Abuja’s new team flexes 
its diplomatic muscle

Angel-merkel4The crises in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya allowed Nigerian diplomats to assert some valuable principles and play a leading role in the African Union; now it’s time to look beyond the continent

“Cool under pressure” was a visiting diplomat’s verdict on Nigeria’s foreign policy team arguing their case on Côte d’Ivoire at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa this January. Less than five months later, Nigerian officials say their position of support for Alassane Ouattara as winner of the UN-monitored presidential elections has been vindicated and Abuja’s relations with Côte d’Ivoire look set to be stronger than ever. The issue turned out to be a key test of Nigeria’s foreign policy in a period of rapid political change on the continent.

Map of Nigeria

Back in Addis on 28 January, President Goodluck Jonathan was standing outside the AU conference centre after a lengthy and sometimes rancorous debate at a special session of the Peace and Security Council which had pitted Nigeria against Angola and South Africa, then cheerleaders for Laurent Gbagbo and his condemnation of last year’s elections. The Africa Report asked an unruffled-looking Jonathan which side had won the argument. “We confirmed the position of the African Union and Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) – that we respect the results of the election, and that is what’s important.”

Do you mean respect the results to the point of using force against Gbagbo?, The Africa Report pressed. “We have reached agreement here that we will use all diplomatic means and let’s give that a chance first,” Jonathan replied with a half-smile. It was, after all, Jonathan who had convened his fellow West African leaders to an emergency meeting at Abuja airport at the start of Côte d’Ivoire’s elections stand-off when they agreed to approve the use of “legitimate force” against Gbagbo, should he refuse to respect the election and handover to Ouattara.

Jonathan’s determination on the ­issue took many by surprise. Seen as cautious, self-effacing and a civilian to the core, he looked an unlikely candidate to lead a military intervention against a regional leader taking issue with an election result.

There was the added complication of France’s colonial engagement in Côte d’Ivoire and now its high-level support for Ouattara: for most of the past 50 years Nigeria had been the main challenger to French political and commercial power in the region. Diplomatic tensions had started between the two after President Charles De Gaulle’s support for the secessionist movement in Biafra in eastern Nigeria in 1968.


an unlikely consensus


These tensions continued with Nigeria’s suspicions of France’s relations with francophone leaders such as Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré and the late Félix Houphouët-Boigny who were meddling in anglophone territories such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. So a consensus between Paris and Abuja on policy towards Côte d’Ivoire, to the point of deploying military force to enforce an election result, was novel, to say the least.


That wasn’t the only military deployment that Nigeria has signed up to this year: the other, and still unresolved, intervention was Libya. Nigeria, South Africa and Gabon have non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council this year and all endorsed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Again, Nigeria has been unequivocal on what it regards as use of legitimate force to protect civilian lives after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime started to use brutal force on unarmed demonstrators in mid-February.


Given President Jonathan’s very full domestic agenda this year – preparing for critical national elections and pushing through controversial new laws on the oil and power sectors – it seemed likely that high profile diplomatic initiatives would be low down the list of priorities. Foreign policy doesn’t win many votes in Nigerian elections. Yet Jonathan’s government tried to join the dots between foreign and domestic policy. Officials in Abuja insisted that Jonathan’s stance on respecting the election results in Côte d’Ivoire was partly a means to assure Nigerians that their votes would count in the country’s elections in April.


There was also a wider point of principle according to foreign minister Odein Ajumogobia: “We cannot afford to have a precedent where an incumbent leader like Mr. Gbagbo loses an election and refuses to hand over power … simply because he controls the armed forces. That’s not acceptable and shouldn’t be acceptable to the entire world. That’s why I thought it was beyond Ecowas.”


Ajumogobia, who is tipped to ­retain the foreign affairs portfolio after Jonathan’s inauguration, wants to see an extension of the principle of the “responsibility to protest”, which was established at the UN General Assembly in 2005: “I’m arguing that where a leader loses an election and seeks to use the force of arms, paid for by taxpayers, to threaten or kill or maim, then there should be the responsibility of the international community to protect the people and remove that leader if necessary.”


negotiation over force


Similarly, Ajumogobia sees the Libyan intervention as an moral imperative. “[People] … are not your property, they are human beings first and our common humanity should protect them. That’s what Libya is about and that’s why I supported the no-fly zone even when the African Union was initially ambivalent.” Ajumogobia accepts that getting consensus in the AU on Libya, many of whose member states benefited financially from the Gaddafi regime, has been difficult, but he insists the organisation’s policy is still coherent: “Since the AU has not met in plenary to deal with the Libyan crisis, it is possible to perceive apparent contradictions in what AU officials may say. The AU move to establish a platform for a negotiated settlement of the conflict between Tripoli and its opponents in Benghazi should be commended. It is not only through the use of force that conflicts are resolved.”


Out of the crises in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya, some clear differences have emerged between Nigeria and the continent’s other major economy, South Africa, but Ajumogobia insists both governments take these in their stride: “Are there occasional irritants in Nigeria-South Africa relations? Of course there are, as is generally the case in relations between nations … that should not be construed as rivalry or inordinate competition. That is partly the reason why Nigeria has a thriving bilateral joint commission with South Africa to promote cooperation and collaboration.”


Beyond Africa, Abuja’s diplomats believe that Nigeria’s stock is rising again. They point to the international plaudits given to national elections in April, despite the violence in the north after the results were announced, and improving cooperation with the US and Europe on security, energy and health issues. There was frustration among some officials in Abuja that US President Barack Obama had not chosen their capital to make his maiden Africa policy speech in July 2009 but had opted for Ghana instead. They say that relations with Washington have improved since Jonathan took over the presidency in May 2010, and that he has had a couple of bilateral meetings with Obama.


Much more needs to be done on both sides to develop the US-Nigeria relationship, according to former ambassador to Abuja, John Campbell, who has eloquently criticised the lack of US diplomatic resources and high turnover of senior staff on Nigeria policy: “The adminstration’s focus on regional security, rather than on democracy and governance, in its relations with Nigeria in part reflected the primacy of short-term over long-term planning.”


With elections over, Nigerian officials seem more sanguine than that about relations with Washington and beyond. They argue the April elections have restored presidential legitimacy and believe economic reforms will draw new investors from both the West and Asia. Certainly, success or failure in those areas will depend substantially on Abuja’s new diplomatic team.

Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi
Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC and CEO of Portia Web Solutions. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websits. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.

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