Nigeria’s Foreign Policy and the New Russo-American Relations

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

In contemporary Nigeria, the quest for self-determination is presented as the major challenge and obstacle to national unity, political stability and security. For instance, the main objective of Boko Haramism is not simply to undermine the constitutionality of the raison d’être of Nigeria, but to use Nigeria as a tool in fighting Western civilisation and values. Most disturbingly, the manifestations of Boko Haramism have clearly shown that the Boko Haramists want to Islamise Nigeria.

Even though the government of Nigeria has given the impression that victory over the Boko Haram is now a fait accompli or that the war is won while the battle is still on, Boko Haram terrorists still appear to be more engaged in their dastardly attacks through new methods. In this regard, who really is behind the Boko Haram, internationally? Where does the Boko Haram draw its strength from?

What foreign policy direction is Nigeria following? What is the place of international cooperation and assistance to Nigeria? Will it not make a better sense to seek to attack the source of strength of the terrorists? If government has been doing this, are the strategies achieving the desired results? If not, why not contemplate new approaches?
Apart from Boko Haramism, the MASSOB, IPOB, MEND, etc, have also been treading the path of self-determination in a manu militari fashion. The MASSOB and the IPOB want a Republic of Biafra. The Oodua People’s Congress once advocated Oodua Republic but the noise about it have been on the wane until recently when the Yoruba Liberation Command (YOLICOM), set up on the strength of the prevailing development renewed the advocacy and is also seeking an Oduduwa Republic.

As noted in The Nation’s editorial of August 2, 2017, the extremist positions of these militant groups ‘may not represent the mainstream views of politicians in Igbo and Yoruba regions of the country, nevertheless, they constitute troubling signals for a country that had fought a civil war before. Apart from the demand for new republics, increasing stridency in the last one year of calls from various regions, especially the South-east, the South-south, and the South-west for immediate restructuring of the polity should be a matter of urgent concern to all.’ This observation cannot be more correct. The polity is currently fraught with insecurity.

In the same vein, contemporary international politics is also fraught with globalisation-induced instability, particularly in terms of threats to global peace and security, nuclear power rivalry and contest for global leadership. The saga in which the major powers are involved in Syria is a case in point. The misunderstanding between Japan and China over who has sovereignty over an island in the South China Sea is another. The political lull between South and North Korea, the international controversy over North Korea’s nuclear tests, the unending threats of international terrorism to the maintenance of good governance, etc, all point to increasing movement towards global disorderliness.
And without a jot of doubt, the emerging misunderstanding between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Donald Trump’s America is noteworthy and more disturbing, essentially, because it is currently serving as a catalyst in the movement towards global disorderliness. As noted by Donald Trump, the ‘relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low.’ While Donald Trump sees sanctions bill of the US Congress as ‘flawed,’ Russia says the US sanctions constitute a declaration of a ‘full-scale trade war.’

Why is the relationship at a very dangerous low? Why is Russia talking about a full-scale trade war? The background to the US sanctions bill is as a result of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Why is the sanctions bill put in the context of a bilateral trade war? What is the future of the worsening relationship between the two countries and in which way is Nigeria’s foreign policy will be directly or indirectly affected?

Genesis and Dynamics of the Relationship
True enough, Russo-American ties have generally not been cordial under Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump for many and obvious reasons. First is the foundation: the policies of perestroïka and glasnost adopted by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 as basis for restructuring the Soviet Union but which, by design or otherwise, led to the dismantling and demise of the Soviet Union, and which are being regretted in Russia of today. Russia is trying to reaffirm its status quo ante of a super power, but without attempting to question China’s interest in also leading the world. This is the general foundation on which the current ‘friendly enmity’ between Moscow and Washington is largely predicated.

For illustration purposes, when a US Navy fighter jet shot down a Syrian war plane, without having communicated with the Russian forces about it ahead of time per normal procedure, Russia’s response was that any US warplanes in the vicinity of the incident would be treated as ‘targets.’ While the Russian Defence Ministry called it ‘a cynical violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,’ the White House says ‘the escalation of hostilities among the many factions that are operating in this region doesn’t help anybody. And the Syrian regime and others in the regime need to understand that we will retain the right of self-defence, of coalition forces aligned against ISIS.’

Apart from the conflict of interest in the Syrian conflict, it is useful to also note that Russia has consistently vetoed any resolutions against Syria by the United Nations Security Council. This simply not only shows partisanship, but also raises the extent to which Russia can be committed to the coalition forces fighting ISIS terror and at the same time protecting Syria’s interest.

The United States sees Vladimir Putin as another dictator. The annexation by Russia of Crimea is not favourably seen in the United States. More interesting, but most disturbingly, the alleged Russian meddlesomeness in the 2016 presidential election in the United States has further complicated and tainted the relationship that has reached its lowest ebb with the closure of some Russian diplomatic offices in the United States.

