In this interview, a former Minister of External Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, discusses with SAMSON FOLARIN issues surrounding Nigeria’s foreign policy, the 2014 National Conference and calls for restructuring
Nigeria is 60. How would you rate our progression in foreign policy?
It has not been a smooth progression. It started off on a conservative base. And that should not be surprising because the political foundation of the politics itself was conservative. You cannot have an activist-progressive foreign policy being pursued by a conservative government..
The (Tafawa) Balewa regime had its fulcrum resting on alliance of two political parties. The ideological inclination of the senior party, the Northern People’s Congress, was basically conservative. The fact that it was an alliance, rather than just one ruling party, meant that compromises would have to be made in defining national interest.
The coup of 1966 did not change the ideological disposition of Nigeria. The six months of (Aguiyi) Ironsi was not long enough for him to pursue a foreign policy. The earlier years of General (Yakubu) Gowon were consumed by the civil war. We could not be fighting a war and pursuing an activist foreign policy, so he did not want to rock the basis of the foreign support he had in fighting the civil war. When Murtala (Muhammed) got there in 1975, he was confronted with issues which gave him opportunities to be an activist.
However, let me quickly say that we often confuse activism with progressiveness. They are not the same. You can actually pursue an activist conservative foreign policy. In fact, that was what Balewa did on issues of pan-Africanism. He was determined to confront Nkrumah’s progressive foreign policy on pan-Africanism. Nkrumah wanted African unity and continental institutions that would reflect his pan-Africanism. Balewa was on functional pan-Africanism – Pan-Africanism that is based on consultation, loose definition of interest and cooperation, rather than unification. And to achieve that, he had to win other African countries from Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism. So, Balewa was active for a conservative cause.
Murtala Muhammed was active in pushing progressive stands on issues Nigeria was confronted with, such as the civil war in Angola. Gowon had embraced a policy that all the parties should form a national government. That was the policy he inherited. He jettisoned that policy based on his assessment that the radical NPLA party was going to be the inheritor of governance in Angola. So, he switched our foreign policy from adopting national unity to fully backing the NPLA not only verbally, but with resources. He also lobbied African countries sufficiently that he got a majority of them to support Nigeria’s recognition of the NPLA. That was activism and radicalism in foreign policy.
On the anti-apartheid front, Nigeria was active and progressive. There was no question of dialoging with the white regime in South Africa. It was fully backing the ANC, and there were things we did, like granting ANC activists and militants residency and scholarships in Nigeria, especially after the crackdown by the white government. They were encouraged to come to Nigeria and were admitted to our institutions. Thabo Mbeki lived in Nigeria for a considerable time; there were other activists and comrades who regarded Nigeria as home.
One of the things which we don’t even notice is that the Danshiki, which almost became the national dress of South Africa, is actually the Danshiki we wear in Nigeria. They became accustomed to wearing it from their stay here. That is an element of soft diplomacy. Till today, it’s still evident in South Africa.
The nationalisation of Shell by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, arising out of our conflict with Britain over the anti-Apartheid struggle, is an element of radical foreign policy. There was a slackening of that when Shehu Shagari came to power. He was cautious and conservative.
But when Muhmmadu Buhari came to power (through coup), the conservative leaning by Shagari was jettisoned for an activist policy and that was continued by Badamosi Babangida. And you could see that in our involvement in ECOMOG, Sierra Leone, etc.
Sani Abacha was confronted with the problem of the annulment of June 12. The negative reaction from the international community led to Nigeria being suspended from the Commonwealth. You cannot pursue an activist policy when you are involved in an existential struggle both domestically and internationally.
When we returned to civilian rule in 1999, Obasanjo had always been interested in a foreign policy and there is no doubt he pursued an activist policy. He travelled around a lot to get Nigeria readmitted into the international community and was active on the African scene.
Under Musa Yar’adua, unfortunately, his health did not permit him to indicate which way he would have gone. When Goodluck Jonathan took over, his administration suffered from the fact that governance at the national level was thrust on him; it was not something he was ready for. And to be honest, our foreign policy posture suffered from it. Like Balewa, he was not pushy; he was rather diffident and cautious; more of a status quo person.
Now, in Buhari’s earlier years, his ill health had negative repercussion on our foreign policy. But at the present, when you look at what he is doing on the African scene and international scene, we are starting to see a re-emergence of activism — the sponsorship of Nigerians into contesting for vacant posts internationally: Dr Akinwunmi Adeshina at the African Development Bank and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the job at the World Trade Organisation. He’s been quite active in ECOWAS activities, trying to resolve the conflict in Mali.
So, in your estimation, when did our image suffer the biggest dent on the international scene?
It must be under Abacha during the June 12 imbroglio; the reaction of the international community and the activities of NADECO and other pro-democracy movement all over the world. It was a difficult time. It was even more negative than the civil war years. During the civil war, Nigeria still had the support of the international community even though the activities of Biafra posed serious challenges to the role and position of Nigeria internationally. But what Nigeria faced during the civil war was nothing compared to what we faced under Abacha.
