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Nigeria's Renewal of International Engagement

By Dr Bukar Usman


Then Acting President Goodluck Jonathan's visit to the United States of America on April 11, 2010 highlighted Nigeria's relations with that country in particular and the international community in general. Some hailed it as a renewal of engagement between Nigeria and the rest of the world.  Prior to that historic visit, it seemed Nigeria practiced low-key diplomacy with most countries of the world, probably a reflection of President Umaru Yar'Adua's personal tendency to be somewhat reclusive.

   With respect to the United States, the visit came up against the background of strained relations brought about by the involvement of Farouk Umaru Abdulmutallab in alleged acts of terrorism towards the end of December 2009.  In the aftermath of that episode, Nigeria was listed by the US government as one of over a dozen countries in the world for special monitoring and look-out for possible terrorist action emanating from those countries targeting the US.

   The public furore in Nigeria and the mixed reaction of most Americans about the inclusion of Nigeria on the list became of great concern to the two countries, as well as the African-American community and big oil interests. Both countries were embarrassed by the turn of events and searched for amicable ways to sort out the matter.

    Going down memory lane, Nigeria-US relations had had a chequered history dating back to Nigeria's independence. At independence, the US was not quite high in Nigeria's diplomatic and trade reckoning, mainly on account of Nigeria's orientation toward Britain, the colonial power and the tacit acceptance and endorsement by the US of the concept of spheres of influence.  In any case, the US and Britain have always had a special relationship, thus excluding the need for diplomatic rivalry over Nigeria.

    Nigerians mostly look up to the UK whenever they go out in search of the Golden Fleece.  This was informed by the fact that American educational system was seen and taken as inferior to that of the United Kingdom. This was so in spite of the pre-eminence of Harvard and Columbia universities, which were patterned after Oxford and Cambridge.

    Some of the misconceptions about the US were to change fundamentally when Nigeria attained independence and tried in some ways to assert its non-alignment policy and its general perception of how its own foreign policy should be formulated independently.

    The Nigerian three-year long civil war helped Nigeria to identify its real friends in the comity of nations, especially as some traditional friends hesitated in extending support to its effort at maintaining its territorial integrity. Strangely, support came from unexpected quarters. That gave Nigeria further opportunity to diversify its foreign relations and to lay stress on its policy of "concentric circles" which recognised the importance of our immediate neighbours.  Gen. Yakubu Gowon's efforts in that regard elicited support of the Togolese President, Gen. Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema.  Their initiative culminated in the establishment of the Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS).

    Nigeria-US relations got a big boost when Nigerian military leaders planned disengagement and adopted the Presidential system of government for the country. The US government offered generous assistance in various ways for a successful transmission from military dictatorship to democracy, based on the presidential system. Nigerians welcomed the idea of the election of a leader by the entire electorate as the much needed unifying factor against the divisive tendencies of diversity.

    It is noteworthy that the presidential system has since taken deep roots, even though it is proving to be an unbearably expensive venture and, occasionally, provoking second thoughts about its continuance. Despite this sign of doubt, Nigeria-US relations are blooming.  Former President Shehu Shagari and President Jimmy Carter exchanged visits. The warm relations were largely sustained in spite of some reservations towards the end of President Ibrahim Babangida's tenure. The hiccup was US government's perception that Nigeria was not doing enough to fight drug trafficking and financial crimes involving its citizens. Consequently, Nigeria was included among non-cooperating countries. Nigeria was later delisted by the Financial Action Task Force, although the country is now under pressure to bolster its anti-terrorism and financial crimes laws, now being considered by the National Assembly.

    The irritants affecting Nigeria-US relations not-withstanding, it is on record that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush Jnr. visited Nigeria during their tenure to underline the importance of US relations with Nigeria. They also undertook private visits along with former President Jimmy Carter in promotion of goodwill. To cap it all, President George W Bush Jnr. apparently in a move to further cement the existing good relations post- General Sani Abacha era and to encourage the sustenance of democracy, which was central to US foreign policy, hosted President Umaru Yar'adua. Above all, Nigeria being one of the major sources of oil supply to the US, matters of stability in Nigeria and the sub-region has remained of constant common interest and engagement to both countries. 

    The highs in the relations between Nigeria and the US appear to have soured when Nigeria under President Yar'Adua refused to yield to American pressure to support the establishment of the Africa Command (AFRICOM) bases on Nigerian or African soil.  This was simply because the Africans fear that in spite of the end of the cold war America was out looking for opportunities to occupy some countries.  Such bases could be targets of attack should major wars break out between the US and some big powers with capabilities to attack far-flung targets with long-range missiles, thereby endangering the lives of innocent African citizens.

    President Barack Obama's visit to Ghana provided another opportunity to review Nigeria-US relations. Many at the time including some former high ranking US officials were quick to put out some reasons for the choice of Ghana over Nigeria. Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman who once served in Nigeria underlined the perceived decline in Nigeria's importance to the point of irrelevance. To him there was much evidence to that effect adding that President Obama's visit to Ghana was to ‘drive home the point'(P.5, Leadership, January 15, 2010). Those who shared that point of view may find it hard to explain Nigeria's invitation to the nuclear talks over other countries. Many including this writer had argued rightly that the factor of Nigeria's relevance is never constant.  It only ebbs in the eyes of some members of the international community and international organisations who at some point in time and for some reasons find it hard to connect with Nigeria under certain circumstances.

