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Sixty years of Nigeria’s international relations challenges, accomplishments


In 1959, already in control of the major plank of Nigeria’s external relations, Tafawa Balewa stated the position of his government in a letter to Chief Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti, the 58-year-old radical female activist, on the issue of Nigerians visiting other countries.

“I must tell you quite clearly that I and my colleagues are determined that while we are responsible for the government of the federation of Nigeria and for the welfare of its people, we shall use every means in our power to prevent the infiltration of communism and communistic ideas into Nigeria.


In order to carry out our policy, we shall seek to prevent Nigerians from visiting communist-controlled countries especially if we have reason to believe that they are traveling for the purpose of indulging in communist activities” (See Trevour Clark “A Right Honourable Gentleman The Life and Times of Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa). This position was carried over by Balewa into 1960 the year flag independence was formally attained by Nigeria.

Sixty years on, our Head of State President Muhammadu Buhari, wrote to his counterpart in Peoples’ Republic of China Xi Jingpin congratulating him on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the Peoples’ Republic of China and wishing the communist party of China more glorious achievement in future. Buhari’s letter was in response to one from President Xi wishing Nigerians well and proposing inter alia meaningful all-round relations including party to party.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Nigeria in 1961, rejected or ignored the offer of financial assistance from communist China and in 2019 when billions of dollars worth of projects are being financed in Nigeria by China at the specific invitation of the Nigerian government.

Numerous scholars on the subject over the years have adopted different approaches and come out with different results1. The method, style, and framework of analysis cannot but shed a different light on the same subject and the same facts and events. Unstated assumption; and ideological preferences often affect the interrogation methods brought to bear on specific questions and issues. Some have not considered relevant the socio-economic-political power configuration in Nigeria in considering the country’s external behavior.


Other scholars, while taking note of this internal dimension, have not accorded it the weight it deserves in explaining Nigeria’s international relations. That ‘the international environment has not in the past sixty years, been a clean slate on which Nigeria could simply write whatever she considered beautiful, is also sometimes lost on commentators on the country’s external relations. There are those who take the position that except for a few flashes of informed and determined patriotic actions, Nigeria’s external behavior has largely been subservient to imperialism2. They demonstrate this assertion by citing numerous occasions when Nigeria’s positions agreed with the position canvassed by major western countries. They may well be right but we do not intend to adopt that perspective in our analysis of Nigeria’s international relations in the past sixty years, where we stand will become clear at the end of this analysis. We adopt a unique periodization that enables us to take several factors into consideration in interrogating the subject.

Nigeria entered the international system on the attainment of flag independence on October 1, 1960, at a time of deep ideological divide between capitalism as preached by the west and communism as canvassed by the socialist bloc in the east. Africa was also already in political turmoil following the crisis in the Congo Leopoldville which started in June of that year. As Nigeria became the 99th member of the United Nations on October 7, 1960, events and issues which were to shape the country’s response to the external environment were already in place. The world Nigeria entered was a complex one which required measured responses from the Nigerian leaders. We will take some issues which engaged the international community and Nigeria with a view to seeing how these were handled –Colonialism in Africa, Apartheid, among others.

This issue was at the forefront of discussions before Nigeria gained formal independence. It had been so placed by Nkrumah’s insistence that Ghana’s independence was incomplete and meaningless without the emancipation of the rest of colonial Africa. In order to achieve this, there was a call for all independent African states to come together in a united front to form an African High Command designed to end or terminate reluctant colonialism and racism on the continent. The attitude towards continuing colonialism was therefore tied to the political future of Africa. These were two issues ordinarily but their entanglement led to responses that produced different results. Nigeria was opposed to continuing colonialism and sought to see African states emerge from that yoke at a responsible pace that would not create another Congo for the continent. Hence Nigeria’s reluctance at the United Nations to go along with the Soviet Union’s proposed resolution for immediate decolonization in Africa. This was perceived as simply courting cheap popularity for propaganda purposes. But the country’s position did not derive simply from an ideological dislike of the proponent of the resolution — a communist state.


Nigeria, with her size and resources, had been granted independence on a platter of gold by Britain, there was no reason why this could not be done by other colonial powers. It was this thinking that led to the rejection of any military assistance requested by Holden Roberto of Angola when he visited Nigeria in 1961.4This position was to change dramatically even under Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa when the recalcitrance of Portugal and the racist regime in Southern Rhodesia called for this change in posture and behavior.

