By Godknows Igali
One of Nigeria’s most outstanding military-diplomats, General Ike Omar Sanda Nwachukwu, turns 80 years today, September 1, 2020. Born in the “Garden City” of Port-Harcourt, this urbane-debonair-cavalier and gentlemanly former military officer, stands tall and celebrated as the man with the mida’s touch, who brought aggressive economic engagement to define Nigeria’s foreign policy.
A Soldier and National Service
Ike Omar Sanda who joined the Nigerian army in 1963 alongside other very eminent military leaders such as Generals Y.Y. Kure, late A.B. Mamman, amongst others, is renowned for his patriotism. While speaking at the Chief of Army Staff Annual Conference in Ibadan in December 2017, General Nwachukwu said “I fought in the Nigerian civil war as a Federal Army Officer, principally because I believe in Nigeria’s unity. That belief remains my conviction that all Nigerians regardless of ethnic, religious or regional origin have the right to live, work and prosper anywhere and everywhere in Nigeria”.
It is the currency nowadays to hear many in foreign relations circles talk about “economic diplomacy” often with varying levels of understanding and claims of its origin, considering how this phenomenon has helped nations bolster their economic fortunes. However, on hindsight, it is humbling that Nigeria’s affirmative drive towards attainment of this policy thrust was during the years 1987 to 1989, a period that saw a military officer who served as Foreign Minister of the largest black nation in the world. Although, the source and scope of this concept could somewhat be evasive and sometimes constantly changing, what was clear to all in Nigeria and around the world was that, Africa’s most populous state was arguably amongst the first to give a clear expression and content to this term. Hitherto, it is rarely used and if that occurred, was largely nebulous and opaque. Gladly today, even those who were skeptical about such thoughts are in the first line in espousing what they tended to reject and write off.
No one can gainsay the beauty of public service especially at very high levels, which, when reflected upon, could have experiences and lessons to draw from, by succeeding generations. This is the backdrop against which a terse reflection of Nigeria’s journey in its quest for sustainable development using the instrumentality of economic diplomacy is hinged. Who were Nigeria’s pioneering actors of this concept? And how did she become a reference point in the subject of economic diplomacy? How has she faired ever since?
For Nwachukwu, a national service that was originally intended to be within the precincts of defending the territorial integrity of the Nigerian state, became unwittingly deflected and gratefully so, to the world of diplomacy, statecraft and political leadership. Put on a proper scale looking back, it becomes much difficult to put strict lines of separation on where each of these roles begin and end. It is obvious therefore, that the functions which any well-meaning citizen of a country has to carry out at various times could most times be co-equal in importance. This was the guiding philosophy of Nwachukwu who saw each posting within the military for a span of over thirty years. During this period, he rose steadily to become a Major-General, and performed other ad hoc leadership assignments; all dwelling within same sacred ambits of national service.
Whether in the more familiar territory of military service where he also rose to become Provost General of the Nigerian Army, or in civil governance as Governor of Abia State (1986-1987), Diplomacy or partisan politics as an elected Senator representing Imo North (1990-1993), the retired General’s cornerstone of personal fulfillment was his contribution to the process of building a viable nation. Rather outstanding, in all these, was his induction into the nuances and finesse of Diplomatic Service as the number one image-maker of Nigeria. This was profoundly peculiar.
Induction into Diplomacy and Diplomatic Service
In most countries around the world, the Diplomatic Service is often an apex assemblage of some of the best brains and most refined persons which a country can put together at any time. This is understandably the single and uppermost reason that a country’s foreign policy and what it has to offer in the international scene are merely a reflection of its domestic circumstances. In the reverse order, as is commonly said in military circles, the world will appreciate a country more within the ambits of its economic strength, social wellbeing and internal peace within its borders. So, the diplomatic service must necessarily encapsulate the best human manpower that could go outside its borders to project and defend its interest. It is therefore expected that no country will mortgage such awesome responsibilities to anything but the very best.
Upon resuming at the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then at 23 Marina Road in Lagos, Nigeria’s erstwhile capital, as Foreign Minister, General Nwachukwu had without doubt, expected to meet a corp of very able and well formal professionals. Gladly, in the course of his military service, he had several useful opportunities to comingle and be part of the country’s military-diplomatic assets. While serving in the Nigerian Army, for instance, the retired General had great engagements on issues of international peace, security and human welfare. Also, as part of his military training (though essentially an infantry officer), he had undertaken studies at the Institute of Humanitarian Law, San Romero Italy, which is the United Nation’s Peace Academy. Beyond that, he also had trainings at several high-level policy formulation institutions, not leaving out the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in Kuru, Plateau State.
