Rights and Wrongs in Nigeria’s Diplomacy: From Regional Integration to the Qatari Note Verbale

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT) has adopted the diplomacy of 4-Ds (Development, Democracy, Demography, and Diaspora) as foci and guiding principles of Nigeria’s foreign relations. In the conduct and management of these principles and Nigeria’s foreign relations, many measures have been rightly and wrongly taken, especially within the ECOWAS framework. In sanctioning the Republic of Niger, for example, Nigeria was wrong in stopping electricity supply to Niger Republic, because supply of electricity to Niger is based on contractual agreement. The non-supply of electricity is therefore a breach of contract. 

Secondly, there is the obligation owed the ECOWAS and the obligation owed the Niger Republic. By cutting off electricity supply, it can only be in compliance with PBAT’s own interests and those of the ECOWAS, which requires all its Member States to take all necessary measures to enforce the sanctions taken against the Niger Republic. PBAT ought to have taken other measures in complying with the ECOWAS directives, rather than cutting off electricity supply. PBAT, as Nigeria’s president, has sacrificed Nigeria’s national interest and contractual obligation to Niger Republic in order to strengthen ECOWAS sanctions. Acting against Nigeria’s interest is a wrong policy attitude.

Thirdly, Nigeria’s relationship with the ECOWAS countries is warmest at the level of ties with Niger Republic. The Republic of Niger is the only country amongst the immediate neighbours with which Nigeria does not have any territorial border conflict. In fact, the border communities between the two countries are of the same ethnic stock. This means that any attack on Niger Republic, right from Niger’s southern borders, cannot but also be an attack on Nigerians. Thus, Nigeria’s policy attitude, though consistent with the supranational directive of the ECOWAS, ought to have reckoned with Nigeria’s national interest.

Fourthly, and most importantly, but contrarily to the foregoing, the conditional lifting of the sanctions on Niger Republic is a very welcome development, because it now seeks to alleviate the sufferings of the Nigeriens, which were initially ignored. Let us, at this juncture, expatiate on the wrongs and the rights in Nigeria’s and ECOWAS’ diplomacy in the handling of the problem of unconstitutional change of government and its aftermath.

The Rights and Wrongs 

Without doubt, ECOWAS’ zero tolerance for unconstitutional change of government is the main dynamic of the current problem between the ECOWAS and the three Francophone West African States seeking to terminate their membership of the ECOWAS on three main grounds: ECOWAS purportedly acting under the influence of foreign powers; ECOWAS’ abandonment of the vision of the founding fathers; and ECOWAS’ abandonment of the three countries in the fight against terrorism and general insecurity. These allegations completely ignore the fact that the ruling military junta in the three countries came to power through the use of force, even though the coups had the people’s backing. It is precisely the question of coming to power illegally that largely explains the attitudinal disposition of the ECOWAS Authority, but which the three countries do not want to accept.

Even though the ECOWAS rejected the allegations as invalid in its ‘Report of the Extraordinary Session of the Mediation and Security Council (MSC) at the Ministerial Level on Three Member States Seeking Withdrawal from ECOWAS,’ done on 8th February, 2024, it is wrong a policy for the ECOWAS to have threatened a sovereign state with an ultimatum, bearing in mind that Niger Republic only voluntarily delegated a part of its sovereignty to the ECOWAS as a supranational authority. It is a truism that the delegated authority can always be withdrawn at any point in time. Membership of any organisation is generally voluntary and there is always a provision for resignation often clearly stated in the agreement establishing the organisation. In the specific case of the ECOWAS, the point of emphasis is always on unity and economic development. No leader is expected to be against regional unity and economic development. In the event some countries are now opting for disunity, which withdrawal from the ECOWAS is all about, the approach should not have been the adoption of a manu militari policy.

