REUBEN ABATI : The President As Chief Diplomat

I read an interesting article recently in which the author, objecting to President Muhammadu Buhari’s frequent travels abroad pointed out that Presidential spokespersons since 1999, including this writer, have always justified such trips using essentially the same arguments. The fellow quoted copiously and derisively from my State House press statements and an article by me titled “The Gains of Jonathan’s Diplomacy”.

Those who object to Presidential travels abroad do so for a number of reasons: (a) the cost on the grounds of frequency and size of estacode-collecting delegation, with multiple officers performing the same function tagging along on every trip,
(b) the need to make better use of diplomats in foreign missions and Foreign Ministry officials who can act in delegated capacity;
(c) the failure to see the immediate and long-term gains of Presidential junket, thus creating the impression of a jamboree or mindless tourism, and
(d) the conviction that the President needs to stay at home to address urgent domestic challenges, rather than live out of a suitcase, in the air.
While these reasons may seem understandable, arising as they are from anxieties about reducing wastage and increasing governmental efficiency for the people’s benefit, I still insist that Presidential trips are important, and that by travelling abroad, the President is performing a perfectly normal function.

We may however, complain about abuses and the reduction of an important function to tourism for after all, in eight years, President Bill Clinton of the United States travelled only 54 times – only by Nigerian standards, but we must also admit that the President is the country’s chief diplomat. In our constitutional democracy, he is the main articulator and implementer of the country’s foreign policy. He appoints ambassadors who function in their various posts as his representatives. He also receives other country’s ambassadors. Emissaries from other countries or multilateral organizations consider their visits incomplete without an audience with the President, and it is his message that they take back home.
He visits other Presidents and he also gets visited by other world leaders; an interaction that provides him an opportunity to give effect to Section 19 of the 1999 Constitution which defines the objectives of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy. In doing this, he is expected to strengthen relationships with other countries, at government to government and people to people levels in the national interest.

The President is also the country’s chief spokesperson, and that is why what he says, or what he does when he is negotiating within the international arena on Nigeria’s behalf is of great consequence, and this is particularly why on at least two occasions recently, Nigerians were inconsolably upset when their President chose a foreign stage to put down his own country, and people. This clarification of the role of the President as the country’s chief diplomat may sound didactic, and I apologise if it comes across as pedantic, but this is necessary for the benefit of those who may be tempted to assume that the job of a President is to sit in one place at home and act as a mechanic and ambulance chaser. The concerns that have been expressed however point to something far more complex, and I seek to now problematize aspects of it.

One of the concerns often expressed is that the trips that have been made by our Presidents since 1999 look too much alike. It is as if every President that shows up, embarks on exactly the same junket to the same locations, for the same reasons: foreign direct investment, agriculture, security, co-operation etc. etc. accompanied by a large retinue that includes many of the same officials who travelled with the former President and had prepared the same MOUs that will be signed again, with the new spokespersons telling us the same story all over again.

Nigerians are therefore not impressed with the seeming conversion of the country’s foreign policy process into a money-guzzling ritual. This, I think, is the crux of the matter. Whereas our foreign policy objective talks about national interest, what constitutes that national interest has been blurry and chameleonic in the last 55 years and more so since the return to civilian rule in 1999. National interest has been replaced majorly by personal interest and it is the worst tragedy that can befall a country’s foreign policy process. We run a begin-again foreign relations framework because every new President wants to make his own mark. The second point is that he is compelled to do so because in any case, we do not have a strong institution to follow up on existing agreements. The international community knows this quite well, and more serious nations being more strategic and determined in the pursuit of their own interests will bombard a new Nigerian President with invitations to visit. They also know that a new President in Nigeria is likely to cancel or suspend existing agreements or contracts being executed by their nationals. The uncertainty that prevails in Nigeria is so well known, such that the gains recorded by one administration are not necessarily institutionalized.