    Observers of Nigeria's political development would note that the issue of Nigeria's relevance or the lack of it only comes into play when some countries perceive their vital national interests were at stake by Nigeria's act of commission or omission. For example, when Nigeria spent its  money to fight apartheid as so called ‘frontline state‘ or risked the lives of its citizen in addition to the financial costs of military operations in Tchad, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it was relevant. When Nigeria declined support for the military operation in Somalia it was irrelevant. When Nigeria committed its funds to sustain certain organisations such as the OAU/AU and ADB, it was relevant. And so also Nigeria is irrelevant when its leadership decides to look inward for self reliance and shun clienteles and patronage. Nigeria under Generals Murtala Mohammed, Muhammadu Buhari, Sani Abacha and to a certain extent under President Umaru Yar'adua were classic examples. Nearly all of them resisted the temptation to embark on globe-trotting. As a result they easily fell out of favour. So too was such reputable organisation as the National Economic Intelligence Commission (NEIC), under the leadership of the famous Economist Prof Samuel Aluko. The Commission during the Abacha regime acquitted itself creditably in its resolute defence of the economy against the unwholesome policies of some international organisations.

    Thus far there were periods of disconnection during periods of military takeover of governments or indeed any change of government. The disconnection with the outside world remains in place temporarily or permanently until foreign countries and international organisations fully assess the orientation of the leadership or come to terms with the reality of the situation.

    Looked at dispassionately, one can't fail to observe that a country usually comes under heavy criticism by certain countries when it demonstrates a clear policy of looking inward. Nigeria is not an exception. It was Nigeria under General Abdulsalami Abubakar which provided the face-saving opportunity to some foreign nations and organisations to reconnect with Nigeria. That opportunity was further capitalised upon and consolidated under President Obasanjo's tenure. However it was not sustained by President Umaru Yar'Adua who shunned some overtures.

    The change and opening provided by President Jonathan's assumption of the affairs of the country therefore provided the usual opportunity for those who had fallen out of favour with the previous government or leadership to reconnect with Nigeria as a fact of life in international diplomacy. The basic point at issue is how best foreign concerns could interact with existing leadership to further their interest. Nigeria should therefore expect such ebbs from time to time in its foreign relations. At one time, it was the perception of Nigeria's lack of drive to deal with drug traffickers and financial crimes. At another it was the mere fact that it failed to embrace international prescription on how to handle its economy. The latter was evidenced by the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) whose legacy of serious devaluation of the Naira the country is yet to recover from.

     So, Dr. Jonathan's visit must not only be viewed against this background but also in the context of recent developments in Nigeria's domestic and foreign policies. Nigeria seems to have fallen short of US expectations on several fronts.  But the visit seemed to have repaired the sour relationship between the two countries.

    It is equally significant to note that the visit was undertaken shortly on assumption of full presidential powers conferred on Dr. Jonathan by the National Assembly under the "Doctrine of Necessity.'' Earlier, the country hosted two very important visitors, namely former US President George W Bush Jnr. and Mr Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister. Both visitors paid a joint courtesy call on the then Acting President Jonathan.

    Dr. Jonathan's visit to the US was neither a state visit nor an official visit in the classic sense. State visits are pre-occupied with pomp and pageantry to celebrate exceptionally warm relationship, while official visits are business-like affairs, fashioned between two sovereign nations. Dr. Jonathan's was a hybrid of the two in that he went there ostensibly to attend nuclear talks in a multilateral forum.  The bilateral talks which ensued were somewhat side shows which were fully exploited by both countries to sort out issues. Indeed, eyebrows were raised as to the place of Nigeria in the nuclear talks when suspect countries, which seem to possess nuclear capabilities, were not invited or declined to attend.      

    Several weeks after Dr. Jonathan's historic visit, its significance in Nigeria-US bilateral relations and the issues are becoming clearer as they come into proper context. On the Nigerian side, it is gratifying to note that Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and entourage were received with pomp and pageantry in the US, thereby enhancing legitimacy in the eyes of some Nigerians and in the international community. That perhaps explains   Farouk Kperogi's conclusion to the effect that the whole point of the visit "was to impress Americans and buy himself and Nigeria legitimacy in the process..." (P.42, Weekly Trust, April 24, 2010). Many would hardly contest that conclusion. But there are many more matters arising. The US has delisted Nigeria from the list of suspect terrorist countries much to the relief of both countries in the conduct of their bilateral and multilateral relations. A bilateral commission was also given a new impetus.

    Viewing former Acting President Jonathan's US visit as a renewal of engagement with the international community may not be wrong, but it should be understood that it has a price. A country pays a price when in an interdependent world its policies and actions worthwhile as they may be to its own interests run counter to foreign concerns and such established formidable international organisations as IMF, World Bank, OECD, WTO and UN Commission on Human Rights which were set up by or subject to remote control by some powerful countries or groups of them with similar orientation or ideology.

    In the final analysis, a lot of the perception of a particular country depends on what the international media make of it.  A country has had it when it comes under media search light.  Nigeria is currently passing through that phase. As a matter of fact, the disconnection is not only with the international community but also with the citizens of the country. The disconnection is the product of cumulative failures in its domestic and foreign policies.

     It needs to be emphasised, in conclusion, that in the short and long run, for government in Nigeria to fully reconnect with its citizens and the international community, it requires not only a higher level of transparency in elections but also improved power and energy supplies. The twin problems have not only seriously retarded Nigeria's progress in many areas of endeavour and the full exploitation of  our great potentials, but are also largely responsible for the maladies the country is suffering. Nigeria needs to be in a more liveable condition for all.

    With the demise of President Umaru Musa Yar'adua on May 5, 2010 and the swearing in of Dr. Ebele Goodluck Jonathan the following day as the President, Commander in Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the nation naturally looks up to him for solution to the internal problems and consolidation of the international engagement. 


May 11, 2010




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