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What President Buhari can Learn from Prime Minister Modi’s Foreign Policy

Prime Minister Modi completed his first term on May 26, three days before President Buhari’s inauguration on May 29. While on the domestic front his one year in office is generally said to have achieved mixed results, his bold forays on the international front however “surprised just about everyone” and has been widely praised. He has reoriented India’s foreign policy, reinvigorated its regional diplomacy, and revitalised key partnerships – notably the Indo-US and Sino-Indian relationships.

Let’s take a look at one of Prime Minister Modi’s key diplomatic initiatives, and see how it can work for Nigeria.

Neighbourhood First Policy: Reprioritising India’s Immediate and Extended Neighbourhoods

India’s regional diplomacy was widely felt to have badly stagnated under previous governments. This neglect had seen China make significant inroads into South Asia – India’s traditional ‘sphere of influence’ – over the past decade. By pouring investments into the region China increased its clout at India’s expense. Ambitious infrastructure projects, soft loans, and development aid were China’s preferred method of filling the vacuum opened up by India’s apathy. By 2014, the year Modi came to power, Pakistan – India’s most troublesome neighbour – was already firmly lodged in China’s orbit. More worryingly for India’s strategic planners, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka were widely perceived to be gradually tipping China’s way. And Bhutan – “India’s long-standing, steadfast friend” – had long endured a “mix of persuasion and coercion” to get it to “open relations with Beijing”.

Even before coming to office Modi had hinted at where his foreign policy priorities would lie. And once in power he wasted no time in injecting energy into what he termed his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. For his inauguration, invitations were extended to all the SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders – the first time this had been done. His first two state visits were to Bhutan and Nepal, underscoring his commitment to bolstering relations with India’s smaller neighbours and highlighting his intentions to assert India’s primacy in its ‘immediate neighbourhood’. 

By the end of his first year Modi had visited almost all of India’s South Asian neighbours – signing deals ranging from infrastructure projects, such as the two hydropower dams for Nepal worth a combined $2.4bn; to opening new lines of credit, such as the $2bn for Bangladesh and the $318mn for Sri Lanka; to improving defence ties and people-to-people exchange programmes in the neighbourhood. The only SAARC countries not visited by Modi in his first year were Pakistan, due to fraught relations; Afghanistan, whose leader paid a state visit to India instead; and the Maldives, due to a political crisis in that Island nation.

At home, Modi pushed for and secured Parliament’s bipartisan ratification of the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement. A landmark achievement which defuses one of the most contentious issues between the two countries. Modi’s second year in office has so far not seen a slackening in the tempo of his regional outreach. The goodwill generated from his recent state visit to Bangladesh, where a raft of 22 deals where signed including the historic one settling the border dispute, has gained Indian cargo vessels access to two ports, including the strategically sensitive Chinese built Chittagong port. 

Modi’s activism on the international stage in his first year has also seen him breathe new life into India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ policy with state visits to three Indian Ocean island nations (Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka), five East Asian countries (Japan, Singapore, China, Mongolia, and South Korea) and two South Pacific countries (Australia and Fiji). In each of these, there was a “special emphasis on strengthening economic and security ties”. The extended neighbourhood policy had previously rested on a ‘Look East’ policy, and the notion of India being a ‘balancing power’. Modi rebranded these. India is now to ‘Act East’ and will see itself as a ‘leading power’. In other words, rather than merely reacting to strategic developments around it – policies that in the past decade had seen China increase its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region at India’s expense – India as a rising great power will now be proactive in taking the lead to shape the economic and security environment of its immediate and extended neighbourhoods.

A Neighbourhood First Policy for Nigeria?

Like India, regional power status is deeply ingrained in Nigeria’s foreign policy identity. And like India, Nigeria in material terms has no peer equal in its regional neighbourhood. On one important indicator of regional influence, Nigeria seems a regional power per excellence. Of the so-called ‘Big Five’ – Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa – Nigeria has served as West Africa’s representative on the Peace and Security Council (the African Union’s apex decision making body) since its founding in December 2003, whereas the others have been rotated by their respective regions. Nigeria has been in the PSC for all 12 years of its existence, Algeria 9 years, Ethiopia 8 years, South Africa 7 years, and Egypt 4 years.

