COVID-19 Pandemic and Nigeria’s Foreign Policy Review in a New Cold War Setting: Quo Vadis?

Muhammadu Buhari
Muhammadu Buhari

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The Public Affairs and Diplomacy Centre (PADICE), in collaboration with the EuroKnowledge Limited and Foreign Investment Network (fIN), both of which are UK- and Nigerian-based, organised a Zoom Meeting on COVID-19 and a New World Order: the Need for a Review of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy.’ The meeting was held on Thursday, May 21, 2020 at London time. The lead discussants included Dr. Jide Owoeye, Professor of International Relations and Pro-Chancellor of Lead City University and Ambassador Joe Keshi, former Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Sierra Leone and former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The meeting was held against the background of COVID-19 pandemic, which is seen to be seriously impacting on international relations in an unusual manner. The moderator of the extraordinary meeting, so to say, Ambassador Akin Fayomi, former Ambassador of Nigeria to France and Managing Partner of PADICE, noted that COVID-19 is not only creating diplomatic tensions all over the world, but also submitted that ‘a New World Order looms.’ He cannot be more correct on his point of observation.

As Nigeria is part of the global community, feeling the painful impact of the pandemic, Ambassador Fayomi asked the panelists and all the participants whether the current situation of COVID-19 can be ‘an opportunity to review or realign Nigeria’s foreign policy to the new realities vis-à-vis her national interests?

In this regard, the theme of the meeting, as well as the question posed by Ambassador Fayomi, are not as simple as they appear to be. The theme presents one intellectual challenge. For instance, to seek a review of Nigeria’s foreign policy is also to admit that COVID-19 pandemic is an instrument of a New World Order that is in the making. Put differently, if we so admit, then the question cannot but be to determine the suitability of a foreign policy review: is there any need to take advantage of COVID-19 as an opportunity to act? Is there any need, if we have the opportunity, to review the country’s foreign policy? And more importantly, if there is need for a review, in which aspects of the country’s foreign policy should there be a review? What should be the methodological framework for the review?

Without scintilla of doubt, opinion was sharply divided on the several issues raised and the reasons cannot be far-fetched: psychology of human differences; difference in experiential background of contributors, many of whom were former Carrier Ambassadors; differences in the professional experiences of participants: social scientists, international functionaries, seasoned academics, etc. For instance, the active participants included Dr. Femi Badejo, seasoned scholar and UN international functionary; Dr. Charles Ukeje, Professor of International Relations at the Obafemi Awolowo University; Messieurs Tunde Mustapha, Soji Adeleye and Akin Soetan who made contributions from a multidisciplinary approach, as well as numerous retired ambassadors who are still actively engaged in non-diplomatic sectors of national life: Hameed Opeloyeru, Ayo Olukanni, and Tunde Ajisomo. The differences in their wealth of experiences could not easily give way to a common ground for analysis.

COVID-19 Pandemic as a Problem

And true enough, COVID-19 pandemic has become a noisome problem. It has generated a lot of questions and problems in contemporary international relations. It first raises the question of how to contain it, especially that the virus is generally believed to be different from existing corona viruses. This issue of how to contain it also raises the question of origin: is it natural or wildlife? Is it a biological weapon and therefore man-made? If it is man-made, who originated it: is it China or the United States? The American school of thought holds China responsible as the originator, while the Chinese respond simply as follows: ‘with the complicity of the United States.’

Put differently, there is an ongoing Cold War between China and the United States. Is COVID-19 the joint making of China and the United States? The Cold War is new in various dimensions: unlike being a war between the West and the East, led by the former Soviet Union and the United States, the New Cold War is limited to the Chinese and the Americans in the main. There is no proxy politics yet. It is being manifested at the level of bilateral trade disputes, with the United States accusing the Chinese of stealing American technology, pointing accusing fingers to and fighting the Huawei’s 5G technology, and politicisation of COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the United States’ withholding the payment of assessed dues and voluntary donations to the World Health Organisation. Thus, the Cold War is therefore bilateral in character, but with multilateral implications.

In other words, the New Cold War is impacting seriously on the whole world, especially from the perspective of the health challenges created by COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese adopted a foreign policy of telephone contact diplomacy with several world leaders, asking for international understanding. President Xi Jinping preaches the gospel of the need for international cooperation as one major effective way of containing the pandemic. He spoke with world leaders like those of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and even the United States. Donald Trump, however, is not on record to have given any listening ears to the Chinese epistle. Right from the time of his impeachment by the House, many scholars of Sino-American relations have explained the anti-China stand of Donald Trump as nothing more than an election strategy to ensure his re-election in November 2020. The analysis was likened to the US policy stand that Saddam Hussein of Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which the International Atomic Energy Agency denied, but on which the United States still insisted to have a pretext to launch attack on Iraq.

The impact of COVID-19 in the aviation industry is great. International flights have been seriously and negatively impacted upon, to the extent that many airlines have laid off a substantial part of their staff as a result of great economic losses. Many countries, including Nigeria, have closed their international borders to both local and international flights, meaning that revenue generation and inter-state vehicular movement has been suspended.

