Jonathan vs Buhari on Nigeria’s external image

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By Hassan A. Saliu, Ph.D.

Nigeria is in an interesting season. Apart from the cloud of defections that dogs the political space, intrigues and the combative mood of our political actors which have compromised the goal of good governance, infectious poverty and the general insecurity that has pervaded the nation, one notes the penchant of our politicians to invade the external sector of the country in their desperation for votes to make profound statements on Nigerian foreign policy. Of course, before the unprovoked intervention of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan at an inauspicious occasion of commissioning a flyover and the inappropriateness of the venue for making profound statements on Nigeria’s external relations, commentators and analysts had expended a great amount of ink on aspects of the nation’s foreign policy. The frequent travelling of President Buhari was a kind of convergent point that they had descended upon with most of the commentators condemning the foreign trips for waste of resources and de-marketing of the country on the strength of the high number of the presidential foreign trips especially with the tendency of the president to be making statements concerning the state of the nation that he inherited from President Jonathan administration. Although a stout defense was made by the aides of the president in favour of the trips, many of the analysts were not impressed as their commentaries against the political diplomacy continued unabated.
However, with the intervention of ex-President Jonathan on the diminution of Nigeria’s influence in Africa and the world at large based on the account of the  passing statements  made by the Ghanaian President which have been disputed by the Ghanaian High Commissioner in Nigeria (slips that most presidents often make and of which President Donald Trump is notorious for), the attention has now been shifted to the external image of the country where fellow African Presidents have been making some derogatory remarks about Nigeria as their pastime. To be more specific, Jonathan at the commissioning of a flyover built by the Fayose administration in Ado Ekiti on 25th of May, 2018 berated the Buhari government for working for a negative external image for the country essentially due to its perceived poor handling of both domestic and foreign policy issues that affect the country. He cited the President of Ghana who has derided Nigeria for allowing cattle to roam the streets and for the poor management of her national currency as a basis for his remarks. In his own judgment, the country is losing grips in Africa as she has become the butts of joke in the international system. Some comments are necessary at this point before going further with the substance of his recent intervention.
While conceding to the former president the right to comment freely on any aspect of the nation’s existence and choosing his preferred platforms to do so, one still feels that a little more reflection on his part would have revealed that the commissioning ceremony that held in Ado Ekiti was not too ideal for the remarks he has made on the delicate turf of foreign relations and the undue emphasis he has placed on the passing statements made by the Ghanaian president about Nigeria’s loss of image in the international system was misplaced.  The remarks on which he has based his criticisms appeared too light and insignificant for the far reaching conclusions that he has drawn on the matter of the country’s external image. Except there were other occurrences that he was privy to as a former president that warranted his outbursts, his reliance on the controversial statements made by the president of Ghana to carpet the Buhari government on external image management was a bit shaky and not sufficient to carry the weight being given to them. The external image of Nigeria under President Buhari if considered on the aggregate does not seem to be too terrible to make one conclude that he is not adding any value.
However, if one reckons with the impending electoral battle between the PDP that Jonathan belongs and the APC, the party of the president and the texture and overall orientation of Nigeria politics, it would be obvious that the former president may have been swayed by electoral politics in drawing his conclusions,  not the overall push of Nigeria in global affairs. More importantly, a little more reflection on his path would equally have shown that there has always been a bumpy relationship between Nigeria and Ghana over the years incubated by the initial rivalry bordering on the contest for African leadership as such the remarks made by the Ghanaian President against the country should have been taken with a pinch of salt as the residual issue of contest for leadership in Africa may still be hanging in the air. And with rebuttal that has emanated from the Ghanaian embassy disowning the statements, there is need for caution on the path of the country’s politicians. What may appear to them as ordinary in interstate relations could actually be deeper than they can ever imagine.
Meanwhile, reacting on behalf of the Buhari government, Garba Sheu, a media aide to President Buhari has countered the observations made by former President Jonathan by arguing that the noticeable decline in the level of Nigeria’s global influence actually began under the Jonathan government due to its poor reflexes and actions on the foreign policy turf of Nigeria. If he must be sincere with himself, he ought to have reckoned with the huge blow his government dealt to Nigeria’s foreign policy that made the global system to give its support to candidate Buhari in 2015 that led to the ouster of the former President from power.
Instead of condemning his principal, he should have commended him for the repair work he is doing to rehabilitate the country’s foreign policy through his deft moves that are restoring the glory of the country in the global system. Unlike Jonathan who was being avoided like a plague as a result of his poor showings, President Buhari has since found favour and thus become the toast of the international system on account of his sincerity in reversing the regime of negativities that the Jonathan government had entrenched in all sectors of the country’s political economy. Where was Jonathan when President Donald Trump of America poured encomiums on the President for doing a good job in Nigeria? Sheu would like to ask. It is instructive to note that President Buhari has become the global champion on the war against corruption and a brand of sort for other leaders to emulate in beating corruption. This, in Garba Sheu’s view, is an endorsement of his principal for declaring war against corruption that the Jonathan government had no liver to embark upon to win it global accolades.
