Sketching a Foreign Policy Agenda for General Buhari

Buhar at Downing Street

By Professor Hassan Saliu

It is important to preface this article by stating my position on contemporary Nigerian foreign policy. This is necessary for this intervention to have the foundation for a better appreciation of its central message. Nigerian foreign policy in the last two decades has been gripped by a kind of inertia that has made people to wonder about what has befallen the country’s external relations that its reach and push is not as expansive and rewarding if compared with its profile in the 1970s. The nation that was known to be a credible and influential voice in Africa has suddenly become a country that even less endowed countries deride and her leaders not being accorded the treatment that befits them as leaders of the giant nation in Africa. Observers often cite the repeated cases of provocation by South Africa, the Gbagbo saga in Cote d’Ivoire, regular interferences and meddlesomeness in Nigerian affairs by some other African countries and ambassadors of some Great Power countries serving in Nigeria, etc., as noticeable low points in the country’s foreign policy.

The country’s relations with the leading western nations have been charactrised by uneasiness informed by too many issues in contention especially same sex marriage, insurgency, high level of official corruption and others and this has extended to the arena of international organizations with the Africa Union and ECOWAS unfortunately reflecting more the declining influence of the country in multilateral relations.

More unfortunate is the dimension of the irritating level of relations the country has had with her neighbours in West Africa. Nothing shows this more than the on-going war against boko haram that only began to show signs of success after Chad, Niger and Cameroon changed their aloofness and reluctance to Nigeria’s war against the militant Islamic sect due to pressures applied by the dominant western countries such as America, Britain and France. One can therefore ask; for how long will Nigeria continue to count on the west to ginger cooperation and peace regime in the West African region? This is likely to be for as long as it takes Nigeria to take the bold step in comprehensively reviewing her foreign policy.

As I was about to conclude this piece, the news of the USA support to Nigeria’s neighbours that are involved in the war against boko haram through France broke out. This has inevitably raised several issues for interrogation. Of the immediate relevance to me in this paper is; why would the USA resort to the circuitous movement when the real theatre for the war against boko haram is Nigeria? The immediate answer one can readily give for this is that it is a reflection of the country’s current low level of international standing.

I must at this point congratulate the President-elect for his victory at the last presidential poll. It is also necessary to recognize the gesture of President Jonathan in accepting defeat even before the announcement of the final results by INEC. In case people do not know, the gesture, token and inevitable as it was, has far-reaching implications for the country’s foreign policy under General Buhari. This is based on the observed trends in world politics and the octopus place of the now famous Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Although still enmeshed in controversy, judging by how matters have been played out in countries not too far from us such as Cote d’ivore, it would have been calamitous for the giant nation in Africa after several warnings on the consequences of non-acceptance of election results coming from the notable global actors to be added to the list of infamous countries. The threat of trial at the ICC that was waved during the period of electoral uncertainty in the country was evidently a factor that somewhat restored sanity and provided the basis for the comradeship that has been seen developing among the political gladiators since the end of the electoral contest, not minding the braggadocio and the skirmishes that have characterized the conclusion of the electoral process.

Having been saved the stigma and the consequent opprobrium of being whipped to toe the line, the President-elect must allow those his fine and reassuring postulations on foreign policy to guide his conduct to restore the confidence of global players in what people are generally referring to as “ a clay footed leader” in Africa.

Based on the intricate relationship that exists between domestic and foreign policies of a nation, there is the need to work on the domestic environment especially the political order/structure in view of the crucial role it can play in the foreign policy pursuits of Nigeria. The APC as a party must show the same level of commitment to foreign policy issues as its President-elect. Also, the party must appreciate the value of unity and cohesion in taking up the mandate that has been given to it by Nigerians.

All the knotty issues on zoning and the nature of relationship that should exist between the party and its elected officials and members must be resolved to the satisfaction of its members. While the concept of party supremacy is somehow water tight in the Parliamentary System, the APC leaders must come to the realization that the Presidential System cannot be rigidly operated on the strength of party supremacy. There are copious cases one can cite in the country’s political history since the Second Republic to support this assertion.

