FEATURED | A Review on Nigeria's Foreign Policy

FEATURED | A Review on Nigeria's Foreign Policy

By Oluyemi O. Fayomi, Felix C. Chidozie, Lady A. Ajayi


A review of Nigeria’s foreign policy positions over the years does point up a number of philosophical-conceptual building blocks which are strongly related to the state of the international environment. Within the context of decolonization, “self-determination and self-government” were core philosophical principles that informed the country’s foreign policy. 

FEATURED | A Review on Nigeria's Foreign Policy

As the country matured as an independent and sovereign nation, other philosophical principles that became part of Nigeria’s foreign policy fundamentals are enlightened national interest, African solidarity, interdependence, internationalism, asymmetric world order and supranational authority (Ogwu, 2005: p. 7) .

Indeed, Chapter 2, Section 19 of the 1999 Constitution, which is the fundamental objectives and directive principles as provided in Section 19 (a-e) encapsulates the Nigeria’s foreign policy objectives to include: (a) promotion and protection of the national interest; (b) promotion of African integration and support for African unity; (c) promotion of international cooperation for the consolidation of universal peace and mutual respect among all nations, and elimination of discrimination in all its manifestations; (d) respect for international law and treaty obligations as well as the seeking of settlement of international disputes by negotiation, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and adjudication; and (e) promotion of a just world order (1999 Constitution of the FGN;Akindele, 2013: p. 13; Saliu, 2013: p. 171 ).

To be sure, it is generally asserted that there has been continuity in the substantive content or focus, meaning the principal objectives of Nigeria’s foreign policy, since independence (Akinyemi, 1989; Akindele, 1990; Isah, 1991; Akinboye, 1993; Gambari, 1986; Saliu, 1999; Obiozor, 2007;Ayam, 2010; Akinboye, 2013) . It is further stated that whatever difference there is or has been, is, by and large, a matter of style, emphasis, personality, institutional reform, and historical circumstances within and outside Nigeria. Solomon Akinboye boldly reaffirms the above submission, thus:

It is very clear that there is continuity across regimes in spite of changes in the pursuit of national interest. There is constancy in Nigeria’s foreign policy objectives and foreign relations from the civilian regime of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to President Goodluck Jonathan(Akinboye, 2013: p. 13) .

The pursuit of Nigerian foreign policy began in earnest after the attainment of independence in October 1, 1960. In the foreign policy statements made in August and December 1960 respectively, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa, outlined some objectives of the country’s foreign policy. These objectives or goals of the Nigerian foreign policy have consistently been maintained despite numerous changes in government. At independence, the country’s foreign policy sought to achieve the following objectives: promotion of the economic well-being of Nigerians and Africans; promotion of Nigeria’s territorial integrity; eradication of all forms of racism and colonialism from African continent; protection of the rights of black men all over the world; and promotion of international peace and security (Ogwu, 1986: p. 8; Olusanya & Akindele, 1986: pp. 3-5) .

However, the philosophical foundation of Nigeria’s foreign policy in the first republic was not unconnected to the country’s colonial experience, the nature and structure of the world system, and the vocabulary of politics. It is the combination of these interrelated factors that provides the sources of the philosophical foundations of the country’s foreign policy, at a time when the anti-colonial struggle and the crisis of collective racial identity of colonized peoples were critical issues in world politics (Jinadu, 2005) .

Despite these lofty aspirations, Nigeria’s foreign policy in the First Republic has often been generally described as timid, docile, ambivalent, dissonant, indecisive and inert (Akinboye, 2013: p. 5) . The colonial legacy which restricted the policy options of the immediate post-independence leaders, the relative poverty of the country at the time, the lack of experience in international affairs, the conservative outlook of the prime minister Tafawa Balewa and other members of his cabinet, and serious domestic divisions which led the regions to open different consulates abroad are some of the reasons that have been advanced for the low-profile foreign policy (Idang, 1973; Aluko, 1981;Osaghae, 2002) .

