France and Morocco in Nigeria’s Foreign Policy Calculations: The Challenge for Tinubuplomacy

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Day after day, Tinubuplomacy is challenged by varying policy threats in the area of policy reform, national and regional integration. When President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT) became President of Nigeria on May 29, 2023, his first policy pronouncement was the annulment of the controversial fuel subsidy, which a school of thought says is an economic fraud. Nigerians are still suffering from the fraudulent controversy. 

Another policy, also with foreign policy implication, is the diplomacy of smart delegations and convoys, adopted following public complaints. For example, 1,411 Nigerians participated in the COP28 Climate Change Conference and Summit held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). In self-defence, PBAT explained that only 422 of the 1,411 delegates were sponsored by the Government. This was not good enough to appease the public. PBAT has been compelled to give special instruction on the matter. As noted by Presidential spokesman, Ajuri Ngelale, ‘the official trips that will be undertaken within the country, that is when Mr. President or the Vice President travels to any State within the country, the massive bills that accrued due to allowance and estacode for every security detail coming from Abuja, going and travelling into those states, will be massively cut due to the directive of the President…’

Tunji Adegboyega, in his column (The Nation, Sunday January 14, 2024, p.11), quoted Ajuri Ngelale as follows: ‘invariably, not more than 25 persons would accompany the president from Abuja in any part of the country he’s travelling to, the Vice President 15, while the First Lady and the Vice President’s wife would have 10 persons each. ‘As regards foreign trips, ‘Tinubu’s delegation will now be capped at 20 people, down from the previous 50-man delegation. The Vice President, the First Lady and the Vice President’s wife are entitled to just five members each. Every Minister is limited to having just four members of staff on any foreign trip, while chief executive officers of government agencies are limited to two.’

Even though the monitoring of the policy is left to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, George Akume, 100% compliance still remains the challenge. More so are the factors of France, Morocco and Mauritania in Nigeria’s foreign policy.

Mauritanian Lesson and Franco-Moroccan Threats

One major threat to Nigeria’s Tinubuplomacy is not only the intended official withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger Republic from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but also their intended withdrawal from the UEMOA (Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine, that is, West African Economic and Monetary Union) which uses the CFA currency pegged to the Euro. The withdrawal of the three countries from the ECOWAS has the great potential to seriously undermine political cohesion, economic integration, and African Union’s Agenda 2063. If we admit that unity is strength, then disunity cannot but be an expression of weakness. This potentiality exists because Nigeria does not appear to have learnt any good lessons from the Mauritanian experience.

When the ECOWAS was established in 1975 to fast track regional economic integration, it had sixteen original members: Nigeria as main sponsor and Togo as secondary sponsor, Benin Republic, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia (The), Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger Republic, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. The weakening of the ECOWAS began when Mauritania gave notice of withdrawal of its membership from the ECOWAS on December 26, 1999.

Mauritania gave ‘the decisions adopted by the organisation (ECOWAS) in its last summit,’ which took place on 15th December 1999 in Lomé, Togo, as one reason for its withdrawal. One ungiven reason for the withdrawal is the fact that since the time of its independence in 1960, Mauritania was comprised of the dominant ‘White Maurs’ of Arab extraction and Arabic-speaking Muslim black Africans referred to as the ‘Black Maurs. The problem in this case is that ‘for centuries, black Africans were subjugated and taken as slaves by both White and Black Maurs.’ The ECOWAS openly frowned at this and Mauritania had to take the bad end of the stick as a result.

Besides, Mauritania had difficult ties with France, the former colonial master. In 1999, it was alleged that a Mauritanian officer undergoing training in France was accused by the French of torturing two people in a Mauritanian prison in the early 1990s. This led to the expulsion of the French military advisers in Mauritania and the recalling of the Mauritanian officers under training in France. This situation could not be ignored in understanding Mauritania’s frustration that led to withdrawal from the ECOWAS. Mauritania’s notice of withdrawal eventually expired in December 2000 and Mauritania ceased to be a member. 

Interestingly, Mauritania’s withdrawal from the ECOWAS generated much political opposition and contradictions. The opposition parties, particularly Ahmed Ould Daddah, the Secretary General of the Union of Democratic Forces – the New Era, stated that the decision to withdraw from the ECOWAS is ‘a continuation of the series of systematic destruction of Mauritania’s historical and natural relations with its partners in the Arab world, Africa and Europe.’ 

What is particularly noteworthy is that, in annoyance with the ECOWAS, Mauritania preferred to join the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) of four members: Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. The AMU is a politico-economic union set up to foster economic and political unity among Arab countries that are geo-politically located in the North African region. The AMU could not work well primarily because of the misunderstanding between Morocco and Algeria on who has sovereignty over the former Spanish Sahara. The problem has become too critical to the extent that no high-level meetings of the AMU has taken place since 3 July 2008.