It is obvious that the President under the Presidential System has some privileges and indeed, he is supposed to be the centre of gravity and attraction once elected and has assumed office. One observes that the texture and character of our country’s politics with all its peculiar fault lines can hardly promote the South African model that some political actors are gazing at. For now, it is an aspiration in Nigeria. It is therefore necessary to strike a healthy balance between the powers of the President and those of the party to permit the formulation and execution of a robust foreign policy agenda for Nigeria.

This paper also recognizes the imperative need of focusing on issue areas in Nigeria’s foreign policy and indeed, a few of the pieces written on Nigerian foreign policy since the winning of the Presidential election on the 28th of March 2015 by General Buhari have concentrated on them. The point of departure for my own effort is that when the building blocks of Nigeria’s foreign policy are well cut out and they are in the right shape, naturally they will produce noticeable effects on the issue areas.

I take off from the understanding that foreign policy has plenty of benefits for nation-states that show uncommon courage in confronting their external environment. But unfortunately for our dear country, she is not being perceived as a model in this regard and therefore too many unpleasant outcomes have trailed our foreign policy to the extent that people often forget the glorious days of the nation’s foreign policy or they over celebrate them at times. Contemporarily, It is either we are digging little or not at all. It is also ether we are punching from the wrong corners or approaches or not being noticed at all.

This is unfortunately so because our position and reading of the global system have been constrained by the cold war environment under which our country got her political independence. A realistic and forward-looking approach will be to go back to the basics and determine the place and position of Nigeria in the international system that is devoid of sentiments or leadership syndrome. Questions such as; what is the place of Nigeria in global affairs? What is the perception of other countries about the country? and others can be thrown up for interrogation.

I lay the blame for the agony and lamentations of Nigerians over non-reciprocal international relationships at the doorstep of the country for failing to do periodic reviews of her place in the global system. A well defined place of Nigeria in the system will necessarily affect the options we take and the resources we need to back them up. No doubt, reports do exist on the appropriate level of funding for Nigerian foreign policy but such documents have not been implemented partly because old assumptions borne out of a faulty assessment frame work still vibrate and dominate thinking on Nigeria’s diplomacy.

The concern for Africa which our foreign policy radiates is desirable but not much recognition has been accorded the changes that have taken place and are still taking place in African inter-state relations. The new generation of world leaders especially Africans do not have any recollection of Nigeria’s diverse contributions to the health of their countries. Their mood suggests that they are not being circumspect and showing deference to the leading nation in Africa as their fore-bearers had done.

The recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the undiplomatic treatment generally being meted out to Nigerians in virtually all corners of the world are the manifestations of the huge resentment level against the country. Increasingly, this twist represents a disappointment for the informed public who had expected a certain level of respectability based on the past wide spread investments of the country on the global arena.

A resort to a realistic assessment of the nation’s position in global affairs will, no doubt, show this irritation in the conduct of Nigerian foreign policy and suggests ways of wriggling out of the problem and make the country’s voice to be once again respected in the world in the fashion desired by the President-elect. Also, the long standing issue of lack of coordination that has limited the achievement level of the country in external relations can be impacted upon through the act of going back to the basics. The country through the revelations of such a review will know that the large delegations that she often presents at international forums are not doing her external image any good.

Our country is receding from the global affairs due to, among others, the mounting domestic problems. Insecurity is surely one of them. Corruption, unemployment, poor economy and others represent the ugly side of our existence today. The President- elect has given his commitment to the restoration of the commensurate level of respectability to Nigeria in the committee of nations. This cannot materialize if the obsession is only with the myriad of domestic problems as it was the case in the 1980s.

Our poor outing in Mali and non-military participation in Central Africa Republic have been duly blamed on the domestic problems. I also argue that by re-assessing Nigeria’s place in the global system, the country’s leaders will realise that with a proper and well-focused foreign policy, the hidden impact of external relations would be revealed and that will be to the advantage of the mounting domestic problems.

