By Femi Aribisala
IF I were to ask you to name one or two countries that can be said to be friends of Nigeria, my guess is you would be hard-pressed to answer. The truth is that Nigeria is a lone-ranger in international relations. We have no friends. There is virtually no country we can run to or rely on in a time of need. If anything speaks eloquently of the failure of Nigeria’s diplomacy, it is our failure to cultivate friends and allies in international relations in 55 years of independent nationhood.
A friend is useful in times of need. Today is Nigeria’s time of need. Our economy is in shambles. The price of our oil has collapsed. We are fighting insurgency in the North-east. We need international friends to help us weather the storms. But the truth of the matter is we have no friends.
We used to say “Africa is the centre piece of Nigeria’s foreign policy.” True enough, when the going was good and our oil economy more buoyant, we expended a lot of capital on our African “friends.” We helped them militarily, diplomatically and financially. However, these friends were not really our friends because we defined friendship simplistically by race. If you were black African, we considered you to be our friend because of our vaunted status as the biggest Black Country on earth.
These fair-weather “friends” took our money but denied us their love. Indeed, some took our money and despised us. They obtained our support but did not feel obliged to us in any way, especially because we were foolish enough to ask for nothing in return. We simply assumed that since we helped them, they would be grateful and would like us. But they did not. Today, there is no African country we can confidently call a friend of Nigeria. Not even neighbouring Cameroon, to whom we generously and foolishly ceded Bakassi.
The West African sub-region is our natural zone of influence. Within it, we are a colossus. The Nigerian economy is larger than that of all other ECOWAS countries put together. Our population is over 50% of all ECOWAS. Over the years, we have expended a lot of capital, both human and financial, in building up ECOWAS. We have engaged at great expense in regional peace-keeping and peace-enforcing, especially in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nevertheless, we cannot confidently say today that these countries are our friends.
Ghana is a major Anglophone ECOWAS country. It should be a natural ally of Nigeria’s in the sub-regional sea of Francophone countries. Nevertheless, Ghana is more our competitor than our friend. We have been known in the past to expel Ghanaians from Nigeria under our infamous “Ghana must Go” policy. Such acts of hostility do not promote friendship; neither are they easily or readily forgotten.
Even more pathetic is our relationship with Southern African countries. If no other countries in Africa are friends of Nigeria, the Southern African countries of Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa should be our very best friends because of our active participation in their liberation struggles. Not only have we gone out of the way to establish friendship with them, there can be no doubt that they owe it to Nigeria to be our friends.
With South Africa, for example, Nigeria was at the forefront of its anti-apartheid struggle. This earned Nigeria the honorary status of a frontline state, even though we are geographically a West African, as opposed to Southern African, country. Nevertheless, Nigerians were recent victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela died, the Nigerian president was not even given the privilege of making a speech at his funeral.
On a basic and fundamental level, Nigerians do not want friends, especially extra-African friends. We are too brash and too independent to seek international friendship. We like to believe we need no one. Our former so-called oil-wealth was a blinder in this regard. It gave us the illusion that we did not need help. As far as we were concerned, we could go it alone and were determined to do so.
On the wider international scene, we delighted more in irritating the West than in courting it. At critical junctures in the courts of the United Nations, we voted against Western interests, and made a great song and dance about it. We made speeches, telling off the West. We had romances and dalliances with the Eastern bloc countries. We joined OPEC in confrontation of the West. We declared national sovereignty over our natural resources and tweaked the tail of Britain by nationalising British Petroleum assets in Nigeria.
We have never really expressed a liking for Britain, our former colonial overlord, beyond making it a destination of choice for shopping, schooling and immigration. No sooner had we become independent than we jettisoned the British parliamentary system. Later, we dumped the British pound for the Nigerian naira. We decided to drive on the right and not on the left. We ditched yards for metres. The only thing British we have left is the English language, but even there, we have a distinctive preference for nasal American phonetics to Queen’s English.
Disdain of America
Having ditched rule Britannia, Nigerians are now enamoured with the United States. We adore the American exuberance. We like the fact that Americans are larger than life. We are fascinated by American gangs and gangsters. Our musicians are American copycats. Our television is all things American. Our political system is made in America. However, what we want is to be like the Americans. We would not have the Americans rule over us.
