By Owei Lakemfa
It was easily one of the largest, most diverse and insightful gatherings on foreign affairs in contemporary times. Pulled off by leading international relations think-tank, the Society for International Relations Awareness, SIRA, it had 67 embassies represented (most of them by their ambassadors), journalists and delegations of labour and youths in attendance. The turnout on Saturday, August 21, 2021, made the huge Rotunda Hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs look smaller.
The theme was: “Continuity and Change in Nigeria’s Foreign Policy under President Muhammadu Buhari.” Who was better placed to deliver the lecture than Professor Ibrahim Gambari, Chief of Staff to the President, intellectual, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and ex-Under Secretary-General of the United Nations for Political Affairs.
As President of SIRA, I had in my welcome address asked: “Nigeria from independence, walked the path of Pan-Africanism and the right of all peoples to self-determination; are we still on that track? In the mid-1980s, we joined the rest of Africa in granting recognition to Western Sahara as an independent country called the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR, is there continuity or change about that? There is a trending story that the Chairperson of the African Union Commission has received credentials from the Ambassador of Israel and granted that country observer status at the African Union. This of course, weakens Africa’s collective stance on the Palestinian People’s right to a homeland, their right to self-determination and a two-state solution wherein the Israelis and Palestinians will live in their independent and secured borders. Does this continue to be Nigeria’s policy?”
Professor Gambari’s submission is that Nigeria’s foreign policy is based on its continued survival, security and well-being, as well as regional, continental and universal peace and security and the principles of the UN Charter. He declared: “Notwithstanding the tortuous evolution of the political history of Nigeria since independence, her fundamental foreign policy objectives have not changed.”
He said while the country’s foreign policy in the past was easily understood by the citizenry because there was consensus around issues like decolonisation, Apartheid, promotion of African unity, integration and global peace: “Now these issues and other emerging ones are not that easy to understand nor contend with… With clarity and strategy, it is expected that the nation can be more proactive in her foreign policy pursuits which must now be country-specific, region-based and globally oriented.”
He said what has changed in the country and had negative impact on her foreign policy is the fight against terrorism and Boko Haram.
Professor Gambari listed some international successes under President Buhari including the reconstitution of the multinational Joint Force of the Lake Chad Basin Commission to fight insecurity, the re-election of Dr Akinwumi Adeshina as Africa Development Bank President and the choice of Ms Amina Mohammed as UN Deputy Secretary General. Others include the elections of Professor Tijani Bande as 2019 President of the UN General Assembly, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye as AU Commissioner, Political Affairs, Peace and Security; Professor Benedict Oramah as President of AFREXIM Bank; Mohammed Bakindo as Secretary General of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries; Chief Chile Ebeo-Osuji, as a judge of the International Criminal Court and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director General of the World Trade Organisation. He concluded that President Buhari’s leadership, has proven to be the single most important change-factor in Nigeria’s foreign policy.
The Special Guest of Honour, Geoffrey Onyeama, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who also delivered Professor Gambari’s lecture, while speaking personally, said when people ask him what is Nigeria’s foreign policy, he replies that it is difficult to answer because there are region-specifics, even individual-specifics. He gave the example of Gambia, a sisterly country he said Nigeria had decades of excellent relations but that all that changed in January 2017 with Nigeria having to dispatch troops to that country.
Salaheddine Abbas Ibrahima, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps said: “I am very happy representing all the diplomatic corps in Nigeria. This gives us an opportunity to know more about SIRA. The attendance today, a Saturday, shows our interest…SIRA deserves much praise looking at what it has done(it) is a very important think tank for diplomacy and the promotion of diplomacy.”
Rear Admiral Anthony Isa, former Commandant of the National Defence College, NDC said President Buhari has done well, especially in positioning Nigerians in high global seats but asked rhetorically if the country has strong internal mechanism to benefit from its international forays. The country he said, has wrong political direction especially with its politics run like a business in which people invest, and expect returns. The political parties he said are most of the time in court and wondered: “If they cannot manage themselves, how can they manage the country?” He argued: “If you want to manage change, you must have strong institutions.”
He regretted that a lot of energy in the diplomatic field has been exerted to get looted funds back. The Rear Admiral regretted that: “Our armed forces pledge allegiance to an individual in a Republic” rather than to the country.
Ms Julie G. Sanda, Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Strategic Research and Studies, NDC, pointed out that Nigeria was in the forefront of the Western Sahara struggles for self-determination and asked; what has changed, what has happened? Peace keeping she said, is a low hanging fruit that Nigeria should not let go.
In assessing President Buhari as the ‘Foreign-Policy-in-Chief’ of the country, Sanda pointed out that: “ The downside of it is: what is the relationship between the President and the Foreign Ministry? For continuity stake, we must have strong linkages.”
Joe Keshi, a highly cerebral and innovative ambassador who helped bring the conflict in Sierra Leone to an end, was chairman of the lecture. He regretted that not much history is being taught in schools, a situation that has had a negative impact on the country. He harped on the need for effective communication between the government and the people. He said if President Joe Biden addressed Americans twice in four days on a foreign relations matter, it means the administration wants the citizens to understand what is going on.
The Distinguished Guest of Honour, Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Ekiti State; Chairman, Nigeria Governors Forum and a veteran of the pro-democracy struggles, sent a goodwill message. Represented by the Director General of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Mr. Asishana Okaru, he presented SIRA’s 2021 book titled: “Multilateralism In The Contemporary World.”
Dr. Daniel Mann, the Resident Representative of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, FES, which helped to midwife SIRA eleven years ago, said the German foundation would continue to partner with SIRA to popularise foreign relations. So, Nigeria’s Foreign Policy remains unchanged.