To all intents and purposes, Nigeria does not have a foreign policy. Whatever appears in the form of such is a series of badly choreographed improvisations aimed at responding to events as they come. We have this amazing penchant of playing Father Christmas with our African brethren and expecting everyone to love us in return. We get disappointed when our neighbours scornfully refer to us as ‘Big Brother’. If size alone mattered, dinosaurs would still be holding sway over Mother Earth.
Many of these failings are neither because the people in charge are incompetent, nor is it on account of their being unpatriotic. It is simply arising from the fact that we have never fully articulated our fundamental national interests – principles that will mobilise our people around a clear vision of national goals and purposes. There is also the existential tragedy of our being a divided people. For a country of almost 170 million people, our lack of a grand strategy – which should normally find expression in our external relations – is a major lacuna in the complex business of statecraft. These failings make it practically impossible for us to take advantage of historic opportunities while mobilising our resources and capabilities to confront the manifold challenges of our epoch.
Not too long ago at a diplomatic reception in Brussels, I had to introduce myself to a gaggle of diplomats and media people. When I said I was from Nigeria, there was suddenly this hushed, stony silence. An Italian female journalist muttered, “Oh, that’s a very dangerous country!” With absolute composure and self-possession, I looked at her interlocutors and asked, “This woman says I am dangerous; do I look dangerous to you?” Everyone burst out laughing and she was, fortunately, put in her place.
But the truth remains. Our country is generally perceived as the most dangerous, most disorderly and most corrupt nation on earth – hardly better than failed states such as Somalia, Central Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo. Tourists are beating their paths to Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and The Gambia. Only a madman or crank will ever dream of coming to Nigeria as a tourist. It does not matter that violent crime is more prevalent in Kenya and South Africa than Nigeria. International organisations and global firms regard Accra as their destination of first choice in West Africa. The other day I tried to talk up the attractiveness of Abuja to the senior executive of a Swedish technology firm who was considering moving into West Africa. She was adamant that it would have to be Accra or nothing. Nigerians are spending over a billion dollars annually to keep their children in Ghanaian schools and universities. They believe they provide a safer environment and guarantee a more decent education than their wards would have back at home.
The mere mention of Nigeria evokes terror and fright for most foreigners. In the course of a dinner with a top Japanese banker and long-term friend last week, he revealed that Japanese investors are reluctant to come to Nigeria because of the perceived chaos and corruption. He recounted the case of a group of Japanese businesspeople who recently visited our country and were shocked that immigration officers at the airports were openly demanding bribes. For Japanese, he told me, the very notion of a law-enforcement officer or authority to be openly demanding a bribe is a sacrilege. I was agape, absorbing with absolute pain in my heart this severe moral indictment of my country and people. I tried to deflect the topic by making reference to the recent appointment of Haruhiko Kuroda as governor of the Bank of Japan and what it might mean for monetary policy under deflation. Nopes. I tried another conversational diversion by raising the issue of my interests in Japanese history and culture, from the medieval Samurai to the Tokugawa and the changing fortunes of the Chrysanthemum throne. Distant look. Silence. After devouring his foie gras with relish, noting, mysteriously, that they are not allowed to eat it in Japan, he resumed: “I have to tell you as a friend, unless you change your ways, the Japanese will avoid Nigeria.”
In our day and age, the stature of a country is not only about its GDP or military capability; it is also about the moral quality of its ruling elites and the attractiveness of its culture and social institutions. The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye invented the term ‘soft power’ to refer the moral influence that a country is able to exert on others through its cultural and non-material attributes. Declares Nye: “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.”
Nigeria underwrites nearly 80 percent of the ECOWAS operating budget. But I doubt if our influence in the sub-region is anywhere commensurate with the magnitude of our investment. The same could be said of all the regional and international institutions that demand so much from us in terms of budgetary contributions while treating us with barely concealed contempt. We spent over a $10 billion for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone and Liberia and lost 5,000 of our precious young men in those wildernesses. With the exception of one or two commercial banks, there are hardly any economic or diplomatic dividends to speak of. The Chinese, Lebanese, Indians and Westerners are gobbling up every opportunity in those countries to our detriment; reaping where they did not sow. For our neighbours, we appear in the manner of this brainless behemoth that must either be cajoled by flattery or tamed by running rings of an imaginary brotherhood around it.