Johannesburg: Nigeria is at a critical juncture in its international relations. With the right level of diplomatic common sense and strategic decision making, the country could catapult itself into the premier league of emerging nations and become the leading African voice in matters of global significance. The positive economic trends in the country, and its growing global economic stature, also present a major opportunity for Africa’s most populous nation to become the continent’s most influential player on the world stage.
Nigeria is a major regional power in west Africa. Its influence is derived from a population of more than 150-million, its abundant natural resources, its peacekeeping abilities, an engaged and entrepreneurial diaspora, and emerging opportunities in a rapidly growing economy.
The return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999 substantially improved the country’s image abroad and allowed it to take a more active and productive role regionally and internationally. The international goodwill generated by a successful national election last year has paved the way for it to chart a new and dynamic foreign policy.
Further, the rise of other emerging nations, such as China, Brazil and India, creates a unique opportunity for the second-richest economy in Africa to expand its influence in global affairs.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, in power since May last year, has focused strongly on new priorities and challenges, such as job creation, economic progress, poverty eradication and security. Foreign policy is aimed at consolidating good governance at home and on the continent, as well as strengthening the capacity of continental organisations to respond more effectively to international situations. Recent interventions in Africa served to enhance Nigeria’s diplomatic clout.
Last year, Nigeria supported military interventions in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya against regimes accused of atrocities against their own people. In both cases, Nigeria’s regional power was enhanced by its decisive action and support of new regimes. This is in contrast with SA, which has been struggling to articulate a coherent foreign policy under the Zuma administration and is suffering from declining continental influence as a result.
Nigeria’s early recognition of the Transitional National Council, Libya’s interim government, courted criticism from the South African government, which believed Nigeria had "jumped the gun" by recognis ing the rebels before the African Union (AU) had formulated a resolution on the matter. The African National Congress’s harsh criticism of Nigeria may reflect the political threat it now feels as a result of Nigeria having seized the initiative in such a clear-cut fashion. SA may fear other countries will soon follow Nigeria’s lead, which could severely dilute its role as the AU’s overarching authority on African affairs.
Nigeria’s principled stand to support democracy and human rights in Cô te d’Ivoire, when Laurent Gbagbo refused to respect the result of the 2010 election, is starting to bear fruit from the economic and political perspectives. Nigeria is taking advantage of the peace in the country by participating in its economic re-engineering, and relations with the Ivorian government have steadily improved.
Nigerian companies have started moving into Côte d’Ivoire, with two companies already obtaining licences to operate in the petroleum sector. Nigeria also plans to send a trade delegation to Libya to take part in reconstruction efforts.
Nigeria has displayed a flair for peacekeeping in the region, with its troops having been actively involved in Chad, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as further afield in Angola, Rwanda and Somalia. Without Nigeria, the West African Peace Monitoring Force of the Economic Community of West African States would be toothless, and African-led peacekeeping missions in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone would not have been possible.
Another cardinal principle of its recently reinvigorated foreign policy is that Nigeria should and must play a leading role in important international multilateral institutions.
Nigeria’s quest for a potential African slot in an expanded permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council is an important strategic imperative. Nigeria is serving as a nonpermanent member of the council, which is responsible for maintaining international peace and security, for the fourth time.
As things stand, Nigeria would find a formidable opponent in SA in the contest for the Africa slot in an enlarged council. The onus would be on Nigeria to show why SA should not be the automatic candidate for that position.
Nigeria’s plan to rebase its gross domestic product will certainly help in this regard by allowing it to project its economic power on the world stage. The growing economic stature could pose a serious challenge to SA ’s position as the dominant economy on the continent. Rebasing Nigeria’s $247bn economy would bring it to $395bn, much closer to that of SA, which is currently $422bn. And with average growth in Nigeria expected to be more than 7% over the next five years, compared with a mere 4% in SA, the picture of an emerging giant in Africa is an easy sell.
The international community has also been impressed by the Nigerian government’s strong diplomatic support of the US government’s counterterrorism efforts in the aftermath of 9/11.
Nigeria has played a leading role in forging an antiterrorism consensus among states in sub-Saharan Africa. And it is likely to prove a crucial ally to western powers in preventing the proliferation of radical Islam in west Africa. Furthermore, Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the US and is the primary oil supplier to Brazil. Nigeria supplies 20% of India’s crude oil and is India’s largest trading partner in Africa.
There is growing involvement of Chinese parastatals in many sectors of the economy, but most prominently in infrastructure projects, for which the Nigerian government is heavily reliant on Chinese engineering firms.
Relations with the UK remain strong and there is considerable interest in Nigeria’s energy potential from its former colonial power.
However, the issues of terrorism, militancy and piracy remain a lingering threat to the country’s international ambitions. Nigeria will need urgently to find a lasting solution to its internal security challenges. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group involved in some deadly bomb attacks in the country, needs to be tackled with the same zeal deployed to its international peacekeeping operations for the country to maintain its credibility as an arbiter of security matters.
But, if Nigeria continues to articulate a consistent foreign policy, the country will convert its regional authority into the spheres of continental and global influence and transform into a true African powerhouse.
Failure to do so will represent another missed opportunity for the country. SA should be concerned.
- Gopaldas is a sovereign risk analyst at Rand Merchant Bank.