Sequence and Consequence of a Lacklustre Foreign Policy: Chinese Loan Agreements and Nigerian Traders in Ghana

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Many international scholars believe that foreign policy is necessarily a resultant from the domestic setting. We do agree with this observation, but there is also no disputing the fact that foreign policies are defined by international environmental conditionings. The only problem of definition with any given foreign policy is when it lacks lustre, when a foreign policy is not vibrant and only remains reactive without definite direction.

And perhaps more disturbingly, when a foreign policy has little or no perceived role in the making of foreign agreements, one cannot but expect the worse or the worst outcomes. This is how to explain and understand the controversy surrounding the Nigeria-China loan agreements in terms of blank pages in the agreement. Was the Foreign Ministry not involved in the making of the agreement? How do we explain signing an agreement without having the Foreign Ministry, at least, as an observer, if not as one of the negotiators?

The mounting hostility vis-à-vis Nigerian businessmen in Ghana is another manifestation of Nigeria’s lacklustre foreign policy. The domestic setting has probably sent wrong signals that are not helpful to the government and people of Nigeria to Ghana, while the international environment has made life difficult for Nigerians in the Diaspora. In other words, how is Nigeria perceived globally? Has Nigeria no more any foreign policy? If yes, what is it on? What is the current meaning of Africa as centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy under the Buhari administration?

Unfortunately, if not most unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry gave its success story in the Buhari Administration Fifth Anniversary Factsheet (vide The Nation of Tuesday, June 9, 2020, p.5) at two levels: multilateral and bilateral. At the multilateral level, signing agreements with the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Jersey Island United States, Lichtenstein, etc, are given as success stories. One truth is that the agreement with the United Kingdom in August 2016 was simply an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on modalities for the return of looted funds from Nigeria.

Another truth is that the struggle for the return of such funds to Nigeria began even before the election of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB). In fact, Switzerland is on record to have repatriated looted funds before 2016. One cannot but wonder why routine diplomatic activities are presented as success stories. True they can be, especially when strenuous diplomatic negotiations are deployed. But when international positions are zoned to regions and the positions have to be rotated within the beneficiary region, why should the Foreign Ministry claim success stories? This is self-deceit at best. It is more than a self-deceit to consider, for instance, ‘the designation of President Buhari as the African Union (AU) Anti-Corruption Champion for 2018. It is more of a mockery than an expression of honour in the current dispensation of intra-African politics. Consequently, it has become necessary to evolve parameters for the determination of a success story at the level of multilateral diplomacy, because the failure of foreign policy is being presented as a success story. This should not be.

Sequence of Foreign Policy Failures
In 2017, Morocco made strenuous efforts to become a full member of the Economic Community of West African States. Nigeria argued in favour of Morocco’s membership even though Morocco belongs geo-politically to North Africa and not to the West African region. The foreign policy elite strongly opposed Morocco’s membership because such a membership has the potential to compete with Nigeria’s influence, as well as open the doors to uncontrolled international interferences to the detriment of Nigeria. In the eyes of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, ‘Nigeria has only one option. Let the West African Heads of State and Presidents drop this whole issue of expansion to the Mediterranean. Or Nigeria should serve notice that it would terminate, not suspend, but terminate her membership of ECOWAS.’

In fact, Professor Akinyemi sees a fraudulent intention in the membership by looking at it from a double advantage, which could only be to the detriment of the ECOWAS members. As he put it, ‘the United Nations, the African Union and all international institutions now use the concept of regionalism in the distribution of both appointive and elective posts. ECOWAS cannot unilaterally expand the boundary of West Africa to the Mediterranean.’ (vide The Nation, Friday, June 9, 2017, p.8). It took the intervention of the House of Representatives to temporarily put an end to the Moroccan dream.

Apart from the multilateral questions, many bilateral developments are also considered as success stories. For instance, there is the elevation in 2019 of the South Africa-Nigeria Bi-National Commission from Vice Presidential to Presidential level ‘as a renewed commitment to cooperation between Africa’s two largest economies.’ The question here is the extent to which the Vice Presidential level of the commitment has nipped in the bud South African xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.

