Rethinking Nigeria’s Foreign Policy

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
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Prior to the wanton killing of Nigerians living in South Africa by South Africans, Nigeria used to have two aliases among Africans: one was big brother and giant of Africa. As a big brother, Nigeria championed the causes of many African countries either in peacekeeping activities, or in liberation efforts. As African giant, our motherland used to be the largest economy in Africa, boosted by a teeming population known for its ability to thrive wherever they migrate.

To boost our image as big brother and African giant, successive Nigerian governments have pursued foreign policy thrusts that have presented us in a certain pro African light. Take for instance from the early 1960s after Nigeria attained independence from the British. As Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa pursued a Pan Africanist policy akin to the Kwame Nkrumaist doctrine of a United States of Africa. Highlights of Mr. Balewa’s epoch of conservative activism included programmes that sponsored friendship and cooperation with all nations of the world, non-alignment to any power blocks during the cold war and assistance to African states. Actually, this was to be the general direction that Nigeria’s military and civilian rulers headed in the early 80s, until Ibrahim Babangida reviewed it with a style known as economic diplomacy. In sum, IBB pursued a foreign policy that put Nigeria’s economic betterment at the forefront rather than that of Africa’s. According to this doctrine, Nigeria first considered what gains were to be gotten from any military, political or economic intervention in Africa before providing whatever assistance Africa needed. Pundits are wont to pontificate that his successor may have overly pursued this policy during the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone to the extent that the alleged unprofessional conduct of some of Nigeria’s soldiers in the ECOMOC era certainly put to question the credibility of Nigeria’s foreign policy of economic diplomacy.

It is impossible to ascertain if the degeneration of the Babangida foreign policy of economic diplomacy under the Abacha years led to a general hatred for Nigerians in Africa. Short of being a pariah state in the comity of nations, the Abacha years was an era characterized by conservative internationalism. Not many countries were interested in doing business with Nigeria then, and the giant in waiting, South Africa, was already waiting in the wings to usurp our position as being big but not as a brother.

But at no other time than the policy of Africa as the center-piece of our foreign thrust more vigorously pursued than in the dispensation of Olusegun Obasanjo. As ECOWAS and AU chairman, Mr. Obasanjo resuscitated the partnerships he brokered as military head of state with the struggle for the liberation of South Africa and the Polisario Front. However, this Pan African stance of our foreign policy during the Obasanjo years had a certain drawback. The international community was often confused about it only to realize that Nigeria’s foreign policy only began ‘when the president arrives’, a phrase often associated with the peculiar idiosyncrasy of an individual rather than a well thought out plan. This perhaps may have led the Yar’Adua government to shift from the bounciness of Mr. Obasanjo’s and build on the background of economic diplomacy started by IBB. One of Yar’Adua’s ministers once said, ‘Nigeria is becoming a beautiful bride. For us, really, whoever gives us the best terms, the best conditions, and is willing to come and invest, those are the ones that we’ll do business with’. This sentiment pretty much summed up the Jonathanian foreign policy thrust as well.

While all of this Pan African bravado and derring-do persisted, the lot of the average Nigerian took a dive. If there were a famine, a natural disaster, or the calamity of death in an African country, Nigeria would quickly rush in there with aid and assistance. If there were power outage in smaller African countries, Nigeria the big brother and giant would be ready and willing to provide power to our brother and sister African countries, even when Nigerians in their millions suffer power outages for days and days. This giant, always at the forefront in the vanguard of Pan Africanism did not seem to commit to her own citizens the way it cares for other African nations. Where other countries stand still and mourn at just one death, Nigerian leaders would dance, wine, dine, and jet out to meetings abroad out as if Nigerian lives and their dignity do not matter.

Therefore, part of the supreme irony in the higgledy-pigglediness of our foreign relations thrust which mostly appears to favour other peoples, seems to be that the more we focus on being big brother to our African brothers and sisters, the more they deride and insult and kill our people. Rather than being seen as a good neighbor and benefactor, many African countries see Nigeria in a bad light. To most Africans, Nigeria is a bully with misplaced priorities.

That said, what really is the foreign policy thrust of the Buhari government? Most Nigerians have no idea.  Something of it began to take shape when Mr. Buhari criticized his predecessor’s predilection at consulting with other African leaders on the Chad Basin, to solve our internal security challenges. One strong perception, and which helped him become president was that with a strong military background, he would tackle the security issues with military dispatch. Nevertheless, all of that gave way first to his ‘body language’, and thereafter to an adoption of the same diplomatic tactics of his predecessor that he criticized. Otherwise, what kind of diplomatic dictionary would we use in getting at the meaning of a private businessman, instead of the Nigerian government, bringing home our fellow citizens from South Africa in the wake of the xenophobic attacks? What is the role of private businesspersons and women at the tipping points of our foreign policy formulation? Nothing wrong with private people offering to help – the only snag there is, is in the matchless perspective of nonchalance of the Nigerian government to the plight of hapless Nigerians abroad which that gesture sent.

But the present government can work hard at defining a foreign policy thrust not aimed at Africa but at Nigerians. Even though we can still take care of our African brothers and sisters, Nigerians must come first not last. Our governments should develop a foreign policy based on a domestic policy that prioritizes the security and welfare of her citizens.


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