Many countries also adopted the policy of lockdown, relaxed or not, a policy that has also generated controversy and violence. The number of COVID-19 infected people as at Friday, May 22, 2020 in Africa was 99,959 confirmed cases, with South Africa leading with 19, 137 cases, followed by Egypt with 15,003, Algeria with 7,728, Morocco with 7,211 and Nigeria with 7,016. A total number of 3,100 deaths has been recorded across Africa, with Egypt having the highest number, 696. Algeria followed with 575, South Africa with 369, Nigeria with 211 and Morocco with 196. The import of the foregoing is to underscore the point that the problem goes beyond Nigeria’s international borders. So do the socio-economic and militaro-strategic implications for national development.

And perhaps, more importantly, the Cold War is pointing to the emergence of a Sino-American-driven New World Order, the particulars of which are still difficult to delineate, but from which lessons can still be drawn for Nigeria’s foreign policy. In this regard, what are the issues in the Cold War? United States under Donald Trump has a policy of ‘America First’ and ‘Making America Great Again.’ The policy implies non-subjection of any American national interest to the sovereignty of another State and to any supranational organisation or authority. In this regard, will the policy give room in the near future to the Chinese to succeed the Americans as leaders of the world? Can there be an arrangement for a sort of US-China condominium over the conduct and management of global questions? Will the Chinese also give away their interest in playing greater roles in the conduct and management of global affairs? The likelihood of the United States or the Chinese reviewing their policy position is remote, because the rivalry is political in nature. China has been preparing for the leadership of the world and is expecting the United States to simply step down honourably. United States is not ready for that. This is the political lull with which the global community has found itself and that the discussion of a possible foreign policy review should be held..

In this context, in which way is Nigeria’s foreign policy likely to be affected? What are the specific implications for national security in Nigeria, especially in terms of human security? And most interestingly, how will the New Cold War be manifested in Africa, in general, and particularly in Nigeria? What are the current and relevant issues in Nigeria’s foreign policy? Above all, how should Nigeria react to the New World Order in the making in light of her national security interest?

NCW and Foreign Policy Review: the Issues

That there is an emerging New Cold War (NCW) between China and the United States is a truism. That the NCW can precipitate the establishment of a New World Order still remains at the level of scholarly debate. However, there is no disputing the fact that the United States not only has its own world agenda, and not only wants an American mania of conducting and managing international affairs, but has also not prepared to relegate the protection of its interests to the direction of another sovereign state. This is a clear pointer to future conflicting world orders, as there are several new centres of global power in the world of today.

Consequently, since the NWO is still in the making, no good foreign policy review can be carried out for now, especially in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 politics. The NWO is, at best, still ill-defined. And if a review becomes a desideratum, it then means that it has to be analytically carried out from the perspective of a conjectural methodology. Whereas the making of policy strategy and policy decision cannot, and should not, be predicated on conjectures. This does not mean that scenarios cannot be built to prevent being cut unawares.

While the articulation of the modalities of the NCW and the NWO should continue to be the business of the relevant stakeholders, we strongly believe that there is the urgent need for the review of Nigeria’s foreign policy for many reasons. First, there is the need to prepare and respond to the challenging situational realities in contemporary international politics.

Secondly, in 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the academia disagreed over whether Nigeria’s foreign policy was on the path of decline Mr. Amedu Ode, then spokesperson for the Ministry, argued that Nigeria’s foreign policy was quite robust. Dr. Adekeye Adebajo argued to the contrary and submitted that Nigeria was actually treading on the path of foreign policy decline, especially in light of the then increasing decline in the visibility of Nigeria in international relations. Since then, the international outings of Nigeria have remained a question without an answer. Most academics agreed with the position of Dr. Adebajo. In this case, why the decline? A foreign policy review conference is required to investigate and explicate the problem.

Thirdly, Ambassador Obasola Samuel Fatunla, in his new book, entitled History of Reforms and Reorganisation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 1960-2007, published in 2019 by the College Press, made it clear that ‘there is a fundamental need to review the foreign policy strategies to accord greater priority to national interests.’ He has shown in the book, some cases in which foreign policy decisions have not reflected the protection of the national interest. This should not be so. In fact, Ambassador Fatunla also noted that ‘there is need to promote and encourage frequent review conferences on Nigeria’s foreign policy,’ during which issues of professionalism, rules and regulations, welfare, development, etc, will be addressed. No one is disputing the fact of globalisation with its attendant changing implications. No one can remain static in the formulation of fresh strategies to respond to the manifestations of a changing world.

Fourthly, and perhaps most disturbingly, it appears that a gradual introduction of politics of destruction of Africa is in the making. It is currently taking the format of international assistance to Africa. Different conspiratorial theories have it that attempts are being made to depopulate Africa. Rightly or wrongly, there is the case of the human sterilisation of Africans with Genetically Modified Mosquitoes (GMO), a situation that has reportedly alarmed African leaders.

