By Bukar Usman
With Heart & Might, MK Ibrahim, Parresia Publishers Ltd, pp. 473,
The book, With Heart & Might, by M.K Ibrahim, a former Nigerian diplomat, was written to achieve triple objectives. His first goal was to narrate his personal experience in the diplomatic service of Nigeria and, via his story, point to some lessons which may be helpful to future generations. Secondly, he sought to see how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) could be improved upon to discharge its responsibilities more effectively. His third aim was to contribute ideas on how Nigeria’s foreign service could be further tuned towards the attainment of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s declared dream of having in place a professionally competent foreign service that reflects the towering image of Nigeria.
Amb. Ibrahim, who was socialist inclined in his student days, had difficulties choosing a career after graduation. Abandoning journalism and banking, having worked briefly in a bank, he settled for diplomatic service. He enlisted as a junior officer in the Nigerian Foreign Service and retired as an ambassador. His 33-year diplomatic service (1978-2011) saw him posted to several countries in Asia, Europe and Africa with intermittent posting to the headquarters where he ended his career. His schedules of bilateral and multilateral dimensions and the opportunity of working under inspiring leaders over the years solidified his position in the diplomatic service. As such, he is not only competent and adequately informed but also confident to share his experiences.
He gave a run-down of episodes upon episodes he encountered at home and at his various posts overseas. He recounted in detail some unfortunate disasters, including the ill-fated plane crash of the Nigerian delegation to Sao Tome and Principe (1980), the fire incident that burnt down the headquarters of the Nigeria’s Foreign Ministry in Lagos (1981) and the Koko toxic waste (1988). He also related some nightmares of Nigerian diplomatic service; they include delays in communication to posts about the arrival of VIPs, composition of delegates on official and state visits as well as attendance of conferences. Such delays and incomplete composition of delegates lists caused considerable unease as they upset protocol arrangements and arrival ceremonies in host countries, to the disappointment and embarrassment of all concerned. Even menu preferences of delegates were enough to cause concern. There were equally concerns about allocation of ‘haunted’ official residential houses locally and overseas. The faint-hearted and superstitious dared not occupy such houses. Remarkably, Amb. Ibrahim had risked the occupation of quite a few of such houses in Nigeria and overseas during his diplomatic career.
Amb. Ibrahim discussed and bared his mind on several other matters, such as the need for better collaboration between MFA and the academia, better understanding between the professionals and political heads of MFA over staff deployments, due attention to foreign threats to dismember or weaken Nigeria in the West African sub-region, and sensitivity to ethnic composition at posts. Others include misfortunes and health challenges leading to death of officers at posts, the hazards of sudden retirements, African Caribbean and Pacific Countries and the European Union (ACP-EU) dreams of fair and equitable order, dreams of a continental government and single army for Africa and the ambition of certain leaders to lead a United States of Africa. He discussed the welfare of Nigerians and the hazards of being called upon to witness execution of fellow citizens in foreign prisons, as well as the incidence of free flow of arms across borders and carriage of illegal items in diplomatic bags.
As a member of the international community, Nigeria is required to fulfill its bilateral and multilateral obligations. These are legions, and they demand careful handling. Amb. Ibrahim discussed and expressed opinion on such issues. On ACP-EU relations, he stated that, after several years of serious engagements, ably led by seasoned Nigerian diplomats, it is unfortunate that the ACP countries continue to be exporters of raw materials to the EU with no foreseeable reversal of the unhealthy lop-sided relationship. He denounced the practice whereby some countries deliberately deny visas to delegates attending UN Assembly meetings contrary to diplomatic etiquette, while some others unduly interfere in bilateral relations of other countries.
In the field of human rights, while Nigeria continues to file its annual returns to the Human Rights Council in discharging its obligations, it has rightly resisted attempts to force on it the recognition of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as human rights and the abolition of death sentence. Equally, the challenge of the constitutionality of the Sharia laws and the prescribed punishments has rightly and successfully been defended.
Amb. Ibrahim proposed that more steps should be taken to give practical effects to Nigeria’s much-publicised policy of regarding Africa as the centre of its foreign policy. Nigeria should equally sustain a clear demonstration of the concentric relevance of that policy by giving more attention to its neighbouring countries more than ever before.
The retired diplomat noted a few but disturbing incidents of Nigerian officials flouting presidential directives on voting on resolutions. He recommended greater analysis and consultation in the selection of candidates and campaign strategy for election to international posts. He also suggested that qualification for recruitment should extend beyond the traditional preference for bias in arts and social sciences, adding that it will also be an asset for officers to speak two or more languages. There should be a review to remove duplication and overlapping of portfolio and ensure effective synergy between MFA and relevant agencies in areas of research and training and in aid administration. He also recommended the creation of an independent foreign service commission.
The narrative style of the book is quite engaging and its discourse of diplomatic challenges and foreign policy administration of Nigeria quite informative.
* Bukar Usman is a former permanent secretary in the Presidency, Abuja