Snubbing in Diplomatic Practice: PBAT and Nigeria-South African Relations

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Diplomacy is either taken as an art or science. More often than not, it is addressed as science. University education in Nigeria underscores diplomacy as a science and therefore, as an art, as a skill, and particularly as a profession requiring great skills in manipulative negotiations, it is not seriously taken up. This is why the teaching agenda set for universities does not focus much on the practical aspects of diplomatic practice.

Under normal practice, training in the art of writing diplomatic statements, comparative order of precedence, international protocols and etiquette, importance of National Flag diplomacy, implications of not duly respecting National Anthems when they are being officially rendered, and perhaps more significantly, training in handshake diplomacy, reception diplomacy, dress diplomacy and table diplomacy ought to be taught, Perhaps most importantly, physiognomy, which is the art of reading the minds of diplomatic interlocutors from their faces and eyes, etc. should be a core subject, and therefore a desideratum, not only for diplomatic agents, but whoever is engaged in the civil and public service. This is because civil and public servants meet with their counterparts elsewhere in the discharge of their duties. They attend international meetings where international protocol are respected. It is because the international mania of observation of protocols is not well understood that some Masters of Ceremonies in Nigeria do wrongly say ‘all protocols duly observed.’

Protocols are basically agreements often added to main agreements. They are attachments meant to provide more clarifications or filling information gaps, etc. They exist in thousands in international law and relations. Consequently, it is not possible to observe all protocols in any given event lasting for one day. It is against this background that the Achievers University, Owo, Ondo State, should be specially commended for establishing an Institute of Diplomatic Studies and Practice in the next academic session. Whoever is engaged in diplomacy ought to be well grounded in diplomatic theory and praxis It is also against this background that the alleged snubbing of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT) in South Africa during the second inauguration of Cyril Ramaphosa as President is thought-provoking.

Alleged Snubbing of PBAT

The origin of the alleged snubbing is traceable to a viral video posted by Aisha Yesufu, in which President Cyril Ramaphosa, on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, was exchanging handshakes with invited dignitaries on the front row. PBAT was next to President Samia Hassan of Tanzania and other leaders on the second row. Aisha Yesufu argued that PBAT was snubbed, disgraced by the South African president by passing through the front row and not having a handshake with PBAT who was on the second row.

As explained by Aisha Yesufu in her @AishaYesufu, ‘my people say Pikin wey no hear word for house na for outside dem go disgrace am! Tinubu Disgraced Once Again in South Africa.’ The point being made by Aisha Yesufu is that charity begins at home and whoever does not learn how to go out with home charity, home training, etc. will be appropriately given the charity education from outside. In the same vein, Pearls @Miss Pearls also noted that ‘Asiwaju looking lost as Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa ignores him while thanking others for gracing his inauguration.’ 

The snubbing claim by Aisha Yesufu was reportedly verified and discovered that there was no truth in the allegation. As reported by the Dubawa platform, ‘the video clip circulating online does not capture the full context of the event. Ramaphosa did acknowledge and greet President Tinubu and other guests after the National Anthem was taken.’ 

The response of the Presidency appears to be more damaging than the originating report by Aisha Yesufu and does not even give much credence to the fact finding by Dubawa. The reports and presidential reactions are quite tenable for further analysis. Let us first begin with the posted video by Aisha Yesufu. PBAT showed complete protocolar decency by not even trying to seek a handshake with Cyril Ramaphosa from the second row. Since the South African leader was only greeting by way of handshaking the invited guests in the front row, it cannot but be indecent for PBAT to stretch his hand from the rear. Doing so is just like people seated at table and one of them is trying to take a glass cup placed far away from him. Rather than allow people next to him to assist him, he simply jumps the protocol. PBAT never jumped protocol. Besides and without any jot of doubt, the aesthetic look of PBAT in Aisha Yesufu’s video clearly suggests that PBAT was cool, calm, and collected. He might have been snubbed but he was not perturbed. His attitudinal disposition reflected the perseverance of a typical struggling man in Nigeria.    

