Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and $500,000 gift

April 27, 2019
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LAST Friday, the Muhammadu Buhari presidency announced it had made a set of donations to help facilitate Guinea Bissau’s legislative elections. The announcement is an example of how information should not be disseminated. Government spokesman, Garba Shehu had written: “In his capacity as Chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State, President Muhammadu Buhari, this morning (Friday) directed the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, to undertake an urgent mission as his Special Envoy to Guinea Bissau in company with the ECOWAS Commission President, Jean-Claude Brou. President Buhari had in response to an urgent request for assistance by the government of Guinea Bissau graciously approved support for the country’s election process, including 350 units of electoral kits, 10 motorcycles, five (Toyota) Hilux, two light trucks and $500,000. This vital assistance ensured that legislative elections held in Guinea Bissau, which should help in stabilising the country.”

But the devil is in the detail. The only thing that was current in the announcement was the trip of the Nigerian Foreign Affairs minister. The elections, for which President Buhari presumably made donations on behalf of Nigeria, were conducted on March 10, 2019 after many postponements. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) won 47 of the 102 seats. It is still the largest party in the country of about 1.8m people. The ruling party, however, lost 10 seats, resulting in a hung parliament. But a coalition agreement with the Assembly of the People United (five seats), the New Democracy Party (one seat) and the Union for Change (one seat) has given the PAIGC-led coalition a six-seat majority in the National People’s Assembly.

The Nigerian announcement did not, however, indicate when the donations were made in respect of last month’s legislative poll. It is assumed that the announcement was just for information. Guinea-Bissau is a volatile country, and it is appropriate that they should receive help from any country favourably disposed to them, including a country like Nigeria. About 16 coup attempts had unsettled and destabilised the country for decades, out of which four were successful. The country is dirt poor, with education and other critical sectors in dire need of funding and external assistance, while politics is crisis-ridden. Poverty and political crises have made the country vulnerable to drug trade, and complicated their internal affairs.

Mr Shehu did not provide any insight into why Nigeria did not announce its donations when they were made. Was it because they coincided with the 2019 Nigerian elections? Perhaps they will shed more light on it in the near future. On the surface, it is not a bad idea for big brother to look out for smaller countries like Guinea-Bissau. This is not the first time Nigeria would be showing generosity to needy African countries. It sacrificed a little fewer than 2,000 soldiers and blew some $8bn to restore peace in war-ravaged Liberia and Sierra Leone. It also put its economy on the line to champion the liberation of Zimbabwe, Angola and South Africa. Though its huge sacrifices were seldom rewarded, as some Southern African countries are showing, Nigeria has not been deterred from pursuing activist foreign policy in Africa. That activism has undoubtedly waned in recent years, but in one attenuated form or the other it has continued.

There are arguments suggesting that one of the reasons Nigeria’s foreign policy activism has attracted little reward is because the country runs a poorly structured foreign affairs. Most countries dishing out loans and aides do so with strings attached. Nigeria festoons its own generosity with smiles and nothing more than good wishes. Consequently, it has been unable to exert much influence over the countries it sacrificed its young soldiers and billions of dollars to save. Nigeria can of course not argue that attaching strings to the help it offers other countries is ethically problematic. They are not. Other countries do it with gusto.

Indeed, one of the main reasons for such paltry returns on its investments — for that is what they really are — is Nigeria’s inability over the decades to formulate deeper and loftier philosophical foundations for its foreign affairs. This failing is in turn a reflection of the country’s much more difficult problem in defining itself and conceptualising a vision for humanity and the world. If recipients of Nigeria’s help are to embrace Nigeria as big brother and look up to the largest black nation on earth for inspiration and leadership, then they must first be clear that their potential role model knows itself, knows its place in the world, and knows what ideas and values it hopes to project, either by money, stealth or force. The problem is that Nigeria suffers from an identity crisis, unsure whether to be a united country or not; and if the answer is yes, then to find the most sustainable structure upon which to anchor that self-definition. So far, Nigeria’s leading tribes are engaged in a fierce and deathly struggle for pre-eminence.

In addition, Nigeria has no consistent or even coherent idea of any value it hopes to project. The rule of law is not so terribly nuanced as to challenge understanding. Nigeria is, however, unable to comprehend the role of that concept in the sustenance of a polity, and have sought to redefine or modify it to suit all sorts of moral, policy and political expediencies. How then can other countries be inspired? Nigeria runs a quasi-federal structure that is in large measure unitary. How can it inspire other African countries, many of which are pastiches of countervailing entities disintegrating in a seething cauldron, nearly all of them arbitrarily cobbled together by cynical and callous colonialists during the 1884-85 Berlin West African Conference? Nigeria has no viable and durable political structure to recommend to other troubled countries. More worrisomely, it has not enriched itself by noble values such as freedom and justice, and has not nurtured an effective and truly functional criminal justice system to challenge continental despots. Worse, it has no significant cultural export for anyone to fawn over — except of course the individual efforts by enterprising young Nigerians gifted in the arts, gifts which the country has nevertheless done its worst to stifle or destroy.

It is doubtful whether any country in Africa has shown more care for its neighbours than Nigeria. But it has not reaped commensurate rewards for all its efforts. It has outspent every country in Africa, and has outgiven its young people’s blood. But it will continue to be overshadowed by the United States and Britain both of which have deeper and far more enticing ideas and worldviews to offer. And it will be consistently outfoxed by economically aggressive countries like China, for that Asian country possesses more discipline, tact and ambition than Nigeria is able to produce under its short-sighted leaders. The sad and humbling truth is that Nigeria’s leadership recruitment process, political structure, and proclivity for embracing scandalous populism will continue to make it impossible for it to reap even where it has sown.

If nothing is done to repair the breaches, if the country is unable to transcend its ethnic and religious cleavages, if it continues to make dangerous and unrealistic presumptions about its national question, then rather than seek to project power and influence, it must instead desperately seek to avoid an apocalyptic fate far worse than that of Yugoslavia, regardless of official optimism. After all, a country that could not even manage executive-judiciary relationship, and had had to clumsily unseat its number one jurist, has nothing to teach anyone. Nigeria has done well for Guinea-Bissau, helping them to pull off a reasonably successful legislative election, perhaps much better than Nigeria itself manage in the last polls. But what else can Nigeria really do other than to give money or goods, all of them perishable items? In any case, did it not do even better for other countries in the past few decades? Yet, all the altruism it has shown in about three decades will amount to nothing if it is not put in the service of ideas and values far nobler and less perishable than anything it has ever shown, and much sturdier than the grit it has projected in any of the foreign wars it has fought with some resoluteness.

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