The brief interregnum that ushered in the administration of General Aguiyi Ironsi, following the Nigerian military coup of January 15, 1966, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, saw his government pursue essentially the same objectives that characterized Nigeria’s foreign policy from independence(Ademoyega, 1981) . This was based on General Ironsi’s world view and perception of the hierarchy of Nigeria’s interests, in relation to the concepts of solidarity and national interest as the philosophical building blocks of Nigeria’s foreign policy. In all, it can be argued that the timid and moderate foreign policy that had become the hallmark of Balewa’s regime equally persisted under Ironsi’s regime. Consequently, three main factors led to Nigeria’s shift away from a “moderate” and timid foreign policy during the 1960s to a relatively more activist and influential role during the 1970s.

First, the post-civil war military governments of Generals Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed and Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded in dramatically and effectively redressing the balance of power in favour of the central government in relation to Nigeria’s regions and states; second, the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70 marked a watershed in the country’s foreign policy; third, and perhaps most importantly, the increasing wealth from oil revenues and membership of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries provided Nigeria with the resources to pursue an activist foreign policy (Aluko, 1971; Nwolise, 1989; Akinterinwa, 1999; Gambari, 2008: p. 64) . Much has been written in the scholarly circles about the 1970s being the “golden era” of Nigeria’s foreign policy(Garba, 1987; Fawole, 2003; Saliu, 2006a).

However, the contradictions in Nigeria’s foreign policy remained evident in the 1970s despite the zest and tempo that characterized it. In retrospect, Garba (1987) had argued that the Angolan policy of General Mohammed’s administration which made Nigeria to collide with the USA was a barren adventure. He attributed this to the attitude of Popular Movement for the Peoples’ Liberation of Angola (MPLA) leaders who only saw Nigeria in the light of “Naira-spraying diplomacy”, and never showed any commitment on their part to reciprocate Nigeria’s role in the independence of their country. Garba (1987: pp. 26-27) , puts it succinctly:

...at the first appearance of the MPLA Government at the OAU summit in Mauritius in July 1976, Nigeria’s name was conspicuously absent from the list of countries to which they publicly paid tribute for assistance in achieving their independence (Garba, 1987: p. 26) .

Again, Garba (1987: p. 27) regretted:

The Prime Minister (Lopo do Nasimento of the MPLA) was very soft-spoken, but he was profuse in his expression of gratitude, and our subsequent conversation was full of the promise of intimate cooperation between our countries, a promise which... they never fulfilled (Garba, 1987: p. 27) .

Saliu (2006a: p. 211) however, argued that Nigeria’s African policy has always lacked the standard requirement which is reciprocity, which appears to be a recurring phenomenon in her diplomatic practice. According to him, the dictates of the global system frown at giving without anything in return. He stressed that assistance is rendered without any visible reference to either the short or long term interests of Nigeria. Thus, the recipient nations do not know how to behave to meet the country’s expectations afterwards. This, he concluded is interpreted to mean a show of ingratitude to Nigeria.

The next phase in the development of Nigeria’s foreign policy started in 1979, with the return to civilian rule under the Presidency of Shehu Shagari. Shagari came to power after an election that had seen no significant debate on foreign policy issues (Chidozie, 2014: p. 183) . The presidential candidates were well aware that the overwhelming majority of Nigeria’s electorates generally had little interest in foreign policy. The outcome was a lack of well articulated foreign policy for the country right from the out-set of the Second Republic. In essence, in the sphere of foreign policy, the main challenge remained how to revive and sustain the momentum of the Murtala/Obasanjo era, which continued to enjoy the support of the informed public (Ogwu, 1986: p. 56; Otubanjo, 1989) .