Another alleged bilateral success is the signing and ratification of an Extradition Treaty with the United Arab Emirates. What really is the big deal with the signing of an extradition treaty with any country? What would have amounted to a big deal is when PMB’s mobilisation of ‘international support for the war against Boko Haram, forging strong partnerships with key countries…’ has successfully neutralised the Boko Haram insurgency. It is not because the United States would have accepted to sell and have actually sold 12 Super Tucano aircraft, which she initially refused to sell, that there is a success story to tell.

The truth remains that the United States’ interest was not guaranteed and protected when she initially refused to sell. The fear of the United States was that certain weapons might get into the hands of the terrorists as a result of possible mishandling by the Nigerian military. Another main truth is that the United States was unable to influence Nigeria on the basis of its whims and caprices. If the selling of Tucanos is now a success story, then arguably, Nigeria’s sovereignty must have been sold to the United States, which cannot but be most unfortunate.

Additionally, the role of the Foreign Ministry cannot but be called to question on the implications of presidential firing or sacking of political appointees,whose jobs have implications for international relations. Media reports have it that President Muhammadu Buhari had sacked Professor Charles Quaker-Dokubo as the Coordinator of the Amnesty Programme. He was first suspended in February 2020 on the recommendation of the report of the panel chaired by the National Security Adviser, Major General Babagana Monguno (retd). Quoting Femi Adesina, Presidential Adviser on Media affairs, The Punch has it that ‘the Monguno panel had looked into the ”numerous allegations and petitions surrounding the Presidential Amnesty Programme” and came to the conclusion that Dokunbo should be suspended’ (The Punch, August 27, 2020, p.)

The eventual sacking of Professor Dokunbo is not interesting in itself. What is particularly interesting is three-fold. First, the Government acknowledged that there are cases of serious financial infractions on the basis of which he was to be sacked, yet, the same Government, led by the same ‘President Muhammadu Buhari appreciated the services of Professor Dokunbo to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and wished him the best in his future.’ This, indeed, is a funny appreciation: is it appreciation for engaging in frauds? Were the allegations against him not tenable? If they are not tenable, why sack him? If they are tenable, is relieving him of his appointment as coordinator of the Amnesty Programme the ideal deterrence to his successor and others? Is sacking really a punishment?

Second, when allegations were made against Professor Dokunbo, social media reports pointed to several accomplices. What are the punishments for them? Why is the appreciation not extended to them? If public funds have been embezzled or diverted, why is it that efforts are not focused on recovery or on prosecution? I raised this point as an anti-corruption fighter and in my capacity as the Coordinator for the Lagos State Chapter of the National Anti-Corruption Volunteers Corps (NAVC)? Without doubt, in the eyes of the general public, the sacking is simply a cover up for all those reportedly involved in the various allegations.

Third, and most important, is the implication for foreign policy. How can any good or even bad Foreign Service Officer defend the Government of Nigeria for consciously saluting embezzlement of public funds. Put differently, even if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have any focus under President Muhammadu Buhari and has continued to bastardise the only government research institute on international relations, the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the Government’s silence over such alleged high-level corruption in the presidency cannot be helpful in the use of foreign policy to defend the Buhari administration in international relations.

Fourth, and most unfortunately too, public attention has been drawn to the anti-Nigeria roles of the Embassy of Nigeria in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the promotion of the UAE’s interest to the detriment of the protection of Nigeria’s national interest. The Embassy of Nigeria in the UAE has been accused by the Chairman, House Committee on Aviation, Honourable Nnolim Nnaji, of sabotaging Nigeria’s economic interest by marketing Emirates Airlines’ charter flights.

True, in June 2020, the House of Representatives adopted a motion which sought the use of only Nigerian airlines for the evacuation of stranded Nigerians abroad. As reported by Chinelo Obogo, Nnolim Nnaji ‘said it was regrettable that the Emirates has continued to evacuate stranded Nigerians from UAE with the active connivance of the officials of Nigerian Embassy in Abu Dhabi to the detriment of earlier agreement for Nigerian airlines being engaged for such evacuations.’ Honourable Nnaji reportedly added: ‘all over the world, embassies and diplomats strive to promote and protect the economic interests of their nations, but it is unfortunate that this has not been the case with our embassy in UAE’ (Daily Sun, Monday, August 3, 2020, p.2).

