Time to rework Nigeria’s foreign policy
President Bola Tinubu’s recent outing at the 63rd Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS), in Guinea-Bissau, where he emerged as new chairperson could instigate renewed activism for the country’s foreign relations.
Nigeria has taken the back bench at international engagements in recent times, almost relinquishing a leading role that natural and human endowment confer on the country. It was Tinubu’s first engagement in the sub-region since he became president. And he sounded like one who means business.
ECOWAS was created in 1975 to provide a forum for economic, political and social integration among the nearly 400 million citizens of the 15 countries that make up the community. It was envisaged to facilitate collective self-sufficiency among member states within a single trading bloc and a unified monetary and economic zone.
Since inception, Nigeria has sufficiently chaired the sub-regional body, beginning with former Head of States, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, 1975; Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, 1977/1979; Gen Muhammadu Buhari,1985; Gen Ibrahim Babangida, 1985/1989; Gen Sani Abacha, 1996/1998; Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar 1998/1999. Umar Musa Yar’Adua chaired the body from December 19, 2008to February 18, 2010. Goodluck Jonathan continued from where Yar’Adua stopped until February 17, 2012. Buhari took another shot as a civilian president from July 31, 2018-June 29, 2019.
The ideals of ECOWAS have remained very lofty, leveraging the romantic blueprint of the Kwameh Nkrumah era, which envisioned the imperative of one united Africa. Over the years and with refinement and improvement on the Lagos treaty that birthed it, the body has evolved different protocols to facilitate the missions and objectives, for instance, confer right to free movement on citizens to enter and reside in territories of member states; resolve conflicts amicably and refrain from supporting internal subversion or aggression members’ internal affairs unless there are cross-border spills; prevent corruption; prevent, manage and resolve crisis (peace keeping); protect human rights of citizens as well as promote democracy and good governance, among others.
Largely, ECOWAS and all it stands for remain a work in progress. The region has witnessed military takeovers, internal strife within member states and economic challenges that have seen millions of citizens living below global poverty limits.
The most turbulent period for the body was the 1990s, when civil war broke out in Liberia and later in Sierra Leone. The body was concerned that the civil war in Liberia had spilled beyond its borders, yielding thousands of refugees across member states, which justified the formation of the Economic Community Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in August 1990.
Nigeria demonstrated great and uncommon leadership as the major sponsor of the interventionist force. Apart from footing the larger share of the bill, Nigerian soldiers were in the majority, with support from Ghana, Guinea, The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Mali. ECOMOG extended the intervention to contain the war in Sierra Leone in 1997 and in the Guinea-Bissau civil war in 1999.
The cost on Nigeria was huge, both in men and material. According to former president Olusegun Obasanjo, at a reception held to receive returning ECOMOG soldiers from Liberia in October 1999, Nigeria lost about 500 soldiers with scores wounded, with about $ 8 billion expended in containing the war in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The import of that intervention was not lost on the world. As the United Nations explored peace options and war became fierce and deadly, with serious humanitarian crisis, the world powers didn’t pay any particular interest. It became the lot of Nigeria to champion the ECOMOG initiative and peace was restored.
The years that followed ECOMOG served as period to consolidate democracy in the sub-region. The era of military coups was thought to have become archaic and substantial democratisation was afoot. The challenge, however, was among the political class, most of whom didn’t know when to call it quit and surrender to democratic ethos.
The trouble in Côte d’Ivoire(2010-2011) that almost became a civil war was simply about honouring electoral principles and managing political diversity. Supporters of the two big men, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Quattara fought for months, leading to the death of 3,000 people, before French forces stepped in to forcefully arrest Gbagbo and quell the insurrection.
Increasingly, impoverished citizens in ECOWAS are beginning to query the validity of democratic governance, seeing that the promised dividends are either slow to arrive or they do not arrive at all. In addition, the sanctity of the electoral process has been violated repeatedly by the major political gladiators, thus diminishing the fervour thought to accrue from democratic practice.
