THE BABANGIDA REGIME AND NIGERIA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Jide Osuntokun


It is a truism in international relations that foreign policy is inevitably an extension of domestic politics. Klemens furst von Metternich, the Chancellor of that amorphous agglomeration of territories known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, spent his working life justifying this dictum. Dr. Henry Kissinger, erstwhile Secretary of State of the United States and distinguished professor of diplomatic history, has confirmed what a commonsensical expression is after all. In other words, when a country is successful abroad, it must be united and strong at home. Many examples of this fact abound in the history of inter-state relations. Tlte greatest power on earth, the United States of America, was humbled by a backward and small Asian country, Vietnam, because the American people were not united in their determination to prosecute an unpopular war in a far away country where it was generally agreed that vital American interests were not threatened.

This preamble is necessary in order to properly understand the inter-dependence of foreign and domestic policies. One is the extension of the other. The converse of this is that historically, some countries when faced with problems at home, have tried to pursue policies of glory abroad in order to divert attention from the inadequacy of government policies at home. The French were guiltier of this than any other country. Napoleon Bonaparte’s historic conquest of continental Europe, with the exception of Russia, was embarked upon when he could not solve France’s domestic problems. Even the British were not averse to using foreign policy to boost the popularity of government at home.

This was very noticeable during the prime ministership of Lord Palmerston in the 1860s. Palmerston believed in gun-boat diplomacy and the relatively risk- free policy of shelling foreign ports to teach “natives” who will not respect British citizens or open up their ports to British merchandise some lessons about British sea power. Palmerston once said that just like the Romans of old could say “Civis Romanus Sum”, that is, “I am a Roman” and expect to be protected by the military might of Rome, a Briton in the 19th century world, should be able to say “Civis Britannicus Sum” and expect the long arm of the British Navy to protect him. This policy of a leader demonstrating power abroad to show his domestic audience of his toughness, still survives in the United States even today. A modern American president, on assuming office, always seems to look for a safe territory to invade, usually a small Caribbean country, just to demonstrate America’s might without too much risk.

Nearer home, Nigeria’s involvement in the Liberian civil war could be seen in terms of a confident president projecting his nation’s power abroad. If we had been able to do this surgically and quickly without being bogged down, the incumbent president would have received great acclamation. Our seeming failure in Liberia in resolving the Liberian crisis quickly is easily blamed on President Babangida, whereas if he had succeeded, everyone would have shared in the glory.

In other words, foreign policy can be made to serve domestic purposes but there is a caveat here. Whatever adventure a government embarks on must be winnable. There is hardly any sense in a foreign misadventure, which eventually would be counter productive, thus defeating the purpose of unity and nationalism at home. The other side of the coin is that a strong government at home is a necessary desideratum for a strong foreign policy abroad because a strong and popular government at home will attract respect abroad.

The Babangida regime enjoyed a favourable international reception to the extent that President Babangida visited either privately or officially such important countries as Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the United States, Japan and the Yugoslavian Federation. Apart from visiting these countries, he was elected chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and this led him to make state visits to several African countries. His regime received support from friendly countries such as Britain, Germany, Japan, France and the United States, as well as from multilateral institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the African Development Bank (ADB).

