Nigeria’s New Foreign Policy Thrust Under Acid Test
The deportation of 125 Nigerians from South Africa recently has thrown a serious challenge to the neo-foreign policy of the current administration
By Chukwudi OHIRI
Nigeria’s neo-foreign policy under President Goodluck Jonathan which, apart from emphasizing the need for holding national interest paramount in her international relations, also has the Principle of Reciprocity as a cardinal feature, came under severe test a couple of weeks ago following the deportation of 125 Nigerians by South African authorities.
In 2001, a similar scenario almost played itself out, but for the timely intervention of the Nigerian Embassy in South Africa. The then Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Kema Chikwe, was held hostage by the South African Port Health which insisted that Chikwe must be vaccinated and quarantined, but the former Minister resisted that.
Only recently again, South Africa deported 125 Nigerians who landed at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport aboard a South African Airways (SAA) flight and an Arik Air flight from Nigeria. According to South African health authorities, those passengers carried fraudulent yellow fever cards.
In a swift reaction to the perceived unfair treatment, authorities at Nigeria’s Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, also deported over 80 South Africans in batches under the same pretext of possessing invalid travel documents as well as vaccination cards – as though in line with the new principle of reciprocity now being canvassed by Nigerian foreign policy-makers.
Under this policy, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, explained: “The way you treat me is the way I will treat you. If you treat my people with dignity, I will treat your people with dignity. If you treat our own people anyhow, we will do the same thing to you.” Furthermore, he said: “When you deport two Nigerians from your country on flimsy excuses, there will be appropriate reaction. It will not be retaliation but you will know that we are reciprocating one way or the other…. South African immigration authorities or officials do not have a monopoly of deporting travellers.”
Nigeria’s foreign policy, like every other country’s, is a continuation of its domestic policy. The basic consideration for the foreign policy should be to encapsulate what are considered to be of national interest as a basis for relating with other nations, regions, and groups within the international community.
On August 20, 1960, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in a speech at the Federal House of Representatives, reeled out what later constituted the general principle of our post- independence foreign policy to include non-alignment and Afro-centrism. At that forum, he said the foreign policy would be founded on Nigeria’s interest: the nation will not align with any power block and will remain on friendly terms with every nation which recognizes and respects its sovereignty. The policy at independence was vehemently against colonialism and neo-colonialism. In sum, Abubakar’s policy was based on co-operation and morality and on the doctrine of universal benevolence. This trend did not differ in any significant way with successive administrations except for the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed who did not live long enough to fully chart the new course he intended.
Analysts are of the consensus view that the foreign policy of the immediate post-independence era served the need of that time. Nigeria’s post independence foreign policy was considered to be more conciliatory and moralistic than realistic and so needed to be reappraised to bring it to terms with current realities.
In calling for a total review and overhaul of the foreign policy, President Jonathan noted that there are new realities in international relations. According to him, the whole of Africa has been liberated from the vestiges of colonialism. The Cold War between the Eastern socialist bloc and the Western capitalist bloc no longer exists. The world is faced with new realities: the challenges of poverty, civil war, terrorism, environmental degradation, threat of nuclear war, and so on. To be relevant, the focus of our foreign policy should stand on two principles, viz: the principle of reciprocity and economic diplomacy. He opined that no nation assists another without strings attached.
With these outlines, a new course in Nigeria’s foreign policy was charted. To reaffirm this position, Ambassador Ashiru told members of the diplomatic corps serving in Nigeria during his maiden meeting with them sometime ago that Nigeria was redefining its foreign policy thrust in line with current realities. “We are redefining our foreign policy to aid infrastructural development, industrialisation, food security, and co-prosperity. We are now sensibly looking into how the organised private sector (OPS) will take its pivotal position in this drive. Our missions abroad have been instructed appropriately in this regard and we expect Your Excellencies to join hands in partnership with us, to look at opportunities of trade missions, to bring in trade delegations, and to send factual dispatches back home to enhance our relations,” he stated.
The recent diplomatic row between Nigeria and South Africa provided a major litmus test for this new foreign policy, most especially the ‘Principle of Reciprocity’. For many observers, Nigeria demonstrated its readiness to protect the interest of its nationals across the globe by not just reciprocating the ill-treatment meted on those Nigerians, but also impressing it upon South Africa that it must apologize unreservedly, pay compensation to victims, discipline the South African port officials that perpetrated the inhuman act, as well as review the yellow card policy viz-a-viz the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) had certified Nigeria yellow fever-free. This feat is seen as a good political point for Nigeria’s diplomatic image. It is also a positive signal to other countries that have demonstrated xenophobia for Nigerian nationals that it is no longer business as usual.
