While it has been argued that some of the policies pursued by a Jonathan or a Buhari presidency would be similar, the same cannot be said about their foreign policy. In this realm, the choice in this month’s vote could have big consequences for Nigeria’s relationship with the continent and the world, as Femi Akomolafe explains.
For most of Nigeria’s post-independence history, the country has pursued a pan-African foreign policy, in the hope that the largest black nation on earth would play a leadership role on the continent. Public support for this Afrocentric approach was apparent in 1962. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa attempted to sign a defence pact with Britain, effectively orienting Nigerian foreign policy towards that of its former colonial ruler, setting off nationwide protests.
Nigeria’s self-identification with anti-colonial struggles, naturally led the nation to join the Non-Aligned Movement, following a foreign policy not formally aligned with either the West or the Soviet Union.
Nigeria earned a non-aligned, pan-African reputation as it threw weight behind Southern Africa’s liberation struggles. In 1976, General Murtala Mohammed was instrumental in rallying the Organisation of African Unity to the Angolan cause, against US president Gerald Ford, who was trying to pressure African states. Mohammed famously and publicly rejected Ford, stating that “Africa has come of age. It’s no longer under the orbit of any extra-continental power.” In 1979, Mohammed’s successor as military ruler of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, nationalised oil interests controlled by British Petroleum, in part to protest against the UK’s proposed resumption of oil supplies to apartheid South Africa as well as to support the anti-colonial movement in Zimbabwe.
Jonathan shifts to the West
Against this historical backdrop, it is clear that Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency saw a shift in foreign policy to a decidedly pro-Western stance. An unambiguous example of this alignment was Nigeria’s vote in favour of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which formed the legal basis for the NATO intervention in Libya in March 2011, which eventually led to the overthrow and death of Muammar al-Gathafi.
Although the African Union opposed foreign intervention in Libya, the three African members of the UN’s Security Council – Nigeria, South Africa, and Gabon – voted in favour of the no-fly zone. Such a move by Nigeria would have been practically unthinkable less than a generation ago.
Nigeria went further in August 2011, by recognising the Libyan rebels as the representatives of Libya, in line with the NATO position. This move drew considerable criticism from the AU and South Africa, which had voted alongside Nigeria on Resolution 1973.
Jonathan’s administration demonstrated, once again, this shift to the West, in the December 2014 UN vote on Palestinian statehood. Nigeria was convinced by the US to abstain from the vote, which meant that only eight of the Council’s 15 members voted in favour, one fewer than the necessary nine. This gave the US, which had voted against the motion, the ability not to formally exercise its veto. Once again, it appeared that Nigeria was giving diplomatic cover to Western nations’ geopolitical interests ahead of opting for solidarity with other nations from the Global South.
Buhari: Back to the future
Should Muhammadu Buhari become the resident of Aso Rock after these elections, the world can expect to see Nigeria’s foreign policy shift back towards its more traditional paradigm.
Although the world has changed greatly since Buhari last ran Nigeria in the 1980s, his outlook is likely to be broadly similar to what it was then. This would suggest a shift away from the pro-Israeli position of the current administration.
However, this should not be seen as a move towards either Russia or China. If elected, Buhari will most likely continue the country’s traditional Non-Aligned foreign policy. Buhari is most likely to oppose the growth of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), while pushing for more robust regional and continental security architecture. This will be necessary in the battle against Boko Haram, which would benefit from enhanced cooperation with the three other countries directly affected by the terrorist group: Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. This may mean that Buhari has to drop his support for reopening the issue of sovereignty over the Bakassi peninsula, which the International Court of Justice awarded to Cameroon in 2002.