By Ebere Onwudiwe
President Buhari’s polished Chief of Staff, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, once made a significant contribution to the theory of Nigeria’s foreign policy. His ‘concentrism’ in Nigeria’s foreign policy was based on the aphorism “Charity begins at home”.
From his time as Buhari’s foreign minister (1984 to 1985) the study and practice of Nigeria’s foreign policy came to be based on concentric circles of national interest priorities. Topping the list in the order of precedence were Nigerian citizens, followed by our West African neighbours, then Africa, and then the rest of the world. Those were the days when Nigeria held sway in Africa north of the Limpopo. We had power, and were proud of it.
In our year of independence, the Sharpeville massacre took place in apartheid South Africa. The police of the racist government shot into a crowd at Sharpeville and killed 69 black protesters. The Nigerian government and most of the world were rightly incensed.
On the 4th of April 1961, the office of Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, one of Nigeria’s two most under-celebrated great leaders (the other is Dr. Michael Okpara, former premier of Eastern Nigeria) fired off a letter to the African National Congress (the ANC). In it, Mr. A. Ahmed Kari, the Acting Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, told the ANC that the prime minister had directed him to assure the ANC that on his part, “the battle against apartheid has just begun.”
From then on, Nigeria fully supported the anti-apartheid movement. We even nationalised British Petroleum assets and spent a whopping $61 billion between 1960 and1995 to end apartheid, and in the great tradition of boycotting ‘all boycottables’ as advised by Chief Mbonu Ojike during the fight for Nigeria’s independence, we boycotted everything from the Commonwealth Games to the Olympic Games to protest the brutality of apartheid in South Africa. That was a time of high standards of governance.
That was how Nigeria – as an honorary ‘front-line state’ attained the moral high ground for leadership in black Africa back in the day. For sure, intervening events have knocked the country off that lofty position, but whatever claim we have left to any moral authority is under further threat because of the shooting of #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate as well as attacks on them in Abuja and elsewhere.
During his recent interview of Mr. Atedo Peterside on the #EndSARS crisis, Dr. Reuben Abati of Arise TV expressed concern about Nigeria’s standing in the international community, wondering whether this had not worsened because of the unconscionable shooting of Nigeria’s protesting youth and various other images of chaos and violence in the country.
The damage to Nigeria’s external image was partly recognized by the President when he advised the international community to find out all the facts before rushing to judgment or making “hasty pronouncements.” But whether hasty or slow, the cost to Nigeria’s already diminishing foreign reserve of soft power is likely to be huge.
A good international image is very important for a poor country in a world of powers, because it is one of the few currencies available to Nigeria with which to purchase the goodwill of powerful countries. That’s why we cannot afford to be dismissive of other countries, especially those very powerful countries of the world, some of which have spoken out against the shooting of our protesting youth such as the UK, the US, the European Union, Canada and others.
And here on our own continent where Nigeria needs its moral authority intact to enable it to do the important work of deepening democracy in Africa – especially in our own ECOWAS region which is our second priority zone in the wisely layered foreign policy model of Professor Gambari.
The administration is lucky to have the services and advice of Professor Gambari, a master international diplomat at this time. He knows too well that a good international image is a valuable resource, and that the capacity of Nigeria to achieve its development objectives depends more on how it is perceived in developed countries than on its aggregate quantity of oil and other natural resources.
The shooting of unarmed citizens wrapped in the country’s national flag and peacefully protesting is not a pretty picture for Nigeria to have out there in the world. Our diplomats all over the world now have their work cut out for them and will need increased resources to do a good job of damage control.
These are some of the costs of the trigger-happy response to the peaceful protests of the young. The claim that the shooting was not done by the Nigerian military may or may not hold water for many Nigerians and important development partners, but whatever the case, the grotesque manner in which the young protesters were shot in the dark comes at a high cost for Nigeria’s international standing.
Ebere Onwudiwe is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja.