It is just as well that Nigeria’s name was missing from the list of seven countries whose leaders and representatives led an “African” peace mission to Kyiv and St. Petersburg last week. Setting aside for a moment the credibility of the mission itself (it was a grievous mistake, in case you are wondering), the omission of the continent’s most populous nation from a group that, in theory, spoke on behalf of its fifty-four-odd states speaks volumes about the state of Nigerian diplomacy. By contrast, it comes as no surprise that the delegation was led by South Africa; such, on the whole, is the manner in which Pretoria has used the Russia-Ukraine conflict to stake a claim to continental leadership.
For Nigeria, the seeming concession of regional leadership to South Africa in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine merely underscores a reticence that has been there for most of its Fourth Republic (1999- ). With a few exceptions, the last time the country came close to being diplomatically assertive was back during the Olusegun Obasanjo administration (1999- 2007) when Nigeria sought to discard the encumbrances of the military era and embrace a new identity as an emerging liberal democracy. Ironically, the peak of Nigerian diplomatic swagger was in the 1970s as the country barreled its way to global diplomatic reckoning on the back of its newfound oil wealth.
While the exact relationship between its relative diplomatic decline and its prolonged economic crisis is a moot point (South Africa, hardly in rude health itself, has barely refrained from throwing its weight around), what cannot be doubted is that Nigeria is no longer the continental juggernaut it once was, and has, at times frustratingly, kept its counsel when an emphatic statement or move from Abuja might have clarified matters.
Its ambivalent stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. Having abstained from the April 2022 vote to suspend Russia from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council (HRC) over allegations of gross human rights violations in Ukraine, later in October, it was one of the 143 countries which voted in favor of the resolution condemning Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories. Much more than the apparent contradiction between its initial and latter positions, the puzzle for many diplomatic observers is that Nigeria never bothered to explain the rationale behind its decision, let alone, and especially at a time when such was sorely needed, a fully-fledged articulation of the sources of unmistakable—some might say understandable—African equivocation.
In its defense, Nigeria can point to its own domestic travails as an excuse for taking a backseat when many might have expected it to lead from the front. For instance, the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, now officially into its second decade and with a military solution still elusive, would have tested the attention, never mind the capacity, of any country. Furthermore, with the exception of a few staggered bright spots, its economic misfortunes have endured. A nagging and generalized sense of permanent political dysfunction completes a trinity of woes.
All things considered, it would be understandable, though inexpedient, if the country bided its time until its domestic military, economic, and political stars aligned. Yet, Nigeria’s diplomatic irresolution does not appear to have anything to do with that. Rather, it seems to lie in something deeper, to wit, a certain tentativeness about what Nigeria is supposed to stand for, what its core foreign policy tenet(s) should be, and what it needs to bring to the table in order to ensure effectiveness as a regional and global player.
The current geopolitical moment, in particular the muddle over the direction of African involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war, offers as good an opportunity as any. If the grotesque spectacle of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa leading an African “peace delegation” to Ukraine and Russia two weeks after South Africa was reported to have been secretly funneling arms to Russia reveals anything, it is that (1) the so-called “neutrality” of major African players on the Ukraine question was not thought through ab initio; and (2) Ramaphosa was the wrong person to lead a peace delegation, supposing one were needed in the first place.
Its own vacillation notwithstanding, Nigeria seems to be uniquely positioned to clean up this mess. In this regard, its immediate task should be to fill an obvious intellectual vacuum by articulating a proactive diplomatic agenda that presents whatever grievances African countries may be harboring while at the same time being unambiguous and unapologetic about the continent’s commitment to a rules-based international system. The failure to do so, and the absurd insistence at the outset that Africa could afford to sit out an “intra-European conflict” (an assumption that went out of the window the moment the Russian blockade throttled the supply of grains from Ukraine to key African importers), is one reason the continent is in its current diplomatic impasse. The need for rethinking and recalibrating the African stance on Ukraine cannot be overemphasized.
Such recalibration should involve an end to “neutrality,” a decisive break with Russia, and a full embrace of the Western position on Ukraine, a position that a commitment to a rules-based international order logically entails. It is hypocritical and morally inconsistent for countries rightly pointing to the scars and trauma of foreign intervention to continue to condone effectively the same in the name of a bogus and evidently unsustainable neutrality.
If all this is necessary in the short term, in the long run, none of this would be possible if Nigeria does not jettison its diffidence with regard to its political and diplomatic identity. If outsiders (the United States especially) do not know what to make of or do with Nigeria, it is because the country, truth be told, can be exasperating. Under Buhari, that exasperation plumbed new depths. The new Bola Tinubu administration has an opportunity to correct course by demonstrating Abuja’s readiness to reclaim continental leadership by becoming a beacon of regional democratic stability and economic development. It can mobilize Nigeria’s demographic preponderance and “Naija No De Carry Last” cultural swagger in a way that no Nigerian government has been able to do in the past quarter of a century.
After the desperate rudderlessness of the Buhari years, Nigerian diplomacy can be made great again.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.