Arriving therefore in the foreign ministry, he was determined to make a difference and leave a mark for the overall wellbeing of the country. No doubt, his training at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, Royal Canadian School of Infantry and the famous School of Infantry, Warminster, United Kingdom had prepared him for a rewarding public service, not only of security, but also of broad public policy involvement. More importantly, his thrust of policy as Foreign Minister therefore had to be in tune with the realities of the country’s political and social circumstances. After all, that is the raison d’etres of interstate relations.
Preparation for Economic Diplomacy
As if a dress rehearsed for a new function, General Nwachukwu’s last non-military appointment before coming to the Foreign Ministry was in the Ministry of Labour where he dealt with issues of employment generation, wealth creation, human capital development and economic growth. He particularly had a very close contact with the teeming army of young people who needed to be given meaningful livelihood both for themselves and the succeeding generations of Nigerians. At a stage, he was impulsed to create the National Directorate to Employment (NDE) which till today remains the flagship for resolving problems of vocational training for young people and employment generation.
Indeed, this brought him to terms with the realities of the Nigerian economy at the time. As Minister of Labour, and as such, member of the Economic Committee of the Federal Executive Council, he used the platform to be more abreast with actualities of growth and progress, as the ascent of all policies of government had to be directed towards creating opportunities and inclusiveness thus seeking growth for younger people and the private sector. In no little way did he get closer to the reality that the private sector must be the driver of growth that takes the lead in opening up the overall potentials of the country.
A major advantage which he had over several other colleagues in the military government was the fact that the then Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, had absolute confidence in the options and solutions on a broad range of issues which came as a result of the inner reflections of the Foreign Affairs Minister’s troubled mind on the future of the country. A case in point was the immediate approval that greeted the recommendation that sought the creation of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), one that came even before the thought was completed communicated.
The experience was not any different upon the General’s deployment as the helmsman in the Foreign Affairs Ministry when he sought the Head of State’s blessing on Nigeria’s need for a foreign policy that should hinge on mercantilist, pro-private sector, and pro-economic adventurism in a bid to institutionalize “a complementarity” between government and the private sector capable of driving the national economy and in so doing, engender economic growth as well as strengthen the respect, prestige and influence of the country in the international arena. All these were not only greeted with the required support and approvals, but an assurance of government’s fullest support.
Conceptualising Economic Diplomacy
As it is expected on arrival at any department or agency, meetings are usually convened for the new boss with top echelon. In this case, it was with the diplomatic high brass. This comprised amongst others, some of the first generation of career ambassadors the country had produced. Most of these were those who remained from the pioneer set which started the country’s Foreign Service when it was still part of the Prime Minister’s office in 1957. These early birds had received very sound training in some of the best academic and diplomatic institutions in the world. Majority of them were therefore expectedly ultra-conservative and wont to defining foreign policy and inter-state relations mainly from the political prism. In fact, it is often said within international relations orbits that the prestige and aura of the sovereign and of the state is better enjoyed when the king stays out of the market place. To them, even the so-called “Trade Attaches” which some older democracies had in Embassies, were expected to merely perform routine functions, mostly tied to processing of documentation.
No doubt, diplomacy had always included the defense of trading rights, merchant ships and protection of citizens who were out on their private commercial missions in other countries. Indeed, for many who read European history at some point, much of the course of relations between countries of that region, was in pursuit of what was best for the country’s economic and social interests. It is now common knowledge that Europe’s adventure to the outside world whether by the Portuguese in the 15th century and their Spanish neighbours in the 15th and 16th centuries, or later by the Dutch, the French, the English, the Belgians, etc always had strong elements of economic nexus.
Europe wanted trade routes and produce from other countries to advance their economic interests especially when the industry revolution started over 300 years ago. In the world’s recent history leading up to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884/1885, and the colonial conquest of all of Africa and developing countries, the political agenda of Europe always dove-tailed with the commercial imperative. As a matter of fact, in some cases, “chartered companies” such as Royal Niger Company (now United Africa Company) were given exclusive royal rights to colonize countries and administer them on behalf of their sovereign.
Against this backdrop and the new national economic realities, the new Foreign Affairs Minister, on arrival, used the opportunity to explain to the leadership of the ministry, starting from the then Permanent Secretaries, Amb. Ignatius Olisemeka Emeka, as well as Ms. Judith Atta both of whom he had previously enjoyed very excellent relationship with. While the latter, being a great educationist, was well known within educational circles, the former who was Nigeria’s Ambassador to the United States and later Israel, was fairly well acquainted to over the years. The realities of the economic circumstances at the time dictated the need for Nigeria to give primacy to robust economic activism in the country’s foreign policy.
