Re-establishing Nigeria’s Leadership Position in the World


Emeka Anyaoku

Let me first of all express my appreciation to the Akintola Williams Foundation for the invitation to not only participate in this second annual Akintola Williams Distinguished Lecture Series, but also to actually deliver the lecture myself.

I remember that I was the Chairman of the first annual lecture in 2015 which was very ably delivered by the former Governor of Ekiti State and now Minister of Solid Minerals, Dr. Kayode Fayemi. I am glad to be speaking under the chairmanship of my friend and one of our country’s most outstanding and cerebral diplomats, Ambassador Professor Ibrahim Gambari.

It is a testimony to how seriously Mr Akintola Williams has dedicated his life to public policy issues in the economy and politics that the organizers of the Akintola Williams Distinguished lectures have never failed to be eclectic in their choice of topics.
I would like to begin by commending the Akintola Williams Foundation for instituting this lecture series in honour of a true Nigerian iconic son, Mr Akintola Williams, a man of many parts. One of the briefest summations of him is aptly captured in his description as the doyen of Nigerian, nay, African Accountancy; a respected elder statesman and philanthropist one of whose most cherished legacies is this venue, the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) center.

The fact that Mr Akintola Williams was the first African to qualify as a Chartered Accountant cannot be a surprise given that he is a scion of an eminent and industrious family. His grandfather was a successful merchant, while his father had a thriving legal firm way back in colonial Nigeria. So, it is no surprise that Mr Akintola Williams has continued in his family tradition of professionalism and industry by being the first indigenous Chartered Accountant in Africa, carrying on with such a professional integrity that enabled him to have a commanding influence in accountancy on Nigeria’s private and public companies hitherto dominated by foreign firms.

He had also built a conglomerate of accounting firms which as I recalled at the 2015 edition of this lecture series had fanned out to many other African countries, including Cameroun, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Swaziland, Kenya and Egypt confirming the man as a colossal accountant that straddled the entire African landscape, mentoring and encouraging the development and growth of other indigenous chartered accountancy firms. There is no doubt that Mr Akintola Williams has served humanity in many profound ways, both in the private and public sector.

Apart from being one of the leading figures in the establishment of accounting organizations like the Association of Accountants in Nigeria (AAN) and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), Mr Akintola Williams also played a leading role in the establishment of the Nigeria Stock Exchange. His mark was also made in the public sphere when he was Chairman of the Federal Income Tax Appeal Commissioners and member of the Coker Commission of Inquiry.

He has also served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Commonwealth Foundation; as Chairman of the Public Service Review Panel on the Udoji Salary Review Commission; as President of the Metropolitan Club and, of course, as Founder and Chairman of the Board of Trustee of the MUSON Center. It was for these and many other accomplishments that our honouree here has garnered many local and international awards including the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR) and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). But even in retirement and at the glorious age of 98 which he attained only yesterday, Mr Akintola Williams is still availing himself for consultation in the great task of the Nigerian nation-building project. Let me now come to the subject of today’s lecture.

It is common knowledge that is evident in our daily media which are read by, among others, all foreign diplomatic representatives in Abuja, that currently all is not well with Nigeria both at home and in its standing in the comity of nations, hence the theme of this lecture: how to re-establish Nigeria’s leadership position in the world.

The Golden Age of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy
Those of us who were of discerning age in the early years of Nigeria’s independence would, I am sure, readily agree that our country experienced what can truly be described as the golden age of Nigeria’s leadership role in Africa and in the wider world. I would like briefly to reminisce on the string of foreign policy successes that underscored the country’s leadership position in the international community during that period.

As John Campbell, a former American Ambassador to Nigeria reminded us in his book, “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink”, the vision of Nigeria at independence by both the departing colonial authorities and Nigeria’s emergent political elites, was a great one. It was the vision “of a huge nation of numerous ethnic groups and religions united by democracy, pursuit of economic development, governance according to the rule of law, and the occupation of an important place on the world stage; … a friendly Nigeria to provide Africans with a seat at the table with other great powers”.

Flowing from this great vision, Nigeria was at its independence in 1960, rapturously welcomed in the comity of nations in a manner that was consistent with the confidence and hope of its founding fathers. On October 7, 1960 when the country was admitted into the United Nations, the event elicited widespread jubilation in Africa, in Africa’s Diaspora, and generally among the black race in the wider international community. This enthusiasm was clearly animated by the fact that Nigeria’s demographics, its human and abundant natural resources were adequate indices of national power that would enable it to be an asset, not just for Africa, but also for the international community represented at the United Nations.

