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Will Nigeria's election results affect its foreign policy?
27 March 2015

Finally, Nigerians are going to the polls tomorrow, Saturday 28 March, despite rumours of more postponements and others – more alarmist – of the creation of a government of national unity without calling the country to vote.

On Monday, United States (US) President Barack Obama made an appeal to Nigerians to vote calmly and ‘reject the voices of those who call for violence’, in order to preserve the democracy they have built up over the years.

‘In this task of advancing the security, prosperity, and human rights of all Nigerians, you will continue to have a friend and partner in the United States of America,’ Obama said in the video message that was published widely via Nigerian media.

In the last few months, Nigeria’s relations with the US have come under pressure due to the latter’s continuing arms embargo. Allegations that the embargo is preventing Nigeria from successfully combating Boko Haram have led to some bitterness among ordinary Nigerians. The embargo was put in place following persistent reports of human rights abuses by the Nigerian military.

Nigeria has underutilised its potential for becoming Africa’s leading superpower

Will that mean a policy shift away from the US towards a country like Russia, which apparently did supply Nigeria with new arms and equipment? The souring of relations with South Africa due to its unwillingness to supply arms to Nigeria is also likely to have an effect on the way the country deals with Pretoria.

Foreign policy has not been a priority during the election campaign – as is usually the case when politicians have many domestic issues on their plate. The economy (hurt by plunging oil prices), corruption and security have been the main themes in the tight contest between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate President Goodluck Jonathan, and his rival – the All Progressive Congress (APC) former major-general, Muhammadu Buhari.

Foreign policy analysts largely agree that the US, United Kingdom and lately France remain Nigeria’s main foreign partners, despite the latest hiccups. Still, while their relationships with Western partners might remain the same after the elections – and it certainly sounds as though these partners are keen to preserve ties with Africa’s biggest economy – relations with Nigeria’s immediate neighbours and the African Union (AU) could see a shift in the near future.

This would be driven by recent events in the fight against Boko Haram, and the momentum created by being Africa’s largest economy – with a potential to spend a lot of money on its military and diplomatic efforts.

Julia Schünemann, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, says Nigeria could become a true leader on the continent if it solved its domestic governance issues. ‘Nigeria is the African country with the biggest potential to play a significant role on the continent and also in the world,’ she says.

It certainly sounds as though these partners want to preserve ties with Africa’s biggest economy

In a new paper, co-authored with Jakkie Cilliers, ISS executive director, and Jonathan Moyer, associate director of the Frederick S. Pardee Centre for International Futures at the University of Denver, Schünemann says Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa – the continent’s Big Five – will play a significant role in determining the continent’s future. While Ethiopia and South Africa have a record of punching above their weight when it comes to influence on the continent, Nigeria has underutilised its potential for becoming Africa’s leading superpower.

Speaking at a conference of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Pretoria late last year, Nigerian analyst Kunle Amuwo also said that the country has been punching below its weight internationally for several decades. He believes this is partly because of the Nigerian elite’s preoccupation with domestic issues and its ‘inability to articulate a sub-Saharan Africa policy’.

‘The challenge for Nigeria is to reclaim its soft power and to put its house in order,’ said Amuwo, who is a professor in the department of political science and international relations at Covenant University in Ogun state, Nigeria. Amuwo said at the conference that if the PDP wins the elections, Nigeria will continue to focus inward and it will be ‘business as usual’. He doesn’t believe Jonathan has the stature or experience in foreign policy of someone like former president Olusegun Obasanjo. ‘He [Jonathan] doesn’t form part of the foreign policy elite’.

Current events and the fight against terrorism will, however, inevitably affect Nigeria’s foreign relations. For decades, Nigerians have maintained a strong sense of sovereignty and didn’t want other countries meddling in its affairs. This attitude has been particularly visible during the past five years in the struggle against Boko Haram. While internally it was a major security threat, the issue never came up in any regional discussions about Nigeria’s stability. Instead, Nigeria prided itself on the achievements of its military in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Darfur.

For decades, Nigeria didn’t want other countries meddling in its affairs

Boko Haram was placed on the agenda of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) for the first time in mid-2014, following the outcry over the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. At the end of last year, when its neighbours met in Niamey, Niger, to talk about a regional response against the terror group, Nigeria only sent its ambassador to the country to meet with the other heads of state and top AU officials.

Earlier this year, in the run-up to the January AU summit in Addis Ababa, high-ranking Nigerian officials also maintained that the country ‘expected nothing’ from the Lake Chad Basin Commission, comprising Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. However, international pressure, the looming elections and the rapid expansion of Boko Haram caused the tide to turn in favour of regional cooperation.

Luckily so, for the people of north-eastern Nigeria. While the concept of operations of the Multinational Joint Task Force – comprising the Lake Chad countries and Benin – were only discussed by the PSC earlier this month, neighbouring armies have deployed against Boko Haram on a large scale. Analysts agree that the help from neighbouring countries, particularly Chad, has been crucial in driving out Boko Haram from Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states.

On the last days of his campaign trail, President Jonathan has been saying that Boko Haram is almost defeated – a bit premature, perhaps, given more news of mass abductions in the last few days. If Jonathan wins the elections he will have to make a trip to N'Djamena to thank President Idriss Déby. The latter, certainly, also acted in the self-interest of his landlocked country that couldn’t afford being surrounded by Islamist terrorists.

Buhari, who served as Nigeria’s president for a short 20-month stint in the 1980s, will have to do a bit more work to build new relations with the role players in the international community. Jonathan’s campaigners have tried to paint a picture of a former coup leader who would be disastrous for Nigeria’s image as Africa’s biggest democracy.

Whoever wins the elections, however, will have to recognise the role Nigeria’s neighbours and the AU have played in helping to rid the country of its biggest security threat since the post-independence civil war. France, which has been coordinating some of the regional responses behind the scenes from its military base in N'Djamena, is also likely to see its already good relations with Nigeria continue.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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