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Nigeria’s foreign policy detour is undercutting regional integration in West Africa

It is not in Nigeria’s national interest to be in open hostility with its closest neighbours

On 27 January 2024, the Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced their withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—the regional economic bloc in West Africa. The announcement came as a sequel to the Liptako-Gourma tri-border mutual defence pact which gave rise to the Alliance of Sahel States in mid-September 2023. This defence pact was a reaction to the hostile and belligerent stance of the ECOWAS against the new leaders of these three countries. Given the influence of Nigeria within the ECOWAS, and its ideological shift from its historical pursuit of Afrocentrism and the promotion of good neighbourliness to President Bola Tinubu’s foreign policy stance of Four Ds—Democracy, Development, Demography and Diaspora, it is becoming increasingly clear that the liberal crusade of President Tinubu’s foreign policy stance as a pathway to peace and stability in Africa is counterproductive to regional integration on the continent.


Nigeria’s Afrocentric foreign policy


Encompassing a series of locally inspired demands which a state makes on other states and the responses the state offers to the demands from other states, foreign policy usually presents a means of protecting and advancing the national interest of a state in its transaction with other states in the global arena. As articulated in Section 19 (a-e) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended), Nigeria’s foreign policy objectives include a) the promotion and protection of national interest, b) the promotion of African integration and support for African unity, c) the promotion of international cooperation for the consolidation of universal peace and mutual respect among all nations and elimination of discrimination in all its manifestations, and d) respect for international law and treaty obligations as well as the settlement of international disputes by negotiation, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and adjudication. These constitutional provisions clearly show the foundational basis and justification for Nigeria’s longstanding adoption of Africa as the centrepiece of its foreign policy. Hence, it is not surprising that Nigeria’s foreign policy stance has never shifted significantly from its Afrocentric and good neighbourliness posturing since independence in October 1960.

For instance, Nigeria’s historical commitment to the pursuit of African unity, integration and good neighbourliness informed its leading role in the ECOWAS interventions in the political uprisings in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau in the 1990s. Nigeria being the heart and soul of the ECOWAS, the restoration of political order in these countries came at a very huge human and financial cost to the country. The available report shows that Nigeria not only spent no fewer than US$8 billion during ECOWAS’s seven-year peacekeeping operation in Liberia and Sierra Leone but also lost at least 500 soldiers, with several hundreds of soldiers and civilian workers left wounded or missing.

Further, Nigeria was among the leading supporters of anti-apartheid movements in Southern Africa. As a way of giving effect to the doctrine of ‘No Compromise with Apartheid’ in South Africa, the country provided both financial and material support to anti-apartheid movements, particularly the African National Congress, during the heydays of the apartheid regime in Southern Africa. As of 1994 when the apartheid regime ended in South Africa, Nigeria had reportedly spent an estimated whopping US$61 billion on the anti-apartheid liberation movement. Also, the Nigerian High Commission in Botswana granted 300 Nigerian passports to black South Africans who were denied travel privileges by the apartheid regime. Apart from being a member of the Frontline States, Nigeria also played a pioneering role in the establishment of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid in 1963, which it headed for many years, overseeing the enforcement of global sanctions against the apartheid regime. Besides these diplomatic efforts by the Nigerian government, ordinary Nigerian students and civil servants responded to the 1976 SOWETO uprising by contributing money towards the education of black South Africans. Nigeria also played a very prominent role in the founding of the African Union which was officially launched in 2002 as a successor to the defunct Organisation of African Unity. The list goes on!

More fundamentally, Nigeria has remained steadfast in its commitment to the promotion of the ethos of good neighbourliness within the West African sub-region. Apart from hosting the ECOWAS headquarters, Nigeria remains the major financier of the Community; it bore 40.9 per cent of the total ECOWAS expenditure between 2003 and 2015. According to Hon. Awajim Abiante, a Nigerian lawmaker and ECOWAS parliamentarian, Nigeria contributed more than US$1.177 billion to the ECOWAS as its Community levy within the past 16 years. Also, Nigeria is largely responsible for power and gas supply, medical interventions and other technical supports through the instrumentality of the Technical Aid Corps, as well as peacekeeping operations in some ECOWAS member-states, including the Gambia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, and Liberia.