Thus what Mauritania expected to gain from the AMU became more of a dream. Mauritania eventually has to do a retour en arrière by seeking cooperation partnership agreements with the ECOWAS with the objective of fostering economic development and security in the West African region. In fact, the language of diplomacy changed for the better. The then President of the ECOWAS Commission, Marcel Alain de Souza, and the Mauritanian Minister of Commerce, Naha Mint Mouknass, could happily recall ‘the strong ties which had existed for centuries, characterised by brotherhood, friendship and good neighbourliness.’ Both parties wanted free flow of goods and people, jointly fight terrorism, and have a single tariff policy applicable to all goods moving across the region.

Additionally, and more interestingly, in August 2017, Mauritania came back to sign a new associate membership agreement with the ECOWAS. Were the reasons given initially for withdrawal good enough? Were they really in the national interest of Mauritania? Shouldn’t the Mauritanian experience and the new membership withdrawals be a good and special opportunity for Tinubuplomacy to reunite all the sixteen original members of the ECOWAS? This is one good lesson to be drawn from the Mauritanian experience. PBAT and his Foreign Minister should take advantage of the Alliance of the Sahel States.

This is necessary because the making of the ECOWAS was, ab initio, the brainchild of Nigeria. ECOWAS without Nigeria cannot but create a big vacuum. The failure of the ECOWAS is necessarily also the failure of Nigeria in various ramifications. Nigeria will need to learn from the failure of the Maghrebin Union, by particularly seeking an understanding of what prompted Morocco to seek membership of the ECOWAS when it geo-politically belongs to the North African region?  By virtue of the 1975 Lagos Treaty, membership of the ECOWAS is restricted to sovereign States in West Africa. Morocco does not fall under West Africa, even by the classification of Article 1(d) of the 1991 Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Community. 

When Morocco applied to join the ECOWAS in February 2017, the application enjoyed much of Francophone members’ support. However, for various other considerations, the application has to be thrown into desuetude. The issue of Morocco’s membership of the AMU, the likelihood of the use of Morocco as a possible transit route for industrial goods from Europe to the ECOWAS possibly free of tariffs, likely rivalry between Morocco and Nigeria in the West African region, review of the ECOWAS new treaty to be able to accommodate Morocco, Morocco’s policy on the Spanish Sahara, opening of ECOWAS borders to imported goods to Africa through Morocco, etc., cannot but all serve as obstacles to the consideration of the application. The application has to be suspended for four years. Now that it is already over four years since the suspension of the application, 

Morocco is reportedly renewing the efforts at joining the ECOWAS. There are yet to be confirmed reports of Morocco joining the Alliance of the Sahel States. The likelihood of the application sailing through is still remote in both cases because the considerations that informed the initial suspension by the ECOWAS are still there. Besides, Morocco cannot be considered to fall under the Sahel region. In fact, if it is recalled that the European Union’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) done with the ECOWAS countries could not enter into force because of Nigeria, the targeted market, which has refused to ratify the agreement. It was partly for this reason that Morocco is being encouraged to join the ECOWAS so that products emanating from Europe can go freely to Nigeria through other Member States.

France and Morocco as Challenges

France and Morocco are critical challenges to Tinubuplomacy. France is the fifth immediate neighbour of Nigeria by territorial contiguity and geo-political propinquity. France, as argued by Professor Rafiu Ayo Akindele and Professor Bola A. Akinterinwa, is a contiguous neighbour of Nigeria by virtue of France’s special and privileged relations with the Francophone neighbours of Nigeria. France is actively culturo-politically present in Nigeria’s immediate neighbourhood. France’s foreign policy attitude towards Nigeria is basically to prevent Nigeria from being able to undermine French interests particularly in the neigbouring countries of Nigeria. 

In the same vein, Nigeria is also vehemently opposed to the use of her immediate neighbours against Nigeria’s foreign policy interests in Africa as a whole. Africa was, and still is, the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy. France wants to remain or operate as a great power in Africa and this cannot but conflict with Nigeria as defender of African and Black interests in international relations. This is the first source of the French challenge to Tinubuplomacy. Franco-Nigerian relationship is largely predicated on mutual suspicions. This is why the current rapprochement between PBAT and the French president, Emmanuel Macron is raising interesting questions.

A second source of the French challenge is the withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger Republic’s withdrawal from the ECOWAS. French investments in Nigeria are generally more than French investments in Francophone West Africa put together. This is one major reason the French have adopted the policy of dichotomy in their relationships with Nigeria. France can accept political misunderstanding with Nigeria but not economic misunderstanding. Nothing must disturb the protection of the economic interests.

