UK’s Foreign Policy Dilemma: Unfreezing Russian Assets and Rights of Nigerian Students in the UK   

UK’s Foreign Policy Dilemma: Unfreezing Russian Assets and Rights of Nigerian Students in the UK   

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

The United Kingdom (UK) is a great power and a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). More important, the UK is also, with other four Permanent Members of the UNSC, a member of the UN recognised Nuclear Weapons States all of which have constituted themselves into an informal Nuclear Club to which access by all aspiring nuclear states has been denied. The Nuclear Weapons States want exclusiveness of the club to be preserved, arguing that other Member States of the international community do not have the capacity to manage the radioactive effect of any nuclear incident. In other words, the UK, like others, wants to preserve its own national identity.

In fact, it was majorly because of the need to underscore the British national identity that the UK opted out of the European Union. It is important to note here that the European Union began with the European Economic Community of Six, following the signing of the 25 March Treaty of Rome. The six countries were France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg). In 1961, the UK sought membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) but to no avail. With the exception of France who vetoed it, all others wanted the accession of the UK to the Rome Treaty. The way the British interpreted how they were mistreated by the French President, General Charles de Gaulle, created a sharp division between proponents and opponents of EEC membership.

With more diplomatic lobby at work, the UK was admitted on January 1, 1973. Hardly two years thereafter, the opposition to continued membership of the EEC increased.  This prompted the holding of a plebiscite in 1975. By chance, the proponents of continued membership won. This was how the British managed to sustain their membership of the EEC. Major issues raising the need for separate British identity began to emerge following the transformation of the EEC to European Community (EC) and then to European Union (EU). The EEC started in 1958 with emphasis on working towards a Common Market.

Having an EU requires harmonisation of all development policies. The EU wants its own currency, the Euro. The British want to maintain their Pound Sterling. The exercise of the supranational authority of some EU institutions is contested by the British, seeing it as an erosion of their pride. This consideration again prompted a second plebiscite on 23rd June 2016. It is against this background that UK’s foreign policy dilemma should be explicated.

Unfreezing Russian Assets in the UK

UK’s foreign policy dilemma and challenges can be said to have been accentuated following Brexit. Recall that the outcome of the 1975 referendum revealed that there was 64% national turnout and that the target to secure a majority for winning was 12,951,598 votes. A majority vote of 8,908,508, which is 34.5% more than the votes of those who rejected continued membership of the European Community in 1975 was required. Besides, the Treaty of Lisbon was quickly signed by all EU members but the British hesitated in signing it. In this regard, Prime Minister David Cameron said, before the 2010 election, that he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Additionally, the 1993 Maastricht Treaty placed emphasis on a political Europe and was therefore considered the foundation of the European Union. All these cases point to Britain’s animosity and considerations to seek withdrawal from the EU.

In 2016, 51.9% voted in favour of discontinuation of UK’s membership of the European Union. Since the withdrawal of membership from the EU, the United Kingdom has been faced with many foreign policy challenges, including the most recent issue of freezing Russian assets in the United Kingdom in light of which the Russian government has also given an ultimatum to the Government of the UK to defreeze Russian assets in the UK immediately. And perhaps more interestingly, there is also the current issue of the 2024 UK student visa rules among others. In this regard, while the policy attitude towards Russia is about how to freeze Russian assets, UK’s policy attitude towards Nigerian students in the UK expectedly as from 2024, is more about freezing the human rights of Nigerians than about concerns of net migration.

As regards the de-freezing of Russian assets in the UK, it has a European multilateral character. Even though the UK is no longer a member of the European Union, the country appears to be joining the EU members in sanctioning Russia over what they prefer to call Russian invasion of Ukraine. In other words, it is not only the UK that has frozen Russian assets. Others include France with $71bn frozen assets, Japan with $58bn frozen Russian assets, Germany with $55bn frozen assets, US with $38bn frozen assets, United Kingdom with $26bn frozen assets, Austria with $17bn and Canada with $16bn worth of frozen Russian assets.

One reason for the freezing of Russian assets in the UK is the consideration that Russia must pay compensation to Ukraine without which the Russian assets will remain frozen. In determining how much compensation would be required after the end of the war, the Council of Europe has established a digital register of damages caused by Russia to injure Ukraine as the first step towards international compensation mechanism for victims of the Russian aggression. In the thinking of the British, they do not expect direct payment of reparations to Ukraine. The British simply considered that Russian central bank assets should be retained as leverage for compensation. The assets have been estimated at $300billion (£243bn). The Russian central bank reserves are in G7 countries. £26bn of it is in the UK.

It is therefore not a surprise that the British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, insisted four days ago that the Russian assets must be frozen. Without doubt, the expropriation of assets has the potential to create a precedent and also prompt counter-measures in the international financial system. Britain and the Council of Europe are both talking about freezing as distinct from attachment or seizure and strongly believe that freezing is consistent with international law.

