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Technical Aid Corps: Nigeria’s Soft Diplomacy Since 1987

By Dolapo Aina
27 August 2020   |   12:34 pm
The first time I encountered any volunteer of Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps was at the arrival section of the Kigali International Airport in the month of August; Tuesday, 25th of August 2015 to be precise. I was chatting with a Nigerian lady who was with her infant son and when I discovered she spoke the…

The first time I encountered any volunteer of Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps was at the arrival section of the Kigali International Airport in the month of August; Tuesday, 25th of August 2015 to be precise.

I was chatting with a Nigerian lady who was with her infant son and when I discovered she spoke the Hausa language; I was more interested in her story. She was posted up-country in Rwanda and she was in the medical field and she informed me that she had Nigerian colleagues too in the medical field all stationed upcountry. What caught my attention was that when she was preparing to present her travel documents, she brought out a blue passport.

I could not but ask her what her passport was about and that was the day I first saw a diplomatic passport (in a nutshell, a diplomatic passport comes with a lot of privileges for the passport holder) and also the first time I heard of TAC and met a Nigerian TAC volunteer. I requested if I could take a picture of the diplomatic passport (which I posted online) and she granted my request.

Five years later in 2020; I met several Nigerian TAC volunteers through another TAC volunteer Dr Olumayowa Olowe (who I had met earlier on in the year on the streets of Kigali speaking Yoruba with a friend of hers who came visiting from the ancient city of Ibadan in Oyo State, Nigeria.) The young erudite Dr Mayowa is a plant pathologist from Oyo State. She was the youngest volunteer amongst the last batch stationed in Rwanda and this batch flew back to Nigeria on Saturday, August 1, 2020.

Whilst other batches numbering circa 300 volunteers from several countries were flown back to Nigeria by the Nigerian Government in several batches and different dates after completion of the two-year placement. Meeting and interacting with a few of the volunteers stationed in Rwanda made me realise the magnitude of the intellectual capital Nigeria dispatches to the Continent and the significance of the TAC programme which was initiated by Nigeria’s former external affairs minister Professor Bolaji Akinyemi; and which commenced operations in 1987. A
detailed snapshot of Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps would be appropriate here.

According to the official documentation which can be sourced online; some of the objectives of TAC include sharing Nigeria's know-how and expertise with other African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Also, to give assistance on the basis of assessed and perceived needs of the recipient countries. Furthermore, to promote cooperation and understanding between Nigeria and the recipient countries.

The scheme is also aimed at complementing other forms of assistance to ACP countries and ensuring a streamlined programme of assistance to other developing countries. TheTAC documents also reveal that the programme acts as a channel for enhancing South-South cooperation. And also, establishing presence in countries which for economic reasons, Nigeria has no resident diplomatic missions.

The website also states that the strength of the TAC programme and its success is predicated on the fact that it is a people-oriented and people-centred assistance programme geared towards the development of recipient countries.

The implementation of the scheme has endeared Nigeria to many countries as a facilitator of effective cooperation in socio-economic development among ACP countries. The Federal Government of Nigeria recognises the programme as a foreign policy tool for the consolidation of Nigeria's role in the independence struggles of some African countries.

It is a catalyst for peace, progress and development among beneficiary and non-beneficiary countries. As I discussed with Nigerian TAC volunteers (who are actually academic titans) namely Dr Alabi who lectures at Federal University of Technology, Minna (Niger State); Dr Egenti who lectures at Auchi Polytechnic (Edo State) and Dr Lawal (an associate professor), I was thinking of the enormous academic intelligentsia and financial capital Nigeria disburses as at when due. And I ruminated on my “flash in a lightbulb” hypothesis; that there is a dichotomy between a knowledge-based society and a knowledge-based economy.

Countries can have a knowledge-based society and not have a knowledge-based economy and examples abound on each Continent. And without any iota of doubt, there are processes to transmute from a knowledge-based society to a knowledge-based economy.

And there are no short corners to become a knowledge-based society. Knowledge-based societies
have similarities in the modus operandi of the educational sector.

The eggheads I was conversing with knew their stuff considering the fact that for you to pass through the four walls of a tertiary institution in Nigeria with a PhD; you would have gone the extra miles mentally and academically. The Professors informed me that there were several benefits of the TAC.

For starters, it was an eye-opener. One could compare and contrast educational systems and standards of Nigeria and countries were volunteers were stationed. The exposure garnered was relevant, useful and effective.

They concurred that the impact they were able to make academically can be and would be attested to by the students they lectured. One of the volunteers stated that “The level of academic impacts we have built over the years, the rigour our professors put us thorough; makes us ready for anything outside the shores of Nigeria. And the feedback has been enormous. Students don’t forget theiracademic experiences with the TAC team. If that is the only benefit of TAC; it has been beneficial.

