In this interview, Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, foremost scholar, former minister for external affairs, seasoned diplomat and under-secretary of the United Nations, leading several UN missions both within and outside Africa speaks about Nigeria’s battered image, foreign policy and how to get it right.
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s international image?
I think it needs considerable improvement at three levels. First; activities of Nigerians abroad particularly with regards to 419, drugs and other banned substances and general lawlessness of some of our compatriots in some countries in the world. That is one set of factors in which our image is being dented.
Second is the internal situation in Nigeria itself; a country that is the most populous in Africa with the biggest economy and aspiring to be a permanent member of a reformed and expanded United Nations Security Council as being perceived as not managing its own internal matters well, particularly when it comes to insecurity and also the issue of official corruption.
Third is with respect to the performance of our armed forces; this is the Nigerian military that has brought peace to Sierra Leone, Liberia, has been number five or six largest peace keeping nation in the world in terms of troops contribution to the UN peacekeeping. Beyond West Africa we have been involved in Rwanda, Somalia and even as far away as Bosnia and Cambodia not to mention Namibia as well. This is the Nigerian armed forces that have so much credibility and that same Nigerian military is being overran by or incapable of containing the Boko Haram menace; just a few local governments in a country and worse of all the abduction of over 270 girls in Chibok.
I forgot to even mention Dafur where I was the head of the United Nations African Mission in Darfur, a joint mission of the UN and regional organisations where Nigeria in my time, was the largest troop contributor of up to about 4000 troops. This same Armed Forces could not contain the scourge of Boko Haram and bring back our girls.
That has dented our image and it has even more seriously devalued the peace keeping currency which we used to advance our country’s claim for a permanent seat in a reformed and expanded security council.
To get it right, what do you think should be done in the short, medium and long term?
You cannot do everything in foreign policy at once. You have to prioritize and this incoming administration is saddled with some huge domestic problems so that it will have to concentrate on what appears to be purely domestic. It is very clear that this government was elected with the mandate and on the platform of dealing with insecurity in our country, issues of governance particularly corruption and youth unemployment which is powder keg.
Therefore, we have to pursue foreign policy that reinforces those priorities and that is why relationship with our immediate neighbours is very important because in 1984, General Buhari, then head of the military government adopted a concentric circles of foreign policy as a strategy which means the welfare of the Nigerian people, the security of the Nigerian people was at the epicentre of that circle.
The relationship with our neighbouring countries becomes the next circle and in that context signed a quadripartite agreement between Nigeria and the western neighbours in December 1984; Benin, Togo and Ghana. The challenges then of security were currency trafficking, weapon trafficking, human trafficking, drugs trafficking and all of that but imagine if we had upgraded that agreement to cover the new threats to security, if we had extended that agreement to our northern neighbours; Niger, Chad and our eastern neighbour Cameroon, clearly that would have put us in much better stead to address jointly with some of these neighbouring countries, the common threat to our security posed by Boko Haram and other violent extremist activities.
What immediate steps can be taken?
The immediate is to reset our foreign relations to really take account of the need to consolidate our relationship with our neighbours in the context of these challenges. Then of course, we have to reinvigorate ECOWAS. The idea of ECOWAS is to become an integrated market with freedom of movement of goods and services so that security and prosperity can be secured in our region. Every great country in the world needs markets, particularly markets that are nearby in order for it to export its manufactured goods which also show in dealing with unemployment, we have to look at reviving our textile industries, agro allied industry and again, our immediate market will be West Africa.
We also need to revitalise and reinvigorate the African Union because in the 1960s and 1970s, nothing was decided by the UN without ascertaining the views of the Africans particularly the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Now, the African Union which is supposed to be even of higher level of cooperation among Africans does not seem to have the kind of clout that the predecessor organisation used to have in world affairs. Those are the areas that we have to address.
Finally, mid and long term is how to attract investment which is a function of how to secure peace and stability in Nigeria because without that it’s impossible to attract foreign investments in the country. No country can develop without direct foreign investment. Even the United States which is the most developed, largest and richest economy in the world, you find that if the Chinese were to withdraw their investments even in the currency of the United States, it would be extremely difficult for the United State to continue to remain on top.
We need investment, external investment and we have to look east; the Chinese for example has established something called the infrastructural bank, some of the Western countries were initially hesitant to join and were in fact trying to discourage people from joining but Western countries are planning to join that bank. So, if some of the advanced countries, already developed are moving in that direction, we as Nigerians need to see how we can be part of that. Beyond that, we have to be part of the new global economic configuration and arrangement. We have the G-20 and the BRICS; those are the kinds of groups that Nigeria needs to belong to because we have a contribution to make but at the same time we have a lot to gain by membership of those organisations.
In the 1970s and 1980s Nigeria had a voice internationally. You were there and people of your calibre are still around today. What is responsible for our diplomatic decline?
People like me have become older and unfortunately we are still playing a role. Chief Emeka Anyaoku is the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council on Foreign Relations. I myself served until recently as the Joint Special Representative and head of the biggest and only joint UN regional organisation peace keeping mission until I retired just about two years ago. I was chairman of the 2014 National Conference Committee on Foreign Policy and Diaspora Matters.
We still have a role but what has declined in my view is the professionalism of the ministry of foreign affairs as the principal instrument for the formulation, articulation and implementation of foreign policy and chief source of advice and institutional memory for the president.
The new administration provides an opportunity to start afresh, would you be willing to share your knowledge and experience to better the country’ lot in the comity of nations if national duty beckons?
It reminds me of the story of the very beautiful and intelligent lady whose father keeps saying, ‘why are you not married, you are intelligent, you are beautiful’ and the young lady said ‘well, I would like to get married but no man has asked me.’ So, obviously, I am a patriotic Nigerian, I have served this country in different capacities and of course, should I be asked, there is no question that the answer would be yes, to contribute in any way possible, and I stress, in any way possible for the success of the incoming administration, particularly in the area for which I have the most competence.
If we get it right in terms of foreign policy, what is the benefit for Nigeria?
The benefit is for us because first, we will be telling the world that Nigeria is ready for business, Nigeria is open for business not just in terms of trade and investment but also for diplomatic business; that we are reliable and serious partners in the joint efforts for the common defence and addressing the challenges plaguing this continent.
Don’t forget that Africa as a continent must remain the primary environment for our foreign policy because we are a leading African country in terms of population and economy. We have a paradox in Africa that we are the richest continent by far in terms of material and mineral resources but our continent contains the world’s poorest people. That is a paradox. We have to work with others to change that perception, to deal with crises and conflicts so that Africa will not be seen as a continent of conflict from Mali, Central African Republic to Somalia.
It will tell the world we are ready for business and this will enhance the security of our people but also more importantly the welfare of our citizens and charity must begin at home. To organise the external environment to help build security at home and the prosperity of our own people as the engine so that Nigeria will assume its role as a respected voice in Africa and in the world.