The genesis of the closure and its aftermath is traceable to December 2015, when Michael Flynn, a retired US Army Lieutenant General, was reportedly paid more than $45,000 by the state-sponsored broadcaster, Russia Today, ‘to address the network’s 10th anniversary gala in Moscow. Probably in suspicion of General Flynn’s contacts with Russia, former President Barack Obama warned the President-elect, Donald Trump, on 10 November, 2016 against hiring him as his National Security Adviser (NSA). But contrary to Obama’s warning, General Flynn was announced on 18 November, 2016 as the next NSA.

Second, Mr. Jared Kushner, White House Adviser and son-in-law to Donald Trump, had a meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, and the ‘head of a US-sanctioned, Russia state-owned bank’ at the Trump Tower in New York in December 2016. Following an exchange on December 28 of Christmas text messages between General Flynn and Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, both of them again had a telephone discussion after Barack Obama’s announcement of the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats the following day, that is, on 29th December.

On 6 January, 2017 the FBI Chief, Mr. James Comey, briefed Donald Trump in his capacity as the US president-elect on an intelligence report which concluded that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential elections. Donald Trump was not bothered about the briefing nor was he troubled by Obama’s warning not to appoint General Flynn as his NSA. In fact, on 20 January, 2017, he assumed duty as US president with General Flynn. As from this day, President Donald Trump has been seriously challenged by what we may call here the Russian blood virus, running in his capillaries and blood vessels.

On 15 January, 2017 former Vice President, Mike Pence, noted in his interview with the US Television Network CBS that he spoke with General Flynn about his phone call with the Russian ambassador and that it had ‘nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.’ However, on 27 January, the Department of Justice informed Donald McGahn, White House lawyer, about Flynn’s vulnerability to Russian blackmail as a result of his communications with the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak. This concern might have also informed Donald Trump’s alleged request for loyalty from James Comey during their dinner on 27 January.

As explained by Mr. Comey during his testimony before a Senate panel, President Donald Trump requested: ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty… I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’ Mr Comey’s reply was simply that General Flynn ‘is a good guy.’ Even though Donald Trump denied having pleaded for a cover up, General Flynn resigned his appointment on 13 February, 2017, that is, less than a month following his assumption of duty on January 20.

In the words of General Flynn, ‘I inadvertently briefed the Vice President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.’ This self-confession is quite different from the impression sold to the public by Donald Trump on 16 February at a press conference during which he portrayed General Flynn as ‘a fine person,’ but that he was ‘not happy’ with his performance.

More interestingly, on 30 March, Robert Kelner, the lawyer to General Flynn, indicated the readiness of General Flynn to testify on the issue of Russian meddling in the US 2016 presidential election on the condition of grant of immunity. As his lawyer explained it, Mr. Flynn ‘has a story to tell,’ but not in the context of ‘unfair prosecution.’ He wants to testify with assurances that there would be prosecutorial fairness.

This request for immunity raises one fundamental question: who really is honest or who wants to tell the truth? On April 12, Donald Trump declared his confidence in the FBI Chief, James Comey. On May 2 in his tweets, Trump said the ‘FBI director Comey was the best thing ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds.’ In spite of this positive perception of Mr Comey, however, Donald Trump discussed the firing of Mr. Comey on 8 May with the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions and the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein. And indeed, the following day, Mr. Comey was removed as FBI director. Where is the good thing about Comey in this case?

Third, on 10 May, 2007, President Donald Trump held a meeting with a Russian delegation in the Oval Office. The US press was reportedly excluded but a photographer from a Russian State News Agency was allowed in. Why was this so? Probably because of the various insinuations in the media as President Vladimir Putin offered on 17 May, to release a record of President Trump’s May 10 meeting with Russian officials. Before doing so, the Russian suggestion was overtaken by the decision of the Department of Justice to appoint the ex-FBI director, Robert Mueller, as Special Counsel to address ‘Russian of a thing.’

Fourth, Jared Kushner, as reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post on 26 May, ‘allegedly proposed setting up a back channel between the Kremlin and the White House through Mr. Kislyak. He reportedly wanted to use Russian facilities to avoid any US interception of discussions with Moscow.’

What is particularly interesting about the foregoing is that a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, was appointed to investigate the possible obstruction of justice by Donald Trump by pressuring Comey to soft-pedal in the matter of General Flynn. This investigation should be differentiated from the allegations of Russian meddlesomeness in the 2016 US presidential election. Consequently, political governance can be fraudulent in both design and operation. The case of the US under Donald Trump is not different.