Nigeria’s historical Afrocentric and good neighbourliness posturing witnessed contemporary resonance during the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Indeed, the deeply entrenched socio-cultural affinity between Nigeria and other West African countries tends to render their territorial and jurisdictional boundaries more artificial than real. Under President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger Republic, for instance, top Nigerian government officials and moguls were not only recognised by the Nigerien government but also a boulevard was named after President Buhari of Nigeria in Niger Republic. Within the same period, Niger also received financial donations from the Nigerian government, including a whopping ₦1.2 billion approved by President Buhari for the purchase of vehicles for Niger’s high-ranking government officials in August 2022. Earlier in 2021, President Buhari flagged off a US$2 billion railway project from Kano State (Nigeria) to Maradi town in Niger Republic. These are some unmistakable ways through which Nigeria’s good neighbourliness and Afrocentric foreign policy posturing have found expression.


Why President Tinubu’s Four-D foreign policy stance is hurting Africa’s unity


Also known as the Tinubu doctrine, the Four-D foreign policy posture of President Bola Tinubu is designed to uphold democratic values, harness demographic potential, stimulate economic development, and prioritise the wellbeing of Nigeria’s diaspora community. Apparently, President Tinubu’s government considers the pursuit of Nigeria’s foreign policy through the lens of the 4-Ds essential for the organisation and conduct of international politics and diplomacy in an increasingly globalising and competitive world. Hence, the 4-Ds hold significant import in appreciating Nigeria’s foreign policy direction within the ECOWAS region and beyond. However, the liberal democratic credentials of the Tinubu doctrine are not only inconsistent with the fundamental ethos and objectives of Nigeria’s foreign policy as enshrined in the 1999 constitution but also threaten the country’s historical pursuit of African unity and integration.

First, it is not in Nigeria’s national interest to be in open hostility with its closest neighbours because of President Tinubu’s perception of ‘democracy’ as the only pathway to enhanced peace and stability in Africa. Indeed, the pursuits of peace and stability on the one hand and liberal democracy on the other hand are not necessarily mutually inclusive. While not supporting unconstitutional change of governments, it is important to emphasise that foreign policies are designed to mirror the existential economic necessities of the local environment and project them to the international community; they are not designed to meddle in the prevailing internal governance structure of a sovereign state. Even the United States which is widely perceived as the birthplace of liberal democracy in the world maintains very close political, diplomatic and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, despite the latter’s radically different political system.

Second, Nigeria’s foreign policy detour under President Tinubu’s government is largely informed by the promptings of Euro-American authorities. Given the credibility deficit that characterised the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria and President Tinubu’s desperate search for international validation, it is not utterly surprising that his leadership of ECOWAS is being instrumentalised to advance the vested interests of the Western powers in the region. Indeed, the Alliance of Sahel States, among others, attributed their withdrawal from the Community to the betrayal of its founding principles under external influence. The overwhelming foreign influence which ECOWAS has come under lately is enabled by Tinubu’s quest for international legitimacy which has increased his vulnerability to the manipulation of the Euro-Americans, who are hell-bent on sustaining their neocolonial agenda in West Africa. Hence, it goes without saying that President Tinubu-ECOWAS sanctions against the West African states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger as well as Nigeria’s ill-advised decision to cut electricity supply to Niger are driven by political expediency rather than considerations for larger continental and regional unity and integration.

Further, Nigeria’s foreign policy detour is undermining the principle and practice of collective security within the Sahel belt and the Lake Chad area. This area is widely associated with various kinds of transnational organised criminal activities, including terrorism and violent extremism, banditry, piracy, drug trafficking, human trafficking, small arms and light weapons proliferation, money laundering, and so on. Among others, countering Boko Haram and the Islamic State terrorist activities has gained immensely from the operations of the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad area. However, given the withdrawal of the Alliance of Sahel States from the ECOWAS due to the Community’s punitive actions, these illicit activities which require the transnational cooperation and response of the ECOWAS member-states to deal with, will likely fester further.

Lastly, the Nigerian diaspora communities in those countries which have suffered President Tinubu-ECOWAS sledgehammer can hardly thrive, despite the expectations of the 4-Ds foreign policy initiative regarding their wellbeing. Of particular concern is the security of Nigerian refugees in Niger and other neighbouring countries, a factor which has hardly, if ever, featured in the design and implementation of President Tinubu’s diaspora component of the 4-Ds. This suggests that the welfare of Nigerians and their diaspora community cannot be effectively prioritised in a foreign policy environment in which the president’s narrow definition of democracy pits Nigeria against its neighbours.

Nigeria’s foreign policy direction of the current government should be recalibrated to advance Africa’s unity, cooperation and integration in conformity with the country’s grundnorm.

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