In most countries of the sub-region, the electoral system in practice gives everything to the winner. The winner-takes-all mentality alienates a chunk of the population that is often left stranded until another cycle of election, during which the incumbent perfects all the rigging methods and uses every instrument of state to stay put. Exclusionary politics breeds discontent, economic strangulation of opposition and sometimes, violent uprisings and coups.
As it were, ECOWAS has suspended Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso from the regional body because soldiers have ceased the reins of authority in these countries after what appeared to be a period of sustained democratic governance in the sub region. Mali recorded two successful coups in less than two years; followed by Guinea in September 2021 and Burkina Faso in January 2022. The sub-regional government is mindful of the trend and is determined to avert any other military misadventure. But despite the sanctions slammed on Mali, the young soldiers appear unfazed, thus causing the elders some nightmare.
The need to entrench and enforce democracy resonated in Tinubu’s declaration at the Guinea-Bissau meeting. He was unequivocal on the matter when he said: “We must stand firm on democracy. There is no governance, freedom and rule of law without democracy.We will not accept coup after coup in West Africa again. Democracy is very difficultto manage butit is the best form of government.”
He warned: “There is no one here among us who did not campaign to be a leader. We didn’t give our soldiers resources; we didn’t invest in them, in their boots, in their training, to violate the freedom of the people. To turn their guns against civil authorities is a violation of the principles upon which they were hired, which is to defend the sovereignty of their nations. We must not sit in ECOWASas toothless bulldogs.”
Unfortunately, nearly all countries of the sub-region are struggling economically. They are unable to meet the needs of citizens and resource allocation remains a big challenge because the ruling class appropriate more than their fair share of countries’ limited resources.
Commodities sourced in the region are valued poorly in the international market, thus revenues are in short supply. All countries of ECOWAs are indebted and using substantial part of their resources to service debts.
Together with the Secretariat of the body, the new chair will do well to revive and energise trade policies to improve wealth of member states and citizens; make movement of persons and goods less cumbersome and limit the intervention of western powers in the economies of former colonies.
Another area of grave concern is the onslaught by Islamic jihadists and terrorists across the sub-region. Illicit weapons are flowing from Libya through poorly governed spaces into the region. There are multilateral forces working to contain terrorism and they have to be firmed up. Also, the wave of illegal migration from West Africa to Europe is alarming. Youths are running away from unemployment and poverty, with many crossing the Mediterranean on dingy and unsafe vessels. Hundreds have drowned in the process andit doesn’t speak well of the regional leadership.
At the level of the African Union (AU), the body has largely abdicated its original mission of working towards an integrated, prosperousand peaceful continent.
P resident Tinubu also attended the Fifth Mid-Year Coordinating Meeting of the African Union in Kenya, where he canvassed that past plundering and exploitation of the continent should not happen again. He talked tough, saying among other pleasant things, “…But here and now, let it be said to whomever the new scramblers might be that our continent may be old but our spirit is new. And it is strong. The bad that took place in the past must stay there. It shall never be repeated.”
Perhaps in the absence of a foreign affairs expert as substantive minister, the president is not aware that the continent has been recolonised over and again. The new scramblers have been around for long and they are not going soon. African countries are heavily indebted to the West and of recent, China. Those who do not have money to give have arms and mercenaries to loan to war ravaged countries.
Wagner fighters from Russia are in Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). Chinese companies are mining exotic minerals at give-away across impoverished African countries in exchange for soft credit. More than 35 armed conflicts are reported in Burkina Faso, Cameroun, the CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia and South Sudan.
The AU is overwhelmed and needs rejuvenation. Nigeria is equally overwhelmed at home, at the regional level and at the continental level. It is hoped that Nigeria will return to the era when it was said that Africa is the centrepiece of her foreign policy and when she spoke Africa listened.
Sadly today, Nigeria is unable to play in the class of most industrialised countries (G8). She is not found among the G20. Even among the BRICS, Nigeria has not risen to join her former peers.
Let charity begin at home in all sectors. Let Nigeria take her place in the world.
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