Issues in 1,096 days of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy under President Muhammadu Buhari

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

In two days time, Tuesday, 29th May, 2018, it will be three years of the President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) administration. He took over power on May 29, 2015, considered by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. On the basis of this, there are 1,096 days of Nigeria’s foreign policy to assess and discuss. Every elected president is necessarily the chief diplomat of his or her country while the Foreign Minister is only acting on the basis of the president’s delegated authority. This observation is necessary at this juncture because it took about six months before PMB appointed his Foreign Minister and other ministers. Before doing so, he was the President and also Minister of Foreign Affairs. In fact, when he appointed the ministers in November 2015 and there was a substantive Foreign Minister, he still appointed himself as Minister of Petroleum Resources.

Put differently, the possible argument of non-appointment of a Foreign Minister in the first five and a half months cannot be suggestive of inexistence of state behaviour in international relations. Hence, what was Nigeria’s foreign policy between May 29, 2018 and November 11, 2018 when his cabinet was sworn-in?

There is nothing big to write home about regarding Nigeria’s foreign policy for various reasons but there are many inherent critical issues to address. First is ‘change’ as dynamic of governance. The PMB administration came up with an agenda of change in the political governance of Nigeria. Most Nigerians believed in the agenda. And true enough, the PMB administration took the battle against the main societal ill in Nigeria, corruption, very seriously. However, it has been so selectively done that it has had little or no impact on foreign policy. In other words, what is there for foreign policy to project in terms of the anti-corruption struggle?

In this regard, for instance, Mr. Uwajeh, a member of the Special Investigation Panel on the Recovery of Public Property (SIPRPP), has explained, contrary to government claims of allegations against him in the court, why he was sacked from the panel. He said it was because of his refusal to engage in a one-sided investigation that was aimed at prosecuting the opposition elements while protecting the corrupt members of the ruling party.

As Uwajeh put it to the public and to the chairman of the panel, Okoi Obono Obla: ‘I told him that I would not be a party to one-sided investigation to muzzle the opposition and persecute them. I made my position known that I am ready to expose corruption and recover stolen assets as a professional but will not be involved in the politics of “pull them down” in Nigeria. My refusal to dance to the tune of the government and SIPRPP led to my disengagement’ (vide the DailySun of Wednesday, May 23, 2018, p.4).

Thus, there is no disputing the fact that PMB’s agenda of change in terms of issues to address and ending the systemic corruption in the country has now become a change of agenda in terms of objective and non-existence of any changed mania of doing things. The more efforts are made to change the ‘changes’ as issues, the more the ‘changes made’ renew the mania of the status quo ante which PMB purports to be fighting. This is where there is interconnection with the international community which is keenly interested in the conduct of Nigeria’s self-professed anti-graft war: the case of the steam accusing the kettle.

A second issue is the environment of foreign policy. It was generally inclement at three levels: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; national domestic level; and international level. At the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foreign policy has, at best, been reactive since 2015 because it lacks any ideological focus. There was no inheritance of foreign policy legacies of the previous administrations, not to mention continuity of such policies. Who is bothered about the protection of black dignity or the black man in the world. What does Nigeria playing host to the biggest black population mean now a days? There was no articulation of any foreign policy focus.

The Foreign Ministry may not be partly held responsible for some reasons. The Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, is more of an international functionary than a seasoned diplomat. The operational environment of an international functionary, where he came from is more multilateral than bilateral or plurilateral in character. There is no way his mania of doing things and thinking cannot but reflect more of the globalists than the Foreign Service Officers whose world views are a priori nationally or African driven.

In fact, dealing with bilateral questions cannot but pose difficult challenges to the Foreign Minister as a former functionary of an international organisation. This explains in part why the Foreign Ministry has been more identified with the issuance of policy statements of intention and preparedness to defend the national interest, but all to no avail. The unending mistreatment of Nigerians in South Africa, in spite of the bilateral agreement on the establishment of an early warning mechanism meant to prevent such mistreatments, is a good illustration of this point. Nigerians are always killed in different places but the regular answer is that Government is investigating. What happens after investigation is only known to the same Government.

At the national domestic level, foreign policy making suffers considerably from lack of research and intellectual input. Many foreign policy decisions are taken as a result of lack of knowledge. There was the most unfortunate position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs supporting the application of Morocco’s membership of the ECOWAS under the considerations of potential economic gains but, most unfortunately, forgetting how such membership would undermine Nigeria’s strategic leadership in the region and the continent as a whole.