True, the attachment of Russian assets is significant in its implication in many ways. First, it presumes that the Russians will eventually be defeated by the West. Russian defeat is possible but it is still doubtful. It cannot but be ridiculous to expect Russia to pay any compensation if it is Russia that wins the war.  For now, there is nothing to suggest that Russia has the potential to surrender or even voluntarily accept peace negotiations in which President Putin would accept to pay reparations. 

Secondly, the immediate implication of seeking to freeze Russian assets is that the NATO is clearly saying that the declaration of a Third World War is in the making, that it is imminent and that the world should be prepared for a new change in continuity: change of actors but continuity of East-West confrontation. Unlike the Second World War in which the Soviet Union was part of the Western Allies, engaging in battles against the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy), the new World War in the making is likely, at least, to be comprised of new Axis powers, that is, Russia, China, and North Korea, and possibly including the US-described axis of evil countries. The evil countries or the terrorist countries may be joined in solidarity to fight the United States in particular and by so doing supporting Russia. In this type of scenario, the battle fields cannot but be far away from Ukraine which will only become the epicentre.

Thirdly, the UK’s Russian asset freeze policy raises a controversial international law issue: attachment or seizure, on the one hand, and asset freeze, on the other. Professor of Public International Law at the University of Oxford, Professor Antonios Tzanakopoulos, told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that ‘we can freeze the assets as leverage – that is what international law defines as a counter-measure. The idea is that you breach the law causing pain to the wrong-doing states until they comply, so you can keep those measures in place, so long they are proportionate. More important, Professor Tzanakopoulos reportedly also has it that ‘the essence of a counter-measure is to induce the State to comply with the law…, as a result, the measure must be temporary and reversible. On this basis, a disposal or seizure of the assets as a punitive measure was explicitly not allowed in international law (Vide Patrick Wintour, “UK to Keep Kremlin’s Assets frozen Until Russia Pays Compensation to Ukraine,” The Guardian (London), 25 May, 2013, 18.56 BST).

Additionally, Mr Andriy Koslin, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, told the Foreign Policy Select Committee that he preferred direct seizure of Russian assets, rather than freezing of assets to compel Russia to accept to pay reparation. In his eyes, the issue to be considered should be about less state immunity and more about justice. This Ukrainian position is quite interesting. The more interesting point here is that international law is said to allow for freezing of assets for as long as the act of freezing is proportionate. Ukraine favours seizure which is inconsistent with international law. Ukraine wants to engage in an act of illegality to make legitimate claims. This is precisely one major problem in international politics in which might is always considered as right.

Why should a sovereign state seek to punish another sovereign state when one basic rule of international relations is sovereign equality? There is no disputing the fact that the assets of Russia are sovereign in character. There is also no disputing the fact that Russia’s sovereign assets are protected by sovereign immunity under public international law. Why should the Prosecutor General of Ukraine be talking about or insisting on seizure of Russian sovereign assets? 

Fourthly, how many countries in Africa will go along with the West in the event of a Third World War? Will the pro-Russia countries support the West? France is already losing her grips over Francophone Africa, especially with Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso accepting the pro-Vladimir Putin Wagner mercenaries to fight on their sides in the war against terrorism in the Sahel. They have already compelled France to withdraw her troops in their countries. For France, Russia is an enemy not to be accommodated in former French colonies. Will Anglophone and Lusophone Africa take side in the war or abstain? Many questions but few answers: the conditions of a new World War to be provoked by the Europeans again are most likely to be different. Using Africa as an instrument of the war may be far-fetched. Africa has rejected its being used solely as a source of raw materials for developing Europe. 

The 2024 UK Student Visa Rules

The UK Government announced a new policy on international students that takes effect from January 2024. Many people believe that the new policy might have been a resultant from an interview granted by a Nigerian in the UK according to which many Nigerians coming to the UK are not really coming to study but to use the pretext of studying as a means of escaping Nigeria and settling down as a landed immigrant in the UK. To a great extent, a closer look at the underlying five pillars of the new policy clearly lends credence to the speculations of Nigerians.

The five pillars are noteworthy: prevention of international students from bringing dependants with them unless the students are in post-graduate programmes with a research  focus; curbing net migration; international students are allowed 2-3 years after their studies to remain in the UK under the Graduate Rule, meaning that the Graduate Route will not be constrained by immigration regulations; non-permission to switch to the Skilled Worker Route until completion of their educational programmes; and deterring unscrupulous agents from sending student to the UK. The UK Government also makes it clear that there is no intention of hostility and that the position of Government on international students is a good illustration of Government’s policy stand. 

‘The Government says it remains committed to the UK’s International Education Strategy and that the target of attracting 600,000 international students has been met for two years running.

