Recently, a high-powered Nigerian delegation, including the country’s octogenarian ambassador, was in Washington for talks with the U.S. State Department. High on the agenda were undoubtedly the new visa restrictions announced by the Trump administration that prevent Nigerians from applying for visas that represent a pathway to permanent residency.
After the new visa policy made international headlines, President Muhammadu Buhari’s immediate move was to announce a committee to look at the underlying issues that drove the United States to make its decision. That, together with the timing of the Nigerian delegation’s visit, is terrible for optics.
Buhari’s response is akin to medicine after death, especially as the U.S. government claims that it informed Nigeria of its intended action as early as March 2019, after a failure to comply with new metrics on the sharing of security information of visa applicants. Abuja’s incompetence handed Trump — who in 2018 had labeled Africa’s largest economy a “shithole” — the perfect excuse to carry out a premeditated racist agenda. Never mind that Nigeria provides one of the largest contingent of successful and educated immigrants in the U.S.
“Imagine waiting to form a committee over a decision that was long communicated to you, and trending in the media,” says Gimba Kakanda, an Abuja-based foreign policy and geopolitical analyst. “Nigeria is too big for its humiliating status in the world.”
Nigeria has long been an ally in the fight against terrorism and a trading partner for the U.S., but Trump has shown that he can afford to shrug off long-standing relationships – just like in the Middle East. And Abuja’s lethargy has given Washington more ammunition to fire shots, especially as U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports from Africa’s largest oil producer and other countries continues to wane.
Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist at Gatefield, an Abuja-based policy affairs and development consultancy, chalks it all up to Nigeria’s fluctuating foreign policies. “The fluidity of Nigeria’s foreign policy comes at a huge cost to its global standing. Under the current administration, the Foreign Ministry couldn’t be any weaker.
All of that has left the foreign policy of Nigeria rudderless. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Uganda recently, just days before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the African Union Summit in Ethiopia and visits Senegal to canvass for votes for a United Nations Security Council seat. None of these world leaders is throwing a glance at Nigeria, erstwhile “giant of Africa.”
To add insult to injury, the U.S. has singled out Kenya as the first country in sub-Saharan Africa that it intends to ink a bilateral trade deal with, ahead of the expiration of the multilateral African Growth and Opportunity Act. One of Africa’s largest economy is still out in the cold.
In December 2019, France sidestepped Nigeria to hijack the eco-currency long being planned by the Economic Community of West African States. In conscripting Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo, French President Emmanuel Macron undermined the authority of the regional powerhouse in the West African bloc and Nigeria has yet to properly react.
It wasn’t always so. Before the return of democracy in 1999, Nigeria had been a pariah state, expelled from the Commonwealth after a series of human rights violations including the hanging of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others by the late dictator Sani Abacha.
But Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s larger-than-life president from 1999 to 2007, strategized to bring the country into the international fold, even though human rights abuses continued on the internal front. Under Obasanjo, Nigeria led peacekeeping missions in Sudan and parts of West Africa. There was also the $18 billion debt relief package from the Paris Club in 2005, that allowed Amina Mohammed, now U.N. deputy secretary-general, to coordinate the funds for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in Nigeria.
In July 2003, a bloodless coup executed by former pro-apartheid fighters from South Africa deposed President Fradique de Menezes of São Tomé and Principe, a tiny island nation off the Nigerian coast, while he was on a state trip in Abuja. But de Menezes was reinstated a couple of weeks later after Obasanjo’s presidential jet flew both men into that nation’s capital.
Obasanjo also forged a cordial relationship with South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki. As a two-man squad, they drove the now toothless African Union to enforce democracy across the continent.
Those days are long gone. Buhari may be a frequent traveler — according to a Nigerian newspaper editorial, he spent a third of his first three years in office outside the country — but his influence is weak and Nigeria’s foreign policy is nonexistent. Nigerians are being treated shabbily in Ghana, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, but too often the country has not backed its talk with strong action.
Emoruwa argues that the country’s foreign policy is mostly subject to the idiosyncrasies of whoever is leader at the time. The giant of Africa, he says, can discard its feet of clay by anchoring policies to institutions, not individuals.
“Nigeria should look to set clear foreign policy priorities and strengthen the Foreign Ministry, led by bureaucrats that should be empowered to manage the demanding task of diplomacy,” Emoruwa says. “Politicians must rely on these institutions to drive their agenda and not the other way round.” Until then, there’s little point in Nigeria pointing fingers at the Trump administration. The Buhari administration’s response suggests it knows that.