The Paradox of Nigeria's Foreign Policy / Patrick Wilmot / Jamaica Observer

7 February 2009

Gulliver's Troubles: Nigeria's Foreign Policy after the Cold War, Adekeye Adebajo and Abdul Raudu Mustapha, eds., Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008

While Nigerians have tolerated murderers and thieves as leaders, they would never tolerate a leader who compromised with apartheid or other racist policies backed by right-wing Western powers. Public consent which should be the basis of domestic government works instead for external affairs. Jamaicans have an interest in Africa because the majority of the population originated from that continent. For Nigeria this is most apt because the majority of Jamaicans originated from the Ibo and Yoruba people of that country, and Nigeria has a vastly superior number of supporters of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh compared to Jamaica. In recognition of its Pan-African responsibility Nigeria supplied Jamaica with oil at subsidized prices for a time.

Until the Yar A'dua government came to power in 2007 Nigeria rated near the head of Transparency International's index of corrupt nations. The country has now moved up the scale because the President is not a thief, but the culture of corruption, irresponsibility and opaqueness is still too deeply entrenched to be transformed immediately. Nigeria which earned nearly half a trillion dollars in oil over the years still has a standard of living worse than in the 1960s when it subsisted on agricultural products.

While it has trailed other African countries in terms of economic development and democratic values, however, it has led Africa in promoting stability and in the fight against Portuguese colonialism and South African apartheid. It has devoted enormous sums in these struggles, such as peacekeeping in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the fight for independence in Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, and Guinea-Bissau.

While Nigeria is a West African nation it led the group of Eminent Persons in the fight to free Nelson Mandela and his nation, and was the leader of the UN Committee against apartheid for as long as it existed. The adage that foreign policy must reflect domestic structure was true only to the extent that external affairs were aligned with the wishes of a progressive public opinion, which despised the reactionary domestic policies of military and civilian dictators.

Gulliver's Troubles, edited by Adekeye Adebajo and Raufu Mustapha, is a comprehensive outline of Nigeria's foreign policy after the cold war. Written by academics and practitioners in the foreign policy establishment it covers aspects of the domestic, regional and external contexts of foreign policy. The reference to Swift's Gulliver is meant to emphasize how the "Giant of Africa", as Nigerian leaders tend to call their nation, is reduced to near impotence by the weakness of its domestic structure.

The contributions of scholars and diplomats attempt to summarize the external actions of the country as well as to locate patterns and directing structures. The post-Cold War period which they cover is particularly interesting because the poverty of leadership magnified the contradictions between the good intentions of foreign policy initiatives and the implementation which was distorted by corruption, lack of clarity and hubris which made domestic policy incoherent and impotent.

The attempts to bring stability to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and stop the spread to neighbouring countries were heroic in scale and commendable in outcomes but the megalomania and ineptitude of largely military leadership prolonged the conflicts and cost much more than a poverty stricken country could afford. The colossal sums expended had much of the characteristics of corrupt domestic expenditure, as officers got rich while crushing murderous "governments" or rebels.

The actions of post-Cold War leaders were highlighted by the brief but explosive leadership of the assassinated Murtala Muhammad, which defied the Americans in 1975-76 to force the liberation of Angola and ultimately South Africa and Namibia. By the time the Cold War was coming to an end the military had been transformed into a corrupt and undisciplined rabble by leaders without the honour, integrity or patriotism of Murtala Mohammed.

The post-Cold War period is a changed environment in which the powers of the West have been reduced and China's industrial capacity has risen. Instead of American and European goods, services and investments dominating Nigeria's markets, it is now Chinese motorcycles, textiles and investments which the people have to deal with.

As the authors see, the future Nigeria must evolve the policies to interact with a country which has liberated itself from the colonial and neo-colonial bonds which Nigeria still suffers.

For the Nigerian people the lesson is that they cannot continue to tolerate domestic oppression and exploitation even if their governments pay lip service to their patriotism and Pan-African sentiments. The governments must recognise that the power they crave can only be realised if they link themselves to the popular will be recognising that all power arises from the people, and can be sustained only by popular will.

Patrick Wilmot, who is based in London, is a writer and commentator on African affairs for the BBC, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and CNN. He's a visiting professor at Ahmadu Bello and Jos universities in Nigeria.

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