On that occasion of its admission to the United Nations, Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in his speech to the General Assembly, pledged the country’s commitment to multilateralism and as such to making its due contribution to the promotion of peace and development of the international community through the auspices of the United Nations.

Inspired by awareness of the fact that Nigeria is the one country with the largest population of black people in the world, its governments following independence actively sought to champion Africa’s and black peoples’ causes. This was why for example, just weeks after independence the Nigerian government notwithstanding the predictable potential economic and other costs, pitted itself in opposition to the French government’s atomic tests in the Sahara desert which had occurred in February 1960 and seemed likely to be repeated.

Nigeria’s Africa activism was the kernel of the evolution of the doctrines of its foreign policy for many years after independence namely, Afro-centrism and Concentricism. Under these doctrines, Nigeria prioritized the pursuit of its national interest in a concentric circle, beginning with her immediate neighbours in the first inner circle, through the rest of Africa in the second circle, to the rest of the world in the outer circle. It was these doctrines that critically fostered the country’s leadership position in the world for years and enabled it to ride the crest of very favourable international opinion and reckoning.

Some of the highlights of this golden age in Nigeria’s foreign policy included the fact that the country soon after its admission into the United Nations became the backbone of the organization’s Africanization of solutions to African problems as evidenced by Dag Hammarskjold, the then United Nations Secretary-General requesting Nigeria to send a peace keeping military contingent to the Congo. And it was because of Nigeria’s pre-eminent position at the time that one of its own military officers, Brigadier-General J. T. U Aguiyi Ironsi, was appointed by the UN Secretary-General as the first African to command the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo.

For over two decades, Nigeria chaired the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid. The country was also active in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) where it played veritable roles in asserting the sovereignty of the developing countries as well as giving them voice while using the neutrality of the NAM to steer the world away from the possibility of an armed confrontation between the Western countries led by United States and the Eastern countries led by the defunct Soviet Union.

It was as a NAM leader that Nigeria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Chief Simeon Adebo, played a leading role in resolving the crisis that paralysed the UN General Assembly in 1964 when the Western countries, invoking article 19 of the UN charter, sought to deny the Soviet Union voting rights in the controversy that arose from the Soviet Union’s refusal to contribute to the budget for the cost of UN operations in the Congo.

Nigeria also played a leading role in the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) which has now metamorphosed into the African Union (AU). Nigeria had led the Monrovian Group of 22 African countries to merge with the Casablanca Group of 5 to successfully form the OAU in May 1963.

And in the Commonwealth, Nigeria was a prominent member and became the first member country to host the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of State and Governments outside of London in Lagos in January 1966. Also in 1986 Nigeria’s General Obasanjo co-chaired the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group that went to South Africa in an usuccessful attempt to promote negotiations for the ending of apartheid. And three years later in 1989, a Nigerian, my humble self, was appointed by Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting in Kualalumpur the first (and so far only) African Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Nigeria was also a critical mass in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and in the liberation of the Southern African nations of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe from the clutches of colonialism and white racist minority regimes. It was in recognition of Nigeria’s role and commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the de-colonization of Southern Africa that it was designated a “frontline state” in the struggle, even though it was geographically far apart from the region.

Other indications of Nigeria’s leadership role in international affairs during this period include the leading role it played in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Beyond the founding of ECOWAS, Nigeria was to remain critical in the financial sustenance of the organization and for ECOWAS’s ability to function as one of the most viable African regional blocs.
There were also the successful negotiation of relief from the Paris Club of Nigeria’s debilitating foreign debt burden by President Obasanjo and his Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and the creation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development by President Obasanjo and his South African colleague, President Thabo Mbeki.

Signs of decline in Nigeria’s leadership position
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s leadership role in the world began to decline initially in the wake of the successive military intervention in the country’s governance beginning in January 1966. I would like to mention some of the signs of the decline.

Nigeria does not have a seat in the leadership organ of the AU, the ten-member Commission. It was a matter of national embarrassment that the Nigerian candidate lost out in the election of the AU Commissioners during the AU summit meeting in February 2017.