And true enough again, the non-protection of the Nigerian interest, prompting the probing of the Sino-Nigerian loan agreements, as well as the shoddiness of foreign policy protection of Nigerians abroad, such as in the face of Ghanaian self-protectionist laws on qualifications for foreigners to settle down to do business in Ghana, are nothing more than a manifestation of a lacklustre foreign policy without focus.

Consequences of a Lacklustre Foreign Policy
As regards Chinese loan agreements with Nigeria, there is absolutely nothing wrong in taking commercial loans from China or from any other country if the ultimate objective remains boosting economic productivity, and particularly if the boosting is to be backed up with seriousness and objectivity of purpose. When situations of force majeure arise and repayment of loans becomes difficult, even if there are provisions on non-invocation of sovereign immunity clauses, both signatories cannot but know that the reasons for inability to repay are not deliberate and not because of bad policies. COVID-19 pandemic provides a good illustration of this type of force majeure.

For instance, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank considered the implications of COVID-19 for many countries and resolved to revisit the moratorium of debt repayments of 77 developing countries, of which 44 are in Africa, Chinese President, Xi Jinping, announced, at the June 17, 2020 Extraordinary Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), his country’s readiness to cancel the interest-free debts of African countries, initially scheduled to mature by the end of 2020. President Jinping said the debt relief would be extended to the debts owed by countries that are party to the FOCAC framework. Nigeria is part of this framework and Chinese consideration of possible relief cannot but be a welcome development.

However, when there are observations on and evidence of political remissness in loan agreements, not only would there have been serious acts of non-patriotism, but also the need to raise questions about the roles of the Foreign Ministry in the making of such loan agreements. For instance, the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties, Protocols and Agreements organised an investigative hearing on Chinese loans agreement with Nigeria and found out that Nigeria’s interest has not been sufficiently protected. The Chairman of the House Committee, Honourable Nicholas Ossai raised three main lapses.

First is the issue of empty pages in the Sino-Nigerian loan agreements. As Honourable Ossai put it, ‘Nigerian officials signed empty pages of loan agreement.’ In this regard, no information is given on whether ‘signing’ is synonymous with ‘initialling’ of the blank pages. Whatever is the case, what is the purpose of having empty pages unsigned? Where were the Foreign Ministry officials, who are generally considered as the technicians and technocrats of diplomatic negotiations? If the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Federal Ministry of Justice are responsible for the financial and legal aspects of the agreement, the Foreign Ministry cannot but be held responsible for the protocolar aspects of the agreements before signing of the agreements.

Secondly, Honourable Ossai said that ‘$326m loan on rice is yet to be disbursed four years after agreement signing.’ If the Foreign Ministry is involved in the making of an agreement, why is it not also involved in the monitoring of its execution, especially in light of possibly drawing attention to acts or non-executions incompatible with the provisions of the agreement? Why should a loan of $326m be made idle? The Foreign Ministry is a middle institution between foreign countries and the local government ministries, and therefore, owes it a responsibility to ensure effective coordination, but which is failing.

Thirdly, the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Finance admits that sovereignty clause truly exists in the Sino-Nigerian loan agreements, that it is a standard practice, and that there is an International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in the event of investment disputes. When Honourable Ossai asked whether the judgments of the Centre would be enforceable in Nigeria, the Permanent Secretary replied, yes.

The reply prompted Honourable Ossai to state thus: the sovereignty clause is ‘dangerous. Now you have a circular, agreed by the Federal Government to guide you in signing agreements. You disobeyed that circular issued by the President of the Republic of Nigeria to guide you. But you were desperate enough to go and sign and waive the immunity clause of Nigeria. And you come on the pages of newspapers and tell Nigerians that, that is a standard. That is not a standard.’ We cannot but agree with Honourable Ossai, especially in light of the non-compliance with Executive Order 003 of 2017 on the need for local content in public procurement by the Federal Government

Many questions can be raised at this juncture: is there no diplomatic standard anymore in the Foreign Ministry concerning the conduct and management of negotiations of international agreements? Why is there no foreign policy focus around which the people of Nigeria can be mobilised to define and also defend in the national interest? Why should foreign policy be permanently reactive? These questions not only explain why Nigeria’s foreign policy lacks lustre, but also why there is no regard for Nigerians at home and abroad. This is also one major rationale behind Ghanaian government’s policy decision to include Nigerian businessmen on the list of those required to have, at least, one million US dollars capitalisation to be eligible to operate any business in Ghana.