In any case, the Americans see us more as nuisances than as friends. To be a friend of America from the American point of view, you have to be a slave of America. But Nigerians learnt from rule Britannia that: “Nigerians never never never shall be slaves.” We don’t want to forge a strategic military alliance with the Americans. We don’t want to create a port for their navy. We don’t want American troops on our soil. We are even leery about them training our soldiers. We will not let them browbeat us into legalising same-sex marriage.
Friends of the United States are required to kowtow to the Americans. They are required to bow down to them. But since Nigerians are too proud for that, the American have no time for us. Their disdain for Nigeria is palpable. American news networks regularly bad-mouth Nigeria. When CBS’ “60 Miniutes” wants to do a programme on corruption, it does not base it on New York or Chicago; it bases it on Lagos. When Obama visits Africa as the first black president of the United States, he deliberately ignores Nigeria; the biggest black African country and economy.
The CIA maliciously envisaged the collapse and unraveling of Nigeria by 2015. It must be none too pleased that this did not happen. With the onslaught of Boko Haram insurgency, the Americans refused to sell us arms, even though we were not asking to buy them on credit. With the onslaught of Ebola, they sent special drugs to Liberia and not to Nigeria. Lately, the United States moved from being the largest importer of Nigeria’s oil, to a zero-importer of Nigeria’s oil.
Buhari’s new friends
The illusion of the Buhari administration lies in the belief that the West is not anti-Nigeria but simply anti-Jonathan. The Americans supported the opposition APC against the PDP government in the 2015 elections. Obama’s campaign gurus doubled as Buhari’s campaign advisers. They provided the APC with a media blitz that showcased a suit-wearing Buhari to dazzle Nigerians.
Mid-way through the election, Buhari borrowed a leaf from Obama and carried his campaign to far-off Chatham House in London, even as Obama carried his to Berlin in 2008. During the 2015 election itself, the American interfered in the process, complaining about the postponement of the election and warning the Nigerian government not to rig the vote.
With the election won, Buhari eagerly made a trip to the United States. However, he came back empty-handed. Buhari’s government is mistaken in the belief that the Americans are now friends of Nigeria. This is far from the truth. The Americans have mouthed sweet-nothings about helping us defeat Boko Haram, but there is considerable evidence that the Boko Haram is sponsored by the Saudis; and the Saudis are key American allies in the Middle East. This is where the whole situation gets murky.
New Boko Haram
The Saudis have a principal regional adversary, the Iranians. The Saudis are Shias: the Iranians are Shi’ites. For the time-being, their battle-grounds are Syria and Iraq, but if Buhari is not careful, it will soon extend to Nigeria. Instead of minding our business, the Buhari administration decided to join an anti-insurgency coalition organised by the Saudis, clearly designed to short-circuit Iranian return from international isolation after its nuclear deal with the West.
It is no coincidence that as we were slaughtering hundreds of our Shi’ite brothers on very spurious grounds in Zaria recently, the Saudis were also announcing in Riyadh the execution of 47 Shi’ites on terrorism charges, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr; provoking great uproar in the Shi’ite world. In short, while still grappling with Boko Haram, we have laid the foundation for another insurgency in Northern Nigeria by importing the incendiary of Sunni/Shi’ite conflagration into Nigeria, all in the interest of being in the good books of the Saudis and their Western allies.
Saudi Arabia is no friend of Nigeria’s. It cannot be because it remains a principal sponsor of international terrorism. Britain and the United States are no friends of Nigeria. The only friendship they accept would make us their slaves. France is no friend of Nigeria’s. It regards the francophone countries of our ECOWAS sub-region as its subalterns, making us its competitor. In any case, it is better to be an enemy of the West than a friend. Enemies of the West get destroyed by Western friendship. We do not need to become a battle-ground for Western and Saudi proxy wars in Africa.
The young and naïve Buhari administration needs to tread with caution, even as it looks for friends on the international scene. Anti-corruption is not the only viable foreign policy option of Nigeria today. A diplomacy that requires you to bad-mouth your country in order to please your so-called new friends every time you venture abroad only goes to show that your friends are not really your friends.