On June 25, Donald Trump claimed that his predecessor knew much before the November 8, 2016 elections about the allegations levied against Russia but he did nothing about them. On 9 July, Donald Trump Jr. admitted having met a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was representing the government of Russia, earlier on 9 June, 2016 for possible help in winning the election. Thus, the Russian hands in the 2016 US elections can no longer be validly denied.
With the new sanctions bill adopted on Wednesday, 2nd August, 2017, by the US Congress and the retaliatory measure of declaring not less than 755 US diplomats in Russia personae non grata by the government of Russia, the whole international community, in general, and the government of Nigeria, in particular, will need to monitor and address the likely implications, especially in light of Nigeria and United States’ shared interests in democratic governance.
Put differently, how should Nigeria’s foreign policy respond to the emerging rivalry between the new Russia and the United States, whose leaders are both committed to making their two countries greater than ever before? Donald Trump has promised to make America great again. Vladimir Putin is also sending an empirical message of non-acceptability of any American bullying in whatever manner any more. True, a new Cold War is already in the making. How should Nigeria respond: non-alignment and which non-alignment?

Lessons for Nigeria’s Foreign Policy
Many lessons can be drawn from the conduct and management of US-Russian relationship under Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, but let us focus attention on two prominent ones. The first is to acknowledge that Nigeria operates the same presidential system of government like the United States, and therefore seeks to understand the elements of dishonesty that could come along with its operation. In this regard, for instance, there is manifestation of leadership dishonesty at the level of both countries.

President Putin is denying non-meddlesomeness in the 2016 US election, when evidence has been made clear. President Donald Trump does the same, by denying the veracity of the reports of the various intelligence agencies. While the denials of President Putin may be considered patriotic, those of Donald Trump cannot be. In fact, they are most unpatriotic. He is certainly ruining America and Nigeria must exercise greater caution in not following the examples of the US under Donald Trump.

Under the current Buhari administration, government reportedly fights corruption on the one hand but also consciously promotes the same on the other, especially with the acquiescence of the people. I have always drawn attention in this column to how the General Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs destroyed the Institute by covering up staff, who engaged in serious misconduct with the complicity of the administration staff.

The Director of Administration and Finance, Ms Agatha Ude, often removed queries from her files, changed promotion examination results, as well as attached or destroyed official financial documents. These cases were reported to the Council but the complaints were only noted and kept under the drawer by people, who were required to fight societal ills and encourage patriotism. Instead of declaring a battle on gross indiscipline, General Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council found it easier to declare war on the anti-corruption crusader that I was. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, at best, kept quiet in solidarity, but opted to misinform the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, who in turn, would take decision on allegations without prior investigation. This is one major reason why political governance is always done in a vicious circle and junctions of confusion.

Without any shadow of doubt, killing Nigeria softly is made possible because of the nature of Nigeria’s presidential system in which inter-personal influence prevails over institutions. The institutions in the US serve as a check-and-balance mechanism but in Nigeria, they are not. In fact, empirically, promoting patriotism in Nigeria has become a crime, to put it mildly.

When people who are considered to be elder statesmen refuse to fight obvious societal ills but prefer to neutralise those fighting them, by killing patriotic attitudinal dispositions, when professors and politicians, as well as religious leaders close their eyes to anti-Nigeria sentiments, acts of wickedness and societal ills, there is no way Nigeria can survive. There is therefore not only the need to revisit the operational modalities of the presidential system in Nigeria, but also why every Nigerian should also ask more questions on why there is cover up about the NIIA saga until now.
Donald Trump wants to cover up shady deals with Russia but the American system does not allow it. The NIIA issue and other national questions should be looked into, both at the levels of the leader and the led for the purposes of fairness and justice. This is part of the strength and greatness of the people of America. It is worth emulating.

Another lesson is the extent of application of the rule of reciprocity in the relationship. The sanctions bill adopted on August 2 by the Congress prevents US companies from investing in several energy projects that are funded by the Russian government interests. Again, possibly in reaction to this, the Russian government has contemplated counter-sanctions, the most recent of which is the declaration of 755 US diplomats unwanted. The common question raised is the extent of applicability of the sanctions.

Steve Chapman has argued that economic sanctions work better as a symbol than as a solution. He cited the cases of US imposition of sanctions on Cuba’s Castro in 1960 but Castro still remained in power thereafter; the imposition of sanctions on Saddam Hussein, but which only led to the invasion of Iraq to remove him; the imposition of sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear programme, which have been to no avail with continued periodical nuclear tests, etc.

In the context of Nigeria, if Russia can meddle in the 2016 presidential election in the US, Russia or other powerful country can do the same to Nigeria. In the same vein, if the various sanctions taken by the US against other sovereign states have not attained the desired results, we should ask why? One possible answer is ‘self-reliant policy’ and pursuit of greatness as basis of foreign policy focus. There is the need for foreign policy re-direction in Nigeria, especially a collectively-defined foreign policy focus. It is the existence of the focus in both the US and Russia that explains why the two countries are always in pursuit of conflict of interests. There is nothing wrong about this in international relations.