Secondly, there is no big deal about snubbing in diplomacy. Snubbing can take several forms in international relations, especially in subtle forms. For instance, when letters are not promptly responded to or not even replied to, this is a manifestation of snubbing per excellence. When plenipotentiaries are accredited to a host country and the ambassador-designate is not able to promptly present his or her Letters of Credence, it may be as a result of snubbing or application of the principle of reciprocity. In fact, there is what is called ‘diplomatic illness’ in diplomatic practice. 

Wikipedia rightly explained it thus: ‘diplomatic illness is the practice amongst diplomats and government ministers of feigning illness, or another debilitating condition, to avoid engaging in diplomatic or social engagement. The excuse of ill-health is designed to avoid formally…’ In other words, there is nothing to suggest that, from the video posted, Cyril Ramaphosa had not snubbed PBAT. A closer look at the video shows that when the South African leader got to the front of PBAT, the invited guest in front of PBAT was warmly greeted with hugging. Probably, but apparently, PBAT moved towards his left side where Cyril Ramaphosa could not claim not to have seen him well, and therefore deserving to be respectfully greeted in honour of the people of Nigeria. In fact, Cyril Ramaphosa was shown talking to someone at his back before finally turning back and going away.

It is important to also note that, in diplomatic practice, when a President is to be received either on coming down from the staircase of an aircraft or in a given reception, those who are to receive him normally file in order of their ranks. The most senior is the first to be introduced. The lowest in rank will be at the end of the line-up. More often than not, when the line-up is long, a President may stop midway. 

In other words, Nigeria’s PBAT was seated at the tail end of the second row. As clearly shown in the video, Cyril Ramaphosa started his handshake diplomacy from the left and was moving towards the right where PBAT is seated. By implication, PBAT was not placed among the top priorities. Even though we do not have access to the order of sitting arrangement, there is no way the sitting location of PBAT can be said to be befitting. The problem with Nigeria’s diplomatic tacticians is that they hardly learn from the diplomatic lessons of others.

The case of the Ivory Coast and Côte d’Ivoire at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is noteworthy. It was about sitting arrangement. Sitting arrangement at the UNGA is by alphabetical name order. With the name Ivory Coast, the sitting arrangement places the country at the extreme corner amongst the first three rows. The Ivoirian government complained that its name was not Ivory Coast but Côte d’Ivoire and therefore asked to be officially addressed as Côte d’Ivoire. By implication, its sitting arrangement had to be shifted to the centre amongst the first three rows. This is the essence of diplomatic protocol in the defence and promotion of the national interest. 

As regards the fact-finding of the Dubawa platform, analysis of a diplomatic event is generally conducted on a piece meal before a general evaluation. It is the assessment of a constituent part that enables an objective general evaluation. This is what a systemic methodology is all about in understanding how component parts function in decision-making processes. Explained differently, it is not acceptable to destroy openly and then go back to the room to cover up. The mere fact that PBAT was given better reception, allegedly, in closed door meetings, is only belittling. It does not help the image already damaged in the open.

And finally on the reactive attitude of the presidency, O’tega Ogra, the Senior Special Assistant to PBAT on Digital Communications, Strategy, and New Media, has noted for the record that a) the first row ‘was reserved for South African kings/royalty; b) ‘the South African President wasn’t expected to start greeting dignitaries at the time of the video… shared, and he was respectfully recalled to the podium by the inauguration compere; and that c) ‘immediately after President Ramaphosa finished the anthem, he went ahead to greet the visiting presidents who were all seated in the second row (similar to the way visiting presidents were seated in the third row during Nigeria’s own inauguration on May 29, 2023.’

These are rationalisations that ignore the implications: does the sitting of the Royal Highnesses and Royal Majesties in the front require preliminary greetings? If not, has the South African president violated the protocolar regulation? If he has not, what informed the compere to call President Ramaphosa to order? After the rendition of the National Anthem, what is the order of the salutations or handshaking?  Where was PBAT greeted after the anthem? 