In reality however, just like India, Nigeria’s regional influence has badly declined in the past few years. A combination of state weakness, lack of strategic vision, and mounting domestic troubles have led its foreign policy to be described as “weak and incoherent”, and being in “self-inflicted decline”. Nothing best illustrates Nigeria’s dramatic loss of influence over its neighbours than the fact that it took the intervention of France and a Security Summit in Paris convened by President Hollande in May last year for Nigeria’s Lake Chad neighbours to take its pleas seriously about the need for a regional coalition against Boko Haram. When a regional power has to seek the intervention of an external power before its smaller neighbours take its existential security concerns seriously, this is an indication that its regional diplomacy is in serious need of reforms.

Like Prime Minister Modi with India, President Buhari should therefore also make an intensive and wide-ranging reengagement with Nigeria’s neighbours a key component of his foreign policy agenda in his first year. Nigeria’s weak state capacity and current economic troubles means the type of ‘big bang’ policies – multibillion dollar credit lines and multiple infrastructure projects – that Prime Minister Modi unveiled in his first year’s regional outreach are probably off the table for now for President Buhari. But there are some initiatives that can be undertaken. So what fresh ideas can President Buhari initiate to shake up Nigeria’s regional diplomacy in his first year in office?

Nigeria is also a Central African Country: Apply for Membership in the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)

The phrases ‘immediate’ and ‘extended’ neighbourhoods are not used in Nigeria’s foreign policy discourse. But the ‘concentric circle’ concept which frames how Nigerian foreign policy makers view our region captures the same essence. It equates Nigeria’s immediate neighbourhood to the ring of countries that surround us and, in the maritime domain, to the Bights of Benin and Bonny. Our extended neighbourhood is seen as comprising the West African region and the Gulf of Guinea. I think this view of our extended neighbourhood is incomplete. Nigeria should see its broader region as also encompassing Central Africa. Consequently President Buhari should submit an application for observer status in ECCAS in his first year in office, with a view to eventually fully joining the organisation. Let me explain.

Nigeria traditionally sees itself as a West African country. And West Africa has been the arena of Nigeria’s boldest and most celebrated diplomatic initiatives to date – the establishment of ECOWAS in 1975 and the ECOMOG interventions of the 1990s.

Geography, economy, history, and culture however suggest Nigeria is a West and Central African state. Geographically for example, Nigeria shares land and sea boundaries with six countries: Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, and Sao Tome and Principe. Of these, only Benin and Niger are West African states and members of ECOWAS. Our other four neighbours are Central African states and members of ECCAS. Our longest land boundary is with a Central African and ECCAS state: Cameroon. Similarly, Nigeria’s most pressing security challenge – Boko Haram’s terrorist insurgency – is concentrated along our borders with our Central African neighbours, Cameroon and Chad; countries that together with Niger and Benin constitute the five nation regional coalition we want to establish to combat the insurgency. To all intents and purposes, Nigeria’s defence diplomacy will be oriented towards our Central African border for the next few years.

Nigeria’s economic linkages further reinforces the point that Nigeria is as much a Central African as it is a West African country. According to UNCTAD’s report on intra-African trade (pg. 22-27), all thirteen countries that count Nigeria as among their top five export partners are exclusively West and Central African states. Five of these – CAR, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe – are Central African and ECCAS countries. Similarly of the eleven countries that count Nigeria as among their top five import partners, three – Cameroon, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea – are in Central Africa and ECCAS.   

The historical, cultural, ethnic, and familial bonds between Nigeria and its Central African neighbours completes the linkages binding Nigeria to the fate of its ECCAS neighbours.

