Policy Briefs

Solvency of Buhari’s Foreign Policy

One year is far too brief a period to assess the value of any leader’s foreign policy. Yet the period is ample to gain insight on the foreign policy trajectory and if the efforts are gaining traction internationally and domestically.  A lot has be said and written on President Muhammadu Buhari’s foreign policy endeavours in his first year.  Most commentaries relate to his perceived junketing, at enormous costs while Nigeria’s domestic scene remains unsettled.  Much of the criticism rests on the presidency having spent some N5.5 billion in foreign travels in the first eleven months of his presidency. Such criticisms, to the extent they are sentimental are misplaced.  Yet, any hardheaded analysis will point to obvious shortfalls, as it pertains to returns on investment and the perceived quid-pro-quos.

BUHARI_3373847bAs a foreign policy professional, I’m hesitant to join in the precipitous criticism of President Buhari’s frequent travels. This does not suggest that all the trips made in the past eleven months are of value or cost-effective. I’d rather see the trips better conceptualized and executed. Also, I’d be keen on evaluating Buhari’s foreign policy solvency, and its short, medium and long term gains.   Contextually, there’s need to recognize the fundamental principle of a wise foreign policy, which must bring “into balance a country’s economic, political, and military commitments with its power, while maintaining a comfortable surplus of power in reserve.”

Since his inauguration on 29 May, 2015, President Buhari has undertaken a total of twenty-six foreign trips, spending cumulatively, some fifty days outside Nigeria.  Some Nigerians deem such peripatetic disposition excessive. Yet, President Buhari’s activist foreign policy role, must be considered against his personal convictions, but more so, against the backdrop of his foreign policy engagement as a military leader. In this context, Rueben Abati’s observation, that “Presidential trips are important, and that by travelling abroad, the President is performing a perfectly normal function” is indeed alluring.

Aware of trenchant criticisms of Buhari’s frequent travels, presidential aide Femi Adesina said such travels were far from frivolous. Buhari personally pleaded the need to engage his interlocutors directly and explain to them Nigeria’s needs and challenges. But it ought to be recognized, that as a military head of state from 1984 to 1985, Buhari’s foreign policy was remarkable for his aloofness and non-direct engagement.  His first appointment was sending a trusted diplomatic hand, General Joe Garba to the United Nations. Then he totally devolved foreign policy responsibilities and engagement to Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, his foreign policy vicar, who combined deftly, the theory and realities of foreign policy, under the rubric of the concentric circle approach.  Gambari did well to document the successes and limitations of Buhari’s erstwhile foreign policy in his well-regarded 1989 memoirs, Theory And Reality of Foreign Policy Making.

It’s noteworthy, that while Gambari in recording his interactions with thirteen non-African heads of a State, and sixteen top foreign dignitaries who visited Nigeria, there is no account of accompanying General Buhari on a foreign trip. Yet, he enjoyed the “support and confidence of General Buhari and the number-two man, General Tunde Idiagbon and in so doing, drove a proactive Nigerian foreign policy during those heady eighteen months of Buhari’s leadership. It remains a matter of conjecture, if Buhari’s earlier non-engagement in foreign policy was a matter of voluntary choice, or a choice foisted by Nigeria’s domestic conundrum in which he operated. In this his second coming, the diametric opposite is the case. President Buhari’s foreign policy engagement is total and unfettered.  Whatever his motives, he has made a change and definite foray into the foreign policy realm, electing to be his own foreign policy vicar, preceptor, articulator and implementation officer.

Drawing on the parameters of a wise foreign policy, it remains a reality that over time, Nigeria enjoyed comparative advantage in Africa’s foreign policy realm. Her relative power position in Africa grew from certain obvious factors.  Her foreign policy strength was an extrapolation of her domestic strength and wellbeing.  Ironically, just as Buhari inherited a parlous economy, dwindling foreign reserve and crashing oil prices, he also inherited a much diminished foreign policy standing, capacity and credibility.  Still unchanged from the 70s and 80s is the fact Nigeria’s diplomacy can’t be operated in a vacuum, but in the “economic, political, and institutional environment both inside and outside the government.”

Another critical strand relates to the modus operandi of Nigerian foreign policy practitioners. My 1997 observation, that “caught between what is ideal and actual reality, they now  resort to ‘adhocracy’, in both the formulation and implementation of policy and this, without apparent concern for the principles that have long underpinned the nation’s foreign policy” remains valid, as does the fact that “the problems that plague Nigeria’s foreign policy have no doubt resulted from self-inflicted limitations and contradictions within the circles of policy formulation and execution and the traditional instruments of statecraft.” Several other critical factors obtain.  Months before President Buhari appointed his ministers; he personally conducted his own foreign policy, using career diplomats as advisers.  As if to affirm that “the test of foreign –policy principles lies in their application to neighbors and more distant states”, he engaged both categories early and personally. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that though he eventually appointed a foreign minister in compliance with federal character dictates, he reserved for himself, albeit informally, core foreign policy responsibilities, just as he did on petroleum matters. This supposition, tallies with Abati’s contention about Buhari being Nigeria’s “chief diplomat” and “chief spokesperson” and perhaps so, for personal reasons. President Olusegun Obasanjo did likewise.

