Bola A. Akinterinwa
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) placed a ban on travellers from Nigeria ten months ago. However, when the Ambassador-Designate of the UAE to Nigeria, Saeed Al-Shamsi, presented his Letters of Credence to Nigeria’s President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT), the Nigerian leader instructed that the ban placed on Nigerian travellers be quickly looked into and resolved. More importantly, on his return from the G-20 Summit held in India, PBAT passed through the UAE to have a tête-à-tête with his counterpart in order to iron out in person the misunderstanding.
As Chief Ajuri Ngelale, the Presidential Spokesperson, explained the outcome of the peace-making visit to the UAE, ‘President Bola A. Tinubu and President of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on Monday (11th September, 2023) in Abu Dhabi, have finalised a historic agreement, which has resulted in the immediate cessation of the visa ban placed on Nigerian travellers.’
More important, Chief Ajuri Ngelale also has it that, by this agreement, ‘both Etihad Airlines and Emirates Airlines are to immediately resume flight schedules into and out of Nigeria, without any further delay. As negotiated between the two Heads of State, this immediate restoration of flight activity, through these two airlines and between the two countries, does not involve any immediate payment by the Nigerian government.’
Most importantly, Tinubuplomacy has enabled the establishment of an agreed framework ‘which will involve several billions of US dollars, worth of new investments into the Nigerian economy across multiple sectors, including defense, agriculture, and others, by the investment arms of the Government of the United Arab Emirates.’ Additionally, a joint, new foreign exchange liquidity programme between the two Governments, which will be announced in detail in the coming weeks,’ was agreed upon, Chief Ngelale reportedly said.
Tinubuplomacy at this juncture is a good and welcome development. It is good because of the prompt effort being made to avoid the deepening of the misunderstanding, It is particularly welcome a development because PBAT’s diplomatic stopover in the UAE presents the second pillar of Tinubuplomacy, the first being the promptness of action in stopping oil subsidies without qualms at the domestic level and quickness in wanting to go to war with the Republic of Niger over the unconstitutional change of government in that country. Thus, the first two foundational pillars of Nigeria’s foreign policy under PBAT are quickness of action and consultative summitry, that is, acting directly in a tête-à-tête mania.
Current Issues in Nigeria-UAE Relations
The first, if not the more critical, issue in Nigeria-UAE relations under PBAT, is the same question of Tinubuplomacy. PBAT opted to go and meet with the UAE leader, Saeed Al-Shamsi, in his home country, apparently to go and plead with his counterpart. By implication, UAE is acting at the higher level of the continuum of diplomatic relationship. Nigeria is also saying that she is wrong with her policy attitude towards the UAE, hence the need to quickly go there and negotiate.
Besides, Tinubuplomacy does not appear to bother much about the other national interests and rules of reciprocity and fairness for the Nigerian airlines seeking governmental protection from both sides. Mention was not made about whatever was said about the challenges faced by the Air Peace in the UAE. Why was the unfair treatment meted out to the Air Peace not mentioned and addressed? These questions only point to the fact that Tinubuplomacy is yet to be defined by the rule of reciprocity on which international economic relations are largely predicated. While Nigerians are waiting for details of the new foreign exchange liquidity programme in the coming weeks, it is useful for the Government of Nigeria to also provide information on the policy attitude of the UAE government on Nigeria’s airlines that are seeking to fly to Dubai based on reciprocal treatment. How many scheduled flight can the Etihad Airlines and the Emirates Airlines have per week? To which airports or cities will they have access? Will the Air Peace aircraft be treated the same way? Will the rule of reciprocal treatment apply? Why shouldn’t it be applicable when it is the standard practice in international relations? These questions are necessary in light of the many controversial issues in Nigeria’s ties with the UAE. They must be addressed in seeking better ties with the UAE in the longer time to come.
Visa ban is a second issue. Visa and passport are very important in international relations because they are means of authorisation to move from one sovereign state to another or of crossing international frontiers and borders. Passport and Visa are two sides of the same diplomatic coin, and therefore, they are inseparable. While a passport is the property of one government, recommending the holder to another sovereign government that the holder is its citizen and should be assisted, a visa is a conditional acceptance of the recommendation. It is a conditional acceptance in that it is a guarantee for entry at the immigration borders of the country issuing the visa.
In fact, the issuance of the visa is another recommendation to the home government, particularly to the home immigration authorities of the visa-issuing State that the holder of a passport has been interviewed and adjudged prima farcie qualified to be considered for possible admission to the visa-issuing country. In other words, the holder of the passport with an issued visa is not likely to become a landed immigrant following his or her admission. Perhaps more concernedly, the assurance from the issuance of a visa is that the holder of the visa given is not likely to be criminally. In many cases where such assurances were found out to have been abused or misguided in whatever ramification, the holders of such valid visas have always been turned back at the border.
