President Muhammadu Buhari’s favourite world leaders have long been President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Under Buhari, Nigeria is heavily reliant on China for infrastructure loans and on Russia for lethal weapons.
But China and Russia are totalitarian countries and pose the greatest dangers to the post-World War II international order, premised on freedom, democracy, rule of law, principles of self-determination and prohibition of the use of force, as set out in the Charter of the United Nations.
While China constantly threatens to annex its neighbour, Taiwan, Russia has invaded its neighbours several times, including Crimea in 2014. Now, Russia is at it again!
More than two weeks ago, on February 24, after months of sabre-rattling and warmongering, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in what a senior US defence official described as “the largest conventional military attack on a sovereign state in Europe since the Second World War.”
Inevitably, Russia’s aggression has provoked strong condemnation and sanctions from the world’s liberal democracies and the opprobrium of civilised people all over the world.
At the United Nations, the Security Council, whose decisions are legally binding, tried to pass a “substantive” resolution condemning the invasion. But Russia is one of the council’s five permanent veto-wielding members, and, unsurprisingly, it vetoed the resolution.
China, being Russia’s only superpower ally, is the only country that has leverage over Russia. But China declined to support the UN Security Council resolution, opting to abstain instead, and President Xi has done nothing to stop Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine.
However, at the UN General Assembly, where there’s no veto power but whose decisions are merely hortatory and not legally binding, 141 of the 191 UN members voted to condemn Russia’s invasion. The General Assembly resolution demanded that Russia withdraw its military forces “immediately, completely and unconditionally” from Ukraine’s territory.
Nigeria, rightly, voted in support of the General Assembly resolution; in other words, Nigeria voted at the UN to condemn Russia’s unprovoked aggression towards Ukraine.
Some commentators have questioned Nigeria’s decision to vote against Russia at the UN, given this country’s close ties with Russia. But those saying that utterly misread the gravity of the situation; they misread the strength of world opinion against Russia’s invasion of an independent country.
Here’s a simple test. Take a look at the five countries that voted against the UN resolution – Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia (itself) and Syria. Is that the kind of company that Nigeria should be proud of keeping? Truth is, Nigeria would have faced widespread condemnation if it had joined those countries in voting against the resolution.
Even abstention was not an option for Nigeria, as that would have put the country in the same category as the 35 nations that sat on the fence on such an issue of global magnitude. In a situation like this, where a superpower invades a smaller, peaceful country, the moral question for every true democracy is: “Which side do you come down on?” No country should be neutral in the face of such aggression.
That’s why South Africa’s abstention came as a surprise. But truth is, Nigeria has more at stake reputationally, given its standing in the diplomatic world.
Think about it. Amina Mohammed, Nigeria’s former Minister of Environment, is the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, since 2017. Professor Ibrahim Gambari, President Buhari’s Chief of Staff, was Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser to several UN Secretaries-General.
I would be surprised if Mohammed and Gambari had not advised Buhari that it would be harmful to Nigeria’s reputation if the country voted against the General Assembly’s resolution rightly condemning Russia’s assault on an innocent country.
Yet, despite Nigeria’s face-saving in voting for the UN resolution against Russia’s aggression, it cannot escape criticism for all along cosying up to the world’s most authoritarian and illiberal powers.
It is often said that, in politics, “there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests”. But there’s also another saying: “Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are”!
Some might argue that Nigeria’s relationships with China and Russia serve this country’s economic and military interests. Perhaps so, but values matter.
And economic and military interests cannot trump the values of freedom, rule of law, human rights etc that are the foundation of liberal democracies worldwide.
Yet, it is precisely the same liberal world order that Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have always undermined, using sheer force to trample over the rule of law, humans rights as well as the democratic and self-determination rights of their neighbours.
Consider this. Ukraine regained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. But 30 years later, President Putin justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that the country is a “fake”, i.e., doesn’t exist; that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people”; that he’s fighting to root out “Neo-Nazis” from Ukraine, even though the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish; and that he wants to liberate Russian speakers in a separatist region in Ukraine. Well, Hitler gave similar excuses for annexing Austria in 1938!
For those Hitlerian reasons, Putin’s forces launched horrific invasion of Ukraine, attacked Europe’s largest nuclear site in South-eastern Ukraine, put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, destroyed Ukrainian cities, killed thousands of innocent Ukrainians, and triggered what the UN says could be the biggest refugee crisis since 1945 as 1.8m, so far, flee the conflict.
Rightly, the world’s liberal democracies have been utterly united against Putin and his country. The West doesn’t want to trigger a nuclear war with Russia, but, through NATO, gives military aid to Ukraine, and has imposed crushing economic and financial sanctions on Russia.
France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said: “We will provoke the collapse of the Russian economy”. The US, joined by the UK, has banned the import of Russian oil. Of course, there are costs in terms of higher oil and gas prices and higher food inflation. But the West is determined to defend democracy and punish Russian hostility.
Even multinational companies are deserting Russia. For instance, the world’s biggest credit and debit card firms, such as Visa, Mastercard and American Express, have stopped their operations in Russia, ditto the world’s largest accounting firms, such as Deloitte, EY, PWC and KPMG.
Culturally, FIFA and other world sporting bodies have banned Russians from international competitions. Put simply, Russia has become a pariah state.
All of which makes Nigeria’s cosiness with Russia and China bad judgement. China unilaterally funds and builds Nigeria’s infrastructure. In 2019, President Buhari said: “We are very grateful to China for the genuine efforts and strides to rebuild our infrastructure.”
As for Russia, Buhari said in 2020 that he would “inject fresh energy into Russia-Nigeria relations”, and pushed hard for the 2021 military and technical cooperation agreement. Russia was also gearing up to revamp the moribund Ajaokuta Steel Industry and undertake energy, gas and oil projects in Nigeria, including nuclear power.
But why the overdependence on China and Russia? Well, as Western countries hesitate to give arms and loans to Nigeria because of concerns about human rights abuses, such as the brutal military clampdown on separatist agitators and peaceful protesters, Nigeria, under Buhari, turned to China and Russia, which readily give loans and arms without unquestioningly.
Far deeper, philosophically, Buhari believes, like Xi and Putin, that national security, broadly defined, trumps human rights and the rule of law; and that agitations for self-determination must be crushed with lethal force.
So, truth is, President Buhari’s cosiness with President Xi and President Putin wasn’t just about economic and military interests; it’s also about shared politics and ideology. That, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s acquiescence, shames Nigeria!