Prior to Nwachukwu’s assumption in the ministry, the government of President Ibrahim Babangida, unlike those just before him, had to weather very tough economic situations on account of a sharp fall in oil prices. It would be recalled that in the preceding years, crude oil had reached relatively high prices. Rightly or wrongly, some top government functionaries were quoted to have boasted that Nigeria’s problem was “how to spend the money which she had.” However, during that time, oil prices had crashed to the lowest levels and the country was confronted with accepting the very unpopular decision suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) known as “Structural Adjustment Programme”. While agreeing to adjust the country’s circumstances, however, President Babangida was not ready to accept an imposed economic regime or “conditionality.” This was where bringing in the private sector to bolster the efforts of the government became inevitable, thus introducing the private sector fully into the corridors of diplomacy.
General Nwachukwu therefore had to bring his diplomatic colleagues at par with him on the way to go, an endeavour that became a must-do. This he pursued with vigor, in order to be heard quite clearly. It was not the case with his previous life as a military officer, where orders are dished out and seen to be carried out. As the Chief Diplomat, he had to make his point of view understandable and appreciated. Gladly, after each session which lasted several hours, the majority of the senior functionalities at the Foreign Ministry applauded the new policy ascent with assurances of their fullest cooperation. With hindsight, a good number of career diplomats with multilateral backgrounds had been involved in similar issues within the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations and in such organizations such as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Economic Community of Africa (ECA), and even played roles in the processes leading to the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975. At the bilateral level, many had manned “Economic Desks” while abroad, even though the roles which they performed were nothing compared to the planned new onslaught. Thankfully, everyone keyed in.
Setting up an Aggressive Trade and Investment Window in the Foreign Office
Understanding the critical role of personnel as drivers of the vision and novel policy thrust led to the assembling of a team of staff. On good recommendation and with previous knowledge, Amb. Olusegun Akinsanya was headhunted to open a new window in the Minister’s Office known as “Trade and investment” unit. Akinsanya later became one of Nigeria’s most effective Ambassadors to the African Union. At the time of setting up the Trade and Investment Unit, he had just returned from the United Kingdom as one of the deputies to the High Commissioner in charge of the Economic department, and saw to the exponential rise in trade and investment between Nigeria and the United Kingdom.
In order to function well, two other very bright and forward-looking officers were added to fully reap the expected dividends. One of such was late Mr. Daniel Egwudobi as Deputy who had just returned from Paris where he handled economic relations. The second officer was Godknows Igali who came in from then Czechoslovakia in order to help capture the “East European” world. As expected, he also rose to become a star in his generation as an Ambassador and Administrator.
As a compromise with the ministry’s career administrative structure, the unit was later moved to the existing International Economic Co-operations Directorate (IECD), an effort that saw the introduction of more officers to the team, including one Steve Egurube, who had wide knowledge of the African market, and Bankole Adeoye with knowledge of South America, who rose to become Nigeria’s immediate-past Ambassador to the African Union. Before then, IECD already had two departments – Bilateral Economic Co-operations Department; and Multilateral Economic Co-operation Department. So, Trade and Investment Units (TIU) became as it were, an appendage to create a third leg, but with the head of that new unit having unhindered access to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Understandably, that unit had become a full department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which shows how far the journey had been since the new regime began.
Without reference to any existing published literature on the subject at the time, the terminology “Economic Diplomacy” was arrived at, by dint of lexical engineering. Interestingly, General Nwachukwu’s predecessor, an academician and foreign policy practitioner – Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi – was renowned on the political agenda. His level of scholarly work was lavish and as such, he found friendship with a lot of very vibrant minds in the ministry, with his own new ideas of African High Commission, Concept of Medium Powers, as well as Technical Aid Corps (TAC). Farther down, what had dominated thinking in the Ministry was the idea of “Africa being the centre piece of Nigeria’s foreign policy” and the theory of “Concentric Cycles”. So, practically, Ike Nwachukwu’s own policy had to be directed at supporting the government of the day, grow the national economy, set industries working, create jobs for people, and put food on the table of ordinary citizens.
