On Thursday, Nigeria marked its 60th anniversary. What would you say of our foreign policy and the journey so far?
As far as foreign policy is concerned, we have a lot of wins probably in foreign policy more than in any other area. Nigeria in my opinion has performed most impressively, because we started up extremely well in foreign policy right from birth as a country.
In 1960, we had a Congo crisis. Congo was becoming independent from Belgium and Nigeria was very much in the centre of the UN intervention. In the Congo you had our president, actually he was in the Congo as part of the Nigerian contingent to bring peace and stabilise the very unfortunate situation.
At the time then, General Ironsi was actually leading with the UN contingent. Right from the very beginning, Nigeria established itself as Giant of Africa vis-à-vis the rest of the world and the protector of African interests. As the largest black country in the world, we always also felt that this role is to defend the interest of Africans and the black race. We saw that in a lot our policy positions around the world.
You may recall also that early in the 60s, France was testing a nuclear weapon and it exploded the new test device just next door in Niger. Nigeria was one of the countries that took a very strong position on that, and it showed that we fear no country on earth. France was a major power, but we confronted them and then of course, the 60s was the period of decolonisation around Africa.
Some countries did not decolonise as quickly as we thought they should. The Portuguese kept hold of their territories in Africa, such as Guinea Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde. Nigeria was very strong and very active in fighting on the side of African countries.
You had apartheid in South Africa and Nigeria was in the forefront. We saw over the years, that Nigeria was considerably a frontline state, geographically, we were not on the frontline, but because of the huge role we played. Some people actually say, and I get confronted with that all the time, that those were the glory years of Nigerian foreign policy. Where we were assertive, we were confident and decisive. Angola was almost overrun by apartheid South African Policy, and Nigeria was getting very strongly involved.
We were not happy then with the role being played by Western countries, and we nationalised exporting petroleum, which was a huge step taken those days and a very daring step taken under late General Murtala Muhammed, it was a robust Foreign Policy.
We had the resources then and so we had a dream. Former President Obasanjo, for instance was at the forefront of the creation of ECOWAS. We also had a vision and a leader of an integrated Africa, of an United States of Africa. This whole thing was the dream right from the independence of African countries, that Africa will one day unite as Nkrumah had said.
So, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the institution to lead the building bloc towards that united Africa and that dream, Nigeria was at the forefront within the OAU. We played a big role financially and in other ways. A leadership role in building that structure, and also in West Africa with the creation of ECOWAS and the British Common Wealth, where Nigeria again was a big player.
We even produced a secretary general of the Commonwealth. Of course, at one point we were also suspended from the Commonwealth during the Abacha regime, but nonetheless we played a major role because the Commonwealth was about so many things, a common Anglophone heritage, culture, education and so many others. And we also played a very strong role in the field of culture, literature and others.
Within the United Nations, we also continued to champion the cause of oppressed people. We like to call them in those days, championing the cause of developing worlds. Those days you have the big blocs, the common bloc and Western bloc. We also drew an agenda of non-alignment to either bloc and pursued that throughout. I think this also came out during the civil war, but our support was from the federal government, Soviet Union and Western countries also supported. So, our foreign policy has been one that was built around our interest as a country.
We started with Africa, we always said that Africa is the centre piece of our foreign policy. And we had a philosophy of concentric circles. The first circle was ECOWAS in West Africa, we played a big role in that and we still do that up till today, stabilising West Africa as much as possible and intervention in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
In The Gambia later on and East Southern Africa, we played a very big role. We played a big role in restoring peace in South Sudan, Somalia crisis, engaging positively with North African countries. Beyond that of course, developing relations with Asian countries, European countries.
I always say that Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world without natural enemies. There are not many countries that are not having issues with the other countries, but our foreign policy has been very wise. We have been able to navigate our way forward where we have not had major conflict with any country in Africa or outside Africa. On the contrary, we build very good relations with countries all over the world.
And a big country with 200 million people presently, our role in this country is truly a fantastic achievement to be able to navigate for 60 years, without major conflict with any country in the world. In fact, the conflict we have is just among ourselves. So, I think we can easily say kudos to successive Nigerian leaders that have really guided us along the path.
Of recent, a lot of people feel there is need for Nigeria to reassess its foreign policy, as it mainly concerns African countries. For instance, the attack of Nigerians in South Africa and the recent treatment of Nigerians in Ghana. With these scenarios, do you think there is need for Nigeria to take another look at its foreign policy?
Yes, I think so, because you know our policy has evolved. And our foreign policy evolved with world development. And I often tell people who tell me that we are weak presently, we are soft, our foreign policy is soft, and they remind me of the days when Nigeria was able to face the Western world over Angola, South Africa.
But those were the days when we had those causes. We don’t have those causes now, we don’t have a decolonisation issue as such.
We have different challenges today, we are not going to be adopting that same approach. And because of that, we were in full solidarity with African countries and their cause was our cause or we had a cause. Our foreign policy was really one of brotherhood, giving and supporting. But things have changed, now we are not faced with so much ideological Cold War, the world is more globalised and it is presently all about the economy, in a globalised world where you are having to now compete.