Additionally, for the ECOWAS authority, after the initial ultimatum, to still be cautioning the three Sahelian States wanting to withdraw from the ECOWAS with further sufferings, cannot but be wrong a policy attitude. The ideal thing is not to adopt the stick and carrot method of conflict resolution. Seeking a mediation of a dispute and still having partisan interest in the same dispute only strengthens the imbroglio. 

It is important to note here that the real problem is not the issue of unconstitutional change of government per se, but the misunderstanding between the people of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, on the one hand, and the Government of France and its people, on the other hand. The people have suddenly come to believe that France has only been exploiting them, exploiting their resources and not really doing much to contain the terrorists. They have  therefore developed an unprecedented animosity vis-à-vis the French. And perhaps, more disturbingly, the elected president of Niger Mohammed Bazoum, is seen by the people as a stooge of France and particularly as the main instrument of French exploitation. Thus, the intervention of the ECOWAS in the matter is seen by the peoples of the three countries as unnecessary and partisan to the advantage of the French and to their own detriment. 

And true enough, ECOWAS Vision 2030, adopted in 2007 which is aimed at moving away from ECOWAS of States to an ECOWAS of Peoples, is what is first and most threatened as a result of the ECOWAS intervention. The Vision 2030 is predicated on five pillars of peace and security, good governance, development of the region’s resources, economic and monetary integration, and promotion of the private sector. The use of force to settle the misunderstanding cannot but be inimical to the attainment of the objectives of the ECOWAS Vision 2030.

The policy decision of PBAT that the 2012 Stephen Oronsaye Report should be fully implemented within twelve weeks is quite right and commendable. The decision falls under the ‘Development’ category of PBAT’s diplomacy of 4-Ds or foreign policy development. As noted by the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, after the Monday, 26th February meeting of the Federal Executive Council at the Villa, ‘this administration under the leadership of PBAT, consistent again with his courage to take very far-reaching decisions in the interest of Nigeria, has taken a decision to implement the so-called Oronsaye Report. Now what that means is that a number of agencies, commissions, and some are modified, and marked, while others have been subsumed. Others, of course, have also been moved from some ministries to others where the government feels they will operate better.’

It should also be recalled that in 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan set up the Presidential Committee on Restructuring and Rationalisation of Federal Government, Parastatals, Commissions, and Agencies under the leadership of former Head of Civil Service, Stephen Oronsaye. In his 800-page report, recommendations were made that 263 of the statutory agencies be cut down to 161, 38 agencies be scrapped, 52 be merged, and 14 be downgraded to departments in some Ministries. Those agencies to be merged include the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC); Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) and Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE); Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) and Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC); Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) and Voice of Nigeria (VON); and Army University and the Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA). The SERVICOM is to become the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) Department. The Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD) is abolished. The recommendations were made in the belief that about N241bn could be saved if the Oronsaye Report is fully implemented.

In terms of foreign policy implications, a more effective and efficient Public Service cannot but enhance Nigeria’s international image, attract a befitting respect, and also enable financial solvency in politico-economic government of Nigeria. And more importantly, it has the potential to enable la grandeur of Nigeria, especially if the war on corruption is made total and not selective and a policy of zero tolerance is adopted vis-à-vis societal indiscipline.

The full implementation of the Oronsaye Report cannot but begin with PBAT himself. He wants a lean government and wants to reduce the cost of governance by so doing. In this regard, is there any real need for Ministers of State? Is there also real need for 45 Ministers? If there are the needs to maintain all of them, how do we ensure total commitment to the attainment of the objectives of every specific Ministry?

Regional Integration and Qatari Note Verbale 

Nigeria is on record to have spearheaded the struggle for regional economic integration with the establishment of ECOWAS in 1975. The ECOWAS began to face unforeseen challenges as from 1979 with the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This development led to the signing of the 1978 Protocol on Non-Aggression which, in its Article 1, requires the Member States to ‘refrain from the threat or use of force or aggression… against the territorial integrity and political independence of other Member States.’ It is also within the quest for regional security that the June 1981 Protocol Relating to Mutual Assistance in Defence was signed. It stipulates in its Article 2 of Chapter II that ‘Member States declare and accept that any armed threat or aggression directed against any Member State shall constitute a threat or aggression against the entire Community,’ and therefore requiring mutual aid and assistance for defence against such an armed threat or aggression. 