We may have thus reduced foreign policy to individual heroism, which is sad, but institutions and human capital within this arena are critical. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, once a glorious institution is a shadow of its old self. The politicization of that Ministry has done great damage. When a President visits a country, and enters into agreements that result in Memoranda of Understanding, it is expected that there will be follow up action to be taken by officials either through Bilateral Commissions (where they exist between Nigeria and the respective country) or the issuance of instruments of ratification, leading to due implementation. Nigeria signs all kinds of documents but so many details and agreements are left unattended to. There is too much politics in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and too much rivalry between career foreign affairs personnel and the politicians who do not allow them to function as professionals. This has to stop, otherwise every new President has to start again and embark on trips that should have been taken care of at the level of bilateral commissions or the ministry.
Career foreign affairs personnel are critical to the shaping of foreign policy. They are the agents through which states communicate with each other, negotiate, and sustain relationships. The only thing they complain about in that Ministry is lack of money. It is the same with the Missions abroad. Give them money, but there is always a greater need for professionalism, which makes the diplomats of Nigeria’s golden era so sad. The foreign policy process also works better when there is Inter-Ministerial and Intra-governmental collaboration. The tendency in Nigeria is for every department of government to operate as an independent foreign policy unit. Government officials get invited to functions by foreign embassies, without clearance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they just troop there to eat free food, but they never keep their mouths shut. Nigerian officials are probably the most talkative in the world and with foreigners, they will offer their mother’s life history to make them appear important. That is not how to run foreign relations. There must be control, co-ordination, discipline, clarity and sanctions.

Every world leader wants to meet the Nigerian President. Nigeria is a strategic market and a very cheap one too, a source of raw materials and a dumping ground for finished products, with a consumptive population. Our balance sheet in all our relationships is unbalanced even in Africa, which we once described as the centerpiece of our foreign policy. We have toyed with many slogans: dynamic diplomacy, economic diplomacy, concentric circles of medium powers, citizen diplomacy, transformational diplomacy, what else/- the Buharideens are yet to come up with their own, but you wait, they will soon come up with something- really, the truth is that Nigeria’s foreign policy process is not strategic or competitive enough.

Within Africa, it is driven by too much kindness rather than enlightened self-interest, or deliberate search for sustainable advantages. A Donatus mentality has seen Nigeria over the years looking out for its African neighbours, donating money, supporting their causes, but Nigeria has gained little from this charity-driven diplomacy. Many of the countries we have helped to build openly despise us at international meetings, they struggle for positions with Nigeria, they humiliate our citizens in diaspora, and when they return later to beg for vehicles, or money to pay their civil servants or run elections, we still oblige them. The attempt in recent years to review all of this, and be more strategic should be sustained.
We must wield the carrot and the stick more often. American Presidents don’t just visit other countries, they make statements and often alter the course of history with their mere presence as Kennedy did with his visit to Berlin in 1963, Nixon in China in 1972, Jimmy Carter going to Iran in 1977, George Bush, visiting Mexico in 2001, and Obama in Cuba in 2016. In the international arena, we give the impression that we are ready to jump at any and every invitation in order to be seen to be friendly, but we tend to overdo this. Foreign Affairs Ministry officials who want to be seen to be doing something will always try to convince the President to embark on all trips. The dream of every Ambassador on foreign posting is also to have his President visit, even if once during his or her tenure. The resident Ambassador is happy, the Foreign Affairs folks get quality eye-time with the President but the hosts look at us and wonder what is wrong with our country signing the same agreements with the emergence of every President and not being able to act.
It does not help either that with every new President, we talk about reviewing Nigeria’s Foreign Policy. We are probably the only country in the world that is always reviewing Foreign Policy and informing the whole world. That should be the routine work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, with inputs from the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), the Nigeria Intelligence Agency (NIA), and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Foreign Affairs.

We must never lose sight of a necessary linkage between domestic policy and foreign policy. What exactly is in it for the average Nigerian, for the Nigerian economy and for Nigeria? Do we have the capacity to maximize gains from foreign interactions? Always, the real challenge lies in getting our acts together and tying up the loose ends in terms of sustainable policy choices, infrastructure, culture, leadership, and strategic engagement.

Dr. Reuben Abati