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After eight years of the Muhammadu Buhari-led presidency, Nigeria’s democratic journey continues with the inauguration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the president on 29th of May. He is now the 16th president of Nigeria, and the fifth in the Fourth Republic.
As with changes in leadership anywhere in the world, so much will change in the new administration. Key amongst the changes will be personnel and policies. For a country like Nigeria, with its many challenges, the changes that President Tinubu will make will be keenly watched. On the domestic end, he has already commenced on this track, by bringing a decisive end to the fuel subsidy regime that has dominated economic discourse in the country for more than three decades. More will certainly follow.
But even as domestic policies will rightly dominate his attention in the first few months, interests will also be high with regards to the direction of the country’s foreign policy and its relations with the rest of the world. For good reason, Nigeria’s foreign policy in the last decade, indeed after the Obasanjo presidency, has been rudderless and ineffectual for the most part.
What is the current foreign policy of Nigeria? Ask theoreticians, practitioners and observers of Nigeria’s foreign engagements and chances are that you will get as many answers as there are respondents. This speaks to a lack of strategy, focus and leadership. Things got so bad that all too often it seemed that policy and execution were being set and driven by the recently-formed Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), headed by Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, rather than by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The then Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, for someone who held one of the most important offices of state, was painfully low key and diffident.
President Tinubu must start by seeking and putting in place the right peg in the rounded hole that is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In doing this, he must begin by asking himself the question, “where is today’s Bolaji Akinyemi?” For all the ills of the military in our past national life, they gave us some of the most fantastic public servants. In Bolaji Akinyemi, a professor of International Relations, Nigeria got a foreign minister (between 1985 and 1987) who knew the intricacies of the international system, understood what it meant to set foreign policy to drive domestic goals, and build national prestige on the global scale. He was both a theorist and a practitioner. Can we find such a man or woman in today’s Nigeria, with the knowledge to articulate a proper foreign policy for Nigeria in the nascent free-for-all global regime, and with the energy to drive its execution? President Tinubu must drag the net wide and find us that person.
Importantly, what President Tinubu must avoid is turning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs into a dumping ground of politicians. Such persons tend to spend their time focused on their domestic political careers to the detriment of their core role. He must also find a balance between churn and an unwillingness to make change in the face of e thlack of results. In the 16 years of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in power, Nigeria had 11 Ministers of Foreign Affairs, an exceedingly high turnover rate for such an important post. Most of the Ministers did not stay long enough in office to make any meaningful impact. Conversely, the last Minister, under the All Progressive Congress (APC) government, was in office for eight years and seemed to have sleep-walked through it all. Neither scenario served the nation well and must be avoided.
On the policy side, the president must start from the time-honoured precept that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. Accordingly, he must set Nigeria’s foreign policy to drive and complement his avowed domestic agenda. No soothsayer is required to point out that security, the economy, and national unity will continue to dominate the actions of the Federal Government.
Focusing the country’s foreign policy to better handle the country’s security challenges will require increasingly efficient and effective partnerships with key actors in the global arena. The rise of domestic terrorists over the past decade-and-a-half, and their strong links to international non-state actors, demands a foreign policy that is strongly linked with the nation’s defence policies. In this wise, Nigeria must take lessons from the United States whose foreign policy is the joint responsibility of the State Department (using soft powers) and the Defence Department (using the military). Together, they find a way to project America as a strong yet friendly nation to most of the world, and jointly focus on keeping the country and its peoples safe through various allies, pacts and programmes. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence must replicate the same, leveraging on each other’s expertise and assets to unlock enduring solutions to the nation’s security.
Growing Nigeria’s economy will also require a new foreign policy focus. Unlike his predecessor, President Tinubu should cause a complete review of our economic diplomacy playbook. The reluctance of Nigeria to be at the forefront of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) cost the nation in terms of setting the agenda for this great initiative. Since then, Nigeria has been playing catch-up to the likes of Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda. A recalibration is required that pushes Nigeria right to the centre of all discussions about African integration efforts at the African Union and ECOWAS. Nigeria must return to its role as Africa’s brain box, providing thought leadership for the continent.
One practice of the last decade that President Tinubu should put an end to is the shuttle diplomacy that sees the president of Nigeria joining other African heads of state to honour invitations from individual Asian, European and American leaders. In the past decade, African leaders have sat down at the capitals of great and not-so-great powers including the United States, France, Turkey, India and China. Fed with the usual promises of aid and support, many of these summits have added precious little to the development of the continent. Even worse, they depict the whole continent as a beggarly bunch whose leaders have no sense of self-worth. President Tinubu must get Nigeria off this path and convince the rest of Africa to do the same. If any country wishes to engage Africa as a collective, the AU platform should serve very well. Should the rest of Africa wish to continue on this slovenly journey, President Tinubu must separate Nigeria from them.
One important institution that President Tinubu is inheriting is NIDCOM, established in 2017 by the Buhari administration. Charged with the responsibility of engaging Nigerians in the diaspora on policies and developments in the country, and to harness this rich resource for national development, NIDCOM has had mixed success. Initially bogged down by bureaucratic challenges (office space, staffing, etc.), it soon found itself stepping into the exclusive space of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by issuing statements on behalf of the government in direct response to the actions of foreign governments. While the ship has been steadied, more needs to be done. Giving the abiding love of diasporan Nigerians for their native land and their greater unity abroad, NIDCOM needs to tap into this in the pursuit of national cohesion and unity at home. There is also the need to subsume it under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially as many of its functions are consular in nature. Doing so will eliminate the frequent public communications disharmony between them. A dotted line reporting to the Ministry of Information and National Orientation will further help to position it for better service.
Finally, the new president has a gift from young Nigerians that he must grasp and use on the foreign policy front. That is Nigeria’s greatest soft power – music. In 2022, I wrote about the need to leverage the growing popularity of Nigeria’s Afrobeats music on the global stage and provided a template for doing so. Since then, while our artistes have become even more popular and won even more awards and broken even more records, Nigeria has done little or nothing to integrate this into its foreign policy. This failure leaves the country unable to take full advantage of the great value that should accrue to the country through the exploits of its globally recognised music. President Tinubu must quickly remedy this situation.
In the final analysis, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has an opportunity to chart a new, more focused and energetic direction for Nigeria’s foreign policy. The world is waiting for Nigeria to re-emerge as Africa’s beacon of light, its surest voice, and its economic powerhouse. Just as he cannot afford to fail domestically, he also cannot afford to do so on the international stage. So much is riding on what he will do and say over the next four years. May he succeed.
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