Powerful individuals simply come into the policy-making processes to direct on what to do and the Foreign Ministry is set aside. No serious country allows that type of situation to happen. In Nigeria, individuals are more powerful than institutions, even more than Nigeria. This is why PMB’s administration has been more of a burden than solution to Nigeria’s many problems.

In fact, there are too many centres of foreign policy making in Nigeria. Foreign policy institutions in the country are being killed precisely by the governing councils set up to grow and develop them. The example of the destruction of academic values of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs by the Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council and under the watch of the Supervisory Authority, is a case in point. Good foreign policy or decision cannot be articulated when some people are thinking while some others are militating against them. PMB can be held accountable but cannot be held responsible for the remissness of others, even if he chooses not to sanction anyone.

Perhaps more importantly, the insecurity in the country did not allow for much attention to be given to foreign policy at home and abroad, except in the area of seeking international help. The quest for help is in itself another burden for the Foreign Service Officers, especially in light of the fact of economic insolvency of most of Nigeria’s diplomatic missions. Foreign policy is expensive the word over but it is always poorly funded in Nigeria. In this regard, who is to blame for non-performance in the absence of adequate funding?

At the international level, the environment is more inclement and challenging. Economic laziness and recession, as well as maltreatment and protection of Nigerians in international relations are foreign policy questions that are raised but without answers. When PMB went to the United States, he described Nigerian youths as lazy. But in solidarity support for the second term bid of PMB and his achievements in the agricultural sector, on Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018, the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Mr. Hameed Ali, said it is only the lazy Nigerians that can be hungry under the PMB administration. As he put it, ‘when people say we are hungry, there was never a time in Nigeria that food was dropped in the mouth of the people and there can never be.’ Agreed, but if truth be told, it is precisely the hard working and honest Nigerians that are hungry and are made to suffer at the altar of political chicanery, religious bigotry, ethnic schizophrenia, perversion of justice, and subjectivity of purpose. To survive, all Nigerians will need to stop all engagements in the politics of self deceit. This brings us to the more disturbing questions in Nigeria’s foreign policy in the past three years.

Issues for Nigeria’s Foreign Policy

One issue, perhaps the most critical with which Nigeria’s foreign policy has to grapple in the foreseeable future, is the emerging new Cold War. International politics is currently and gradually being fraught with a new Cold War in which the issue is not about ideological rivalry per se, but that of nuclear-driven ‘I tooism.’ The old Cold War was more of a struggle between the West and the East, between alliances, between the quest for supremacy of democracy and supremacy of dictatorship. In fact, it was about clash of civilisations.

The new Cold War is not yet a struggle between the West and the East but an intra- struggle within each side of the divide and also between the West, on the one hand, and the East, on the other. For instance, at the level of the West, the United States and the EU countries are divided over the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action over Iran’s nuclearisation agenda. This is not only an intra-alliance disagreement but also an extra-African question that has serious implications for Africa, in general, and Nigeria, in particular. How is Nigeria addressing this issue in light of her ties with the Arab countries?

The deepening misunderstanding between the US of Donald Trump and North Korea of Kim Jung-un is also an expression of, and issue in, the new Cold War in the making. This particular case of misunderstanding between the two countries has the potential to precipitate a hot war, if not an unprecedented nuclear war. This is why Nigeria’s foreign policy calculations must be better articulated to prevent being caught unawares in terms of implications. An expatiation is necessary here.

The United States has been having a running battle with the nuclearisation programme of North Korea since the time of President George Bush. The US is opposed to any nuclear weapon development by North Korea, which is also claiming its sovereign right to legitimate self-protection and self-defence. Besides, North Korea is interested in the unification of the two Koreas, but in which the United States is partly interested. The main focus of the United States is denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula..

Most unfortunately, however, the newly found entente between North and South Korea, following the delegation of North Korea to the last winter Olympic Games in South Korea and which not also lessened the tension between the US and North Korea, but also paved the way for the planned June 12, 2018 summit between the leaders of the two countries in Singapore, has been cancelled. Several reasons can be adduced for the cancellation, which many observers argued it was at the instance of the United States but which we strongly believe is at the instance of North Korea.

There are two immediate considerations to support that the initiative of the visit came from North Korea. First was the attitude of North Korea to the working details of the visit. The American side had shown much concern as to the not-forthcoming cooperative attitude of the North Koreans on the meeting. It should be recalled that North Korean officials have not always kept official rendez-vous. There was the time the Pyongyang authorities invited Mr Pence for tête-à-tête discussions when he visited South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics but the inviting State, North Korea, cancelled the secret talks at the last minute.