A sober review of the debate would however show that though the external image of Nigeria is still offensive on account of some failings over the years, there is a remarkable improvement now, the credit of which must go to the current President of Nigeria. President Buhari obviously stands tall among African presidents in spite of the numerous challenges confronting our nation. To be sure, derogatory remarks about Nigeria due to her many governance failures and her bullying attitude did not start with Buhari’s government and one is afraid it may not end with it. They have always been there as attested to by Joe Garba and Olusegun Obasanjo in their separate books when both lamented the tendency by fellow African leaders to resort to massaging the country’s ego by praising her to the high heavens whenever they are on Nigeria’s soil apparently to access more free money from the country but are quick at deriding her at times without provocations upon leaving the country.  Under Jonathan, at least four other African Presidents; Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Idris Derby of Chad and Roberts Mugabe of Zimbabwe had had cause to berate the giant nation in Africa for its poor choices and decisions on the Mali intervention, manner of waging the war against insurgency and the endemic public corruption in Nigeria.
On the four occasions, the Jonathan government had no adequate response to make. It was really unfortunate that when former President Mugabe of Zimbabwe carpeted the country for the entrenched corruption, it was the then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that reacted on behalf of the government. What however appeared to be an adequate response to Mugabe’s acerbic views on Nigeria came in the form of self help rendered by Femi Falana, a Lagos lawyer, not from any politician of note under President Jonathan especially the one with statutory responsibility to superintend Nigerian foreign policy.
It would be recalled that in 2001 Professor Ibrahim Gambari in a lecture in Abuja criticized Nigeria’s foreign policy for its lackluster as the country virtually disappeared from the global radar. In her place, smaller countries in Africa were being called upon to take her place as spokespersons for Africa. Surprisingly, the complaints by African Heads of State that they were not too suitable to play the role and the consistent interventions of Professor Gambari on the need to redirect Nigerian foreign policy were not sufficient in waking up the foreign policy machinery that something was amiss in the conduct of Nigeria’s external relations under the Jonathan presidency.
It therefore, follows that if any past president would take on President Buhari on Nigeria’s foreign policy, Dr. Jonathan was not too suitable for the job. Based on the facts on the ground, his government either here in Africa or elsewhere witnessed a drastic reduction in the level of Nigeria’s influence and power in the international system that culminated in his loss of the presidential election in 2015. Ordinarily, such a former president should have no basis for condemning his successor administration for the negative external image that the country has acquired over time and of which he could not redress when he was in the saddle.
The foregoing should not give the impression that the great task of re-directing the course of Nigeria’s foreign policy has been accomplished under President Buhari. A lot is still required to re-position the country’s foreign policy. I observe the tendencies to over-personify Nigeria’s foreign policy, unrestrained disclosures about the nation on foreign soils, undiplomatic communication style, spate of killings by criminal gangs and as well as poor funding as the major problems of Nigeria’s foreign policy under the Buhari presidency.
While hoping that the government will address these problems coupled with the long overdue review of the whole gamut of the foreign policy to reflect the standing of the country in the extant global system, one is correct to observe that the Buhari government is trying its best to re-position Nigeria’s external sector as perceived by it though the various efforts may not have produced the optimal results for the country. The angle of the nation being a laughing stock in the global system that has been canvassed by some opposition elements obviously flies in the face of reality as nation states do have the privilege to use whatever descriptions they fancy to describe one another in the international system especially within their geographical territories and informed by the spur of the moment or frustration. However, from the literature, it is usually during periods of adversity and contest for global relevance that stereotypes and labels are freely used by some nation states to describe other nations with which they have issues.
With respect to Nigeria, she has been noted to resort to the game that nations play in terms of making derogatory remarks about other nations. For instance, under the Yar’Adua government, the late Dora Akunyili once equated Ghana to some local government councils in Nigeria. In the same way, the country too has been given many terrible labels in the past and even now including big for nothing country, bad influence in Africa, most corrupt nation, African liberator that cannot liberate herself and others because of the attitudes of her leaders and some unscrupulous citizens who have chosen to behave differently and against globally acceptable norms. It will surely take time and painstaking efforts on the part of the country to reverse the negative labelling even if it is not a widely held notion and give the nation the voice that is commensurate with its weight and strategic importance in the world. The Buhari government is therefore, not necessarily a bad addition on the block.

Saliu, is the Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin, Ilorin.

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