In Burkina Faso, for instance President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré has to compel the resignation of his Prime Minister, Paul Kaba Thieba, and his team, on the basis of the Government’s go ahead in June 2019, given to the Target Malaria, an organisation that had sent over 100 scientists to the Bana village to convince the people of the need for GMO. Not less than US $200 million had been given to the Burkinabe government on the basis of Bills Gate’s proposed release of GMO under the sponsorship of the Bills and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The nature of the problem in Burkina Faso is well raised by one village elder, Tchessira Sanou. She said ‘we have two major problems here: water pollution and malaria.’ She also noted that she ‘used to go into the forest to gather sticks and leaves from specific trees and shrubs to treat the symptoms. Now we receive mosquito nets from the government and we have medicine, but the disease persists… If you and your child get sick, then you can’t work in the fields for several days. That can cost you your entire harvest, leaving you with too little to eat.’ Put differently, the traditional method of treating malarial symptoms are jettisoned. It is replaced with drugs that have worsened the situation for the people. There is the need for a foreign policy response.

In the current world of mounting political dishonesty, in which there is no clear indication as to whether COVID-19 has an origin of wildlife as scientists would like to have us believe, or whether COVID-19 is a biological weapon, a responsible government must always prepare for the worst scenarios. A responsible government must never be caught unawares. Nigeria’s foreign policy has, particularly under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, been more reactive than being more programmatic. This is one major reason prompting an urgent review of foreign policy. Grosso modo, opinion on the various issues involved is also divided.

As regards the issue of NWO, Professor Charles Ukeje submitted at the Zoom meeting that there is not likely to be anything like a post-COVID-19 era, and therefore, there will not be NWO. The international political status quo will remain, Professor Ukeje posited. Professor Jide Owoeye lent support to Ukeje’s observations, but Professor Bola Akinterinwa, former Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, and the President and Director General of the Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies (BOCIDASS) argued to the contrary. He noted that if the issue of GMOs is raising general concerns in Africa, leading to the resignation of the whole government in Burkina Faso, if there is still politics of who is responsible for the emergence of COVID-19, if there is a NCW in the making, it cannot be right to suggest that the status quo will remain. It should be expected that the balance of power that has characterised the current world order has the potential to be replaced with the balancing of new errors of terror that are already emerging. Denuclearisation may no longer be a priority. The hardening of terrorism should also be expected at the level of the rogue states, so to say.

A second issue is the nature of the problem of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Is the problem whether to organise a review conference or not? Ambassador Joe Keshi held the strong opinion that the critical issue is the factor of domestic environmental conditionings. Essentially, it is the problem of right political leadership, which Nigeria does not have.

Many participants shared this view, by focusing on different aspects of the foreign policy lull: transfer of public officers that are not initiated in diplomacy into senior positions in the Foreign Ministry; delay in responding to diplomatic despatches from Nigeria’s diplomatic missions abroad; poor funding of the diplomatic mission; uncoordinated centres of foreign policy-making in Nigeria; multiple centres of foreign policy-making; lack of foreign policy focus, especially in light of the factors of anti-colonialism and anti-apartheid struggles that explained the yesteryears of foreign policy dynamism but which are no more; little encouragement in the promotion of a cordial entente between the Foreign Ministry and the private sector, particularly the industrialo-business sub-sector; and lack of deep research input into foreign policy processes.

Without jot of doubt, the zoom meeting was very successful to the extent that it has generated new issues for further research, well-informed views of observers and seasoned scholars, diplomats and diplomatists, professionals and practitioners. As to whether there should be a foreign policy review, we believe that there should be, but it is important to note that the review cannot be holistic. It has to be selective. In the event of manifestations of a Cold War between China and the United States, Nigeria should adopt its policy of non-alignment in the sense of its two meanings: freedom of decision to align or not to align. In both cases, there should not be any decision to be partisan. Nigeria’s foreign policy principles need no review for now. The policy of non-alignment should be sustained. So should the belief in equality of sovereign states and multilateral diplomacy. In the context of multilateralism, emphasis should be on plurilateral diplomacy. Nigeria should continue to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of other nation-states, but subject to the rule of reciprocity. The principle of non-interference, which should not be confused with the principle of non-intervention as provided for in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, should continue to be adhered to as defined in 1963 by Dr. Jaja Wachukwu, then Minister of External Affairs. Africa should become the cornerstone as it used to be before 1976 when Professor Adebayo Adedeji reconceptualised it to be centrepiece, if Nigeria is not given the due respects she deserves. Core foreign policy objectives of national security, self-preservation and survival need no review. What needs review is basically a foreign policy re-strategy; articulation of a Grand Strategy, removal of ‘respect for International law’ as provided for in the 1999 Constitution, placement of emphasis on Citizen Diplomacy and beneficial and constructive concentricism, and revisiting Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s idea of Concert of Medium Powers. The new power rivalry between China and the United States makes such a concert a desideratum. This should be the answer to quo vadis.