As Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan pays a state visit to South Africa this week, it is worth assessing that country’s foreign policy.
Nigeria likes to see itself as the "giant of Africa": it has impeccable "struggle credentials", having played a leading role in the liberation of Southern Africa; its peacekeepers helped calm two civil conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s; it was instrumental in building the institutions of the African Union (AU); and it has peacekeepers in Sudan’s Darfur region, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali.
Yet Nigeria has become a giant with clay feet, a regional Gulliver tied down by the petty ambitions and often inhumane greed of Lilliputian politicians, who have prevented a country of enormous potential from fulfilling its leadership aspirations in Africa.
Under Jonathan's administration since 2010, Nigeria's foreign policy has suffered terminal decline and the country's international voice has become muted. Abuja's feeble efforts to prevent South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from assuming the chair of the AU Commission last year failed, despite Abuja’s position that no representative of a large African power should occupy the post. Although Nigeria has the largest troop contingent in the AU-United Nations (UN) hybrid mission in Darfur, the UN brushed aside Abuja's objections last year and removed its able special representative, Ibrahim Gambari, from leadership of the mission.
Despite Nigeria being the fifth-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping globally, the quality of its soldiers has been questioned; they have often not been equipped to UN standards; and many of the country's armoured personnel carriers have broken down in mission areas. This has damaged the country's impressive peacekeeping record.
In spite of its own recent peacekeeping fiasco in the Central African Republic, there is a growing sense that South Africa has become a more strategic actor in global diplomacy than Nigeria. South Africa is the only African member of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Group of 20, and remains the only African country out of 10 global strategic partners of the European Union (EU). As if to reinforce this, the World Economic Forum, which Jonathan is attending this week, is being held in Cape Town, not Lagos.
Perhaps the most damaging sign of the loss of influence in Nigeria's foreign policy is the recent French-led military intervention in Mali. While the elimination of the militant threat in northern Mali is in the interest of Africa and the West, France has still in effect launched an old-style neocolonial intervention in a country in Nigeria’s backyard. Paris’s sending of troops to guard uranium mines in neighbouring Niger exposed some of its other interests. Rather than seeking to ensure that parochial Gallic interests are not entrenched and that a genuine international security force is established in Mali under a unified UN military command, Nigeria has instead acted as a cheerleader, deploying 1,200 troops that could become auxiliaries of French foreign policy in the country.
Nigeria's response to the Mali crisis has been subservient, weak and incoherent, reversing 40 years of Nigerian foreign policy. After Paris provided arms to "Biafran" secessionists through Francophone West Africa during Nigeria's 1967-1970 civil war in a bid to break up the country, Nigeria created the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in 1975 as a way of reducing French influence in the subregion.
France, however, continued with military interventions, deposing or sustaining autocrats more than 40 times in post-independence Africa. More recently, as its economy has declined and its military spending reduced, Paris has sought to multilateralise its past neocolonial interventions through an EU intervention in Chad and the African Republic and a UN intervention in Côte d'Ivoire. It is the Ivorian model, in which France keeps troops outside the UN chain of command while the world body subsidises stability in a country in which it has political and economic interests, that will now be applied to Mali. Pax Gallica has trumped Pax Nigeriana.
Although Nigeria's contribution of peacekeepers to the new UN mission in Mali is consistent with its foreign policy objectives, the country's actions abroad increasingly lack strategic vision. Even as Abuja prepares to return to the UN Security Council next year, there have been continuing reports of delays in paying its UN dues. Within AU circles, there have been reports of Nigeria dragging its feet on delivering on promises of financial support to the AU mission in Somalia. Even within Ecowas on Mali, Abuja appears to be leading from behind, with Burkina Faso overseeing mediation efforts.
Nigeria's foreign policy resembles a battered jalopy with a rookie driver asleep at the wheel on a road to nowhere. Can this accident be avoided?