It is also against this background that the anger of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger Republic, necessitating their withdrawal from the ECOWAS, should be explained and understood. The three countries have been victims of insecurity for over two decades, a situation that prompted the intervention of France in 2013 in Mali. The intervention of France does not appear to have meaningfully addressed the question of insecurity. The people of the three countries also complained that the French are only exploiting their mineral resources and not seriously fighting terrorism and the Touareg insurgency with which the three countries had been plagued.

Even though the ECOWAS tried to debunk the allegations of the three countries during its ordinary and extraordinary sessions devoted to the conflict in Niger Republic, the three countries have insisted on their common position. The ECOWAS Authority held an Extraordinary Session on Niger on 30 July and 10 August, 2023 and its 64th Ordinary Session on 10 December, 2023. All the outcomes of the meetings have been to no avail as President Mohammed Bazoum is still held under hostage and no plan for transition has been given by the Conseil national pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie (CNSP)(National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland) government of Niger.

The intransigence of Abdourahamane Tchiani, along with Mali and Burkina Faso, raises questions about the sustainability of regional integration in the long term. Questions on which methods to adopt in addressing the threats to regional integration in Africa are also raised. For instance, democracy is the origin of the dispute. The governments in the three countries came to power through coups d’état for which the ECOWAS has a zero tolerance. If coups d’état will continue to be supported by the people in protest against democratically-elected leaders who not only engaged in bad governance, but who are also condoned by the ECOWAS and the African Union, the need to revisit the essence of liberal democracy cannot but be a desideratum. This is the problem that the diplomatic machinery will need to address in the near and distant future.

As noted earlier, the new initiative of the ECOWAS, lifting the sanctions on the Niger Republic and two others is well. It is perfectly in order.  The type of government should not be a basis of disunity in Africa. After all the liberal democracy generally adopted in Africa has not always been freely adopted by African leaders. It was imposed on Africa as a conditionality for grant of development aid at the La Baule Franco-African Summit in 1990 by the French president, François Mitterrand. Rather than accept to be disunited, what prevents the return to Africa’s traditional democracy? This brings us to another problematic: the Qatari note verbale.

The Qatari note verbale has become a misunderstanding between the Government of Nigeria and Nigerians. Observers do not appear to be discussing the truth about the note verbale. True enough, a note verbale is not simply a diplomatic communication between and among diplomatic missions in a political capital of the receiving state, but particularly a carrier of very strong policy position of the sender. Unlike official letters in which ‘Dear Sir’ must always be ended with ‘Yours faithfully,’ and also in which the address of the sender is always on top, a normal note verbale is always written in the third person, with the addressee writte below to the left hand side. It always begins with official greetings and also immediately followed by the main message to be communicated.

For example, let us take ThisDay Newspapers and Achievers University as diplomatic missions and the Achievers University wants to communicate a message of information to the ThisDay newspaper, the names of the chief executives are never used, but the names of the two organisations. In this regard, the standard practice will be this: the Achievers University ‘presents its compliments to’ the Thisday Newspapers. This is the level and limit of the official greetings. Then ‘and has the honour to’ will follow. In other words, the Achievers University, Owo ‘presents its compliments to the ThisDay Newspapers and has the honour to’ note, or inform, to make, etc. This is always the prolegomena in any note verbale.

