A world where Nigeria’s diplomacy is a void, By Owei Lakemfa

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President Bola Tinubu, on 13 March, directed the reopening of Nigeria’s land and air borders with the Republic of Niger. He also ordered the lifting of all sanctions on the country, including commercial, financial and service transactions, like electricity.

He equally approved the lifting of financial and economic sanctions against the Republic of Guinea. These steps should open better opportunities for Nigeria, which accounts for 70 per cent of the trade in the West African region. But, unfortunately, Nigeria has no ambassador in either country that can drive the process. In fact, we have no single ambassador in the entire Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a body over which President Tinubu presides.

President Tinubu engaged in a somewhat controversial state visit to Qatar from 2-3 March. That was partly because the Qatari had initially turned down the holding of a business and investment forum on the margins of his visit, and also for the number and composition of his 38-member delegation.

The visit was later pulled-off and there were cooperation agreements in the fields of education, employment regulation, establishment of a joint business council, and in the field of youths and sports.

The Nigerian delegation returned to the country, leaving no ambassador to drive the follow-up process. This was because back on 2 September, 2023, that was six months before, Nigeria had recalled all its ambassadors in the world, except for those in the United Nations Missions in New York and Geneva. It means Nigeria cannot reap fully from the dozen foreign trips of President Tinubu in the nine months he has been in power.

Yes, there are charge d‘affaires. But which country takes a stand-in ambassador serious enough for business transactions, realising he is standing in gap? A charge d‘affaires is like a regent waiting for the appointment and coronation of the actual king.

In my experience outside Nigeria, charge d‘affairs, at state functions, are arranged after ambassadors. They are outranked by ambassadors. So, a country without ambassadors cannot engage in serious diplomacy. My worry is that things are not about to change quickly because the process of having ambassadors in place can be quite slow.

There are those who may argue that in the internet age, countries do not really need physical ambassadors to sit in their embassies. This they call E-Diplomacy, Cyber Diplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy – Diplomacy in 40 Characters.

This is, essentially, the use of technology and digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter (X) to run diplomacy, shape or influence foreign relations, and engage global audiences. The most famous or infamous user of Twitter Diplomacy is former President Donald Trump.

In its “Social media use by Donald Trump” report, Wikipedia said: “Over nearly twelve years, Trump tweeted around 57,000 times, including about 8,000 times during the 2016 election campaign and over 25,000 times during his presidency. The White House said the tweets should be considered official statements. When Twitter banned Trump from the platform in January 2021 during the final days of his tenure, his handle @realDonaldTrump had over 88.9 million followers.”

Despite such power and, claims of some Presidents, to be their own foreign ministers and diplomats, the presence of ambassadors on ground is essential, as it is a reflection of how you value a country. So, no matter how the power of E-Diplomacy is stretched, a country without ambassadors is like a void on the diplomatic stage.

The sack of all our ambassadors by each new administration without immediate replacement, as was done by the Buhari and Tinubu administrations, is unwise.

In our present case, the process of picking ambassadors is still on. After this, the nominees are to be screened by the Senate, which presumably would have had the security report on each nominee. It is after clearance the nominees will undergo some induction course.

Then, the receiving country would decide whether to receive the new ambassador. This is usually a formality, but in some cases, countries reject ambassadors posted to them.

For instance, in April 1984, the United States rejected the nomination of Nicaraguan lawyer and Deputy Foreign Minister, Nora Astorga, as ambassador. She had played a prominent role in the revolution which toppled pro-American President Anastasio Somoza. However, Nicaragua ensured Ms Astorga was a prominent face in the US by appointing her Nicaraguan Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

Thirty eight years later, Nicaragua had some form of pay-back. In 2022, Ambassador Hugo Rodriguez, who was confirmed by the US Senate as Ambassador to Nicaragua, was refused entry. This, according to Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, was due to his “interfering” attitude.

To be accepted by the receiving country does not mean the ambassador starts work immediately, because he still has to present his Letter of Credence to the President of the host country. During the Buhari administration, it was not unusual for ambassadors to wait for months before being invited to present their letters.

So, as it is, Nigeria may not have ambassadors in any part of the world in the next six months. This would mean that under the Tinubu administration, we may not have ambassadors for at least one quarter of its four-year tenure.

Beyond this is the challenge of politicians who see ambassadorial postings as post-election war booty to be shared. Under Buhari, they took 60 per cent of the ambassadorial positions, leaving 40 per cent to be filled by career ambassadors.

In my 18 December 2023 column titled: “Tinubu, appoint diplomats, not politicians to run our Missions,” I had appealed to the President to reverse this unhealthy culture. I had argued that it is better for the country to appoint career ambassadors because they are people who spend their entire career in the Foreign Ministry and therefore understand the basics of diplomacy. This is in contrast to political nominees who, in the world of diplomacy, are essentially birds of passage.

I had received encouraging nods and thought that this culture would be reversed. But now, the feelers I am getting of a push for 65 per cent of the ambassadorial positions going to non-career diplomats, is not encouraging. I hope for the sake of our country, this will be reversed.

One more suggestion. We need to return to the General Murtala Mohammed era when the populace took part in foreign affairs through mass bodies like those of students and genuine civil society organisations.

It was that momentum that defined our principled recognition of the MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique, the African National Congress (ANC), and the Pan African Congress (PAC) in South Africa. It was that mass participation that led to workers contributing part of their monthly salaries into an anti-Apartheid fund for the total liberation of the African continent.

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