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That ‘Nigeria First’ foreign policy initiative 

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Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama. Photo: TWITTER/GEOFFREYONYEAMA

The Federal Government in an apparent shift from the norm recently mulled a seemingly innocuous ‘‘Nigeria First’’ foreign policy in the manner of the United States’ ‘‘America First.’’ But beyond the catchy slogan are operational difficulties that will work against Nigerian interest in the diplomatic community should we start to bandy such complexity without solid content. 
 
Indeed, the question that has agitated the minds of many Nigerians in the last two decades or more is what exactly is Nigeria’s foreign policy? One-too-many Father Christmas-like postures of the successive administrations did elicit the question in several instances. Nigeria has played the big brotherly roles, especially in Africa without reciprocity and almost to self-disadvantage. 

In what seems like a radical departure from the norm, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, lately disclosed that the government had adopted the ‘‘Nigeria First Policy’’ to “reflect domestic realities.” The realities border on nine key areas all of which the policy aims to put in focus on the bilateral and multilateral international cooperation. They include: building a virile economy, enlarged agricultural output, energy sufficiency, transport infrastructure, expanding business growth, entrepreneurship and industrialisation. By implication, the world and our partners either have our citizenry and issues on the priority list or no deal.

 
Having Nigerian masses at the centerpiece of foreign relations is good and noble. However, the problem is the implicit meaninglessness of the phraseology – ‘‘Nigeria First.’’ For a fact, every country puts self-interest first and aims to strategically achieve the same within the international relations milieu. A no-no is to broadcast self-centredness or slam it in the faces of counterparts. To do so implies a shoddy knowledge of what foreign policy represents.
 
Perhaps, an exception to the foregoing is the United States from which our Foreign Affairs Ministry has borrowed the expression that means many things than one in America. Under the current president, Donald Trump, the America First as a policy, has gained unusual vigour to underscore the U.S. nationalism, unilateralism, protectionism and isolationism. For instance, the slogan recently justified increases in military spending, homeland security and veteran outlay, as against massive decrease in aid that goes to foreign countries like Nigeria.
 
It is important to note that Trump’s trumpeting ‘‘America First Policy’’ has never been spared of rife criticism by a section of the American public. Even the president has consistently denied isolationism, though without refuting his love for the term. Nonetheless, his administration continues to place a priority on local issues over burden-sharing elsewhere. And where the interest of the United States or any of its citizenry is undermined like recent developments in Iraq, Washington readily matches economic strength with military might to challenge the aggressor and turn the table.

Did officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in error of judgment compare Nigeria to America? What are the yardsticks? Trump’s America has the might and will to arm-twist, blackmail and even bully other powers to align with America’s position on international issues. Hence, though grudgingly, the world has come to accept ‘‘America First.’’ Nigeria is not in that class. If a Nigerian proposal is rejected at a meeting, can Nigeria muscle strength to say no like Trump is doing? No! So, how is Nigeria First a foreign policy? It is still in the realm of mere sloganeering: no real content to it.  

The point this newspaper has been reiterating, in this connection, is that foreign policy is more of a mirror image of the internal dynamics and conviction than a hunch of few persons at the foreign affairs office. Just as the military marches on its stomach, as is often said, a country’s foreign policy runs on the strength of its economy. Indeed, there is no country that fully resolves its economic challenges, including the United States of our reference. But there are some parameters of economic maturity and admissible low percentage on the poverty line that a country must attain, otherwise, her foreign policy would only be whistling in the dark. It is safe to say that Nigeria is more of an African heavyweight in military might than in economic strength and requisite leadership to pull strings of significance in foreign affairs. 

It, therefore, behooves on our leaders to be more concerted in approach and active in laying the sustainable economic foundation and internal wherewithal for the world to start taking Nigeria seriously again. Lest we forget, there was a time Nigeria did make waves in the international cooperation space. Not by the ‘‘Nigeria First’’ slogan but be placing entire Africa as the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Historically, it was a strategy that dated back to Tafawa Balewa’s speech at the United Nations and successive administrations, including the military, built on it. Murtala Muhammed in the 1970s also made a shift in what was coined ‘‘Africa has come of age.’’ The Ibrahim Babangida regime too recorded a major milestone in foreign affairs, leaving behind a record such as has never been surpassed to date. There was then a concert of medium powers and even the Technical Aid Corps (TAC) policy, which is still in place, especially in Africa. These were remarkable schemes from foreign policy thrust.  

 
One of those things that worked for them is the human capacity at their disposal. Interestingly, Nigeria of today has a better exposed and versatile human resource than of the 1980s. In fact, the world has never doubted the emergence of Nigeria as the next emerging global power, should we go on the strength of the human resources and their potential. With over 60 per cent of 200 million population in the youth category, Nigerians are all over the globe making things happen exceptionally. The resilience of the Nigerian spirit to be world-beater has continued to marvel the world way back in the 1990s and to date.

But potentiality is not enough without the actuality. Yes! Nigeria has the potential to be a leading economy and global powerhouse as the World Bank once predicted for the year 2000. But the basics first. We cannot leverage population strength alone. We must match our leadership positions with the actual aspirations and badge of exceptionality. Only when the optics is right, will our representative’s muscle strength to speak and the world will listen.
 
In the interim, the Foreign Affairs Ministry must be sophisticated in thought and eschew the crudity of sloganeering that will not advance our interests. A well-thought-out policy should originate from within to promote shared high values, standards, and mutual interest in the region and the world at large. Indeed, if it is ‘‘Nigeria First,’’ then what are the conditionalities? If Nigeria rises to speak in the international circle, the world should be able to say ‘Africa has spoken’. It happened specifically in 1976 when Murtala Mohammed, the then Head of State spoke for Africa in Ethiopia (on Angola) to the Western powers. After Nigeria’s powerful speech ending with ‘‘Africa has come of age’’ construct, other African countries chorused, ‘‘Africa has spoken.’’ And so with imaginative and pragmatic leadership that would rather walk the talk than announce its policy thrust without content, Nigeria can be a tiger again without having to flaunt its nigritude. 


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