The second part in any note verbale is the body of message and this is where the beauty of diplomacy lies: there is a standard language, format, and courtesies to be extended by the sender to the recipient. It is always numbered and always has a reference number, unlike a ‘non-paper’ freely circulated during conferences. The third part of any note verbale is always concluded on a good promissory note like ‘please kindly accept the assurances of the Achievers University’s warmest regards, or highest consideration,’ or the Achievers University avails itself of this opportunity to renew its assurances of continued good relationship to the ThisDay Newspapers. There are different ways such goodwill messages can be expressed. If there have been exchanges of note verbale before, the concluding note can be ‘please accept the renewal of assurances of Achievers University’s highest regards, warmest regards, highest consideration, etc.’

In this regard, what did the first Qatari note verbale say precisely that had prompted the suggestion that Nigeria’s PBAT had been snubbed or rejected? Why do Nigerians think that PBAT had been rejected because of drug-related questions? What should we understand by a meeting on the margins or on the side-lines of an international meeting or bilateral summit? These questions are necessary because the problem between Qatar and Nigeria is not, stricto sensu, PBAT’s State Visit to Qatar but the issue of Nigeria’s request to have a possible Business and Investment Forum (BIF) involving the Qatari-Nigerian businessmen and investors on the margins. It was on the quest of this business meeting that the Qatari authorities initially developed cold feet.

A meeting on the side-line or on the margins of the PBAT’s State Visit to Qatar is a meeting held in furtherance of Nigeria’s economic diplomacy interests in an informal setting, while the principal meeting or other official activities are still in progress. Citizen diplomats, comprising different professionals, investors, technocrats, etc. are generally involved in a BIF. Issues discussed are generally economic development related. It is against this background that the two Qatari note verbales should be interrogated.

In response to Nigeria’s own note verbale requesting for the possibility of holding a BIF during PBAT’s State Visit, the Qatari authorities gave a 3-point technical diplomatic illness to justify the difficulties they would have in the event the BIF is allowed to take place. The three excuses are believed not to have snubbed PBAT because, purportedly, the note verbale is about a private-led business and investment forum only to be held on the margins of PBAT’s State Visit. When the excuses are viewed against the background of the opinion of Mr. Bayo Onanuga, Special Adviser on Information and Strategy to the President, one cannot but disagree with the Special Adviser, a veteran journalist with dints of patriotism. He reportedly said: ‘it is not correct for anyone to insinuate that the Qatari authorities have snubbed the Nigerian leader over a business and investment forum which is tangential to the all-important State Visit and which President Tinubu is slated to attend as a guest.’ Without any shadow of doubt, the insinuation of snubbing is quite evident in the note verbale, especially that there is no thin line between the alleged private sponsors of the forum, the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) and Qatari Chambers of Commerce and Industry, on the one hand, and the involvement of the Nigerian-Qatari governments, on the other. It was the Government of Nigeria that asked for forum to hold and it was also the Qatari government that also gave excuses of rejection.

The Qatari note verbal, number QEA/FA/057/24 of February 22, 2024, clearly belie the opinion of Special Adviser Onanuga. The first is the excuse of ‘unfortunately, there is no any agreement signed between the State of Qatar and the Federal Republic of Nigeria on Investment Promotion and Protection.’ Secondly, ‘His Excellency the Minister of Commerce and Industry will be carrying out official missions outside the country during the upcoming visit period. And thirdly, ‘the State of Qatar will be hosting a Web-Summit during the upcoming visit period.’ The note verbale emanated from the Qatari Embassy, thus giving a governmental connotation. The issue is not simply that of business and investment forum. Government is expected to be fully engaged in the meeting, especially as potential guarantors when issues of avoidance of double taxation, repatriation of dividends, might be raised in the future. Most critical issue is lack of bilateral agreement which is quite snubbing. Must a particular minister be at the forum? For how long will a Web-Summit take? More importantly, ‘are the three rationales for the initial diplomatic illness no longer tenable for the change in position of Qatar? Qatar appears to have leaked the note verbale because it was done on 22nd February. Nigerians protested vehemently in the social media, compelling in a fresh note verbale of 23rd February, impossibility to suddenly become possible. It is the leakage that enabled the meeting on the margins. Leakage therefore has its own merits. 

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