What is Nigeria’s foreign policy direction under President Muhammadu Buhari?
His travels are beginning to cause so much attention at home that Ministers and spokesmen are struggling to explain them.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said recently that in addition to the quest for foreign investment, these travels are aimed at reversing the pariah status Nigeria had almost achieved under Buhari’s predecessor.
The Minister for Environment, Amina Mohammed, extended the investment argument, saying they would help take Nigerians, “out of poverty”.
Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu, in a signed article last November, had also stressed the importance of resetting the image of Nigeria abroad.
Speaking to State House correspondents more recently, he said that the need to block all safe havens for looted funds from Nigeria was at the heart of the President’s frequent travels, and noted that they are enabling the government to reach bilateral agreements on the recovery and repatriation of stolen funds.
Personally, I think these officials are working too hard to explain the president’s travels, but it is understandable that they are trying to carry the populace along.
If you have noticed, President Buhari is not troubled by the criticism and has not bothered to offer a personal rebuttal.
To me, that suggests a man with focus. Traveling, including frequently, if he wishes, is part of his job. Should he dig in at home, others will fry him for isolating the country.
Leadership has never been about where the leader sleeps. It is what he does, and what he is perceived to be achieving. In the case of Nigeria, one must resist the temptation to mistake being in Abuja for being on the job.
Remember, one of Buhari’s predecessors was perpetually sick and in bed; another kept the close company of his drinks; and yet another was in the air so often his metaphors became aviation-centred.
A sick man, a drinker and a traveler may sound like the beginning of a BasketMouth joke, but it is not. While it is true that each of those three contributed significantly to the chaos we have today, none of them failed simply because he didn’t spend enough time in Nigeria.
Our concern ought to be about whether a leader is leading. To that end, I do not think that, given where we are coming from, Buhari’s travels detract from what he can achieve. There is a lot to be done in terms of loot recovery and repatriation, and I believe the president has shown commitment to that.
That, however, is not the same thing as traveling to improve the image of Nigeria.
To make this a key explanation of these travels suggests that the government is implementing a public relations strategy—not unlike Umaru Yar’Adua’s ‘Rebrand Nigeria’—for which persistent foreign travel has been adopted as the most robust vehicle.
The challenge of improving the image of Nigeria is within Nigeria and among Nigerians, for it is her recovery from her rot, rather than whether the leader sleeps enough in Abuja, that can best answer the challenge of restoring our good name.
As one of those who argued early, and often, that Buhari was the answer to Nigeria’s decline, I have not changed my mind. I think the country is in better hands under his watch, and that he needs to be given time to translate his potential into performance.
But I have a few qualifiers for that position.
When President Buhari went on vacation recently, he handed power over to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, as the constitution prescribes.
That is not difficult to understand: Nigeria does not run a monarchy.
But if the constitution does not constrain Nigeria’s Vice-President to “Domestic Duties” why is such a bright, energetic and educated man not undertaking some of the foreign trips that do not require the exclusive presence of the President, or for him to be away from the scene of the crime here at home?
My second qualifier is that these travels cannot possibly constitute Nigeria’s foreign policy. If we hold this point to be true, there ought to be a clearer picture of our overall foreign policy objectives both in Abuja, and on these travels.
Nigerian diplomats often complain about the absence of policy briefs from Abuja.
Under Buhari, there seems to be no change in this position. If anything, it may have worsened. As part of Buhari’s foreign bustle, top Nigerian diplomats ought to be invited to Abuja for consultations so that they know how to help the government chart the new route forward, if there is one. You cannot be in different libraries and speak about being on the same page.
If finding support for Nigeria’s anti-corruption offensive and economic recovery is our objective, for instance, all countries are important, but some are indispensable.
Take the United Kingdom, for instance. Only recently, Paul Arkwright, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, told the News Agency of Nigeria of the readiness of his country to repatriate various looted Nigerian funds being held there.
"Clearly, there are legal requirements that we have to meet,” he said, adding: “We are working with the Nigerian Government to see what we can do to return those funds.”
Another such country is the United States, a key Nigeria supporter on this quest and others, according to President Buhari’s own account.
Beyond that, there is close to a billion dollars, perhaps much more, in different Nigeria loot repatriation files in the US.
Despite that, Nigeria does not have an ambassador in the USA! Strange, but true: Professor Adebowale Adefuye died in August 2015, seven months ago. He has not been replaced. Who is the US working with?
Also currently empty is the office of Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Professor Joy Ogwu, who occupied that position for many years, retired at the end of 2015, a few months after the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals plan. She has not been replaced, either, and it is almost as if the UN doesn’t matter.
If Nigeria’s key diplomatic outposts are not being manned and those that are manned are considered only to be part of Buhari’s spectatorship, who speaks for the country and advances her interests when he is in bed?
I have cautioned against the delusion that only President Buhari can turn Nigeria around. His best bet for the Nigeria dream is to find, groom, and motivate a team of men and women who can accomplish giant strides whether he is asleep or awake, at home or abroad, healthy or sick.
If they are appropriately empowered and the direction is clear, our chances are bright because they will open up Nigeria to the best of Nigeria, and create opportunity rather than nurture opportunism. They will open the doors into Nigeria and let the flowers bloom. They will liberate initiative and talent, and substitute mediocrity with achievers; cynicism with patriotism.
That should be our target.