The point of emphasis here is that visas have their socio-political and commercial values. They are not issued gratis and many governments try to make issuances of visas more convenient to obtain by bringing consular services nearer to the people. The most recent case is the location of a United Kingdom Visa Centre in Enugu in the expectation that visa applicants will no longer need to go as far as Lagos or Abuja to be documented and interviewed for visa, but also that the new location will strengthen economic partnership and cultural exchanges.
It is within this frame of reasoning that the lifting of the visa ban placed by the UAE on potential Nigerian travellers to the UAE should be understood. Without doubt, UAE-Nigeria is a very important and profitable business route for the ETIHAD and Emirate airlines. It is on record that the Emirates operated two daily flights from Lagos to Dubai and one daily flight from Abuja. Thus, the visa ban has prevented Nigerians from travelling to the UAE and therefore from applying for new visas. Visas are generally not issued gratis, except we are talking about diplomatic visas which are issued freely on the basis of reciprocity. Hence any placement of a ban on issuance of visas is necessarily self-denial of revenue for the UAE embassy. And true enough, many diplomatic missions generate enough revenue to finance their activities in Nigeria, rather than depending only on their home governments for funding. Consequently, the lifting of the visa ban is mutually rewarding and this is why agreement was quickly agreed to during PBAT’s shuttle visit to Dubai.
Why the issue of visa in Nigeria-UAE relations is critical is that many Nigerian business people want to transact businesses in Dubai or use Dubai as a transit point to other countries. In the same vein, Nigeria is an internationally-recognised terra cognita big market which investors would want to take advantage of. Etihad and Emirate airlines find Nigeria as a very profitable aviation route. What should be done is to negotiate a no-visa agreement that will enable working out how to ensure crime-free movements from one country to the other. This is where the main challenge lies. Banning and unbanning visa issuance should not be the problem but what prompted the banning.
What is most unfortunate about the lifting of the ban on issuance of visas to Nigerians is another revelation that the reported visa lifting is misinformation. The Cable Network News (CNN) reported on Friday, September 15, 2023 in its report, entitled ‘UAE official says there are no changes on the Nigeria/UAE travel status so far.’ The UAE official did not want himself identified. Could an agreement on lifting have been reached but for reasons of internal communication processes the UAE official is yet to know about it? Could it have been a misrepresentation by the Nigerian delegation of the MoU? Why will an official delegation led by PBAT mistake lifting with an intention to lift or not to lift? Whatever is the case there are still more critical questions to be addressed in the bilateral relationship.
A third issue is the $85m belonging to the airlines of Dubai but still withheld in Nigeria. In October 2022, the UAE not only issued a notice stopping the issuance of visas to Nigerians and citizens of 19 other African nations for one year, but also suspended the Emirates airline’s flights to Nigeria allegedly because the airline could not access and repatriate its $85m trapped in Nigeria. What is quite interesting about the official reporting of the ‘historic agreement’ by PBAT and his UAE counterpart is the diplomacy of silence over the truths. Nigeria says through Ajuri Ngelale, Presidential Adviser on Media, that ‘both Etihad Airlines and Emirates are to immediately resume flight schedules into and out of Nigeria without any further delay.’
The UAE government reportedly said both leaders ‘explored opportunities for further bilateral collaboration’ with the hope of ‘reinforcing ties between the UAE and Nigeria’ but did not mention lifting the visa ban or flights restarting.’ This CNN report may be more correct because Chief Ajuri Ngelale later made it clear that the historic agreement is still subject to further articulation. Apparently, Chief Ngelale might have simply assumed that because a historic agreement has been reached, an immediate implementation of it would begin instantly. This is a wrong assumption for Tinubuplomacy.
Tinubuplomacy and Foreign Relations
It is useful to put Tinubuplomacy on the correct track, especially following the principles of Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s concentric circles which placed Nigeria and her immediate neighbours at the innermost circle because of security linkages. Without doubt, foreign policy calculations ought to place a very special emphasis on the immediate neighbours of Nigeria. The use of the former Dahomey, and now Benin Republic by the Red Cross at the outbreak of Nigeria’s civil war in 1967 to undermine Nigeria’s war strategies provided the first lesson that the immediate neighbours of Nigeria must never be taken for granted. More important, the mere fact that the ECOWAS region is also Nigeria’s first and most important sphere of influence, and therefore similarly requires a greater focused attention on activities in the region.
In this case, if there is conflict of interests between Nigeria and her immediate neighbours on the one hand, and between Nigeria and the entire ECOWAS region, on the other, which should or ought to take priority of attention? This is one good basis for the articulation of Tinubuplomacy. For instance, the ECOWAS Authority is in disagreement with the Niger Republic, an original Member State of the ECOWAS.