On the future of the continent which generated heated debates within and outside Africa in particular in the Western press where Balewa was perceived as a moderate, rational, reasonable, and pragmatic leader, Nigeria emerged as the leader of a large group of African States in the Monrovia Bloc of powers who wanted a gradual approach to African unity rather than an immediate Union Government for the continent. This notwithstanding the suggestion from Ghana that Nigeria could provide the first Head of State for a United Africa. Nigeria’s Dr. Taslim Elias and his team fashioned out the document later to be known as the Charter of the Organization of African Unity.

The acceptance of Nigeria’s views on the political future of Africa by a vast majority of African leaders in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, was an accomplishment that was to endure over time. This was solidified with the establishment of the O.A.U. Liberation Committee based in Dar-es-salaam in Tanzania whose membership Nigeria was elected to at the expense of Ghana and was to serve on the Committee until the liquidation of colonialism and racism in Africa. Nigeria concretized her position of gradualism and cooperative efforts among African states by embarking on technical assistance to newly independent African states who requested Nigeria’s personnel in their public services. In order to reinforce the “unselfish” attitude and intention of Nigeria on African issues, the country declined to put forward a Nigerian official for the post of the Chief Executive of the O.A.U. This position of self-abnegation was maintained while the organization lasted and has not been altered.


The O.A.U. provided the forum for the discussion and articulation of African views on various issues. As a respected member of the organization, Nigeria, was called upon to send a contingent of military personnel to Tangayika in 1964 to help stabilize the security situation in that country following a mutiny in the army. The O.A.U. also played a role at the time of Nigeria’s challenges a few years later during her civil war. Official Nigerian position was that the civil war was an internal affair for which the country would not tolerate external interference.

This became difficult to sustain when Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, and Ivory Coast accorded de jure – recognition to the Republic of Biafra. As part of the strategy designed to stem the spate of recognition, Nigeria agreed to commence talks with the representatives of the rebel side under the auspices of the O.A.U. on the condition that the organization approached it as taking place within the context of one Nigerian state recognized by the O.A.U.

The active O.A.U. involvement prevented the wider internationalization of the case which the United Nations entry would have implied.6 It was not an enviable period for Nigeria when her external behavior had to mainly concentrate on ensuring that other countries stayed on our side or at worst did not offer de jure recognition to Biafra. This was achieved and by the end of 1970, severed diplomatic relations with the four African states had been restored following Nigeria’s acceptance of the principle of “no victor no vanquished” in the civil war and the efforts internally to achieve reconciliation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction under General Gowon. Some obvious lessons had. been learned which included that of no permanent friends but interests in international relations.


On Wednesday March 21, 1960, in the town of Sharpville South Africa, armed South African racist police shot down in cold blood 69 (police count) Africans peacefully protesting the obnoxious policy of carrying internal passports wherever a black person was going. Done in the full view of the media, the act sent shock waves around the world resulting in unequivocal condemnation by civilized humanity. Although not yet formally independent, Nigeria’s leadership in unison condemned the barbaric and inhuman act and promised to review the situation on the attainment of independence. This included even those who were known to have conservative ideological positions such as the Premier of the Northern Region Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto who thereafter decided to terminate the appointment of white South Africans working within the regional civil service under the colonial system. The official Federal Government actions commenced only after independence.

In 1961, Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister attended the Commonwealth leaders summit in London. At that meeting the South African leader gave notice of his country’s intention to become a republic no longer recognizing the Queen as Head of State. Prime Minister Balewa took the initiative in insisting that the apartheid state could not belong to the comity of civilized nations not with the abhorrent and reprehensible internal practices. His widely shared view left the South African leader no alternative than for his country to withdraw her membership from the Commonwealth since the decision to become a republic was at that point considered irreversible.8 That same year 1961 in Geneva, the Nigerian delegation to the conference of the International Labour Organization moved the motion for the rejection of the credentials of the representatives of Apartheid South Africa and the expulsion of the country from the ILO. This signalled a hardening of the position of Nigeria on the apartheid issue and presaged similar efforts to ostracize the apartheid regime. From that point on there was no going back on the multifaceted campaign against the monster in the international community.

Prof. Ogunsanwo writes from center for diplomatic studies, and political affairs, Lead City University, Ibadan.