Joining ECCAS will therefore broaden Nigeria’s strategic horizon and give our foreign policy planners a more accurate perspective of our extended neighbourhood. Joining ECCAS will also incentivise Nigeria to actively participate in shaping the economic and security environment of Central Africa. Now that African integration seems to be gathering pace – the agreement to establish the Tripartite Free Trade Area between the 26 member states of COMESA, EAC, and SADC, was signed on June 10 in Cairo, and the deadline for establishing a Continental Free Trade Area has been set for 2017 – joining ECCAS will leave Nigeria best placed to take the lead and advocate for harmonizing the integration agendas of West and Central Africa.    

Improve Relations with Cameroon: Push for Parliamentary Ratification of the Green Tree Agreement

In some respects, Cameroon is Nigeria’s Pakistan. While in recent times Chad has done its best to challenge for that title, Cameroon remains Nigeria’s most difficult neighbour. It is so far the only country that Nigeria has come to the brink of interstate war with over a territorial dispute. One of the main sources of Nigeria-Cameroon distrust and tension is the issue of the Bakassi Peninsula. The International Court of Justice settled the question of territorial sovereignty over the peninsula in Cameroon’s favour a decade ago. President Obasanjo signed the 2006 Green Tree Agreement – the treaty ceding sovereignty over the territory – and the peninsula was formally handed over to Cameroon in 2008. The treaty however proved highly unpopular in Nigeria. Consequently to date the National Assembly is yet to ratify it. This makes the 2008 handover potentially illegal under Nigerian law and leaves open the possibility, however unlikely, that Nigeria could retake the territory by force.

As a confidence building measure, and to reduce areas of tension with Cameroon, President Buhari should lobby the National Assembly to ratify the treaty within his first year. To placate critics at home and gain something for Nigeria abroad, ratification of the treaty should be linked to Cameroon supporting Nigeria’s bid for ECCAS membership. While the treaty ratification will not resolve all of Nigeria’s problems with Cameroon – the difficult issue of fully demarcating Nigeria’s maritime boundary with Cameroon will remain – it will create a more positive atmosphere for Nigeria’s diplomatic engagement with its difficult neighbour. The goodwill generated from this initiative will also open up opportunities in other areas of bilateral relations.

Boko Haram should not Dominate Nigeria’s Regional Diplomacy: Visit More Countries and Broaden the Agenda

President Buhari’s neighbourhood’ diplomacy has so far been shaped by the need to establish a regional coalition against Boko Haram. He has moved with impressive speed and purpose to realise this singular goal. Making Chad (June 3) and Niger (June 4) his first two state visits, and a week later (June 11) hosting the leaders of Benin, Chad, Niger, and a representative of the Cameroonian President to a Summit in Abuja to clear the way for the establishment of the long-awaited Multi National Joint Task Force have yielded positive results. A Nigerian has been chosen as the MNJTF’s commander. More significantly our coalition partners seem to have accepted President Buhari’s proposal that the force be permanently commanded by a Nigerian for the duration of its mission. 

Boko Haram however should not dominate President Buhari’s regional diplomacy in his first year. The momentum from this renewed regional engagement should be leveraged to score gains in other areas of bilateral relations, such as improving regional trade and infrastructure, and driving the regional integration agenda. UNCTAD’s report on intra-African trade for example shows that Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have large net trade surpluses on food items with the rest of the world, and Nigeria runs a large deficit on same (pg. 35). This provides a possible opportunity for expanding trade with Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire for example.

President Buhari should therefore broaden his regional state visits to encompass other West and Central African countries. A true neighbourhood first policy must be comprehensive in its agenda. Security should be only one component of this regional outreach. The same visibility and energy that has accompanied President Buhari’s coalition building tour of Chad and Niger should also be brought to bear to state visits where trade and other bilateral issues are on the table.

These three initiatives, if pursued in President Buhari’s first year, can serve as the foundation upon which Nigeria’s foreign policy can be refocused back on what should be the country’s most important partners: its immediate and extended neighbours.