From the time of the civil war there has been increased call for breakups not only from Biafra, but also some other parts of the country. How does the international community perceive these agitations?
I don’t think that I can add anything substantial to what General Obasanjo, Professor (Wole) Soyinka, General (Alani) Akinrinade have said on the issue. I can add to what they said in identifying the fact that Nigeria’s existence is rather shaky and something needs to be done before it goes beyond a level where the agitations can be successfully contained.
I think that practically, all sections of the country are now calling for restructuring as a response to the grievances in the country. You are right that some are calling for secession and saying it is beyond repair. But I will say that most of the serious voices that we are having don’t think it has got to that stage that it will then topple over. But continuing to ignore the grievances, activities and issues of Boko Haram, herdsmen-farmers’ crises, kidnappings, among others, may pose an existential threat to Nigeria.
I don’t believe that it has got to the stage that the international community feels an engagement on their part is called for. Not yet. But they are keeping one eye open on what is happening in Nigeria and where Nigeria is headed. I believe that the more voices are raised and the increase in activities all over the country, then the one eye of the international community may become two eyes. And when that happens, I don’t think Nigeria wants to go through the experience of June 12 or the civil war again. And therefore, to me, the best thing is to dust out the resolutions of the 2014 National Conference. Embedded in that conference are the solutions to our problems.
When people say that the 1999 conference was bogus because Nigerians were not consulted and involved in drawing up other conferences; well, the 2014 National Conference had over 300 Nigerians from all sections of the country and we came up with over 600 resolutions, addressing almost every aspect of the grievances Nigerians have. Surely, out of the 600 resolutions, the government must find 200 or 300 resolutions that it likes.
You were one of the leaders of that conference. Was there a motive behind it? Any influence from the government of the day?
I think that trying to read a meaning to the motivation for the conference will not get us anywhere. I can swear on my mother’s grave in addition to swearing on the Bible or even Sango, that there was no attempt at all by the Jonathan government to play games with that conference. He never made any attempt to manipulate it. Not once did he get in touch with us to say, ‘This is the way to resolve this.’ And I know this because I was the deputy chairman of that conference. I was also involved in the planning from the beginning. I drew up the parameters for the conference. When he called me in about the conference, he was honourable. So, why allow things to go on day by day, voices getting louder when the solutions are there.
The voices calling for restructuring are not just from the South. (Attahiru) Jega, the former INEC chairman, has also come out to publicly endorse it. Those saying they don’t know what restructuring is all about should go to the 2014 conference. People want a situation where most of the powers are now divested to the states.
How would you interpret the cold attitude of the Buhari-led administration to the recommendations of the conference?
I really cannot understand the visceral antagonism by the Buhari administration to that conference. I don’t really know what is behind it. His visceral antagonism is deep-rooted. And it’s probably because of all these things floating around that Jonathan had an ulterior motive. I have addressed this issue based on my personal involvement and knowledge of that conference. If there was going to be any masterminding or manipulation, I would have known as the deputy chairman.
How do you react to the general declining image of the country with Nigerians being poorly treated in countries like Ghana. United Arab Emirates also stopped issuing Nigerians with visas recently.
The Nigerian government effectively handled the Dubai issue by not allowing the Emirates Airline to fly into Nigeria, and that is an indication that when government wants to act, it knows what to do. If you prevent my people from coming into your country, I will also stop your business interest, whether they your airline or your people. I think there was a time some countries were being funny by stopping Air Peace from coming into their countries to airlift Nigerians; they wanted the business to go to their airlines, and Nigeria warned that it would retaliate. So, I think when Nigeria wants to act, it knows what to do.
In the case of Ghana, under the ECOWAS treaty, there are certain business rights. But also remember that we shut our border for about one year now, which is against the treaty. And my understanding is that there are Ghanaian business interests that were affected. So, the doctrine of reciprocity is a two-way doctrine. You do me, I do you. It is a very useful instrument in foreign policy because government will do anything to you if they think they can ride roughshod over you and you will not retaliate.
The United Kingdom and the United States of America have been very vocal in our elections, including issuing visa bans on those alleged to have been involved in electoral violence. Are the interventions healthy for us or they are intrusions on our sovereignty?
There are two issues involved. It is in our interest to have a free, fair and violence-free election. It safeguards our stability. It’s part of the solid foundation on which Nigeria should be built.
However, just as the United States and the European Union are screaming that Russia is interfering in their electoral matters, it is also the same that interfering in our electoral matters can be harmful to our mutual relationship and I am not happy with that level of interference.
The critical thing is how you define interference. The fact is that given the shenanigans that we engage in our elections, monitoring our elections and expressing views as to the negative behaviour on our elections are within acceptable boundaries. Elections have become international matters. What Russia is doing is totally different. They are actually trying to influence the outcome of elections. Trying to influence the outcome of elections is not acceptable, whether it is done by Russia to the US or by the US and Europe towards Nigeria or Africa; it is totally unacceptable. But encouraging free and transparent elections, encouraging peaceful conducts of elections, to me, are within acceptable boundaries.
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