It was no surprise to Nigeria that racist enclaves in Southern Africa as well as Portugal welcomed the outbreak of hostilities in 1967 as a possible disintegration of the giant of Africa could not but buttress the argument that black people could not conceivably govern themselves successfully. While no de jure recognition was extended to Biafra, other forms of assistance were surreptitiously made available including provision of staging posts for aircraft ferrying “humanitarian” supplies to the Biafran enclave. At the end of the war, Nigeria adopted ahardened posture insisting that the enclaves must be liberated and concentrating multidimensional assistance to the liberation struggle in Guinea Bissau where Amilcar Cabral was leading the Partido Africano de Independido da Guinee Cabo (African Party for the Independence of Guinea Cape Verde ) Verde against Portuguese colonial forces. In his address to the OAU summit that year, Gowon suggested that Africa must ensure that at least one colonial territory was liberated every three years. The Security branch of the Nigeria Police was empowered to oversee these operations under the command of M.D. Yusuf. The contacts and deliveries were facilitated by Aminu Abdullahi a most knowledgeable, competent and patriotic Nigerian. The results became obvious within three years of Gowon’s 1970 suggestion.
The challenges confronting the country are much closer to home. In June 2019, ECOWAS countries decided to launch the long awaited regional currency- the Eco – in 2020 merging the Franco phone CFA issued by eight countries with the one that Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and The Gambia had been working on since 2004, under the then Obansanjo administration. The fast Track approach initiated with vigor by the then Nigerian leader did not seem to have made significant progress in a period of fifteen years before the announcement of June 2019 on the 2020 deadline. In early December 2019, Nigerian’s Minister of Finance expressed some doubt on the feasibility of actually Launching the new regional currency by 2020. Later that same month, the French President Emmanuel Macron on a visit to Cote Ivoire announced with his host President Alasan Quattara the joint decision to have the CFA of the eight countries converted to the ECO in 2020 with linkage to the Euro but no longer requiring deposit of 50 percent of reserves of the countries concerned with the French Treasury. This was immediately perceived as an intervention by France seeking to protect its interest in the region and a gauntlet to Nigeria in the middle of border closure to francophone neighbours all members of the CFA, How Nigeria will handle this development was not yet clear as at January 2020. The experience of the ECOWAS efforts in Mali should be recalled in which French president Hollande in January 2013 militarily intervened in Northern Mali to carry out a policy ECOWAS had decided upon and received approval from the Security Council of the United Nations to implement. Nigeria ended up being kept out of the operation even though Chad a non ECOWAS country sent in 2000 troops.
This time around, Nigeria has two options one of which is to stay out completely and become isolated in a region in which its market share of import is over 60 percent. Were this to happen, nothing would stop the majority of ECOWAS countries asking Morocco to actualize the Monrovia decision of 2017 admitting that country to the regional body.
The second option is a compromise which will see Nigeria open its borders not necessarily on the conditions publicly stipulated in 2019 that our francophone neighbors needed to meet but on the assumption that no meaningful economic or monetary integration can be achieved with borders closed. We see a clash here between the Nigeria first policy the administration is pursuing and providing the necessary leadership for the integration process in West Africa. Is Nigeria ready to play the role within West Africa that Germany plays within the EUROZONE countries? If yes is the country in a position to actually play that role when we are not yet a manufacturing giant?
These are decisions Nigeria must make in facing the gauntlet or challenge the French president has conjured.
The second challenge to Nigeria also comes from our assumed leadership of West Africa in the area of security. The increasing threat posed by the Islamic State in West Africa Province in conjunction with Boko Haram Jihadists, reputedly receiving assistance from Turkey and other fellow travelers has bought untold sorrow to inhabitants of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Chad and Mauritania have joined the three in forming with French assistance the G5 Sahel Joint forces which had received the approval of the United Nations. In the second week of December 2019, the Jihadists killed at least 73 members of the Army of Niger which led to a solidarity meeting in Niamey on December 15 of the leaders of the G5 states.
A third and more important challenge to Nigeria’s international relations in the next decade is a multinational state trying to build a nation out of the diversities. With more than 250 ethnic groups and 400 languages and deselects, with fissiparous tendencies. Measures adopted by the political class to deal with these diversities have not, in their implementation been helpful in the process of nation building. The misuse of religion by diverse groups for selfish purposes, the exploitation of ethnic differences for political and personal gains, the deliberate setting of one group such as the cantle herders against farming communities all over the country, the decision to see electoral politics as a do or die affair, the tendency by those in office to embark on agglomeration of values, aggrandizement and embezzlement of massive funds with impunity not to mention the blatant disregard for the rule of law- all of which add up to creating on antagonistic milieu in which the common good becomes a casualty.


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