By Paul Ejime*
In international relations, a nation’s foreign policy is usually the aggregate of its national interests, especially in the strategic socio-political, economic and security/military domains, often considered an extension of its domestic policy architecture.
Nigeria, given its size and endowment with human and natural resources, has always held the potential for greatness and continental leadership.
It is no secret that since independence from Britain in 1960, successive administrations in Nigeria have pursued an Afro-centrism and good neighbourliness foreign policy. This was informed by the unacceptable devastation of colonialism and racial discrimination suffered by Africans at the time of Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and its admission to the United Nations as the 99th member. At that time, anti-apartheid struggle was ineffective; most Western countries supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, while colonialism and discrimination against Blacks were largely unchallenged. Africa badly needed a strong voice, a rallying point and leadership, and Nigeria was a good fit.
The country wasted no time to mobilize and deploy its resources, particularly oil wealth and international clout, into robust efforts for the decolonization and liberation of Africa, including the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. This stance was primarily driven by an altruistic, if not thankless, and for a large part, unreciprocated Africa-centred foreign policy engagements. Under this policy, Nigeria breathed new life into the struggle for independence of many African countries such as Angola (1975), Zimbabwe (1980), Namibia (1990) and South Africa in 1994.
As a result of its principled stance, Nigeria was co-opted into the “Frontline States,” of mainly Southern African nations, for the prosecution of the fight against apartheid in South Africa. According to the South African Institute of International Affairs, between 1960 and 1995, Nigeria alone spent over US$61 billion to support the end of the obnoxious system, more than any other country in the world. A number of high-profile Southern African black personalities were offered asylum in Nigeria, including former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, while some personnel of the now-ruling African National Congress (ANC) also received military training and other material, financial and diplomatic support from Nigeria.
Nigeria was also instrumental in the setting up of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid and chaired the body for three decades, in addition to making huge financial contributions to the UN Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa, a voluntary trust fund for the education of the black South African elite.
Nigeria’s positive influence was felt across the continent and beyond. In West Africa, between the late 1980s and early 21st Century, Nigeria is on record to have spent more than US$6 billion in peace keeping operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone under the leadership of the Nigeria-based Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which the country was instrumental in founding in 1975.
On the global level, Nigeria in 1987 established a Technical Aid Corps (TAC) scheme as a ‘practical demonstration of South-South Cooperation.’ This is a voluntary international service scheme under which highly skilled Nigerians, particularly young people, volunteer to serve in developing countries for two years, to among other things, share Nigeria’s brimming human resources with other African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, toward promoting understanding between Nigeria and the recipient countries.
These are but a few examples of Nigeria’s sacrifices under its Afro-centrism and good neighbourliness foreign policy. The beneficiary countries might not have reciprocated the “Big brother” benevolent gesture. Still, it has remained a deliberate state policy, pursued with a commitment by successive Nigerian governments and defended by many of the country’s foreign relations experts.
There might have been some minor shifts in focus under different Foreign Affairs Ministers, such as the Concentric Circle policy of Prof Ibrahim Gambari (current Presidential Chief of Staff); Economic Diplomacy of the Major-Gen. Ike Nwachukwu’s era, Reciprocity, the Prof Bolaji Akinyemi Doctrine, and the Citizen-centric Diplomacy under Chief Ojo Maduekwe, among others. But in principle, there has not been much change in the content and spirit of Nigeria’s foreign policy.
Indeed, in defending Afro-centrism and good neighbourliness as a dual strategic concept, Nigeria’s first President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, talked about the “manifest destiny” of Africans, which the country’s pioneer Foreign Affairs Minister Jaja Wachukwu, extrapolated to the “Charity begins at home” mantra.
Also, in tandem with the pan-Africanist ideals of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, then Gold Coast, which gained independence in 1957, Nigeria’s Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa stated in 1964 that “Nigeria hopes to work with other African states for the progress of Africa and assist in bringing all African territories to a state of responsible independence.”
But what has changed and why?
In 2019, Nigeria unilaterally closed its land borders, citing threats to its national security and economy. Dangerous weapons were being smuggled indiscriminately into the country, while Boko Haram and other terrorist groups had a thoroughfare across the frontiers. Nigerian officials also complained that the country lost huge amounts in unearned duties from the smuggling of goods across the borders. The border closure was supposedly intended to nudge neighbouring governments into action, but they, on the other hand, complained that the Nigerian measure hurt their economies. After one year, the borders were reopened, but not before generating mutual suspicion and stoking apparent reprisal attacks on Nigerian traders in Ghana.
At home, the plan by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to build an oil refinery in neighbouring Niger and also construct a rail line to link Nigeria and Niger has been criticised by government opponents. Of course overlooked that in this criticism is the Afro-centric policy the country has implemented since independence, and which as outlined earlier greatly bolstered Nigeria’s stature on the continent.
Many scholars have defended Nigeria’s Afro-centrism and good neighbourliness concept, which is anchored on the four concentric circles of national interest, namely contiguous neighbours, notably Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin; relations with West African neighbours; the broad engagements with Africa, and then a commitment to ties with organizations, institutions and state actors outside the continent of Africa.
This is, of course, based on the assumption and purpose of leveraging the policy as a soft-power tool to earn respect, support, and to cultivate and enjoy the cooperation of the beneficiary countries. If this policy is effective in normal times, it is therefore a compelling option in a season of unprecedented insecurity such as Nigeria and other parts of the ECOWAS and the Sahel region are now facing.
In the same vein, if domestic policies require effective articulation, advocacy, communication/publicity, buy-in and ownership by the citizens, foreign policies are even more so. On this score, the presentation of Nigeria’s cultivation or support to Niger, as one of its strategic neighbours, if that were the case, at best, is incoherent and lacks effective explanation.
Any government policy couched in ambiguity or left to speculations is a recipe for controversy, no matter how well intended. To achieve the desired outcome, a nation’s foreign policy must be coherent, strategic, consistent and coterminous with its national interests. It must also enjoy the support of the majority of the citizens. This has to be cultivated.
The nation’s security is as strong as that of its neighbours. This has been underscored by the persistent Boko Haram insurgency, rampages of the so-called foreign bandits, and other sundry cross border criminals. The effect of the Joint Task Force made up of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon in curbing the threat posed by Boko Haram, at least for a while, showed why Nigeria needs good neighbours round it. The question is not, therefore, whether this is desirable, but the inability of government to articulate this policy and explain it further to Nigerians.
There is wisdom in using a soft-power approach to enable Nigeria to exercise the desired influence for mutually beneficial, bilateral/multilateral partnerships with other nations, near or far. The country has a rich repository of diplomatic and foreign affairs experts that can deliver pro-Nigeria cutting-edge and results-oriented foreign policy goals.
*Paul Ejime, a Journalist, Author and former Diplomatic/War Correspondent, is a Consultant on Communi