Applying Military Dynamism into Economic Diplomacy
While there were historical accounts of government intervention in protecting economic rights of their citizens, there were no fine and clear theories and definitions on how governments carried out such activities. Gen Nwachukwu came to the Ministry with three of the nation’s intellectual gifts, Prof. George Obiozor, Prof Akin Osuntokun and Dr. Sam Chime as his ideologues. They were on the first line in terms of policy generation. Internally, the Ministry boasted of intellectual administrators such as Ambassadors Akinsanya, Femi George, Segun Apata, and Gboko Yogh. Also of note is the fact that the support policy team in the Minister’s office were younger officers such as Late Gordon Bristol, Humphrey Orjiakor, Godwin Agona, Emmanuel Chukwueme, M. Saulawa, John Gana, Abdullahi Bage, all of whom later rose to become, amongst the brightest career Ambassadors Nigeria ever produced. In essence, General Nwachukwu captained a team of Nigeria’s best eleven in support of the regime’s foreign policy.
Also of note is the fact that, the support policy team in the Minister’s office were younger officers such as Late Gordon Bristol, Humphrey Orjiakor, Godwin Agona, Emmanuel Chukwueme, M. Saulawa, all of whom later rose to become, amongst the brightest career Ambassadors Nigeria ever produced. First and foremost, the full gamut of governmental structure was justified as it pertained to the definition of the country’s national interest, as it had to be directed within the context of economic matters. Hence, there was an obvious justification for all other activities of the foreign policy, that is, in Nigeria’s bilateral, multilateral and consular relations that had to toe that line. In other words, the success of the ministry and individual missions abroad had to be seen from the view point of what economic objectives could be achieved. Thereafter, the new policy thrust had to be reduced to circulars and transmitted to all of Nigeria’s diplomatic missions abroad, which at the time were about a hundred.
The next step was to explain economic diplomacy to the full understanding of other government agencies with a view to seeking their cooperation and team work. In particular was the Federal Ministry of Commerce, as well as the Federal Ministry of Industry, whose mandate dealt locally with all matters pertaining to what was achievable abroad. As a matter of fact, a critical department with which strong collaboration was instituted was the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment. Here, a policy thrust was to aggressively promote made-in-Nigeria goods, particularly to the West African Sub-region and the rest of the continent, thus making the NEPC’s role very critical. For this, the “Sub-committee on Export to West Africa,” co-chaired by myself and the Honourable Minister of Trade and Industry was jointly created. At this juncture, there was need to collaborate, not only in organizing trade missions, but also in the organization of series of Solo-Exhibitions of Nigerian goods all over the world. Of course, in this, private sector players had to pay for themselves, in order to jointly tackle the private sector synergy.
Together with the Ministry of Trade, the “Africa’s Business Round Table” was formed. By consensus, the threshold of membership was limited to persons of wide business versatility and economic resource (billionaires). While late Esom Alinta became pioneer Chairman, he was succeeded by Alh. Aminu Dantata and later, Alh. Bamanga Tukur. Further collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Finance saw to the creation of the “African Export Import Bank” (AFREXIM Bank). Today, the AFREXIM Bank has a portfolio of over $50bn, being one of the largest export and trade promotion banks in Africa.
Another major step was to give practical effect to the achievement of economic diplomacy. In doing this, several issues of personal life’s journey came to play. Although General Nwachukwu’s father was of Igbo ethnic origins, with very strong roots and group footprint in trading, his mother was a Princess from present-day Katsina State being another historical centre-point of commerce, industry and long-distance trade in Northern Nigeria. On the other hand, his upbringing was mostly in Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of the country. This background afforded him ample opportunity to interact with the economic elites from virtually all parts of the country, in bringing them onboard to understand this new accent of policy.
Apart from a few very close friends of his such as Esom Alinta of blessed memory, Julius Adelusi-Adelusi, then Chairman Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, Omolade Okoya-Thomas, others included Alh. Aminu Dantata, who then was Chairman Kano Chamber of Commerce, Alh. Hassan Adamu (Wakiln Adamawa), and late Chief Akin George, then-Chairman Lagos Chamber of Commerce, amongst other entrepreneurs all of whom latched in becoming bearers of government’s new policy direction.
Economic Missions, Trade Missions, Trade Fairs and Solo Exhibitions
Beyond merely conceptualising a phenomenon believed to turn around Nigeria’s fortune, venturing into the global market place to showcase economic potentials that abounded in the country followed swiftly. In doing this, several economic missions were arranged that involved the participation of two or more of other states such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, amongst numerous others. These efforts were intended to explore potentials of possible economic opportunities for Nigeria. Several of these trips were led by then Vice President, Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, the Foreign Affairs Minister, alongside other cabinet ministers and the highest level of Nigerian business elite at the time.