Failure to prepare adequately last year in terms of weighing the proposals for external support in the war against boko haram before throwing the door of the country wide open for the varied, little understood and inconsequential external support was the root of the disappointments that the Nigerian state harboured against certain countries that rushed to pledge assistance for the country. Instead of receding, the boko haram agents were more encouraged in inflicting unacceptable level of injuries on the citizens and even across the borders despite the rain of external support for the country.

It was really a bad day for students of Nigeria’s foreign policy when France and Britain had to be relied upon to render some help to Nigeria before some of her neighbors that she had spent a fortune on and suffered diplomatically in the hands of some extra-African powers for being too protective of them, could key into the proposals for a sub-regional approach to the fight against boko haram.

To drive the wholesale review of Nigeria’s foreign policy is the President- elect himself and by extension, the APC. Once he is well at home with the concept of a dynamic foreign policy, he will be guided in his choice of foreign Affairs Minister. While it is inappropriate to make a case for any particular person at this point, the President-elect being an old hand in the theatre of governance in Nigeria can make a good choice.

It is irresistible to remark that the fortunes of Nigeria’s foreign policy have, however, shown more during periods when the right persons have been appointed to man the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No meaningful impact can be made as we have had in recent past when excessive political permutations were given preference over considerations for the good health of the nation’s external relations. Again, the need to go back to the drawing board over the issue of Nigerian foreign policy being suggested in this paper cannot come to fruition unless the country is careful in choosing her foreign policy torch bearers.

Over the years, the issue of appropriate number of diplomatic missions for Nigeria has been a subject of controversy. But the best that has been done on the matter is avoidance. There is a strong indication that the President-elect will be well guided in taking the final decision on it after the proposed review. There is no way the dichotomy existing between career and political ambassadors that has produced a telling division on the Nigerian Foreign Service would not affect the kind of vision that the President-elect has for the nation’s foreign policy. There is a relief! Its effect can be minimized through the revelations that will be made after the long overdue review of Nigerian foreign policy.

Operating a foreign policy under a democratic set up is obviously different from what one observes with the other forms of government. The dwindling interest of Nigerians in their country’s foreign policy is an angle that must be looked into by the President-elect. No matter how well intentioned a foreign policy is, once it is devoid of a robust domestic support, it would lose its appeal.

As much as possible, the foreign policy issues should be promoted at home through several methods. These include; floating of foreign policy issues in the media, generation of more interest by National Assembly members, regular briefings by the Foreign Affairs Minister, among others, by his government to gauge the public mood. One other good way is to convene a Summit on Nigeria’s foreign policy to generate more viewpoints and refreshing perspectives among Nigerians on what should be the new orientation in Nigerian foreign policy.

Another way of achieving this is to look at the research arms of Nigeria’s foreign policy and address their gargantuan governance problems. The NIIA, in recent times, has been generating news that is not compatible with its mandate. Insider sources talk about poor funding and other governance issues. The President-elect should look into its problems and apply the corrective measures in restoring its old glory.

Ordinarily, all the research arms of a country’s foreign policy should assist in raising the awareness of citizens on international issues, conduct research and build policy-scenarios for the consideration of government. One casualty informed by the general character of Nigeria’s foreign policy in the recent past is the abandoned tradition of the Patron Night which diplomatically conscious Nigerians and foreign missions in the country used to look forward to. It was a night for stock taking and giving the foreign policy direction of the state that was being hosted by NIIA. It is doubtful if anything can ever change in Nigeria’s foreign policy when research has been elbowed out of relevance through low level of funding and patronage.

Nothing tangible can be realized from the current pattern of pursuing Nigerian foreign policy unless something is done and urgently too to bring it out of the pool of irrelevance and obscurity to the centre of policy making in the country. General Buhari on account of his renewed interest in international relations should be expected to effect the desired change by turning things around especially in the delivery of an effective foreign policy for Nigeria. He will stand a good chance of doing this if he quickly engages his party men and women on the strands of his governance architecture to eliminate suspicions and promote unity of purpose that the task of administering Nigeria in her current state requires including rehabilitating the nation’s foreign policy.

Saliu is a Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Kwara State.

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