Secondly, a growing number of Nigerian citizens are now commonly badly treated and deported from many countries of the world including even African countries such as Libya and South Africa. And only last week, Nigerian athletes who were due to participate in a Commonwealth Youth Games in Bahamas could not attend because they were denied transit visas by the governments of the UK and the USA.
The decline in Nigeria’s standing in the world prompted another former American Ambassador to Nigeria, who many believe to be a good friend of Nigeria, at a colloquium in Brown University USA to lament the de-industrialization of the country and to warn that “Nigeria was fast becoming irrelevant in continental and global affairs owing to its unfocussed leadership and wrong choice of assessment parameters” (Vanguard January 18 2017). Ambassador Lyman went on to say that Nigeria’s habit of predicating its geopolitical relevance on its oil wealth and population is fast fading away not just because oil is losing its strategic relevance, but also because many countries in the West African sub-region have struck oil in commercial quantity.

The plight of Nigerians in the waves of Afrophobia in South Africa is particularly regrettable because, as observed earlier, Nigeria had played a very active and prominent role in the struggle that led to the dismantling of apartheid in that country.

Another regrettable sign is Nigeria’s declining grip on its immediate West African sub-region, particularly in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional organization it helped to found and which it has nourished for the past 42 years, diplomatically, economically, financially and militarily when it led at huge financial and human cost to itself the ECOMOG military forces that were involved in peace making in the Mano River Basin countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone during their internecine civil wars.

Although the ECOWAS is hugely bankrolled by Nigeria, the organization’s bureaucracy seems to have been virtually taken over by the Francophone countries who have gone ahead to establish a parallel French version of the ECOWAS – the Communate Economique d’Afrique de L’Ouest – that now confronts and constrains the ECOWAS.

Nigeria’s loss of grip in ECOWAS was dramatized by its inability to veto the ECOWAS’s decision in principle to admit into its fold Morocco, a North African nation and member of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).
With the prospect of Morocco joining the ECOWAS, Nigeria would be risking a diminished influence in the sub-region; it would also be opening itself up to Morocco’s inevitable determination to get its pound of flesh following Nigeria’s role in the admission of Western Sahara into the OAU/AU. And this is not to talk about the adverse economic consequences for Nigeria from Morocco’s membership of ECOWAS.
I believe that for its effectiveness and the benefits of the future integration of its members, ECOWAS must remain a strictly geopolitical regional organization whose membership should be limited to only countries in the West Africa geographic space. Besides, extending ECOWAS membership to the Mediterranean Sea will inevitably dilute the organization’s integration movement.

Measures for Re-establishing Nigeria’s Leadership Position
I now turn to my recommendations of what should be done if Nigeria is to return to a leadership position in international affairs especially now that we live in an increasingly globalizing world.

For every country, there is a nexus between foreign policy and domestic politics. Thus, no country can maintain a credible leadership position regionally, continentally or globally without a politically stable and sound socio-economic domestic background. And so for any country to be able to exert a credible influence and maintain a leadership position to be reckoned with in world affairs, it must achieve a reasonable balance between its domestic and foreign policies.

In his book, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order”, Richard N. Haass, President of the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations, reiterated this symbiotic relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy when he wrote that the United States needed a new approach to both domestic and foreign policy because “the two are intimately intertwined: Americans will not enjoy the standard of living or quality of life they aspire to at home amid chaos abroad; and the United States will not be in a position to limit chaos abroad unless it rebuilds the foundations of its strength at home”.

Accordingly, every country’s standing in the world is to a large extent determined by its domestic situation. If Nigeria is to return to the golden age of the country’s foreign policy achievements and high global standing, its domestic situation must be fixed. Fixing Nigeria’s domestic situation requires that the challenge of political stability as well as its economy and the socio-economic welfare of its citizens must be tackled.

Ensuring the welfare of Nigerian citizens will, I believe, fundamentally lessen their temptation to migrate abroad and subject themselves to death in the Mediterranean Sea as well as to unacceptable treatment in the countries of their destination.
I have consistently expressed the view that to achieve greater political stability and deserving socio-economic development in the country thereby tackling the worsening challenges it currently faces in many sectors, Nigeria must restructure its present “unitarist” governance architecture by returning to the true federalism which our founding fathers negotiated and wisely agreed in the 1960/63 constitutions to be the most suitable structure for the stability and development of our multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
With the number and nature of the ongoing agitations in several parts of the country our present leadership, including especially the Senate which two weeks ago rejected a motion for devolution of powers, seem to be indifferent to the fact that Nigeria is currently sleepwalking to a national disaster.

