified by foreign policy successes or failures – Nixon in Vietnam, Bush Jr. in Iraq, Obama in Libya.
Nigerian Presidents surprisingly have a similar record as Obasanjo in Liberia and Jonathan in Cote D’Ivoire come to mind. Gambia was Buhari’s chance to show that Nigeria was going to continue to lead the region. But even as Nigeria played a part and Buhari visited Gambia, the decisive actions and leadership came from Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Senegalese President Macky Sall.
In fairness, Senegal’s proximity to the conflict made them a natural choice to act, but Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire and Mali, all sites of previous Nigerian foreign policy triumphs, are not immediate neighbours. Historically, when West Africa is concerned, Nigeria is the big brother. Therefore, it is clear that Buhari could have been more effective in Gambia.
Even though Sall and Johnson-Sirleaf were more decisive, Buhari had more tools for action. As Nigerian President, he could have ensured that the Nigerian Justice who served as the Chief Justice of Gambia presided over a constitutional resolution of the crisis. Buhari could also have been more aggressive in deploying troops. It is likely that preemptive Nigerian diplomacy and pressure could have averted the eventual ECOWAS occupation and hastened the resolution of the crisis in the Gambia. Instead, Buhari went on medical leave just before the crisis was resolved.
Worryingly, this poor leadership can only get more difficult without the backing of the African Union.
The Loss at the African Union
Undoubtedly, one of the stages that Nigeria flexes her muscles is the African Union, one of the reasons being that we are one of the highest contributors to the body. In response, we have received something similar to the sort of prominence accorded to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
The African Union is led by a Commission, including Commissioners that handle specific portfolios. Countries bid to have their nationals serve in these positions. Nigeria, since the African Union was formed in 2002, has always produced the Commissioner for Political Affairs and it is considered a plum job within the organisation. This year, Nigeria did not return the incumbent commissioner or run for that position. Instead, Nigeria ran for and duly lost the position of Commissioner for Peace and Security.
It means for the first time since the AU was formed, there will be no Nigerian voice at the highest level of African diplomacy. At the time, it was suggested that the Nigerian candidate for the role was chosen against the recommendation of the Foreign Ministry panel. Whether or not Nigeria has a very vibrant foreign policy will depend on its ability to extend its influence on the continent, and the fact that it has lost a strong voice at the AU does not bode well.
On the bright side, what we lost at the AU, we gained at the UN...
Amina J. Mohammed
Nigerians actively following diplomatic affairs would have had bittersweet feelings towards the end of last year, when the new United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres named our former Environment Minister Amina J Mohammed as his choice for the only post of Deputy Secretary-General. Mohammed is the highest ranking Nigerian in UN history, and her appointment has been received favourably, one reason being that her previous experience with the UN made her a strong choice to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals.
However, the reality is that her appointment was not because of President Buhari's administration, so it does not count as a Foreign policy achievement because we did not campaign, lobby or nominate her for the role. Her personal achievements got her the post, despite being under the Buhari administration. The reason it is important is that it does show that Nigerians continue to thrive in international affairs, and there are a lot of opportunities for the Nigerian government to work in close collaboration with her.
Defenders of the administration can rightfully mention invitations to G7 and G20 summits, receptions in world capitals and the lack of a major foreign policy mishap. Moreover, Buhari's economic team has been actively engaged in selling the APC economic plan to international investors. The successful Eurobond sales, amidst our economic turmoil, can be considered one result of this.
However, this does not constitute change, and those 'achievements' do not befit a country of Nigeria's stature. Whether it’s in resolving issues or voicing the opinions and aspirations of other African states, our size and our ability comes with a responsibility we cannot ignore. It is why despite the issues highlighted, there is still hope for a successful Foreign policy by Buhari and his team. He has an evidently qualified Foreign Minister, and now the ear of the number two person at the United Nations. For now, the truth is bitter – in areas that can be measured and evaluated, Nigeria’s voice has so far been muted on the world stage. Africa desperately needs it to be heard again.