Nigeria scored several firsts during the regime of President Babangida. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a distinguished Nigerian diplomat, was elected the first African Secretary-General of a multi-racial Commonwealth, in a keen contest against a former Australian Prime Minister. General Joseph Garba, a former foreign affairs minister of Nigeria, beat all others in our region, to the elective post of President at the 44th session of the United Nations General assembly in 1988. Malam Yaya Aliyu was elected to the executive board of UNESCO in Paris. Professor Obasi, another Nigerian was re-elected Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva, and Prince Bola Ajibola, former Attorney-General of Nigeria was elected to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to complete the unexpired tenure of the late Dr. Taslim Elias. Alhaji Rilwanu Lukman was elected Secretary-General of OPEC. Even former president Olusegun Obasanjo nearly became Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In contrast, no Nigerian during the Abacha years could run for even the most humble international job and expect to be elected. The question to ask is why was the international community indulgent and well disposed to the Babangida regime? President Babangida had good advisers, particularly in its choice of his foreign ministers. Babangida in the choice of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi chose, well. Akinyemi was very well known globally and he worked very hard to redeem the image of Nigeria, which had been damaged as a result of a botched attempt by government agents to kidnap Umaru Dikko, one of President Shagari’s erstwhile ministers, on the streets of London during the Buhari/ldiagbon regime which preceded the Babangida administration. Prof. Akinyemi was succeeded as foreign minister by General Ike Nwachukwu, who also brought distinction and honour to his country wherever he went. He worked very hard and mastered his terrain in no time and in the process charted a novel course in Nigeria’s foreign policy, a departure which he appropriately christened Economic Diplomacy.’

The economic policy of Structural Adjustment pursued at home by President Babangida drew a lot of attention to the president from abroad. The unpopularity of the policy among Nigerians and his determination to pursue this policy against all odds, led to the perception of Babangida as a strong leader and consequently elicited support for him and his regime. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, was particularly fond of President Babangida. This friendship was reciprocated by the presidential directive to the Foreign Ministry to spare the British Prime Minister, attacks and criticism even though Nigeria differed from her policy of support for apartheid South Africa. Nigeria’s opposition to colonialism and racism was central to our historic foreign policy posture of emphasising the political liberation of African peoples under the yoke of colonial domination and all the evils of settlerism. So, it was considerable sacrifice for us to hold fire in the face of Britain’s violation of what Nigeria had regarded as a sacred trust.

Rilwanu Lukman served briefly as foreign minister carrying on with the policy of economic diplomacy already established by the government. He did not stay long enough to make an impact until General Ike Nwachukwu was returned to the Foreign Ministry in 1990, a capacity in which he was to serve out the rest of Babangida’s time in office.

Nigeria’s foreign policy platform had been well established since independence. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa had enunciated what came to be the central theme of protecting Africans at home and in Diaspora as Nigeria’s foreign policy. Governments have come and gone but essentially the permanent interests of Nigeria remain the same. Through the regimes of Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed/Obasanjo and Shehu Shagari, our foreign policy remained focused essentially on the liberation and de-colonisation of Africa. What differed from one regime to the other was the degree of emphasis on aspects of this central thrust, in spite of the essential differences between military and civilian administrations respectively.

Owing to the mismanagement of resources, rampant corruption in the public life of Nigeria, the military felt compelled in December of 1983 to topple the government of President Shehu Shagari. There was no question as to whether the military’s advent received wide and even wild acclamation. It did. Whether the military, by the time they vacated power in 1999, had become more corrupt and totally discredited is not the issue here. When General Buhari took over government and imposed draconian measures on the country, people were prepared to tolerate the regime until it found itself bogged down with double standards in its treatment of the civilian populace, particularly the politicians. By the time General Ibrahim Babangida took over in August 1985, the economic situation had become intolerable. There was shortage of consumer goods and for the first time in Nigeria’s history, people had to queue for so-called `essential commodities’ such as rice, cooking oil, sugar and other items of daily need goods. The reason for this situation was scarcity caused through rationing of foreign exclMnge, and also through abuse of the foreign exchange allocation regimes. Those, who were genuine businessmen had to buy import license documents from cronies of people in the Buhari administration.

Coupled with all these was the palpable dictatorship characteristic of the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. These excesses led to jailing of journalists and the public execution of hard drug offenders, who fell victims to decrees that applied ex post facto. This was the situation Nigeria found itself when General Ibrahim Babangida came to power. The situation demanded a new economic approach to the then prevailing over regulation, barter trade and foreign exchange allocation and rationing of the Buhari regime. It was in this situation that Babangida, with pressure and encouragement of Nigeria’s trading partners and the Bretton Woods institutions namely the World Bank and the IMF, embraced the policy of Structural Adjustment and economic deregulation at home. To back up this domestic policy, the government eventually adopted the policy of Economic Diplomacy, after trying unsuccessfully with the concept of Medium Powers.