Nigeria-South African Ties: The Truths

Nigeria’s diplomatic agents are generally highly rated in the defence of African and black interests in international relations, especially because of some foreign policy initiatives, foreign policy pronouncements and application of the rule of reciprocity. The French cannot easily forget Nigeria’s opposition to their testing of atomic bombs in the Reganne area of the Sahara in 1960. The British cannot but also remember Nigeria under General Olusegun Obasanjo for nationalising the British Petroleum and the Barclays Bank. Professor Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi’s call for a Concert of Medium Powers rattled the big powers. In fact, his talk about ‘Black Bomb’ sent the world running helter-skelter and engaging in new critical thinking about Nigeria. Which country in Africa has the type of Technical Aid Corps put in place by Professor Akinyemi when he was Foreign Minister under military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida?

The foregoing help to explain how Nigeria’s diplomacy, how Nigeria’s diplomatic agents are appreciated in such a way that everyone would want to share ideas with them. There was the time Nigeria’s diplomacy used to be vibrant. By that time, diplomacy was well funded. It wasn’t a question of smart diplomacy by then. 

Today, Nigeria’s diplomacy is nothing to write home about. People who should not be on a presidential delegation are there. The career diplomats that are groomed in diplomatic protocols are not even allowed to guide the inexperienced political neophytes.

Under a normal circumstance, diplomatic intelligence should have informed PBAT about the order of protocol to be adopted, especially in terms of airport reception, sitting arrangements, meetings on the margins, etc. The problem, however, is that diplomatic missions incur expenses in hard foreign currency. When the amount is computed in local currency, it becomes so big an amount that people wrongly believe the budget is unaffordable. This is often the case with the National Assembly. Poor funding does not allow the diplomatic missions to perform on the basis of their knowledge and expertise. Besides, knowledge of basic international protocol should not be the exclusive preserve of diplomats and diplomatists in Nigeria. It is the business of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure that the Nigerian public understands Nigeria’s diplomacy, and especially Nigeria’s Order of Precedence.

In fact, the mandate of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) compels the Institute, not only to educate all Nigerians on foreign policy matters, but also to advise Government on global questions. The mandate is largely informed by two main philosophical positions of the founding fathers of the Institute. As told by Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, ‘if Nigeria is to acquit herself honourably and to take her rightful place in resurgent Africa, she requires to be informed on the world of today, which is one of the paramount functions of the Institute.’ Expressed differently, the NIIA has the main responsibility of informing and educating all Nigerians about current developments in the world. In this regard, what does informing and educating mean in the absence of adequate research funding? What does research mean for political Foreign Ministers who are more interested in protecting party interests rather than the protection of the national interest?

Additionally, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola made it clear that ‘the NIIA hope to work simultaneously on three levels – as a Nigerian Institute in Lagos, and African Institute in Nigeria, and a World Institute in Africa – providing a meeting ground for people of all nations and a rich soil for the cross-fertilisation of their minds.’ With this vision, the NIIA is required to be at the epicentre of foreign policy analyses in various ramifications. The first implication of this is that Nigerians do not have to beg the NIIA in seeking education on foreign relations. Secondly, the Government of Nigeria has it as a responsibility, especially as from 1971, to fund the Institute adequately. If the founding fathers wanted the NIIA to be another Chatham House and Council on Foreign Relations, if not quite better, it remains the responsibility of every stakeholder to ensure that the NIIA has the necessary wherewithal to operate well.

Most unfortunately, like Nigeria’s diplomatic missions, the NIIA is very poorly funded and yet Nigerians are complaining of poor protection of Nigerians abroad. They misrepresent and misunderstand protocol. Every Nigerian, regardless of whatever profession he or she may be engaged in, ought to have a modicum of knowledge in international life, differentiate between profound causal factors for diplomatic happenings rather than predicating their opinions on accidental factors. In other words, the alleged snubbing of PBAT should be properly understood within the larger context of Nigeria-South African bilateral relations.

In this regard, if it is on record that Nigeria had always been snubbed before the second swearing-in ceremony of President Cyril Ramaphosa, why could it not be quickly assumed in Aisha Yesufu’s video that the South Africans have come again with their diplomacy of snubbing Nigeria? Is it South Africa alone that has always been snubbing Nigeria?  When Nigeria gave active support to Egypt, in particular, and the whole Arab world, in general, by straining diplomatic relations with Israel, did President Anwar Sadat of Egypt not snub Nigeria when going to negotiate secretly with Prime Minister Menachem Begin on 17 September 1978 and signing the Camp David Accords with Israel in the United States? Why was Nigeria not carried along? Simple: it is snubbing.