Restructuring will enable us create fewer and more viable federating units for planning and pursuit of economic development and, with more powers devolved to them, deal with the issue of “do-or-die” political competition for the control of the all-powerful center which by exacerbating the inherent divisive tendencies in our citizenry is largely responsible for the country’s political instability and many of its socio-economic ills including the evil of massive corruption.

And we can only fix our economy by diversifying it and making it less dependent on revenue from the export of crude oil. This is especially so now that more and more crude oil importing countries are announcing plans for facing out their reliance on fossil fuel. We must industrialize the country by embarking more vigorously on policies that support the local manufacturing of our needs. The diversification of the Nigerian economy must also entail focusing much more actively on the development of the agricultural and solid mineral sectors.

Besides, fixing the home front must include the leaders in our government, in our corporate sector, and in all our governmental and non-governmental institutions becoming more concerned with tackling the factors that have earned for Nigeria abroad such adverse national reputation as being on the list of the most corrupt countries and the list of fragile states ie potential failed states.

Against the continuing changes in African and global circumstances, Nigeria must from time to time review the strategic objectives and operation of its foreign policy. The strategic objectives should, in my view, be: first, to raise Nigeria’s international position and influence by becoming in the global reckoning an acknowledged Middle Power and member of the groups of G20 and BRICS; secondly, to pursue its external economic relations especially with the view of promoting its exports and importation of foreign direct investments; thirdly, to render whenever necessary appropriate care to Nigerian citizens abroad; and, of course, fourthly to maintain cordial relations with all our diplomatic partner countries.

To achieve these objectives, it is important that the Nigerian government should pay greater attention to the adequate maintenance of the two principal machineries for the formulation and execution of the country’s foreign policy namely, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nigerian diplomatic Missions abroad.

It is regrettable that our diplomatic missions abroad have continued to be inadequately funded with results that undermine the image of the country and the efficiency of the missions themselves. The conduct of foreign policy is never cheap in any country and so I urge the Government to ensure adequate budgeting for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all the diplomatic missions that it decides to sustain abroad after a careful review.

There is also the need for Nigeria always to articulate an effective campaign strategy whenever its candidates are vying for positions in international organizations. For this is what is done by every country that is successful in winning desired international positions for its citizens.

Nigeria should also endeavour to reclaim its place and influence in the West Africa sub-region. ECOWAS is critical to Nigeria for economic and security reasons, and also because it is the country’s primary sphere of influence. And Nigeria must work to ensure that ECOWAS dwells more actively on inter-state infrastructural development, especially in the areas of transport and power in order to promote greater cohesion and integration of the sub-region.

So also should Nigeria similarly, for security and economic reasons, pay greater attention to promoting cooperation in its other sub-regional associations namely, the Gulf of Guinea Commission and the River Niger and Lake Chad Basin Commissions.

Finally to this list of recommendations I should add that our three past Presidents (President Obasanjo, President Yar’Adua and President Jonathan) respectively acknowledged that the existence of the Presidential Advisory Council on International Affairs (PAC), which I chaired for fourteen years was helpful to their administrations. There is therefore an inherent benefit in having a Council of a small team (there were only six of us) of suitable retired senior Ambassadors and academics in the field of international relations being available to meet periodically and advise the President on the strategic objectives and execution of Nigeria’s foreign policy.
I would say from my experience, that it is important that such a Council should offer its advice directly and in non-public ways to the President since it must not be seen to be interfering in the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is rightly the public agent for expressing and conducting Nigeria’s foreign policy. This was why in all my fourteen years as Chairman of the PAC, I very seldom spoke to the press about the issues covered in the Council’s advice to the President.

In conclusion, I want to say that if truth be told, there is now a growing number of sceptics of the description of Nigeria as the giant of Africa, a description that was universally considered credible for a long time since the country’s independence. The scepticism is largely because of the existence of unresolved serious challenges in Nigeria’s domestic affairs. However, I am confident that endowed as it is with such rich human and material resources, provided its leaders acknowledge the seriousness of the internal challenges currently confronting the country and proceed to successfully tackle them, Nigeria will surely not only achieve political stability and development at home, but also will return to playing a leadership role in the sub-region, in Africa, and in the wider international community.

–Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1990 to 2000, delivered this lecture in honour of Mr. Akintola Williams at 98