The idea initially enunciated by Professor Bolaji Akinyemi was to get a group of influential medium income and resource endowed countries into an informal association to influence the direction of world affairs, particularly the economic aspect of these relations. It was felt that the Non-Aligned Movement was too unwieldy to achieve this and that the Commonwealth was too informal and unstructured for the purpose. This idea was soon abandoned because of the apathy of the target countries, which probably felt there were already too many international organisations. Interestingly, this idea was never completely abandoned and it later surfaced in Belgrade in 1990, as the Group of 15, made up of mostly influential African, Asian and Latin American countries. But it was the policy of Economic Diplomacy enunciated by General Ike Nwachukwu which later articulated the foreign policy component of domestic market oriented deregulation.

Economic Diplomacy as articulated then meant tempering our pre-occupation with political issues such as decolonisation and non-alignment. This was particularly apt at a period when one could see the eventual demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the horizon. Secondly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the removal of the Berlin Wall, and the emergence of USA as the only super power in the world, Non-Alignment as a movement had become superfluous, if not irrelevant. Nigeria therefore decided that economic survival had become the most important national interest. It was then decided to put the weight of our foreign policy behind Nigeria’s economic development without necessarily abandoning the time-cherished policy of political liberation of African peoples. It then meant that Nigeria was prepared to sometimes sacrifice time honoured principles for the purpose of economic development.

This meant creating appropriate institutions such as the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission, created as a one stop agency to facilitate quick registration of foreign enterprises in Nigeria without the usual hassle of moving from one ministry to another and being subjected to financial fleecing by light handed bureaucrats. A trade and investment unit was also set up in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to co-ordinate the economic efforts of all Nigerian embassies abroad which were directly charged with promoting the economic interests of our country. Ambassadors were told that their success or failure would be based on how many foreign investors from their host countries entered Nigeria for the purpose of establishing new ventures.

The government also abolished the indegenisation decree which barred foreigners from participating in certain business activities. The foreign exchange decree making it an offence to transfer money abroad without going through the Central Bank was also abolished. This was meant to facilitate transfer of dividends and profits abroad without much difficulty. The foreign exchange regime hitherto prevailing was dismantled and. Naira became a floating currency that was traded officially through the Central Bank and the Bureaux de change that were permitted to operate openly so as to drive away black market operators.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs embarked on several ministerial trips to drum up support for investments in Nigeria. The Foreign Minister, General Ike Nwachukwu in particular, introduced a novelty in inviting businessmen to join ministerial delegations whenever he went on any visit. Through this, the private sector was made to feel that its interests and those of government were the same and that these were mutual interests that needed to be promoted. Promotion of Nigeria’s economic interest became the mantra of the president and his ministers, whether at the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) or in bilateral joint commissions.

Several economic joint commissions were established between Nigeria and our various trading partners. These commissions met alternately in Nigeria and in the partner countries. Efforts were also made to strengthen economic relations, not only with the OECD countries’ but also with countries in our sub-region.

The United Nations was sensitised to the plight of Africans in their struggle for economic emancipation. The question of the debt overhang received adequate publicity. The UN in the 1990s was forced to put into motion a programme of rapid African economic development. Nigeria’s debts were rescheduled rather than cancelled and generous financial facilities were made available to Nigeria, either bilaterally or through multilateral institutions to facilitate structural adjustment of the economy.