The programmes of activities were usually rigorous, business-like and result-oriented. Of a special class was Nigeria’s relations with Israel. More than mere trade mission, it was ensured that Nigeria’s diplomatic relations with Israel which had been broken down since the period of the 1967 Arab-Isreali War was re-established in 1987. Furthermore, a strong private capital and technology infusion from that country to Nigeria was needed to achieve this. The climax was the visit to Nigeria by its then Foreign Minister and deputy Prime Minister after a period of thirty years. Today, companies from that country are playing needed roles in almost all sectors of Nigeria’s economy.
The External Resistance to Economic Diplomacy
The main challenge which confronted the economic diplomacy team at the time was in making bilateral partners especially from the western countries to accept that Presidential, Vice Presidential and Ministerial trips could have private sector components. As it was the custom, all these countries insisted during the preparatory meetings for high level visits that suggestions on private sector “incursion” and participation should be outside the domain of diplomacy. In most cases, there was a reluctance to accept that private sector components could be part of the bouquet of an official visit. That was where the best of General Nwachukwu’s military background came to play. In all these instances, he insisted repeatedly that Nigeria was ready to call off itinerated visits if private sector participation was forbidden. Gladly, though reluctantly, in almost all cases, they accepted and ensured that Nigeria’s private sector and top-level business people met with their bilateral counterparts from the various countries, while the government official meetings held separately.
One of the most memorable of such visits was President Babangida’s state visit to Germany in 1988. Nigeria’s initial preparatory meetings were tough as the high-level sector team was shunned. By the end of the day, both Heads of State opted to preside over the front meeting between captains of industry from the two countries and both sides agreed that it was the most worthwhile activity during the said visit. Private individuals were allowed to attend high level dinners, social events and ensuring that they were appreciated and properly recognized. The outcome of all these activities was the fact that various high business deals were struck, the world having a better understanding of Nigeria, as well as the economy that witnessed a quick rebound, defying IMF and World Bank predictions. On the overall, Nigeria was able to implement a homegrown economic recovery programme outside the straightforward structural adjustment programme, thus evading IMF’s shackle hold by the use of potent economic tools to buoy up the economy.
Additionally, a number of globally top-rated firms came into Nigeria, such as; Pinnacle, Alpha, Centre Point, and International Hotel Chains like Meridien also came into Nigeria during that period. In terms of the ministry’s economic portfolio, it was during this period that President Babangida approved the transfer of issues pertaining to the coordination of a joint commission with other countries from the Ministry of National Planning to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the overall, the question of export of non-oil products in Nigeria took the centre stage as a matter of policy, as that has continued till today with great benefits to the national economy.
No one can say exactly when the economic aspects of national interest became webbed into the world of diplomacy, as all nations have tended to protect what is most important to them, which is opening doors for their economic actors.
However, in modern times, the systemic deployment of economic tools in the conduct of foreign policy and steps taken to advance it and even proffering the coinage of “economic diplomacy,” has been largely Nigerian. Irrespective of the initial resistance faced by efforts made in this direction from bilateral partners during the 1990s, today, economic-diplomacy has become a mainstream aspect of international relations. Coming up to these years, this thrust has continued to be of currency in defining Nigeria’s foreign policy.
Before Gen. Nwachukwu, two other top military officers had left lofty impacts in other areas in the Nigerian Foreign Policy. First was Major-General Henry Adetope who served there from 1978 with great focus on sports as a diplomatic tool. Later was Major General Joe Nanven Garba, whose tenure from 1975-1978, could be said to have been amongst Nigeria’s highest crests in African decolonization, especially in Southern Africa. Unarguably, however, Nwachukwu’s aggressive focus on building and growing the national economy, attracting foreign direct investments, creating jobs and the like, was more directly impactful and now easily bought by the entire global community.
Even back here at home, his much later successor, the current foreign minister, Jeffery Onyeama, has followed in the footsteps of this noble general in continuing this policy initiative which has now been acronymed “Nigeria Economic Diplomacy Initiative” (NEDI); hopefully as a way of rejigging the Nigerian economy in these days of overall global gloom.
It is very humbling to note that some of the policies formulated from countries all over have also adopted and adapted in various forms what used to be described as a bold step back then, thereby ensuring that there is always a business component in official and state visits. So, while economic activities are in the job definition of foreign ministries and amongst the functions of career diplomats while abroad, one can assert, without fear of contradiction, that aggressive trade and investment pursuit and private sector involvement is one of Nigeria’s additions to the world of diplomacy.
Undeniably, Ike achieved a lot in terms of peace and security in West Africa, especially the role he played in resolving the civil disorder in Liberia, while his direct impact in terms of gains to Nigeria was in the area of economic diplomacy.
We wish the octogenarian a happy birthday in good health.
•Igali is a retired career diplomat and Federal Permanent Secretary.