Nigeria’s foreign policy in a changing world (3)

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Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru

Continued from Wednesday

One of the major challenges facing Nigeria’s foreign policy is the plight of Nigerians in prisons abroad. Over 9,000 Nigerians are in various prisons all over the world, the highest number of 752 being recorded in the United Kingdom.  Most of them are concentrated in the Asia-Pacific with many of them on death row. Given these alarming numbers and the imperative need to find creative solutions to the plight of these Nigerians, we convened regional seminars of Nigerian Heads of Mission in six centres. The Seminar for the Asia-Pacific region took place from April 4–5, 2013. At the end of the Seminar, the Heads of Mission made far-reaching recommendations, including the need to raise awareness in Nigeria on the dangers of irregular migration as well as involvement in transnational crimes, especially drug trafficking. In the immediate term, the Missions have been directed to explore the conclusion of Prisoner Exchange Agreements with the various countries, to ensure that those prisoners in foreign jails are repatriated home in dignity to complete their jail terms.

Some commentators on Nigeria’s foreign policy have reacted to the challenge of inadequate funding by suggesting that we close some of Nigeria’s missions abroad. It is argued that since government is unable to fund the over 100 missions, it would be better to close some and use the savings to properly support the remaining ones. This, to me, is a desperate solution that fails to address the fundamental problem of inadequate funding and the need to promote and defend Nigeria’s national interests in a changing world. This approach has never worked as we have tended to open and close missions in a cyclical movement that creates more problems than solutions. First, closure does not necessarily translate to savings. The government would reduce the overall budget of the ministry by the same amount that would have been deployed to the closed missions. It will not be spread to the existing ones. Second, the cost of closing and winding down is far greater than re-opening. Third, when we close missions, we damage relations that have taken years to build.  Fourth, at a time Nigeria seeks to be a member of the UN Security Council, in both permanent and non-permanent categories, our country needs more friends than ever before. A nation with such global ambition with its nationals spread all over the world cannot be shrinking its diplomatic and consular presence abroad. To begin to shrink rather than make new friends and consolidate existing relationships will be counter-productive to Nigeria’s national interests. What we have done instead is to commence gradual reduction in the staff strength in our missions abroad and thereby save cost. We have also been ingenious by creating SMART MISSIONS with only one ambassador assisted by few local staff.  These prudent measures will help conserve funds while still maintaining our diplomatic presence.

It is also remarkable that with the emergence of new global challenges, Nigeria has been in the forefront of addressing such issues as international terrorism, climate change, irregular migration, human and drug trafficking and illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Some of these complex issues that constitute security challenges have invariably posed serious threats to peace and security in Africa, particularly in our sub-region. While ongoing efforts are beginning to yield the desired results, Nigeria will not relent in its commitment to addressing this menace. Terrorism is an international phenomenon, gravely threatening national, regional and international peace and stability. The armed forces are also tackling the issue of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and theft of our oil. Foreign envoys have been informed and warned that any foreign ship caught will be arrested and the crew will face prosecution in our law courts. We require the full cooperation, support and partnerships of all our friendly countries.

Since President Jonathan’s assumption of office in May 2011, Nigeria has maintained a strong stance in Africa.  Following the formation of the AU about 11 years ago, Nigeria has not been involved in decision making at the highest level of governance in the organisation, in spite of our huge yearly contribution to it.  We tried three times, between 2003 and 2011 to secure one of the posts of commissioners reserved for our sub-region, but failed. However, Nigeria won the post of Commissioner for Political Affairs in a hotly contested election in July 2012.  This was indeed a huge success for Nigeria’s diplomacy. We broke the unfortunate chain of losing elections at the continental level and today, Nigeria’s visibility at the AU is no longer in doubt.

At the United Nations and other world bodies, Nigeria has since the advent of this government, maintained a robust presence.  In the past, there were criticisms that Nigerian nationals were not fully represented at various international bodies and organisations as these compatriots will bear the national torch and advance Nigeria’s interest in those organisations. Since we came on board at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have secured 12 international positions to which Nigeria and Nigerians have been elected in multilateral organisations. There was no time in the history of our foreign policy that we have achieved so much within a short period of two years. These successes point to the effectiveness of our foreign policy machinery, the professionalism and the dedication of our diplomats deployed to ensure these election victories. We will therefore continue to maintain a robust foreign policy and ensure Nigeria’s leadership and visibility, not just in ECOWAS but in Africa as a whole.

We have since launched our bid for election into the UN Security Council in the non-permanent seat category for the period 2014-2015. We have worked hard and have received the endorsement of ECOWAS Heads of State and government. We expect to receive the endorsement of the AU at the next summit in May 2013. Our election to this position in October 2013 will be a befitting gift to Nigeria in the year of the centenary celebration of our existence as a corporate entity. It will also be the first time that Nigeria will return to the Security Council after only two years gap.

The ministry remains committed to protecting the interests of Nigerians by constructively engaging the diplomatic and consular missions in Nigeria, especially on visa matters. As we demonstrated in our swift and effective response to the deportation of Nigerians from South Africa over the issue of yellow fever cards and our various demarches to the diplomatic community in Nigeria over the issuance of visas to Nigerians, we have made it clear that Nigeria would not tolerate the maltreatment of its citizens at home and abroad. The ministry also collaborated with other MDAs to evacuate Nigerians trapped in conflict zones in various parts of the world (Libya, Syria). In Gabon where some Nigerians were to be ejected from the two Islands they had occupied for years by the host government, the ministry proactively engaged and successfully collaborated with the National Emergency Management Agency to evacuate them back home. We have also successfully resolved the dispute over trading activities by Nigerians living in Ghana.

An issue which I need to bring out is the lack of documented report on the activities of the ministry since its inception over 50 years ago. We all must bear full responsibility for our failure to do this. We have taken it upon ourselves, however, to correct this obvious omission as we have now published and launched the first edition of our annual report.

It is my hope that a better understanding of Nigeria’s foreign policy in the face of today’s realities and the changing world has been achieved.  As I have sought to demonstrate, there is really no basis for the criticism that Nigeria’s current foreign policy lacks dynamism. We have continued to be proactive in engaging the world and putting Nigeria’s national interests at the centre of our country’s foreign policy and international relations. What is needed is the support of major stakeholders and the vast majority of Nigerians in order to build a domestic base and consensus behind our country’s foreign policy exertions.

Concluded.

•Excerpts of a speech delivered by Ambassador Ashiru, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at an event organised by the Association of Retired Ambassadors of Nigeria in Lagos

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