In spite of all efforts to turn the economy around, not much was achieved because of several reasons. The international community did not commit the quantity of financial resources necessary to make the kind of impact that Nigeria was expecting. In spite of all efforts to attract foreign investment, not much came in. The reason for this was not unconnected with the opening up of the vast area of Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism. American and Western Europeans felt a strategic urge to invest in Eastern Europe in order to consolidate democracy and to insure themselves against future strategic threats from Eastern Europe, particularly Russia which possessed a formidable nuclear capability but was economically backward. At the time Nigeria was opening up, China with its huge market of 1.2 billion people, was also opening up. The Apartheid racial system was also collapsing in South Africa and western capital and technical assistance were drawn there if only to ensure soft landing for South Africa’s powerful white population.

All the areas that were in competition with Nigeria had developed their physical infrastructure, whereas investors had adequate intelligence as to the non­availability of an investment friendly environment in Nigeria. The failure of the: policy of Economic Diplomacy, if a failure it was, was therefore not the result of any fault inherent in the Babangida administration.

The foreign policy of the Babangida administration was not, however, restricted to the promotion of Nigeria’s economic development interests alone. Nigeria, in spite of fitful economic development efforts over the years remains an important player on the world stage. Nigeria took the leadership as it has always done historically in leading the struggle for the protection of the African environment. Following the sudden realisation that Africa was about to be turned into a dumping ground for industrial radioactive and toxic waste, Nigeria established the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) in 1988.

This was in reaction to the dumping of toxic wastes in Nigeria’s port of Koko by an Italian company. Nigeria soon found out that the same kind of wastes had been dumped in Benin Republic and even in South Africa. Through diplomatic co­operation with the West African states, Nigeria established a Dump Watch to monitor the movement of suspicious vessels in the region. Nigeria got the ECOWAS countries to support a protocol against wastes dumping. The position of Nigeria was endorsed by the OAU and finally by the UN, thus leading to an International Protocol, the Basel Convention, which was adopted in 1989.

This prohibited the trans-boundary transfer of hazardous and toxic radioactive wastes to countries, which have neither the technology nor administrative mechanism for handling them. It was also Nigeria as chairman of the OAU that pushed for the appointment of an African as the Secretary-General of the UN. It was as a result of the massive campaign launched by Nigeria that the rest of the world conceded the position to an African, a concession, which led to the election of Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt as Secretary-General of the UN. Nigeria’s traditional anti-apartheid position earned us membership of the Commonwealth Committee on South Africa. Nigeria along with India, Guyana, Canada, Zambia, Tanzania and Australia was largely responsible for bringing down the apartheid system and earlier on, independence for Namibia. These achievements were not cheaply attained, it had considerable cost in human and material resources. Nigeria was regarded as a frontline state and towards the end of the apartheid system, considerable amount of money was made available to the liberation movements, particularly to the ANC and PAC. President Babangida took personal interest in the welfare of the leadership of the ANC, especially in the health matters of Oliver Tambo, the then ailing ANC president. President Babangida also followed with kin interests the situation in the black diaspora, and his considerable financial support saw to the emergence once again as Prime Minister, Michael Manley, over his perennial opponent Edward Seaga in Jamaica. It was the cultivation of the West Indian connection that proved decisive during the election of Chief Anyaoku as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth in Kuala Lumpur in 1990. Virtually all the Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean voted for the Nigerian candidate.

It was partly the confidence that our country had garnered, through the various successes in our foreign policy that emboldened President Babangida to intervene in the Liberian crisis. Before military intervention, considerable economic assistance had been given to Liberia. A team of university dons was even sent to help Liberia develop a post-graduate school, which the Liberian authorities appropriately named after the Nigerian leader. At this time, virtually all the West African states were making one demand or the other on Nigeria. Nigeria in 1989 had helped Sierra Leone establish a College of Medicine under the leadership of a Nigerian provost. Benin, Togo and even Ghana were owing Nigeria considerable amounts of money in delayed payment for crude petroleum. From being economically dependent to being militarily dependent was to prove a thin margin. When fighting broke out in Liberia, their leader, the late Samuel Doe, who had increasingly become. President Babangida’s protege, appealed desperately for help. It was also clear that Charles Taylor, the rebel leader, was being sponsored by a coalition of countries including Libya, Ghana, and Bourkina Fasso and curiously, for family ties with Cote d’Ivoire. It was in this quagmire that the Nigerian intervention forces under the rubric of ECOMOG found itself.