There was a paradox that characterized Nigeria’s foreign policy at this phase. It concerned the fact that the Nigeria’s oil wealth and the technology that produced it came from the West, and her national power was anchored in Africa, while seeking at the same time to borrow models of social and national emancipation from the East. Gambari puts it very clearly:

How could Nigeria’s civilian regime be economically dependent on the West on the one hand, while looking (vaguely, and without deep conviction or sustained effort) to the Eastern bloc for models of social and national liberation on the other, and yet continue to walk in the ideological non-alignment middle? (Gambari, 2008: p. 67)

Again, Nigeria’s leadership in African affairs was seriously eroded as the country vacillated on issues such as Western Sahara, Chad and Namibia. As a result of these Afro-centric policy inconsistencies, coupled with crippling domestic challenges, Nigeria’s neighbours had scant respect for the country, and some of them such as Cameroun and Chad, even crossed into Nigerian territory and attacked and killed its civilians and soldiers with impunity. Indeed, smaller neighbours disrespected Nigeria, using its borders for illegal smuggling and bunkering along with Nigerian partners, violated its territorial integrity and disregarded any threat or warning from the Nigerian authorities (Osaghae, 2002; Fawole, 2008; Osuntokun, 2008; Folarin, 2010; Akinboye, 2013) .

General Buhari which came to power in 1983 strove to give clearer form to the country’s foreign policy orientation. Africa was to constitute the area of primary concern to the country. It was also emphasized that Nigeria’s national security and economic wellbeing would constitute the axis around which revolved its foreign policy, with a promise to put on a more constructive footing in relation with Nigeria’s immediate neighbours. The Buhari administration believed that the old conception of Africa being the policy center-piece would be properly defined (Gambari, 1986: p. 74, cited in Folarin, 2010) .

However, the articulation of Nigeria’s foreign policy under Buhari’s regime to accommodate “good neighbourliness” became an issue of serious concern in literatures. In essence, under Buhari’s regime, relations with member-states of the sub-regional body, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reached an all time low. Not only were the nation’s borders permanently closed against its neighbours, thus badly hurting their economies, the regime did not heed all the appeals for them to be re-opened (Akinrinade, 1992; Fawole, 2002: p. 21; Adeniji, 2003, 2004;Akinboye, 2013: p. 33) . The position of the Buhari regime’s foreign policy towards its neighbours has been justified in literature as premised on the basic rationale behind the coup itself, which was to arrest the country’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation, eliminate corruption and improve the well being of the generality of Nigerians (Osaghae, 2002; Folarin, 2010) .

The General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida regime was the sixth military rulership in Nigeria. He shot himself to power after sacking the regime of his former boss, General Muhammadu Buhari on August 27, 1985, and thereafter declared himself “Military President”, thus becoming the first Military President in Africa and probably the world (Folarin, 2010: p. 253) . Babangida had demonstrated his dissatisfaction and disaffection with his predecessor’s policies, especially in the external context which he felt was not in tune with the expectations of the international community. Thus, in the area of foreign policy he registered non-mistaken doubt and what he considered as inconsistencies with the country’s founding philosophy. According to Babangida,

Nigeria’s foreign policy was characterized by inconsistency and incoherence. It lacked the clarity to make us know where we stood in matters of international concern to enable other countries relate to us with seriousness. Our external relations have been conducted by a policy of retaliatory reactions (cited in Saliu, 2006a: p. 297 ).

Therefore, the regime of Babangida set out early to repair the damages done to Nigeria’s foreign policy by the Buhari administration. Both the IMF loan stalemate and the frosty relations with the West were quickly resolved. Nigeria soon resumed its diplomatic relations with Britain. In the same spirit, the closure of Nigeria’s borders with her neighbours together with the vexing issue of illegal aliens, which had converged to worsen relations between Nigeria and her neighbours were astutely reversed to the admiration of West African countries (Saliu, 2006a) , culminating in the provision of economic assistance to these countries, which won him the Chairmanship of ECOWAS for three consecutive terms (Adeniji, 2005: p. 6) .

In essence, this era, not only marked a high point of the country’s rising international profile, it also conferred commensurate prestige to Nigeria in her foreign policy. Saliu (2006) attributed the success of Babangida’s foreign policy initiatives to the crop of intellectuals whom he assembled as members of his “kitchen cabinet”. Among them were personalities such as Elaigwu, Obiozor, Ofoegbu, Akinyemi, Chime, Olagunju, Oyovbaire, Ogunsanwo, Oshuntokun, among others. Despite the remarkable contributions to Nigeria’s foreign policy by these intellectual giants, Osaghae (2002)argued that the foreign policy arena under Babangida nonetheless, suffered great confusion and incoherence resulting in the arbitrary change in the ministers of external affairs.