The Authority is currently chaired by PBAT of Nigeria and the ECOWAS wants to use military force to restore the administration of the ousted President Mohammed Bazoum. How does Tinubuplomacy reconcile PBAT’s chairmanship of the ECOWAS and presidency of Nigeria? Is his allegiance first to Nigeria or to the ECOWAS supranational authority? Should the sanctity of regional agreements prevail over national survival especially that Nigeria is not a Monist, but a Dualist, country looking at the issue from the perspective of international law? True, there is the need to first articulate Tinubuplomacy in such a way that PBAT’s personal diplomacy does not conflict with the overall policy attitude of the whole government. It cannot but be most unfortunate for the presidency to announce that the UAE has lifted the visa ban placed on Nigerian travellers and then for the CNN to report that such information is far from the truth. The CNN report has not been denied as at the time of writing this column.
One undeniable truth is that the Niger Republic has cancelled 990 diplomatic passports held by nationals and foreigners linked to the ousted regime. Are Nigerian diplomatic agents not affected? What is it that Nigeria has to gain by straining or creating obstacles in the diplomatic ties with the Niger Republic? When Nigeria opted to strain diplomatic relations with Israel because of the OAU and Nigeria’s support for Egypt, did Egypt ever consider it normal or necessary to inform Nigeria about its intention to negotiate settlement of the Israelo-Arab conflict in the US? President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords in September 1978. The Accords established a framework that enabled the conclusion of a peace treaty done by Israel and Egypt in March 1979 but Egypt never carried Nigeria along in the peace processes. Tinubuplomacy cannot afford the luxury of critical ties like this.
Related to this Egyptian attitude is that of the American policy attitude towards Africa’s quest for Permanent Seats on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Many are the speculations that the United States want to accommodate Egypt as one of the Permanent Members. Before the adoption of the Ezulwini Consensus in 2005, the African Union was not only seeking a more representative and democratic UNSC, but was also asking for five permanent seats to ensure that every region of Africa has a Permanent Member on the UNSC.
The US-led UNSC made it clear that membership of the Council should not be wieldy and therefore only agreed in principle to two Permanent Seats for Africa. In this regard, the United States wants one of the two seats for Egypt, and thus leaving Nigeria and South Africa to contest for the other one seat. But true enough again, the powerful powers in the West have preferential attitudinal disposition towards South Africa on this matter.
France has said she will support any candidate brought forward by the African Union. China has said she would support Nigeria if presented as a candidate. This position is not different from that of France. The critical issue here is that why is it that countries interested in becoming a Permanent Member cannot present their candidatures directly to the UNSC? I am not unaware of the fact that having a collective or AU candidate has the potential to garner collective votes for aspiring candidates for permanent membership of the UNSC.
However, considering that current developments in international relations, especially with the South African membership of the BRICS, with the deepened rapprochement between South Africa and Russia especially in the context of Russian-Ukrainian imbroglio, and with the close entente between Russia and People’s Republic of China, will Russia not tilt towards South Africa’s candidature? Professor Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi is of the considered opinion that it is most likely they do. The related question here is the extent to which the United States will be prepared to jettison Egypt in favour of South Africa and the extent to which the United States may want to turn its eyes away from the newly found understanding between Russia and South Africa which has really been an irritant for the Washingtonian government. Tinubuplomacy will need to anticipate this development and prepare for it in Nigeria’s own strategic calculations.
Another issue for Tinubuplomacy is the application of the principle of reciprocity in Nigeria’s foreign relations. In many parts of the world, Nigerians have been mistreated. Different countries have been showing hostile attitude towards Nigeria even in Africa and in spite of the sermons of continental integration. Should Nigeria not adopt a policy of reciprocity? First, has Nigeria the capacity to adopt such a policy? Second, if yes, should it be applicable in the context of Nigeria’s immediate neighbours? If theanswer is no, what prevents the development of capacity and capability? Tinubuplomacy must have a position on these questions.
And more concernedly, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi has been advocating the need for a military industrial complex as a back up to a strong Nigerian diplomacy. Countries that established defence industries at the same time with Nigeria have become global giants while Nigeria is still far behind. This type of military lull and setbacks needs to be addressed. Tinubuplomacy must address them because diplomacy cannot be strong and impactful without a powerful and reliable military foundation.
The Tinubuplomacy of Nigeria-UAE relationship is most unfortunate. It is operationally reactive, non-programmatic in design, underestimating and self-defeatist in strategic calculations, and unnecessarily presumptuous in attainment of foreign policy objectives. It cannot but be most unfortunate for PBAT to return from the UAE and tell Nigerians that a sort of an entente cordiale had been reached with the UAE government on the lifting of the one-year visa ban placed on Nigerians and citizens of 19 other countries, and then for the Cable Network News to reveal thereafter that the ban has actually not been lifted. This is most shameful and very embarrassing for a sovereign State like Nigeria. PBAT’s diplomatic style of always acting very promptly in matters of national interest is quite commendable but Tinubuplomacy must be predicated on making haste slowly in the area of dissemination of breaking news. Diplomacy as an art prohibits the exhibition of exuberances, and conflicting signals which are generally difficult to manage. There is the need to avoid a situation where the Presidency acts without carrying along the Foreign Ministry.