Right from the beginning, it was clear that the interests of Nigeria were not the same as those of Ghana and certainly different from those of Cote d’Ivoire, a country that has never agreed with Nigeria on any substantial issue. The intervention, which initially was motivated by a desire to save President Doe’s regime, got bogged down and was transformed into a direct military confrontation with the forces of Charles Taylor. This was after President Doe had been brutally murdered by Yormie Johnson, a faction leader, through the collusion and betrayal of Doe by Ghanaian forces.

Throughout the remaining years of the Babangida administration, Charles Taylor, at considerable cost to Nigeria’s exchequer and men, was prevented from militarily taking over power in Liberia. President Babangida’s Africa policy resulted in the signing of the Abuja Charter of 1991, which set Africa on the path of seeking an African Common Market and Economic Union in the year 2020, with regional bodies like ECOWAS and SADC as building blocks to eventual African Union.

In conclusion, there is no doubt in my mind that the Babangida years were successful years for Nigeria’s foreign policy. Comparing the situation before the advent of Babangida’s administration and the period following it, shows in dramatic relief the success of the Babangida administration. The situation until the annulment of the election in 1993 was so good that if a decision as to the widening of the Security Council of the UN had been taken then, Nigeria under Babangida would have easily been chosen as Africa’s representative.

The policies of Economic Diplomacy of the Babangida years and the quest for economic union in Africa remain recurring themes in Nigeria’s foreign policy orientation even up to the present Obasanjo-led democratic government. The disastrous operation of the Abacha years when Chief Tom Ikimi as Foreign Minister ran our foreign policy aground and Nigeria became a pariah state, suspended from the Commonwealth and virtually ostracised even by fellow African states was a great departure from the expertise with which Nigeria’s foreign affairs was managed in the Babangida years.

One of the hallmarks of the Babangida administration was the freedom which ministers were given to shape the affairs of their ministries. The same gesture was extended to the Foreign Ministry. Once the parameters of Nigeria’s foreign policy were established, the president left his foreign ministers with the routine operation of foreign affairs. The president of course read his briefs and followed with keen interest what was going on and he was sometimes personally involved in formulating foreign policy as was demonstrated in our policy towards Liberia, our reconciliatory effort in the Sudan and in the rapproachment with Israel as well as his politically risky accession to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (01C). But having said this, the success of Babangida’s foreign policy owed to a great extent to the fact that he allowed his trusted ministers and their teams immense leverage in the execution of Nigeria’s foreign policy, while at the end of the day, the buck stopped at the table of the president. Even though the intervention in Liberia had a cost, it brought Nigeria a lot of respect internationally. Apart from the disastrous intervention in Chad under the Shagari civilian adminstration a decade or so earlier, the projection of military power outside our territory as evidenced in Liberia introduced a new dimension to our foreign policy. It brought the Defence and Foreign Affairs closer together and demonstrated that Nigeria under a strong leadership was ready to bear the cost of being a regional power. This is important for our relations with our neighbours and our role in the West African sub-region.

In matters of regional security, a little bit of sabre rattling does no regional power any harm for as long as this ultimate weapon of diplomacy is rarely and wisely used. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity opened by Babangida was to be unwisely used by his less competent successor, General Sani Abacha. Under Babangida, the Republic’s foreign policy was in the competent hands of a knowledgeable president. Under his successor, the nation had to contend with the personal whims of an uninformed despot.

SELECT SOURCES

Akinjide Osuntokun: Nigeria’s Foreign Policy in Global Perspective. Lagos University Press, 1998.

Olu Adeniji: Essays on Nigerian Foreign Policy, Governance and International Security. Dokun Publishing House, Ibadan, 2000.