This confusion was greatly reflected in the regime’s bid to elevate religion as a conscious guide to Nigeria’s foreign policy. This was demonstrated by the circumstances that surrounded Nigeria’s membership of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1987. The regime decided to change Nigeria’s status from that of an observer status to a full-fledged member without due consideration of both domestic and international concerns. The direct result of this was a serious and lasting dent on the regime’s credibility. For instance, Fawole (2012: p. 156) argued that the decision by Babangida to make Nigeria a full member of a largely Islamic grouping of states generated considerable opposition at home and remains one of the most highly contentious and unresolved issues in the country till date. It was all the more so, with the unending transition programme of the administration that permanently eroded the gains made at the external context(Olukoshi & Agbu, 1995; Akinboye, 2013: p. 34) 
.
This deliberate subversion of its own transition programme by the government became evident when the June 12 1993 presidential election was annulled. The emergence of Abacha administration in Nigeria on 17 November 1993 could be traceable to the annulment of June 12, 1993 election, adjudged to be the “freest and fairest”, by the Babangida regime. The political instability that arose from the incident made the military believe Nigeria needed a more “radical” approach to reverse the dangerous political trend in the country (Saliu, 2006a) .

Indeed, radical and combative approach to foreign policy became almost synonymous with the Abacha regime, prompting Fawole (2002) to describe it as the most combative and defensive foreign policy in Nigeria’s history. For Abacha, his recognition meant “an eye for an eye” approach to international relations (The Guardian, 1998), which prompted him to employ an “area boy” diplomatic style to survive the hostile domestic and international environment into which his regime was born. This explains the uncoordinated approach and misunderstanding of the international environment that occasioned the regime’s approach to foreign policy.

It is important to mention that Abacha’s adamant nationalism and autonomy consciousness which, led to the abrogation of liberalization policies and a sustained anti-Western stance on many issues, reinforced this hostility. Accordingly, the United States and other Western powers actively encouraged and supported opposition groups in the country as well as those based abroad, and on some occasions, issued statements which amounted to gross interference in the country’s internal affairs (Osaghae, 2002: p. 309) . This reached its height with the formation of National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) in May, 1994, a loose coalition of old and new-breed “progressives” mostly from the South-West of the country, which consistently promoted and fuelled anti-Abacha sentiment abroad (Zabadi, 2004) .

However, some scholars have argued that Nigeria’s foreign policy under Abacha revealed that the military administration, in its own way, conducted the country’s foreign policy to an arguably level of delivery (Lipede & Adelusi, 1995; Onadipe, 1997; Useni, 1997; Saliu, 2006a) . This was evident in its ability to create policy confusion in the West; the latter did not know how to relate with the Nigerian administration. Its purported deft steps at shifting significantly to Asia and having political romance with some anti-Western countries in the world could be accepted as tangible achievements of the regime (Saliu, 2006a) . But given Nigeria’s potentials and against the background of her past external involvement, these achievements are easily dismissible. In all, Abacha’s administration of Nigeria’s foreign policy could be said to be circumstantial. The regime was born when the domestic environment had been polarized, no less the external environment. Thus, the argument that “Nigeria’s foreign policy under the regime was to respond to the pressure from abroad and not to exert pressure abroad” becomes tenable (Olukoya, 1996: p. 30) .

Following General Abacha’s sudden death in June 1998, General Abdul salaam Abubakar, his successor, initiated a transition programme (ten months programme) that resulted in the coming of power of President Olusegun Obasanjo on 29 May, 1999. Indeed, the post-cold war international environment that characterized President Obasanjo’s accession to power in May, 1999 required new approach to Nigeria’s foreign policy. To be sure, the international security environment had altered significantly for Nigeria at this period, with the emergence of multivariate level of threats to the task of nation building. This period was marked fundamentally with the linkage of domestic issues with international relations and the gradual erosion of the concept of absolutist sovereignty (Ayam, 2004; Dokubo, 2010; Alao, 2011) .