Before the apologies from South African government, which came almost immediately, many Nigerians – groups and individuals alike – had called on the Federal Government to display astuteness in reciprocating the unfortunate act by South African authorities. Among them was the National Publicity Secretary of Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, Engr. Rotimi Fashakin, who insisted that “it is vitally important that intending South African visitors to Nigeria should henceforth be certified free from the prevalent diseases in South Africa like HIV and Tuberculosis”. Fashakin further demanded that “part of the mutually agreed settlement of this furore” will be the insistence of the Federal Government that “South African authority must adequately compensate these traumatized Nigerians that have been so shabbily treated”.
On its part, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), speaking through its leader, Dr. Is-haq Akintola, stated that “Nigeria must report South Africa to the African Union and finally to the International Court of Justice; Nigerian citizens must show solidarity to the 125 victims of South African inhumanity by boycotting South African goods and services like MTN and DSTV” if South Africa failed to apologize.
Although South Africa had tendered the demanded apologies without reservations, pundits are of the view that the saga portends “another sign of Nigeria’s fading glory” if a country like South Africa could as much as treat Nigeria in such a shabby manner without recourse to its bilateral affinities dating back to the apartheid era where Nigeria spearheaded the fight against colonialism and racism in South Africa.
Again, observers are of the view that on comparative loss or advantage, while Nigeria has more immigrants in South Africa owing to bad governance, unemployment, poor infrastructure, and other negative vices, South Africa has far less immigrants in Nigeria. This index is a food for thought for the Nigerian government, which must do everything to ensure that north, south, east or west, there’s no place like home. What if South Africa had remained adamant and decided to repatriate more and more Nigerians, who, comparatively, would be at a greater loss?
But the ill-treatment of Nigerians by foreign governments did not start today. Right from the 1980s when the Nigerian economy began its plunge, Nigerian nationals began to seek greener pastures elsewhere abroad. Then followed the disdainful treatment from their host countries.
Before this time, and when the Nigerian economy was still booming, Nigerians obtained visas to any country with ease. And in those countries – be they in Europe, America or elsewhere – Nigerians were treated with dignity and courtesy. But all that is now history.
These days, from the point of visa procurement at various embassies in Nigeria to the point of entry into the destination country, Nigerians suffer horrifying humiliation. Even when they finally make it to those countries, they continue to live in fear and self-reproach as they are accorded little or no respect just for being Nigerians.
While applauding the present efforts of the Nigerian government to protect its citizens, it must be made clear these measures only scratch the surface of the main problem. The pertinent questions – like: What went wrong; and why have Nigerians become sojourners and, consequently, victims of inhuman treatments by foreign countries when Nigeria used to be the toast and delight of the outside world? – must be asked. That is the only way to get to the root of the matter. For, as long as the Nigerian economy remains decadent; as long as access to the very basic things of life – food, water, a roof over the head, means of livelihood, and security of life and of property – continue to elude Nigerians, able-bodied men and women, intellectuals, skilled professionals, and otherwise productive labour force will continue to seek greener pastures abroad. The Federal Government can save itself and the entire nation the embarrassment by tackling these integral causes of the ailment headlong.
The second point of President Jonathan’s neo-foreign policy thrust which hinges on ‘economic diplomacy’ is quite laudable, but Nigeria needs to move away from mere rhetoric. We need a more proactive, original, practical, creative and implementable policy that will put the Nigerian economy back on track as soon as possible. This will further reduce the ever growing urge of average Nigerians to emigrate. Those in the Diaspora would willingly begin to think home. The fact that Nigerians are ill-treated abroad; the fact that Nigerians can be killed in foreign lands with impunity and no one seems to care; the fact that our diplomats suffer humiliation abroad for lack of adequate resources to run their commissions or embassies; the fact that our international passport can be so easily acquired by foreign nationals; among other ills, are but pointers to the fact that Nigeria as a nation is diminishing in stature and status in comity of nations. That is why foreigners are courageous enough to spit Nigeria in the face without qualms.
As it is said, if one fails to take what rightly belongs to him, nobody would willingly give him what he deserves. Nigeria needs to earn its respect in the international community rather than commandeer it. The indices for earning this respect include the aggregate quality of life of Nigerian citizens and the quality of the country’s leadership. Physical size, population strength or latent potentials do not count in determining how respectable a nation can be if such indicators are not put to good use and if such do not reflect in the total well-being of its citizens.
The face-off between Nigeria and South Africa may have been doused, but whether or not Nigeria has learnt any lessons from the incident will be seen from what the president does in the coming months towards entrenching a sound political, economic and social system in the country – all geared towards the overall well-being of Nigerian citizens.