In this regard, to what extent can Nigeria relate happily with France when the Francophone former colonies of France are increasingly developing much animosity towards France? On Thursday, 1 February, the Mali’s High Authority for Communication (HAC) banned the French Television Channel, France 2, from broadcasting packages for four months over the security situation in the country. The ban is coming on the heels of the suspension of the French television network, France 24, and Radio France Internationale in 2022.

One particular observation about the withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from the ECOWAS is Nigeria as a major causal factor. As revealed in the Press Release No.000001/MAE/NE issued on Sunday January 28, 2024, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Nigeriens Abroad, ‘the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Nigeriens Abroad expresses its surprise at the denial of reality and international law in which the Nigerian authorities seem to be moving in refusing to admit for the sovereign Republic of Niger, the ability to withdraw from a regional organisation which, moreover, has been truly diverted from the noble missions and no longer meets the legitimate aspirations of the Nigerien people and all the peoples of the Alliance of Sahel States.’

Many issues are raised in the statement. First is the fact that the Niamey government holds the Government of Nigeria directly responsible for all its problems: Nigeria does not accept that the Republic of Niger has the sovereign right to withdraw from any regional organisation like the ECOWAS. Second is the allegation that the ECOWAS has diverted from its noble missions. Third is the complaint that the ECOWAS no longer meets the legitimate aspirations of the people of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Whether the Republic of Niger is accusing Nigeria in its capacity as Chairman of the ECOWAS Authority or Nigeria as an immediate neighbour of Niger Republic is not clear. However, some other points made in the joint communiqué speak volumes on the rationales for the withdrawal.

At the level of the ECOWAS as a regional body, Niger Republic and others have considered that the ECOWAS ‘has never truly demonstrated the slightest compassion towards the battered people of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger’ since the more than a decade of security crisis in the Sahel. They also noted that not only is the ECOWAS under the influence of certain foreign powers and no longer truly in control of its decisions, but also that the ‘ECOWAS has become a threat to all the peoples of the Sahel and its member states… by deciding irresponsibly to illegally and unjustly sanction Niger and to undertake military intervention against our country.’

The complaints against Nigeria as a neighbour are most serious: Niger Republic ‘rejects with serenity, the impertinent and condescending remarks contained in the press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Nigeria dated January 29, 2024. Indeed, these remarks are not nature to contribute to the necessary dialogue between our two brother countries and are, in reality, carried by a small group of individuals in the pay of foreign powers; the very ones who frustrated all efforts for a negotiated solution to the resulting crisis to the events of July 26, 2023 in Niger.’ These complaints actually constitute the major challenges for Tinubuplomacy to address.

And perhaps most disturbingly, Niger Republic reminded Nigeria that France wanted the partitioning of Nigeria ‘yesterday.’ In the words of the Tchiani military junta, France, ‘just yesterday aimed at the partition of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to the great dismay of the sister Republic of Niger whose strong commitment during the Biafran war was decisive in the safeguarding of territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.’ Based on this consideration, the Niamey authorities believe that ‘Niger has no moral lessons, much less democracy, governance or patriotism to receive from the current Nigerian authorities. Also, Niger urges them to exercise restraint and pull themselves together so as not to endanger our age-old bonds of fraternity which fully deserve to be preserved in the best interests of our two peoples.’

There is no disputing the fact that the age-old bonds of fraternity between Niger and Nigeria deserve to be preserved in the best interests of Nigeriens and Nigerians. The preservation of bonds of fraternity is a desideratum. Niger Republic is the only immediate neighbour with which Nigeria does not have any border conflict. Nigeria’s relationships with the immediate neighbours are warmest with Niger Republic. In fact, as early as the 1970s, both countries established the Niger-Nigeria Joint Commission to address issues in national development. What happens to the gas project that passes through Niger Republic to Morocco and Europe that is currently in the making? With the withdrawal of Burkina, Mali, and Niger, their citizens are no more Community Citizens. Should they begin to apply for visas at the expiration of their notice of withdrawal from the ECOWAS? From ECOWAS of 16 to an ECOWAS of 12, is regional integration advancing or retrogressing? From Niger’s complaints, PBAT is perceived to have Nigeria and the ECOWAS as a stooge. Niger holds PBAT directly responsible for the deterioration of Niger-Nigeria relations. Consequently, Tinubuplomacy must take more seriously the complaints and embark on special shuttle diplomacy to Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger for unconditional reconciliation. Nigeria cannot afford the luxury of building and destroying the ECOWAS at the same time.

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