As a matter of fact, the ‘concentric rings’ of Nigeria’s foreign policy priorities which relegated the global societies to the fourth level, indicating that national, sub-regional, and regional concerns should precede the international agenda was fast losing its relevance (Magbadelo, 2007). Abiodun Alao puts it succinctly:

This new era of foreign policy differed from the preceding period in Nigeria’s diplomacy, in which it had always prioritized sub-regional and continental interest. The relative stability along these fronts enabled the country to strike a better balance between external policies and domestic interests. This was especially important because many Nigerians believed that the country had little to show for the generosity and sacrifices it had made in regional and continental diplomacy. Many also felt that Nigeria should replace its past practice of confronting major powers in the pursuit of an African-centred agenda with a new practice that better suited Nigeria’s national interests (Alao, 2011: p. 7) .

Akinterinwa (2004) argued that, with the emergence of President Obasanjo in 1999, there was a paradigm shift from an African-centered, to a global-focused, foreign policy. According to him, Nigeria’s foreign policy still remained essentially Africa-focused at the political level while it was global-centered at the economic level. The poor situation of the Nigerian economy inherited by Obasanjo, coupled with political vulnerability at the time, demanded new tactics and strategies, and indeed, prompted the need to focus greater attention on extra-African actors, without necessarily implying any form of neglect of Africa. Thus, Nigeria emphasised the economic factor to the detriment of political considerations. This dramatic shift was explicated by President Obasanjo, that Nigeria’s foreign policy interests extend:

beyond our concern for the wellbeing of our continent. The debt burden is not an exclusively African predicament. Many countries in Asia, the Caribbean and South America are facing similar problems with it. It is imperative therefore that the countries of these regions harmonize their efforts in their search for a fairer deal from the industrialized nations of the world and this requires of us a more global approach to world affairs than was previously the case (cited in Akinterinwa, 2004: p. 445 ).

Additionally, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, Obasanjo’s Foreign Affairs Minister (2003-2006), expounded on this shift in Nigeria’s foreign policy thrust from the original “cornerstone” and “centre-piece” trajectory that had informed it since independence. He argued that Nigeria’s foreign policy direction had to lead to where there are development funds and technical assistance, particularly in the light of the weakness in intra-African cooperation, crisis and conflicts in Africa, as well as Africa’s inability to bail Nigeria out of her economic doldrums. He submitted that Africa as cornerstone of Nigeria’s foreign policy was geo-culturally and proximity factor-in- duced, while the global setting was issue- and economic reality-compelled (Adeniji, 2003) . Again Alao puts it this way:

A number of major trends are clearly discernible in Nigeria’s foreign policy since 1999. Perhaps the most important of these is the desire to establish and maintain friendships with countries that have historically shaped global diplomacy, while cultivating deep alliances with emerging powers featured in recent global economic developments. Nigeria has also sought to align its diplomacy with domestic developments, especially as these relate to the consolidation of its new democracy... Consequently, the country’s diplomacy from 1999 to 2011 has been a cautious balance of devotion to traditional obligations towards West Africa and African concerns, and the desire to ensure that external relations, especially with global powers, also assist in domestic concerns (Alao, 2011: p. 6).
In fact, the logical explanation for the shift in Nigeria’s foreign policy in 1999 can be located within the forceful and seemingly irresistible influence of globalization, which continued to encroach on national borders and by implication redefining the scope of sovereignty. In essence, the doctrines of capitalism and democratization had been elevated to the supreme standards of international relations by the key players in the international system (Ayam, 2004; Okolie, 2010) .

The relevant point in Obasanjo’s administration’s fundamental shift of Nigeria’s foreign policy thrust in a globalizing international environment is that Nigeria and more importantly, the Nigerian person, stood to benefit from globalization as thrust of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Put differently, the “concentric circles” principle that had guided Nigeria’s foreign policy from 1980s was inadequate and needed to be reconceptualized to reflect contemporary realities by making its epicentral consideration the Nigerian person. In view of this, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji considers that, “concentricism, as a foreign policy guide, has to be made constructive and beneficial”, and that “the focus of a constructive and beneficial foreign policy should, first of all, be the Nigerian people”. By implication, anything ‘Nigerian’ should really be the focus (Akinterinwa, 2004: p. 452) . In Ambassador Adeniji’s words:

