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Nigeria-South Africa tango - Matters arising

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The Bisibee with Bisi Olawunmi

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Nigeria, in the week ended Friday, March 9, 2012, engaged South Africa in a hard diplomatic tackle over that country’s unconscionable deportation of 125 Nigerians. Fifty of the passengers were on Nigeria-owned Arik Air flight, while 75 were on South Africa Airways flight. Abuja’s response was a new vibrancy in diplomatic slug-fest and Nigeria came off besting the opposition.

The South Africans drew first blood when they peremptorily deported the Nigerian travellers, after literally holding them hostage for several hours at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on the flimsy excuse that they possessed fake yellow fever vaccination cards. The excuse should be regarded as flimsy since the South African High Commission in Lagos was expected to have verified the vaccination cards as one of the conditions for visa issuance. So, if those South African diplomats on the ground in Nigeria apparently certified the cards okay, on what basis could the immigration officials at Jo’burg deny the Nigerian passengers entry? If it is even granted that they felt justified to suspect the authenticity of the cards, the normal protocol, as explained by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to quarantine the passengers for a specified period and thereafter let them in.

But then, it would seem that South Africa, like many other countries in Africa, some of them even Lilliputian, take delight in taking pot shots at the lumbering African giant that historically carries no punch, but would rather rub the sore point of the hit and bear the pain all to demonstrate its brotherly African love. “Nse la’gba ngba”, the elder absorbs jabs, as the Yoruba would sometimes say. Fortunately, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Gbenga Ashiru, a Yoruba man, is not sold on this enslaving philosophy and decided to hit back at the cocky South Africans in a double whammy of deportations, of course, with the backing of President Goodluck Jonathan. Media reports had quoted a source in the Foreign Affairs ministry as stating: “We will no longer overlook certain procedures which we have condoned in the spirit of African brotherhood”. It is long over-due.

By the time Nigeria had deported 131 South Africans in what became a tit-for-tat, the South Africans were forced to come down their high horse and apologize, as demanded by Nigeria. The South African affront united Nigerians and thus they supported whatever action the government might decide to take. The South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, Kingsley Mambolo had been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not only to receive Nigeria’s protest but to explain his government’s action. It was gratifying that the High Commissioner was not made to meet the minister or either of the two ministers of state in the foreign ministry, but shunted to meet the permanent secretary, Ambassador Martin Uhomoibhi, who anyway is still senior to the High Commissioner. It should signal the end of the era where all kinds of foreign characters have cheap access to top Nigerian government functionaries, including Mr. President.

After reportedly spending about one hour with the permanent secretary, the Nigerian government had made its position very clear: “We are demanding unreserved apology from South Africa for this ill-treatment of Nigerian travellers or else, we will take more drastic actions”. It doesn’t get tougher as an unambiguous statement of intent. That the South Africans eventually apologized showed that Nigeria, at least in Africa, is not a toothless bulldog. In fact, in the international arena, Nigeria had demonstrated before now that it can be a player among the big league when it faced down the United States in 1976 over which of the nationalist factions in Angola should prevail. Nigeria-backed MPLA led by Augustinho Neto prevailed over the UNITA led by Dr. Jonas Savimbi and backed by America. Many referred to the independence struggle in Southern Africa and Nigeria’s heroic role in that battle as the zenith of Nigeria’s activist foreign policy. Are we likely to see a new era of activist foreign policy but one driven by Nigeria’s national interest and not the ‘Father Xmas’ folly of a braggadocio political leadership?

The chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Mrs. Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje, expressed the sentiments of Nigerians when she observed of the South African deportation of Nigerians:”We are indeed worried about all the indignation and scorn Nigerians are subjected to all over the world, especially by sister African nations. This calls for a review of our relationship with these countries”.

Foreign Minister, Ambassador Ashiru hinted at this in an earlier address to an ECOWAS ministerial meeting where he enunciated the Doctrine of Reciprocity as the new guiding philosophy to drive Nigeria’s foreign policy. It is hoped this would not stop at the stage of rhetoric. As at now, Ambassador Ashiru has demonstrated dynamism not usually associated with protocol and procedure-bound career diplomats. The firm stand Nigeria took on the crises in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya, though subjected to criticism, including by this writer particularly on Cote d’Ivoire, is still welcome rather than playing a vacillating pussycat.

There should, however, be a sobering aspect to the series of humiliations Nigeria and Nigerians suffer across the world, the South African affront being only the latest. It is generally acknowledged that foreign policy is predicated on domestic well-being. A country not at peace with itself cannot engage in a robust, enduring activist foreign engagement because it demands a national consensus to bear whatever fall-outs from such an encounter. Our national indiscipline, projected by some of our citizens abroad, is particularly one major source of denigration of Nigerians. Why should lawlessness be a Nigerian export? We also do not operate a knowledge-based anything – most of our actions are not thought through but rather precipitate, which was why we could not make up our mind on time whether President Jonathan would run for chairmanship of the African Union or not at the last AU Summit in Addis Ababa only to sulk at being ambushed by our beneficiary nations in West Africa. Anyway, if we are so disorganized as to lose the presidency of the African Development Bank (ADB), of which Nigeria is the largest shareholder, right there in Abuja, how can we expect many nations to regard us as serious people?

Our diplomats in foreign missions need to stand by Nigerians, not abandon them, thereby reinforcing the notion of guilt by the accusing host country’s law enforcement agencies. As a foreign correspondent in Washington D.C in the late 1980s, I witnessed some of the unjustifiable conduct of our diplomats. On one occasion when our diplomats abandoned a doctoral student at the point of deportation, it was my report which, fortunately, the foreign ministry at home took up, that got the student voluntary exit.

The Nigeria – South Africa row offers an opportunity for a fundamental review of the nation’s foreign policy. However, in doing this, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have to articulate Nigeria’s core national interest in foreign policy and collaborate with the intelligentsia and the media to mobilize public opinion in support of the vision.

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