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Reviving Nigeria’s preeminent position in military might and diplomacy in Africa, By Zainab Suleiman Okino Newsdiaryonline

Zainab Suleiman Okino

A recent media report revealed plans by African countries to send a peace mission to Ukraine and Russia. The report indicated that six African leaders would travel to Russia and Ukraine “as soon as possible” to go proffer solutions to the ongoing war between the two countries. It was disclosed (perhaps conceived) by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who added that that President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have “agreed to receive the mission and the African heads of state, in both Moscow and Kiev in separate “telephone calls”. The south African leader went further to present “an initiative drawn up by Zambia, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Egypt and South Africa in what he hoped would be “intensive discussions”. The giant of Africa is conspicuously missing from the list.

The Ramophosa initiative dubbed African mission has elicited discussions, (should I say concerns?) in diplomatic and security circles on Nigeria’s probable declining power on the continent. Although no one can tell what the impact of the initiative on the warring countries will be, it is inconceivable that a mediation of this kind can happen without Nigeria’s imprimatur. I do not know whether this reality informed the choice of topic for discussion at the Whiteink Institute for Strategy Education and Research Nigeria (WISER) 3rd Speakers’ Forum, but one thing is certain— WISER was spot on. Indeed, the preponderance of opinions expressed at the event contextualised Nigeria’s preeminent role in Africa in time and space; even as they asserted that Nigeria is losing continental leadership, ranking 4th in Africa in terms of fire power and military might behind Egypt, South Africa and Algeria.

However, our powers or lack of it is still at the level of conjectures. The extent Nigeria’s foreign policy engagement has always been a subject of discourse. In the past, our place as a regional power was not contestable. What is at play is whether we have discharged our “duties” creditably and in providing regional stability, how well we have served our national interest.

At the WISER event on Assessing Nigeria’s Diplomacy in Regional and Global Peace and Security, the focus was whether Nigeria should continue to play its traditional big brother role, how Nigeria has fared in the context of that role in the last few years and whether the country has got its due recognition as compensation for her contributions to projecting the positive image of Africa and the propriety of continued investments in Africa’s security diplomacy in the face of dwindling revenues and the country’s mounting domestic challenges.

The (WISER) event provided a platform for these assessments recently when it brought together players in the industry to dissect and point the way forward in view of the assumption of a new government in Nigeria and instability in parts of the region. Dr Onyinye Onwuka, Head of Mediation and Coordination of Regional Political Affairs of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission; Ambassador Usman Sarki, a career diplomat; Ambassador Kenneth Nwachukwu, a retired Foreign Affairs officer; and Group Captain Sadeeq Garba Shehu, an adjunct Professor at George C. Marshal European Centre for Security Studies, Germany were on hand to share their expertise, knowledge and experiences, even as President and Founder of WISER, Brigadier General Saleh Bala (Rtd) spoke on the need to harness the aggregate views of those with the requisite skill sets and participants for the attention of the new government.

Ambassador Usman Sarki took a critical overview of global conflicts from Russia-Ukraine, China-US, Sudan crisis, Libya’s uneasy calm, Somalia, aftermath of political transformations in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and wondered if Nigeria could play impactful roles in all these theatres of conflicts. “Responding to these situations and seeking to play any role by way of peace and security will be a tall order for Nigeria now or at any time in the future. We don’t have the reach, the might or the resources to undertake the required initiatives that a country like China could do. We have abdicated our prerogative to maintain order and provide security in Africa for about ten years now since our phased withdrawal from Dafur, Sudan from 2014”.

Continuing, Ambassador Sarki noted that “Peace support and security ventures require military preparedness, financial resources, manpower and the national will to successfully execute. Nigeria does not have these capabilities for now and it is not feasible that we shall have them in the near future. There are too many issues competing for attention and resources”.

Here is the crux of the matter. Participants wondered why Nigeria should continue to support a region/continent that has refused to reckon with their big brother even for their past efforts. Since the declaration of the Murtala Mohammed regime of the 70s, which proclaimed “Africa as the centerpiece of our foreign policy”, Nigeria had massively supported Africa generally, and South Africa’s anti-apartheid activities in particular. Nigeria was even declared a frontline state, even though Nigeria is not within that axis; as much as its role in the formation of ECOMOG to quell rebellions and liberate Sierra Leone and Liberia. Those who hold this view say resources are now limited, and Nigeria has its own internal instability issues of terrorism and banditry to tackle and should therefore focus on the home-front.

Dr Onyinye Onwuka on her part, emphasised Nigeria, nay ECOWAS’ mission’s contributions to hold West Africa together, uphold democratic governance and maintain regional stability despite challenges of instability and escalating security threats. She recommended ECOWAS strengthening its national early warning response centres to prevent the escalation and resurgence of conflicts, enhance data collection analysis capabilities to predict and prevent potential crises; bolster effort and address the root causes of instability such as lack of inclusivity, good governance and adherence to democratic principles, promote economic development, political inclusion and social justice. She also suggested enhanced cooperation with international partners and collaboration with AU and the UN in conflict prevention. She advised that the regional readiness of ECOWAS standing forces be enforced to ensure that “sustainable peace is not merely an aspiration, but a tangible reality”

In his postulation, Sadeeq Garba Shehu linked defence diplomacy to the concept of soft power. He said the military conducts military diplomacy, which provides “strategic capability essential to the effective implementation of Nigeria’s foreign policy”, adding that for Nigeria to maintain her position in a new era of great power competition today, “Nigeria needs to continue to invest in Defence diplomacy and commit to the growth, security and stability abroad” as against what he called sporadic and somewhat independent interventions.

Participants also expressed worries that Nigeria has not been adequately appreciated by other African countries, despite spare-heading and projecting the continent to the world. However, going by the country’s antecedents in its foreign policy over the years, Nigeria does not have much choice than to remain proactive in regional peace, security and stability in Africa.

Hopefully, the new government of President Bola Tinubu would see the need to invest more in this direction, again with the hope of reclaiming our preeminent leadership position in Africa. The fact of Nigeria’s 24-year uninterrupted and sustained democratic experience, resources (still in the realm of potential though) and population has already prepared Nigeria for an undisputed leadership role in Africa.

Zainab Suleiman Okino chairs Blueprint’s Editorial Board. She is a Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. She can be reached via [email protected]

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