Policy Briefs

UN and Nigeria’s Foreign Policy Lacuna

By Oseloka H. Obaze ~~~

United Nations remains a fulcrum for global politics and multilateral diplomacy. Nigeria has been a UN member state for fifty-six years. However, its influence has waned. That problem is mostly self-inflicted. It’s been averred that any serious and major nation in good standing must “recognize the need to exploit the extant structure of international system to its advantage more effectively.” Nigeria’s pursuit of a grand strategy for an enhanced position is hampered by internal political dynamics, structural constraints and political alignments that hardly have national interest as their sole focus.
If ever there was a time Pax Nigeriana seems germane to national interest, it is now. Yet there exist some dissembling realities. Nigeria, once considered a continental hegemon has seen her sphere of influence curtailed discernibly. Any influence the nation wields now, falls in the realm of projecting “illusory hegemony”; which is to say, that national confidence emanates from nostalgia and past standing. Should these circumstances remain unchanged and strategic realities unappreciated, Nigeria risks wallowing on the periphery of global politics.
Singular and at times seemingly unimportant events tend to serve as benchmarks by which a nation’s seriousness is measured. Recently the UN elected a new Secretary-General, Mr Antonio Guterres of Portugal. Aside from a congratulatory message from President Muhammadu Buhari, in which he expressed the belief that ” Guterres’ wealth of experience as a former Prime Minister of Portugal, head of UN Refugee Agency for several years, diplomat and a politician of repute, eminently prepared and qualified him for the new position” and that Nigeria looked “forward to working and supporting Guterres to address the world’s most pressing challenges” etc., I am unaware that we have tried to engage the SG-designate directly.
Had the UN followed the rotational principles strictly, Guterres might not have emerged, since a candidate from Eastern European Group would have been favoured. Some of the other SG-candidates were, Danilo Turk of Slovenia, Susanna Malcorra of Argentina, Helen Clark of New Zealand, Miroslav Lajčák of Slovakia, Srgjan Kerim of former Yugosloav Republic of Macedonia, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Natalia Gehrman of Moldova, Vesna Pusic of Croatia, and Vuk Jeremic of Serbia. A handful of the candidates possess requisite UN leadership experience. Yet Guterres emerged because he was qualified, but more so because of realpolitik and tensions of the East-West face off over the conflict in Ukraine foreclosed on an Eastern European Group candidate.
Regardless, Nigeria like other nations will deal with Mr. Guterres for the next ten years. And Nigeria knows and has identified already the key areas where she must interface with him, which includes, “defeating terrorism.. reducing poverty and tackling the devastating effects of climate change; as well as confronting the root causes of migrants and refugee crisis.” But will such dealings be based on a relationship predicated on mutual interest and forged by cordiality?
During the process of choosing the new Secretary-General, Nigeria was hardly engaged in the process. Nigeria did not even have a substantive ambassador or deputy at the UN Mission in New York. Mr. Tony Bosah, a Minister and the Charge d’ Affaires at the Nigerian UN Mission, is a very experienced, capable and diligent diplomat, who did his utmost. I know, because many years back he was my under-study at the Foreign Ministry in Lagos. But for Nigeria, the absence of a substantive permanent representative during the crucial selection period was failure in strategic planning. Truly, it was a missed opportunity. Relatedly, it is not surprising; therefore, that none of the top candidates visited Abuja to seek our support as a top and representative voice of Africa.
It’s noteworthy, to recall that the first appointment President Muhammadu Buhari made as a military leader in January 1984, was to send late Gen. Joe Garba to the United Nations. That appointment and its attending message resonated. Such gesture should have been replicated, even if it meant cross-posting a serving ambassador from one of Nigeria’s Grade A posts to hold the fort, while the senate cleared the ambassadorial nominees. Why Nigeria is lagging diplomatically, remains confounding, even as it is evidently linked with her domestic realities. Understanding Nigeria’s challenges thus requires an appreciation of her internal dynamics.
It was common knowledge that Antonio Guterres emerged as a consensus candidate, at a time when global thinking and perception favoured a female Secretary-General. Most of the female candidates were eminently qualified; and Ban Ki-Moon, the outgoing UN Secretary-General had publicly expressed his preference for a female successor. Having missed the opportunity to engage the UN Secretary-General designate early, we seem all set to miss out on engaging him on key high-level appointments, including the choice of his Deputy. Today, we do not have a ranking official in the UN Headquarters Secretariat, proper, since Ms. Amina J. Mohammed left her position as Assistant Secretary-General in November 2015 to become our Minister of Environment. Of course, we still have our former Minister of Health Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin as the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, who is an Under Secretary-General, but he is not in the Secretariat high-rise.
Had our foreign policy remained proactive and in keeping with past trends, we should have been upfront in pressing for the Deputy Secretary-General position to go to a female, possibly, an African and possibly a Nigerian. Nigeria has eminently qualified candidates, including Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Prof. Joy Ogwu, Amina Mohammed, Folunronsho Alakija, Chimamanda Adiche and others. The last female Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Dr. Asha-Rose Mtengeti Migiro of Tanzania, served from 2007-2012. In the event that Nigeria was not interested for whatever reasons, nothing stops her from backing another African candidate, man or woman for that position. After all, a high percentage of the issues the UN grapples with pertain to Africa. We ought to have a place or representation at the senior policymaking level at the UN. Being there should be Africa’s prerogative; but coveted posts won’t be handed to us without our pressing for it, openly or discreetly.
Nigeria has done fairly well at the UN recently, with a back-to-back membership of the UN Security Council. But issues that dominate the international system are developmental, ecological and socio-economic in nature. These fall well within the remit of the UN and Nigeria needs adequate representation where UN policies are discussed, either within the Secretariat or amongst the member states. Nigeria needs to re-engage — proactively and constructively. As Hash V. Pant perceptively observed, “How states respond to their relative material rise or decline has long been central to understanding the forces shaping international politics.” Even the smallest of nations understand fully that the UN is a one-stop-shop, where you can engage members of the international community in a cost-effective manner.
Meanwhile, let us hope that the unwritten rule, by which our past ambassadors to the UN have had notional cabinet ranking, most being former foreign ministers — Joe Garba, Ibrahim Gambari and Joy Ogwu — will not be altered. To discontinue that trend would mean that we intend to pass up on the strategic institutionalization of Nigeria’s foreign policymaking. Finally, we should rethink how we conduct our public policies in Nigeria — by focusing not for ourselves, but on our country’s needs. For those who call the policy shots, there ought to be a discernible change in the strategic dimension of our foreign policy, with a view to improving its value and solvency.

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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