At the Addis Ababa headquarters of the OAU/AU, is there any display of any Nigerian leader acknowledged to have positively contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle? Nigeria’s roles in the struggle were internationally acknowledged to the extent that Nigeria was given the status of a ‘Frontline State.’ What does this mean to South Africa? When the People’s Governor, Brigadier General Buba Marwa, was Nigeria’s High Commissioner to South Africa, he drew attention of the Government of Nigeria to a radio/television phone-in programme in South Africa. During the discussion programme, it was alleged that Nigeria’s intervention in the anti-apartheid struggle was purely on commercial interest purposes and that Nigeria did not act or intervene on the basis of altruism or pan-Africanism. Did Nigeria intervene on the basis of selfishness? Nigerians need a bit of hard thinking.

And true enough, the Government of Nigeria acted swiftly by making further enquiries. The South African government acknowledged Nigeria’s role. Nelson Mandela never failed to thank Nigeria many times thereafter. However, the explanation given to Nigeria was that Nigeria should differentiate between the local, and international, wings of the African National Congress. Nigeria related more with the international wing of the African National Congress which dealt more with the diplomatic aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle. The domestic wing did not know much about Nigeria’s efforts. Admittedly, because of the little knowledge of the national wing, was it the reason why the Nigerian leader was not duly acknowledged during the inauguration ceremony of Nelson Mandela in 1994? Is that the reason why the name of Nigeria is hardly mentioned in the South African educational books? In Abuja, Nigeria, names of political capitals of several African countries abound, can the same be said of Nigeria in Southern Africa, not to mention South Africa?

I am not unaware of the fact that since the time the foregoing observations were made, efforts are being made to address them in southern Africa. However, the people of South Africa are yet to understand what Nigeria’s roles are all about during the anti-apartheid struggle. Consequently, the video posted by Aisha Yesufu has only raised the attitudinal disposition of South Africa towards Nigeria and how Nigeria hardly learn from lessons of the past. 

If truth be told, the crux of the matter is the unwritten contest for leadership in the conduct and management of African affairs. There is no disputing the fact that, of the two Permanent Seats involuntarily earmarked for Africa of five regions at the UN Security Council, the United States wanted Egypt to have one of them, leaving Nigeria and South Africa to compete for the other seat. Yet, South Africa and Nigeria are preaching the gospels of strategic partnerships and sermons of bi-national commission. When the South African government repatriated about 125 Nigerians on grounds of non-possession of Yellow Card, Nigeria applied the rule of reciprocity. That was under Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru. South Africa then learnt how to also make haste slowly in snubbing Nigeria and how not to take Nigeria for granted. If South Africa had actually snubbed PBAT, it should not be taken as a big deal. It was only the turn of South Africa. When it is the turn of Nigeria, time will tell.

Above all, the presidency should learn to do the needful rather than hammering on Aisha Yesufu as an individual. Issues ought to be discussed all the times and not the discussant. Bayo Onanuga, a presidential assistant, was quoted as saying that ‘Aisha and uncouth horde of pessimists are always quick to rush to judgment with any whiff of what appears to them to be negative to the leader of Africa’s biggest democracy…’ Aisha Yesufu has responded that ‘it’s over a year and the rigged election is still the achievement you have to discuss. The first you claim you got is all you have after a whole year? Imagine spending all your strategy on rigging and having for governance.’ Onanuga deals with people. Yesufu deals with issues. One does not need to agree with Yesufu for reasons of psychology of human difference, but truth remains constant when dealing with issues. Nigeria’s relations with South Africa are characterised by mutual suspicions and snubbing, political rivalry, and greater-than-thou mentality. The mania of responding to public criticism should not undermine the protection of the personality of the presidency, even if Yesufu attacks unfavourably PBAT. The media and the people of Nigeria must hold PBAT accountable always.

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