In substance, it’s the thinking behind the Buhari’s present disposition that matters most.  Nigeria’s present economic circumstances are far from glamourous. They mirror closely the state of affairs in the early 1990s, when Gen. Sani Abacha admitted that “Nigeria’s “experience of the past year underlies the intimate interrelationship between our domestic strength and our country’s ability to pursue a vigorous foreign policy.” Ironically, Nigeria which spearheaded the “Africa has come of age” era of assertive foreign policy would also head start Africa’s economic limping, via her tentative foreign policy endeavours that created perceptible dissonance. Hence, the recent conclusions by some foreign investors that “Nigeria, with help from South Africa, is killing the African story”, may well have gone beyond hyperbole.  Such confounding dissonance is perhaps what President Buhari seeks to change by taking charge.  Inevitably, some questions persist: Has anything really changed in Nigeria’s economic circumstances, including the nexus and connectivity of her domestic strength to her foreign policy wherewithal?  By assuming a leading activist role, has President Buhari altered the perception, realities and challenges that have long mitigated the robustness and vibrancy of Nigeria’s foreign policy?

Unlike his predecessors, Buhari’s foreign policy trajectory has been devoid of any labeling.  It’s unclear if this is by design, a tacit walk away from erstwhile slogans that touted our various mantras; Afrocentric dynamism, the concentric circle approach, the concert of medium powers, economic diplomacy, citizen’s diplomacy and transformational diplomacy.  Whatever is the case, it is only the level of solvency of a nation’s foreign policy that matters.  And solvency can be defined as return on investment, or alternatively, any tradeoffs that enhances the nation’s economic, political and military wherewithal.

Several national imperatives lend themselves as critical variables for measuring the solvency of Buhari’s foreign policy solvency. President Buhari had campaigned on the platform of the Chibok girls regaining their freedom. That has not happened.  The president canvassed international assistance in tackling the scourge of Boko Haram and terrorism. The jury is still out on the level of success so far. The president made anti-corruption campaign and recovery of looted funds the pivot of his good governance endeavors.  His foreign interlocutors chimed their support, but have hardly offered any tangible assistance. On the home front, Buhari’s foreign policy solvency is acutely challenged by Nigeria’s economic realities.  And these realities are biting. Despite the travels and presumed gains therefrom — foreign aid, loans, bilateral and multilateral agreements, debt forgiveness and consolidation, etc.—Nigeria’s economy is still tanking with unprecedented shortage of fuel, electricity, foreign exchange, faith and trust. To some, Information Minister Lai Mohammed’s claim that Buhari’s trips are already yielding dividends, including restoring  “Nigeria to its pride of place in eyes of foreign investors” and tackling “two things that have been driving investments away from this country is terrorism and corruption”  rings hollow. The truth is that neither the former nor the latter has been sufficiently remedied to boost investors’ confidence. As the Financial Times put it recently, “No economy can survive without fuel, electricity or foreign exchange.” Needless to state that the anchor of any foreign policy, remains the stark domestic realities.

Buhari’s foreign policy solvency is further challenged by adhocracy.  Of the twenty six trips taken so far, the China visit stands alone in yielding discernible results.  Though not initiated by Nigeria, Chinese authorities in their enlightened self-interest, and to safeguard the lopsided Sino-Nigeria trade imbalance, offered Nigeria a Yuan-Naira currency swap, albeit as a string attached to its putative $6bn loan for infrastructure development.  This currency swap is aimed more at undermining the US dollar as Nigeria’s main foreign exchange reserve and denominator.  It therefore helps Buhari’s foreign policy solvency only in a limited way. Even if accepted that the swap might help plug Nigeria’s budget deficit loopholes, some loopholes subsist, since strictly speaking, Nigeria did no initiate the swap policy and as such, has limited control over modalities for deriving medium and long term dividends from the swap.  As if to confirm the vagaries of such ad hoc and on-the-fly foreign policymaking, the ownership of the swap policy remains dubious and unclaimed by the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Ministry of Foreign Affair or the Presidency. Unsurprisingly, the after the swap was announced, the Naira weakened further against the US dollar in trade earlier this week.

There are three plausible strands that may have influenced Buhari’s foreign policy inclination: the desire to engender a new and robust foreign policy thrust; the desire to revitalize Nigeria’s stalled foreign policy impetus; and the desire to sustain the past and renowned foreign policy impetus via perceptible engagement. Salutary as it may be, whatever instructed Buhari’s decision to make a 360 degree turn and assume full responsibility for his foreign policy machinery, also bequeaths on the president, total absence of plausible deniability, should his foreign policy performance prove lackluster in the fullness of time. Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, like his predecessor in office, Alhaji Aminu Wali, is perhaps a minister in name only, though through no fault of his.

President Buhari’s foreign policy conduct in his first year mimics the analogy of the patient who must go and seek out the doctor. The patient has not fully recovered, and is perhaps as sick as ever before. Maybe, the president staying home more in his second year may help sanitize the contaminated economic and political environment, whilst the truly dedicated foreign aid dispensing doctors undertake house calls to Nigeria.  As far as the policy operational theatre and ambit goes, there exist for now a nebulous and disquieting imperviousness.  It is unclear, if Nigeria has leap-frogged her neighbors to engage distant interlocutors, or working her way back from far-flung countries towards a sub-regional focus.  In this sense, it remains difficult to determine if Buhari’s foreign policy trajectory as it stands is driven by introspective or retrospective considerations.  The answers may come in the months ahead. Meanwhile, while applauding President Buhari’s constructive engagements thus far, we must also tell him very bluntly that the foreign policy solvency he seeks, must be orchestrated first from home and on those Nigerian roads less travelled.   There lies the domestic foundation of his foreign policy solvency.


Obaze, MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult, is a strategic public policy adviser, consultant and immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government. ©Selonnes Consult Ltd. Nigeria



Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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