The recent report that the National Economic Council (NEC) has taken a decision that Nigeria will no longer play ‘big brother’ to countries in trouble without getting anything in return, and that henceforth the nation’s foreign interventions and assistance will be guided by ‘national interest’, made headlines.

Briefing journalists after the Council’s meeting at Abuja, Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State was quoted as saying: “…we are going to shed that belief that we are big brother where we go to help other people and we never get something in return…So, wherever we go or whoever we relate with, must be because it will help us develop, rather than, as we normally say, that we have gone to help these or that people without getting anything in return.”

The NEC’s resurgent ‘nationalism’ raises a number of issues:

One, it is difficult to know the notion of ‘national interest’, which NEC was espousing, or how it came to the conclusion that the country’s foreign policy has not been guided by ‘national interest’. The truth is that the national interest of a country is often multifaceted and dynamic. For a country like Nigeria, the ‘national interest’ includes keeping Nigeria as one united and peaceful country, economic development, respect for human rights, protecting the country’s democracy, internal peace and security, peaceful relations with the country’s neighbours, commanding the respect of other African countries (both for our ego needs and to leverage such in our relations with the big powers), and ensuring political stability among the country’s neighbours (to prevent potential influx of refugees).

It is germane to note that what one regime may prioritise as ‘national interest’ may be seen differently by another regime. For instance during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648) – a largely religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics - France chose to intervene on the side of the Protestants despite its overwhelming Catholicism because the regime was apparently more interested in blocking the growing power of the Holy Roman Emperor. It is possible that another regime could have taken a different course of action, based on a different articulation of the ‘national interest’.

Two, it is wrong to assume that playing ‘big brother’ to other African countries means that the country’s ‘national interest’ is not being projected. Suggesting that any relations must bring immediate economic gratification is not only ‘cowboyism’ but also short-sighted.  At a time when the notion of ‘soft power’ – commanding influence through co-option and attraction (or winning hearts and minds) – has become ascendant in the foreign policy thrust of the major powers, to nurse a nostalgia for the discredited mercantilist approach to foreign policy is an error of judgment.

Three, it is understandable that some Nigerians are frustrated that countries we helped in their times of need  such as  South Africa during its struggle against apartheid and  Liberia and Sierra Leone during their  civil wars,  do not seem to show us the desired respect. However, the truth is that a nation’s respectability in international relations is not wholly contingent upon its past benevolence but often more on the current leverages it could bring to the table.

Additionally, a nation’s standing in the comity of nations cannot be divorced from its domestic circumstances, including its performance in such critical indices as transparency of elections, human rights record, security, good governance, and poverty alleviation. Moreover, it is not exactly true that Nigeria has not benefited from playing ‘big brother’ because apart from the country’s profile being raised during the acts, the number of Nigerians that moved to South Africa at the end of apartheid and to Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of the wars also increased. So what does Nigeria really expect these countries to do? It is true that if America or Britain had played similar roles, they would have ensured that British and American companies would corner the bulk of the reconstruction contracts. If Nigeria was unable to leverage its contributions in Liberia and Sierra Leone to win reconstruction contracts for Nigerian companies, then we are talking of the failure of economic diplomacy, not of foreign policy. It is unrealistic to expect countries to come prostrating to us, or fail to defend their own ‘national interest’ in their relations with us simply because we rendered some help to them in the past.

Four, the decision to jettison the country’s ‘big brother’ role is an indirect abandonment of the notion of Africa being the centrepiece of the nation’s foreign policy. This is quite unfortunate because the afro-centric nature of our foreign policy has never precluded relations with other countries, multilateral agencies or other actors.  In fact, it can be argued that the country’s strategic political importance to the world is hinged on its influence in the continent – just as Egypt is regarded as a strategic partner of the West  largely because of its ability to leverage the West’s relations with the Arab world. It will therefore be wrong for Nigeria to abandon the source of its potential strength in the world – paradoxically at a time it is campaigning for a permanent seat in the Security Council of the United Nations using the leverage it has in Africa as a key argument. Additionally, even when Nigeria ‘develops’, it will discover, as South Africa has done, that other African countries, not the West or Asia, will be the major market for its goods, because such goods will for a long time be too weak to compete at the global level.

Five,  it was a monumental error on the part of  the NEC to openly declare that it would henceforth get involved with other countries only if there was specific economic benefit for the country. While national interest always guides foreign policy (the French expression ‘raison d'État’ - meaning ‘reason of the State’ captures this well), it is usually masked in morally acceptable language such as the need to ‘civilize the natives’ (used to justify colonialism) or the need to find and destroy Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (used to justify the Iraq War). In fact, Britain still found a morally acceptable justification for the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) - one of the most mercantilist projections of ‘national interest’ in history. Though the wars were caused by the smuggling of opium by merchants from British India into China in defiance of Chinese prohibition laws, Britain’s formal justification for the war was a need to stem China’s balance of payment deficits. Even companies rarely tell customers they set up businesses to make profit – but to provide needed goods and services and create jobs. Now the NEC has chosen to throw diplomatese to the winds by impliedly announcing that the country will henceforth be guided by ‘cowboyism’ in its international relations. With all due respect, this is misplaced nationalism.

Jideofor Adibe, PhD, LLM, is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and publisher of the London-based Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd (www.adonis-abbey.com) The author can be reached at: [email protected]

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