Nigeria's initial failure to sign the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) is the latest example of the rest of the continent becoming content to move on even if it means leaving its biggest economy behind. And while some would argue for the benefits of focusing on internal affairs, Nigeria risks ceding its leadership on the continent.
Yesterday: Africa's Big Brother
A large economy, population, and military strength are some of the ingredients used to create the diplomatic influence that secures a country’s leadership position within a region. Under Tafawa Balewa, endowed with those ingredients, Nigeria decided it was in her best interest to use that influence to help liberate other African countries from the vestiges of colonialism. That set the tone for Nigeria’s Afrocentric foreign policy. The motivation was simple and altruistic; to become a doting big brother to her African counterparts. Subsequent Nigerian governments stuck, at least in principle, to Tafawa Balewa’s approach.
Nigeria mounted pressure on the apartheid government of South Africa and took on western powers by backing the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). And in West Africa, Nigeria offered herself as the economic and military machinery of ECOWAS and ECOMOG in attempts to quell civil wars in Liberia and numerous offshoots of conflict. So while the media may not cover it, Nigeria's foreign policy has affected the lives of many African citizens.
Today: Uncertainty and Confusion
Evaluating Nigeria's current foreign policy throws up fewer triumphs and hallmarks.
By nature, foreign policy is an extension of the internal environment of a country; a country cannot pursue international relations at odds with domestic policies. While Nigeria generally followed the overarching principle of Afrocentrism, frequent changes in leadership and the inconsistent domestic policies that followed negatively impacted her national image and foreign policy objectives.
Nigeria has also failed to protect its citizens, giving the impression of a government that doesn't care about its people. Whether it's the government's failure to protest the killings of Nigerians in South Africa or the muted response to the endemic slave migrant crisis in Libya. We have also recorded institutional losses, failing to win a seat on the African Union Commission at the last elections for the first time.
Nigeria's ailing military strength has also done her reputation few favours. Despite recording notable victories, the Nigerian-led Multinational Joint Task Force has been unable to completely wipe out Boko Haram. Moreover, it has suffered challenges with funding, coordination, and following the chain of command. This has not only stretched the military thin, but it means Nigeria has had to let other countries take the lead in dealing with regional crises. A recent example is the 2017 ECOWAS military intervention in the Gambia where Nigeria reportedly contributed substantially fewer troops than Senegal.
At the root of a lot of these misadventures is administrative mismanagement. Nigerian foreign policy positions are notorious for being given out as the repayment of political favours. This means that there is an unnecessarily high turnover of senior Ambassadors when an administration leaves office. For example, the number of Jonathan-era non-political appointees was so high that Buhari's decision to fire them upon assuming office left many critical missions understaffed. With fewer career ambassadors and less experienced diplomats, critical foreign missions are not led by career-tested envoys of the country.
Finally, the highest profile Ambassador of the country is still the President. Buhari was the first African president that Trump welcomed to the White House, but his subsequent review of the meeting (calling Buhari 'lifeless'), leaves a lot to be desired. And with commentators ascribing the visit of Kenya's President Kenyatta as a chance to redefine US-Africa relations, after Buhari's visit, the U.S might have found a different voice to speak for Africa.
Tomorrow: The Stakes are High
For better or worse, Nigeria remains an essential player in Africa. However, with moves like Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS and smaller economies rising rapidly, she needs to work hard to consolidate her position.
One way Nigeria can achieve this is by deepening engagement with her diaspora. The diaspora can be incredibly influential, in both foreign policy and economic terms. Even though the remittance of $22bn in 2017 is a lot of money for the economy, the majority of it went to friends and family. Nigeria can create structures within the country that encourage its diaspora to return and invest more in human and infrastructure development. Naturally, diaspora bonds come to mind here. But, also, the Diaspora Commission Bill signed into law could be a crucial first step.
Most Nigerians are not directly affected by the foreign policy in their day to day lives but would feel the ripple effects. An expertly run foreign policy machinery is an invaluable asset to the economy. It can secure better trade deals and foreign direct investment. It can also help to create better intelligence for our security operatives. Nigerians care about these and should care about who runs the country’s foreign policy. After all, who doesn't want to be able to fly proudly with just the green passport?