In the same vein, North Korean officials failed to show up at the preparatory meetings of the June 12 summit. Probably too, this attitudinal disposition of North Korea might have informed the rationale for the second consideration: the statement of the US Vice President, Mike Pence. A closer look at what Mr. Pence said in the statement shows a direct threat to the safety and security, not simply of the North Korean leader but also to North Korea as a sovereign state, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

As warned by Mike Pence, ‘it would be a great mistake for Kim Jong-Un to think he could play Donald Trump…There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the president made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-Un doesn’t make a deal.” For him to play Donald Trump and refuse to denuclearise, could only warrant the type of fate given to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who was ousted and killed in 2011, in spite of his giving up his Weapons of Mass Destruction.

North Korea has responded to the US threats by first describing Mike Pence as ignorant, stupid and a political dummy and secondly, with a promise of a ‘nuclear-to-nuclear showdown’ as the only way for ensuring the national security of North Korea. The development of North Korea’s nuclear capability is in itself in anticipation of US attack and the need to avoid the type of mistreatment given to Muammar Gaddafi.

Apart from the position of the foreign policy hardliners (Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo; John Bolton, etc) who want the application of the Libyan model to North Korea, there is also the factor of destruction of the North Korean nuclear missile testing site in Punggye-ri in the north-east and the freezing of nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. With this development, the United States is believed to have a better bargaining power, and therefore can have the luxury of cancelling the visit with threats of sanctions if the meeting does not hold.
Perhaps most interestingly but irritating factor might be the statement of Pyongyang according to which the complete denuclearisation of North Korea’s nuclear programme would not be part of discussions in Singapore. Of what use will the whole meeting be if the most critical problem would not be discussed at all? This, in itself may explain in part the need to cancel the visit to avoid a sort of diplomacy of shame at the end of the visit, especially if the cardinal objective of securing the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula would not be possible.
The issue for Nigeria’s foreign policy from the foregoing is the determination of where Nigeria would be in the event of a nuclear war. Donald Trump told the North Korean leader as follows: ‘you talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.’ This means that, in the event North Korea first launches a nuclear attack, the US will respond massively. It is not all prayers that God answers. So if the massive and powerful nuclear weapons of the US have to be used, is it the North Koreans that will be neutralised?

North Korea developed nuclear capability because of alleged frequent US harassments. If it is now showing readiness to negotiate possible denuclearisation, it is after ensuring the perfection of how it is made and used. The application of a Libyan model is myopic in conception because Libya and North Korea are not at the same level of nuclear development. Both countries also do not have the same supporters. There is therefore the challenge of how best to predict the extent of nuclear capability of North Korea.

Regarding Nigeria, can the Libyan model be applied by the US to Nigeria even in the absence of nuclearisation? Donald Trump apparently wants Nigeria to be his ally and megaphone in Africa and PMB appears to be much delighted to do just that. His visit to the White House clearly points to this: PMB never discussed as a sovereign president. He was just thanking, appreciating his host for the good things done for Nigeria. This was in spite of the fact that PMB has many years as a statesman than Donald Trump. What is likely to be the attitude of the US in the event Nigeria becomes an active partner of North Korea, especially in light of Nigeria’s declared interest to partner with North Korea on space technology?

Additionally, pointers to an emerging Muslim-Christian war are on the increase in Nigeria. PMB is constantly accused of nepotism, of an Islamic agenda and of aiding and abetting the killing of Nigerians, particularly Christians. The accusations are most unfortunate because they are basically predicated on his inability to contain the killings or his inability to officially and personally attend to the victims and their relations. These are issues the international community is monitoring.

While the Government of Nigeria may be happy that the GDP grew by 1.95% in the first quarter of 2018 in real terms; that its amount of foreign reserves is increasing, that it is declaring an effective war on corruption, and that the polity is stable, what PMB should first ask is how Nigeria is perceived as at today compared with how she was in 2015. The international community is more concerned with the future of Nigeria in terms of the restructuring debate, national unity, deepening national insecurity, government officials and contempt of court, etc. In fact, the International Monetary Fund has cast doubts about Nigeria being able to settle its loans.

Consequently, an appraisal of Nigeria’s foreign policy in the past 1096 days should be determined on the basis of the extent of comfort enjoyed by the people of Nigeria, the extent of security provided, and the extent of effectiveness of the use of foreign policy as an instrument.