While the lacklustre character of Nigeria’s foreign policy may be an issue, the problem of institutional corruption in the country may also explain in part the problem of the Foreign Ministry. Whenever government officials are accused of corruption and are pointed at, and their integrity is likely to be called to question, one official rationale is often found to put a stop to further enquiry. The case of Senator Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and the House of Representatives in the matter of the NDDC corruption saga, is one example. The same is true of the case between Festus Keyamo, Minister of State for Labour and Employment and the same House of Representatives on the matter of 774,000 jobs creation in the 774 Local Governments of the Federation is another.

And perhaps most disturbingly, but expectedly, the same House of Representatives is already on the path of putting an end to the investigation surrounding possible acts of corruption in the signing of the Sino-Nigerian loan agreements. On Thursday, August 20, 2020, a notice was issued in the House of Representatives, according to which ‘the leadership of the House of Representatives has recently met and resolved that, henceforth, all activities of standing and ad hoc committees be put on hold while the House until its annual recess,’ which is September 15, 2020.

Why put a stop to the inquiry? Is it because of the arguments of Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transportation, that the Chinese might be angered and put a stop to the funding of the ongoing rail project? Whatever is the case, some civil society organisations, like the Socio-economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and the Centre for Liberty have cautioned against discontinuation of the probe, arguing that Nigerians have the right to know the exact truth about the loans and that the probes must never be allowed to be compromised. The People’s Democratic Party is also on record to have accused, on Saturday, August 22nd, 2020, Honourable Femi Gbajamiala, the Speaker of the House, of desperately preventing the continuation of the probe (vide The Punch, Friday August 21, page 2 and Saturday, August 25, 2020, p.2). According to the leadership of the House, there is no need for further probing because the $500 million Chinese loan for the rail project had already been approved and captured in the 2020 Appropriation Act. In other words, there is no need for self-probing. This is a very ridiculous pretext for cover up.

The plight of Nigerians in Ghana is another major reflection of foreign policy lacklustre in which agreements are done without follow-up and in which sufferings of Nigerians are always rhetorically sacrificed on the altar of sustaining bilateral relationship. One good illustration is the deliberate violation, in fact, direct aggression on Nigeria’s diplomatic premises by private Ghanaian individuals. Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has a standard reply to every mistreatment of Nigerians or when Nigeria’s national interest is assaulted: expression of concern, readiness to be seized with the problem, summoning the ambassador of the aggressor country, and avoiding deterioration of good ties, but all of which have always been to no avail. Maintain good ties even if lives have to be lost? Most unfortunate!

Even though the Government of Ghana has always accepted responsibility for closure of shops of Nigerians and has shown preparedness to rebuild the damaged diplomatic building of Nigeria, the aggression on Nigerians has continued in various forms. The latest in the series is Ghana’s $1m trade level on all foreign traders in the country. It is the same pattern of defence. This cannot continue. It is not befitting of a regional power like Nigeria. Our major concern here is the ambiguous roles of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Are Nigerians not Community Citizens in Ghana? Are they not entitled to protection? If the Government is finding it difficult to solve, why not approach the problem through the introduction of citizen diplomacy?

Without any iota of gainsaying, foreign policy under PMB has been most reckless and unpatriotic. It is too reactive and lacks focus. Signing international bilateral agreements with empty pages in them is not only unfortunate, but also portrays a poor quality of representation and negotiation. Anti-corruption efforts are meaningless if probing alleged anomalies is discontinued for selfish reasons. In fact, it taints Nigeria’s international image to learn that Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State wants to take a loan from China for the construction of a mono rail, but not ready to do so transparently, prompting the Alhaji Bashir Tofa-led Kano Unity Forum and others to lobby against it. Why is the contract shrouded in secrecy, when the loan will make the State Government to be indebted to China for 50 years? Questions are asked: ‘is it 684 million Euros equivalent to over N300billion or N828 billion imputed by a Kano political opposition movement? In the event … KNSG chooses to remain impervious to this well-intentioned intervention, Kano Unity Forum will diligently pursue court processes and other lawful means to stop the Light Rail project.’ The Forum has said. Indeed, Nigeria is a country of mounting domestic contradictions. Probably foreign policy may not explain all the problems.