The Nigerian has not really been made the main focus of our policy. Emphasis is placed on law but not on the man himself... the law cannot be more important than the man who made it and defending and protecting a nation whose people are valueless is at best also meaningless. In the same vein, Africa as cornerstone or centrepiece of our foreign policy is also meaningless without the Nigerians. Foreign policy successes in which the Nigerians are not direct beneficiaries are not likely to impact on, or enjoy the support of, the people... constructive and beneficial concentricism therefore, fills this gap in foreign policy thrust... (Adeniji, 2004: p. 423) .

It is important to mention that the author of “concentricism” (predicated mainly on geo-political prioritization and operationalization of Nigeria’s foreign policy) as Nigeria’s foreign policy thrust in the 1980s, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, had articulated this direction of foreign policy based on what he perceived to be the discrepancy or asymmetry between Nigeria’s foreign policy and the peoples’ direct needs. He averred that:

Nigeria’s foreign policy has never been directly related to the needs of the masses of the people; rather it is formulated, articulated and implemented in highly elitist circles. Hence, the country’s foreign policy relations have reflected the needs and aspirations of a national super elite of business, bureaucratic, military and traditional ruling group.(cited in Akinterinwa, 2004: p. 451 ).

In essence, constructive and beneficial foreign policy direction of the Obasanjo administration was intended to address and redress the perceived inadequacy inherent in concentricism: which was the fact that “concentricism was not at all an objective but a means; it was more or less a foreign policy tactic that had not been fully taken advantage of; and as a means to an end, concentricism had to have focus” (Akinterinwa, 2004: p. 453) .

Consequently, Obasanjo’s foreign policy was largely shaped by the above philosophy, which guided his diplomatic approaches to issues in regional and global politics. He nonetheless, set out in achieving this lofty principle through a number of approaches. The most visible was his deliberate decision to personally embark on shuttle political diplomacy, earning him the title of the most travelled Nigerian Head of State ( Zabadi, 2004; Saliu, 2006a ; The Punch Editorial 2007: p. 14;Okolie, 2010 ).

President Obasanjo was succeeded by the Late Umaru Musa Yaradua who was reputed to have introduced the concept of “citizen diplomacy” as the thrust of Nigeria’s foreign policy (Ogunsanwo, 2009: p. 19) . According to Agbu (2009: p. 52) citizen diplomacy is a political concept depicting the involvement of average citizens engaging representatives of another country or cause either inadvertently or by design. He stressed that the concept sometimes refers to “Track Two Diplomacy”, which connotes unofficial contacts between people of different nations, as differentiated from official contacts between governmental representatives. He argued that the concept was construed by Nigeria under President Yar’Adua to mean that Nigeria’s foreign policy would henceforth be focused on the Nigerian citizens at home and in the Diaspora.

The foreign policy position of the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari which succeeded the Goodluck Jonathan is generally perceived on regional coordination as the key  foreign policy thrust unlike his predecessor. In the first two months of his presidency, Buhari had visited seven countries: Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin – the four other regional countries fighting Boko Haram – as well as the trip to the US, attending a G7 meeting in Germany and the African Union summit in South Africa. In addition to trips to his neighbours, Buhari hosted the Cameroonian defence minister and the presidents of the other three countries in Abuja to discuss Boko Haram.

However, Many commentators and scholars agree that there is no radical departure in terms of Nigeria’s foreign policy transactions to warrant serious reflections. However, it will suffice to mention that the current spate and direction of Nigeria’s domestic insecurity have intensified the debates on the country’s national image.

About The Authors:

Oluyemi O. Fayomi, Felix C. Chidozie, Lady A. Ajayi

Department of Political Science and International Relations, School of Human Resource Development, College of Leadership Development Studies, Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria

Publication Details:

This is extract from a technical paper titled - "Nigeria’s National Image and Her Foreign Policy: An Exploratory Approach" , Vol.05 No.03(2015), Article ID:55327,16 pages 

Copyright © 2015 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY). http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
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