We have concluded our programmes but some of our students still send us their works/projects they are working on, requesting for our academic evaluation and input. Some get in touch with requests for updates on post graduate grants overseas etc. It was very productive academically during our stay.”

After their departure, the interactions I had with them got me thinking. But at this juncture, it is noteworthy to state that for the past thirty-three years (since 1987), Nigeria has been paying the Nigerian expatriates from her own treasury. Discovering the channels through which the mode of payment is made to the volunteers made this writer realise the sheer ingenuity that must have been brewing amongst the brains and proponents who initiated TAC in 1987. Indeed, the land has brains.

My ruminations made me reach out to the individual who initiated TAC; Nigeria’s former external affairs Minister Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (who amongst several sterling academic exploits studied at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, from 1962 to 1964; Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, United States, from 1964 to 1966, and Trinity College, Oxford, England, from 1966 until 1969.) He also met John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

Professor Akinyemi was also a visiting professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and at the Diplomacy Training Programme, University of Nairobi, Kenya, both in 1977. He was Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1979; Professor of Political Science at the University of Lagos, from 1983 until 1985, and Visiting Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge, England in 1984. He was Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) from 1975 to 1983. The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs is an organisation focusing on Nigerian foreign policy.

Professor Akinyemi was appointed Minister of External Affairs by military leader Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. While in this position, he originated the Technical Aid Corps, a programme which sent Nigerian professionals overseas to engage in volunteer work.

It was designed to promote Nigeria image and status as a major contributor to the developing countries and especially African development.

I had met him on several occasions at public functions in Lagos, Nigeria but my first official encounter (via his office) with the erudite scholar was before 2008 (a tale for another day). The Professor directed me to his website for more information on TAC. The Technical Aid Corps is a scheme that he introduced to restructure quite radically Nigerian foreign assistance programme.

The emphasis was shifted away from monetary disbursement to skilled personnel placement in Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific nations.

For the young and upwardly mobile 21 st Century African reading this piece and still cannot relate with the aforementioned paragraphs, a twitter thread posted on Tuesday, July 24, 2018 by Togolese writer and human rights defender Farida Bemba Nabourema; depicts the theme of this piece in the language of the millennials, and the current generations.

Paraphrasing her “No nation has helped African countries more than Nigeria. The only country that has for the past thirty years sent thousands of volunteers called TAC to almost all countries to aid their development. The war in Liberia and Sierra Leone cost Nigeria over ten billion dollars with the deployment of over 15,000 troops and aid workers.

At the end of the war, Nigeria was still the largest African donor to aid the reconstruction of both countries. Nigeria has deployed more nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists and laboratory technicians to other African nations like Liberia, SierraLeone, Burundi, Rwanda, Gambia, Uganda, South Africa more than any other western nation.

Overall, more than thirty-two countries have benefited from Nigeria’s generosity from the past few
decades and although the highly skilled Nigerian volunteers are not as bragged about, Nigeria is the
most pan-African state on this continent.”

Reaching out to the Director General of Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps, Dr Pius Olakunle Osunyikanmi;
I was informed that over eight thousand TAC volunteers have been dispatched outside Nigeria from
the late 1980s till date (2020). And that at any given time, volunteers can be found in Africa, The
Caribbean Islands and the Pacific Islands too.

Currently, there are no agreements with Ghana and Kenya. But the volunteers stationed in Seychelles pass through Nigeria’s High Commission in Kenya.

Countries usually make requests through official channels to Nigeria. And currently, there is no one volunteering in the Pacific Islands but there are volunteers present in the Caribbean Islands of Jamaica and Belize. In the past, there used to be TAC volunteers dispatched to as far as The Fiji Island.

And there is a story of a Nigerian who was responsible for drafting the laws that tried the coup plotters of a particular coup in The Fiji Island.

Summarily, even though, there are those who would ask, if the benefits of TAC to Nigeria are tangible and commensurate with the 21 st Century economic and diplomatic needs of Nigeria and if the benefits are still pertinent to Nigeria? Or if Nigeria should continue with the scheme? Questions of this mould are best left for the custodians of TAC to address.

But from my interactions from 2015 and 2020, the TAC scheme (which I would advise educated Nigerians who are in the academia to apply for and see it as an advanced form of Pan Africanism (not akin to the Nigerian NYSC) but on an
international scale with a diplomatic passport) is one of the earliest; if not the first Pan African soft diplomacy tool to be engineered in the world and in international relations (this is aside Nigeria’s entertainment industry comprising Nollywood and Nigerian music-driven solely by private citizens.)

The TAC is the only volunteer service of its kind (academic and knowledge-based) currently operated by an African country on the Continent. That (knowledge-based impartation) in itself is the main ingredient of soft power.

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