It is a knowledge economy we have today, countries competing for fewer markets and so forth. And our policy has to weaken, because with the large population we are actually presently a poor country, and as a result of economic decline of our country over so many years, a lot of our people are now migrating.
In the 60s, 70s, late 70s and early 80s Nigerians would go out to study and come back. Everybody would troop back home because the economic prospects at home, was much better and even our neighbours were trooping into our country. Alot of jobs Nigerians wouldn’t do, because life was good and we were doing very well economically, that is no longer the case.
Now, our people are migrating for opportunities because our economy is not able to deliver for majority of our people. The situation has changed, and of course when you have people migrating in such large numbers, you know you are going to have all these kinds of problems in other countries because Nigerians are dynamic people, enterprising. And when you live in other peoples country and you are doing well, and in some places you are not doing the right thing that you are supposed to do, you know criminal activities and so forth, you are not going to be appreciated.
We have seen that xenophobia is as a result of fighting for scarce resources with society. So, in South Africa you have people who have come out of a very different period in their history, very often not well educated and with the economic crisis. You look at foreigners, you look at scapegoats when you are not doing well.
When your country is doing well, they will not notice foreigners, but when things start getting tough economically and they are feeling the pains, then they begin to look for people to blame.
For instance in UK, this is why they left the EU, because all of a sudden when their economy is not doing well, they see that people from other European countries are taking jobs that they think ought to be given to them, and taking advantage of their national health system.
That is what a lot of Nigerians now, as I speak, are facing. But I also think that the pressure is on us to respond to countries. Some people are saying that, ‘listen if this happens to your people in this country, you have to reciprocate. If you have laws in your country that says to discriminate against Nigerians, then we also have to reciprocate.’
We are going to have a meeting to try and rebalance Nigeria’s foreign policy. And I think part of that will be in recognition that times have now changed, and that we also have to try and be more aggressive in how we defend Nigeria’s interest.
Recently, you reacted to the visa ban of certain Nigerians who were said to have allegedly rigged elections. How appropriate it is for another country to issue a visa ban with such reasons on individuals from another country ? Apart from the reaction and condemnation of such act, how are you addressing this particular issue?
Each country has its own laws and can make laws. We have international laws of course and we have domestic laws. International laws follow certain framework, and within your domestic laws whatever law you pass is relevant to your country, and the right of entry into your country is completely up to you.
You decide and you don’t have to counter anybody. You can ban everybody from entering into your country when you want for whatever reason. So for COVID-19, it is a reason for some countries to ban whatever and so on and so forth.
So, every country is perfectly entitled to whatever reason they want. Now, how do you react to that? We issued a statement from the ministry expressing a big surprise that such decision was taken. You know even in the US itself, some people are already complaining and have made statements, so it is already ironic in that context that those measures were taken because we also feel that we have the mechanism in place, laws and other things to address those issues. We were a bit surprised that another country has taken it upon itself to sanction, for surely domestic and exclusively domestic issues.
Sixty years after independence and an average Nigerian outside the shores of Nigeria, is not secured in terms of rescue, why is it so? Also, why is it difficult for Nigerians overseas to obtain a Nigerian passport?
On the first one, Nigerian embassies whenever there’s an issue dealing with Nigerians, do intervene and that is the consulate’s responsibility. They do that systematically whenever a Nigerian is in trouble. Even Nigerians in prison, they go to prison to help them open their cases all around the world.
Our numbers are different when you compare they are at different levels. In the sense that most Americans going to these countries will just go as tourists and leave, but a lot of our people are irregular migrants living outside the country. Those are issues that also complicate things because, very often they will not make contact with Nigerian embassies. In the first place a lot of Nigerians don’t like to go to the embassies, especially when they are irregular. So, the mission may not always be aware of the issues they are facing. The whole purpose of our embassies abroad is to look at Nigerians in the country, and we do it to the best of our ability. We don’t always have the resources, but we try our best.
On the issue of passport, we have been having a lot of issues. Infact, we are having it now in some missions, where some people want their passports renewed and we don’t have jackets. Enough jackets have not been provided there.
These are things we are trying to resolve with the ministry of Interior. They are the ones that produce the passport jackets. I don’t know what all the issues are about, but very often there are shortages and that is why these jackets are not enough. I think it might have to do with just a few number of Nigerians outside the country.
Funding for Nigerian embassies abroad has become a problem. How worried are you about that?
I’m extremely worried. It is a real problem and it has been a perennial problem. First and foremost, the argument is that for such a big country, when we compare ourselves with other countries like Egypt, South Africa, the percentage of budget they spend on foreign affairs is not higher.
We feel we are not spending the amount we should, for what we want to be as a big country, the role we want to play. We are not spending enough on embassies. The second thing is just appropriation, so even what is now agreed upon to be paid, is not appropriated.
So, you are getting even less and then on top of that, the exchange rate often fluctuates. So, actually we are not really budgeting enough for it, not getting correct appropriation. And then there’s the foreign exchange, making the money that you actually do get, much less with the change. It is a real problem, it is something we kept fighting during this budget defense, and we are still fighting it. So, my position is that we would just have to cut our coat according to our size, even if we don’t close down missions we have to downsize them.