Perhaps most significantly, the foreign policy dilemma for the UK government is basically ‘net migration.’ As explained by the, ‘net migration is the difference between the number of people who move to the UK with an intention to stay 12 months or more in a certain period and the number of people who leave during that timeframe.’ Probably because a Nigerian has said that Nigerians are coming to study in the UK in order to eventually settle down there, this new policy has been adopted in reaction.

Whether the policy is in reaction to the quest of Nigerians seeking to settle in the UK or it is because of the need for net migration, the policy is most unfortunate for Nigeria’s bilateral relationships with the UK. First, it should be remembered that Nigeria is a Member State of the British Commonwealth and also of the Commonwealth of Nations. There was the time every Nigerian holding the national passport was presented as a citizen of the Commonwealth and should therefore be so treated and assisted in whatever capacity needed. Nigerians used to travel with Certificates of Entry pasted on the visa pages of their Nigerian passport. It was not then about the issuance of visas but certificates of entries. It was just like the French Community. In fact, Nigeria has produced a Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Organisation, in the person of Chief Emeka Anyaoku. Consequently, when talking about international students in the UK, there is always the need to differentiate Nigerians from all others.

Secondly, the implementation of the policy of net immigration unnecessarily ignores that international students of the type of Nigerians are more of an asset than a burden. Nigerians live outstandingly in high spirits and well wherever they find themselves. Their special recognition in the United States is noteworthy. In the UK, they add value to government’s revenues. And true, the UK is generally considered a second home for the Nigerians, not simply as a result of colonial heritage, but necessarily as a result of deliberate development of socio-cultural people-to-people ties. The adoption of the 2024 Students Visa Rules appears to be another form of freezing the human rights of Nigerians. This freezing of human rights of the Nigerians is not different from the freezing of the sovereign rights of the Russians   

Ties between Nigeria and the UK were, at a point in time, so special that educational certificates issued in the United States were discriminated against in favour of British-issue certificates, especially in the 1960s and the 1970s. This underscores the extent to which the rapprochement between the two countries was quite warm. Instead of seeking greater avenues of strengthening the relationship, especially at the level of people-to-people, the 2024 students’ policy is seeking to undermine it by particularly discriminating against international students who not only bring their own traditional cultures to the UK for sharing, but also working strenuously to contribute to the British GDP.

It is also important to stress that most Nigerians and their families are not in whatever manner criminally oriented. This is one major reason they excel in their academic and educational pursuits in all countries hosting them. They are law abiding and always proactive in their host countries. They often provide cheap labour and doing jobs that the British will hardly do as they are considered infra-dig. Perhaps what is most disturbing is the adoption of policies by descendants of migrants of older generations in the UK. We are not in any way against the control of unwanted migration, especially in terms of unskilled migrants. The spirit of globalisation still requires international integration, not only in terms of skills but also in terms of people. Discriminating against migrants can be self-suicidal. If migrants, not to say most migrants, were to call it quit in the UK, the UK may become hollow. The UK without Nigerians cannot but create a situation of hollowness in the UK.

In our view, the UK is unnecessarily seeking to make life difficult for itself by seeking to freeze the sovereign assets of the Russian Federation. It is better to seek mediation of the conflict than thinking of how to weaken Russia to the advantage of Ukraine. How far can the digital register of damages with offices in The Hague as a record of evidence and claims information on damage, loss or injury caused by Russian invasion go in the event the Ukrainians are subdued by Russia? As noted earlier, there is nothing to suggest that the West can easily subdue Russia yet, meaning that the Russia-Ukrainian saga cannot but continue to linger on. Will the new administration of Ahmed Bola Tinubu be in alliance with the UK in the management of global questions? With the new 2024 students’ visa rules which apparently target Nigerians, bring the UK and Nigeria closer? What is the future of Nigeria-British relations under President Bola Tinubu? 

For President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to enjoy domestic popular support with the ultimate objective of supporting the UK in a war against Russia cannot but be remote. For example, in terms of application of Nigeria’s policy of non-alignment, it will be difficult to be aligned with the West based on the requirement of Nigeria’s national interest. There is no significant national interest to defend by supporting the UK against Russia. What is of special interest to Nigeria is Russian pledge to help Nigeria with the completion of the Ajaokuta Steel Complex as jointly agreed to in 2019. It cannot but be difficult for President Tinubu to work against Nigeria’s core national interest. Besides, Nigeria cannot taint her relationship with China. Will the Chinese accept that Russia be shamed and defeated? What are the implications of a weakened and defeated Russia for global peace and security? Will the way Germany was compelled to pay compensation following the end of the two World Wars be the same with Russia? And perhaps more interestingly, will the defeating of Russia mean the same as defeating China and North Korea? These questions are necessary because both China and North Korea are active supporters of Russia. Have the British seriously factored the implications of attaching Russian assets as a leverage mechanism in their foreign policy attitude towards Africa? Whatever is the case, there are many complicated problems still begging for solution. The UK can freeze Russian assets if capable but should not attempt to freeze the human rights of Nigerian students in the UK,

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