Setting a foreign policy agenda for the Muhammadu Buhari presidency

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Babatunde Afolabi talks us through the foreign policy priorities for Nigeria’s new government. Babatunde is a consultant who has previously worked for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Having won the presidential election of 28 March 2015, riding a on the wave of popular opinion pushing for positive change, the incoming administration of Muhammadu Buhari must accord due priority to foreign affairs. Beyond the obvious benefit of projecting a positive image of Nigeria to the outside world, and a desire to increase the country’s trade and soft power, the crafting and implementation of a robust foreign policy strategy for the incoming government must be seen in the light of its utility in helping to achieve administration’s set domestic objectives. It is time for serious diplomacy, perhaps of a type that is unprecedented in Nigeria’s history.

 The Buhari Presidency: Proposed Foreign Policy Agenda

The first and perhaps the most important objective for the incoming Buhari administration should be how to tackle the Boko Haram menace. Buhari has rightly accorded due prominence to this by meeting to set an agenda on the problem with the Presidents of Nigeria’s contiguous neighbours. The second priority will be how to use Nigeria’s foreign relations to promote the diversification of the economy and sustainable development. This is a key issue for Nigeria at the moment, particularly given the prevailing oil price collapse and the variety of alternative energy sources coming on stream around the world. Below, I elaborate in more detail what relations Nigeria might seek with her neighbours, West Africa, Africa, and the rest of the world.

 Nigeria and Its Immediate Neighbours: Key Priorities

 Nigeria is surrounded by Francophone countries – Niger and Chad to the North, and Cameroon and Benin Republic to the South. Historically, relations between Nigeria and these countries, with the exception of Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsular, have been cordial. Nigeria, along with Benin and Niger are ECOWAS Member States. Nigeria also shares the membership of the Lake Chad Basin Commission with Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The Niger Basin Authority, comprising Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, is another intergovernmental organisation that Nigeria shares membership with its immediate neighbours. Both the Lake Chad Basin Commission and the Niger Basin Authority are of strategic importance to Nigeria because she derives fresh water for farming and hydroelectricity, as well as other natural resources from both the Lake Chad and River Niger. It is therefore important that the Nigerian government takes its membership of these two organizations more seriously than it has previously, for obvious strategic reasons. The first foreign outings of President Buhari were, fittingly, to Nigeria’s neighbouring countries (Niger and Chad), both being active partners in the efforts to tackle the Boko Haram problem.

Nigeria and West Africa: Key Priorities

ECOWAS, a Nigerian initiative, co-sponsored with Togo, was founded in May 1975 to promote economic integration among West African states. Since its founding, ECOWAS has struggled to achieve its core raison d’être. Key reasons for this failure include: Insufficient political will on the part of Member States to fully commit to set objectives; France’s deliberate designs to frustrate the ECOWAS project; a misperception on the part of ECOWAS Member States that ECOWAS was founded to further a Pax Nigeriana agenda, and more critically, the devastating civil wars of the 1990s and the various political crises in its Member States (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire), from the 1990s to the early 2000s. The latter forced ECOWAS to realize that in order to attain the objective of its forefathers, it had to adopt a ‘security-first’ approach to development. Nigeria is the dominant regional power in West Africa and has demonstrated its leadership by committing resources and efforts, more than any other West African state, into the ECOWAS project. While it has gained little or nothing materially in return for the enormous resources committed to restoring peace and stability in the region’s trouble spots, Nigeria has gained political leverage, solidifying its position as the region’s undisputable leader.

If the Buhari administration wishes to maximize the benefits of Nigeria’s previous and ongoing efforts in ensuring the well-being of West Africa, it must consider undertaking the following:

  1. Demonstrating greater interest in sub-regional matters, which it can achieve by ensuring a more strategic representation within ECOWAS decision-making structures;
  2. Leading negotiations with the EU on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA);
  3. Demonstrating Nigeria’s commitment to the regional integration agenda by reaching out more to Francophone Member States, whilst retaining its regional pre-eminence;
  4. Demanding greater accountability from the ECOWAS leadership;
  5. Actively seeking to effectively utilize its pre-eminence in West Africa as a bargaining tool for greater prominence at the AU and UN levels. In comparison to its enormous responsibilities and commitment to peace and stability in Africa, Nigeria remains grossly under-represented at the AU and UN hierarchy levels.

Nigeria and the Rest of Africa: Key Issues

Since independence, Nigeria has played a leading role on various issues pertaining to the African continent. As a non-aligned state, it was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles from the 1970s, and is generally regarded within and outside Africa, alongside Egypt and South Africa, as one of Africa’s leading states, and a global key player from Africa.

Nigeria was at the forefront of helping to transform the now-defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU) from a political liberation entity into an organization that places economic development at the centre of its mandate. Nigeria has made important contributions to relevant development strategies aimed towards improving the socio-economic conditions of the African continent.

In recent times, however, Nigeria has not pulled its weight at the continental level for various reasons, such as its inability to produce a coherent continental agenda, and its limited representation at the highest decision-making level of the AU. Perhaps, with the development of a coherent foreign policy strategy following the reappraisal of the existing overarching foreign policy strategy, Nigeria can effectively mobilize relevant resources to pursue its objectives.

Nigeria could pursue the following at the continental level:

  1. Maintaining existing partnerships and the building of more alliances with states beyond Nigeria’s natural sphere of influence, while also helping to tackle endemic poverty on the continent;
  2. Ensuring greater representation and strategic positioning of Nigerians in African intergovernmental organizations;
  • Positioning Nigeria for an African seat on the United Nations Security Council, in the event of the much anticipated-reform of the latter.

Nigeria and the Rest of the World

In spite of its internal challenges and contradictions, Nigeria remains one of the most important and powerful African states on the international scene. With a population estimated to be over 174 million, it easily represents the largest market in Africa. Furthermore, according to recent National Bureau of Statistics, it also has the continent’s highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Both its natural resource deposits and its human resources are enviably high in comparison to the rest of the continent. Partly due to these assets, Nigeria has largely been able to dictate the terms on which it relates to global powers, particularly in comparison to other African states.

For the international community, Nigeria as West Africa’s regional power is useful for stabilizing the sub-region. The sheer size of Nigeria presents an opportunity for investors given the economic possibilities that could be harnessed through its huge market and labour force. While sustained drop in oil prices may test Nigeria’s ability to flex the famed financial muscles of old, the international community remains cognizant of the fact that Nigeria is a formidable power in the making if it decides to diversify its economy and utilize the human resources available within.

While it is evident that Nigeria will need to maintain cordial relations with global powers such as the USA, the UK, France, Germany, and Russia, it is crucial that the country also strengthens ties with emerging global players, such as the BRIC and MINT countries, if it is to attain its domestic and foreign objectives. With an eye on the economic objectives, Nigeria must at the same time remain committed to regional and continental governance, peace and stability objectives.


To be able to achieve the objectives highlighted above, it is important for Nigeria to deploy the its human and material resources in an unprecedented manner. An important step in that direction is a review of the effectiveness of Line statutory bodies, in this case, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), and the Institute for Peace and Conflict Research. The incoming administration, riding on the enormous goodwill of Nigerians and their aspirations for positive change across board, must professionalize the Foreign Affairs Ministry, in order for the latter to effectively serve as the government’s think-tank on foreign affairs; review the role of its intelligence arm in furthering Nigeria’s foreign policy aspirations, and institutionalize the input of former Ministers of Foreign Affairs/retired senior MoFA personnel into foreign policy decision-making by making effective use of the Foreign Affairs Advisory Committee.

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