By Emma Emeozor
President Muhammadu Buhari has been involved in ‘shuttle diplomacy’ since becoming president on May 29, 2015, meeting with his foreign counterparts to discuss security and economic matters, affecting Nigeria. And within one year in office, he has made not less than 26 foreign trips, visiting Niger Republic, Chad Republic, Germany, South Africa, Britain, United States, Cameroon, Benin Republic, France, Ghana, India, Sudan, and Iran.
Others are China, Malta, United Arab Emirate, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He has visited some of the countries more than once. Such countries include: France, Britain, United States, South Africa and Benin Republic.
Critics have accused President Buhari of globetrotting at a time when he should be at home and focus on the nation’s myriad of domestic problems, ranging from the socio-economic sector to insecurity.
Writing in a national newspaper, Mr. Timi Olagunji had wondered how to explain the president’s foreign trips. “How do you explain 26 trips, in less than 90 days out of less than 320 days in office, approximating over 190,000 kilometers in flight distance and 245 hours in flight time?” he asked.
The opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has berated the president for his “too many foreign travels.” The party’s spokesperson, Chief Olisa Metuh, told the Presidency: “A country where there is no petrol, no electricity and where salaries are delayed, require the presence of its leader at home to address these problems.”
Irked by the president’s trips, Ekiti State Governor, Ayo Fayose, called on well-meaning Nigerians to prevail on the president to stop his foreign trips. The governor, who spoke through his Special Assistant on Public Communications and New Media, Lere Olayinka, said: “It remains a mystery what President Buhari that met power generation at 6,000MW and could not manage it such that power generation crumbled to 0MW yesterday, will contribute to the Nuclear Energy Summit in America.” This was when Buhari visited the U.S. to attend a nuclear summit.
Fayose also said: “It is shameful that while President Buhari was far away in the United States of America, attending a summit that does not have any bearing on Nigeria and its people, the unprecedented happened – power generation stopped completely for over three hours!” Fayose did not stop there. He alleged that the president’s trips might have gulped over $50 million.
Interestingly, the avalanche of criticisms, trailing the president’s trips has not stopped him from traveling. Rather, the Presidency and some ministers have strongly defended the trips. Indeed, the brouhaha about his trips got to a crescendo when Fayose had to write the Chinese government not to sign a “$2 billion interest free loan” with Buhari during his China trip. The president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, was quick to put up a defence of the China trip. According to him, the objective of the trip was to “secure greater support from Beijing for the development of Nigeria’s infrastructure, such as power, roads, railways, aviation, water supply and housing.”
Of course, reference has been made severally to the Federal Government’s 2014 National Infrastructure Master Plan (NIIMP). According to the document, Nigeria needs about $127 billion between 2014 and 2018 to upgrade its infrastructure. This translates to $25 billion per annum.
The Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, said the president’s travels were aimed at changing the negative image of Nigeria. According to Fashola, “the green passport was becoming, if it had already, a burden.” He also explained that Buhari’s trips as “a strategy to increase tourism,” a defence, Olagunju was quick to dismiss.
Olagunji told Fashola, “tourism strategy is not about presidential tours and visits, and it must not only be about selling; it is about management, about optimising the social, economic and environmental benefits that tourism can bring.”
While describing the critics of Buhari’s trips as mischief-makers, Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, justified the trips, saying, they, especially to oil producing countries, are aimed at lobbying those countries to rally support for the stability of the global oil prices and also to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Nigeria.
“This is why the president cannot stay here,” he said, adding: “Staying here in Nigeria is like an army general who, in the face of war, remains in the bunker.”
Before the dust blown up by the debate on the president’s foreign trips could settle, a drama played out when, on the eve of another of the president’s trip to the United Kingdom, to attend anti-corruption summit, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told Queen Elizabeth that Nigeria was “fantastically corrupt,” a claim Buhari would later confirm to be true, even as Nigerians screamed at the comment. Nigerians had expected the president to demand an apology from Cameron because, as they would later argue, Britain is no better, as it habours money realised from corruption.
Nigerians had difficulties understanding the president’s reaction and, indeed, his type of foreign diplomacy. Some analysts tried to draw line between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Buhari. The two men were also former military Heads of State. The analysts believe Obasanjo would have tacitly replied Cameron.
Was the president just being weak to tackle Cameron, being honest, or playing ‘a-beggar-nation’ diplomacy by merely listening to the ‘Master’s Voice?’ These were some of the questions that raced through the minds of Nigerians, just as they itch to know the benefits of the president’s foreign trips.
Dividends of Buhari’s foreign trips
Thursday, last week, Daily Sun caught up with the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. Onyeama commented on the president’s foreign trips as well as the government’s foreign policy direction. According to him, the president’s foreign trips have yielded three major benefits for Nigeria. They are in the areas of Nigeria’s poor image, security and economy. On security, Onyeama said the president had galvanised Nigeria’s immediate neighbours into embracing the multinational joint task force, which has been able to turn the tide against Boko Haram militants. “This was one very concrete leverage,” he said.
On Nigeria’s image, the minister explained that Buhari inherited a battered image of Nigeria abroad. Said he: “Western countries had lost faith in Nigeria and were no longer supporting us. Through his (president) visits to those countries, he has been able to convince them and they have changed their impression. Now, they are working with us, providing us with equipment and sharing intelligence with us in the fight against militants, especially in the North East region. This didn’t happened before and it is contributing to the success we now have in the North East.”
On governance and fight against corruption, Onyeama gave kudos to the president. “You know, he has just returned from a summit in London. He has managed to put the issue of corruption at the top of the international agenda. Those countries that have been benefiting from the corrupt practices of our citizens … those countries where monies have been invested are now coming together behind our president and helping us now to trace those funds that have been starched away … and they are helping us in the recovery efforts. We need every cent we can get at the moment because of the crunch in oil price. That success was from his visits and with his contacts with those Heads of State,” he said.
On the economy, the minister said the president has attracted foreign investors to Nigeria. “The president has been able to mobilse countries like Qatar and China to make commitment to greater investment in Nigeria. We need direct investment,” he declared.
Buhari administration’s foreign policy direction
Some observers of the Buhari administration have argued that all they can see beyond the signing of agreements between the president and his foreign counterparts is a ‘container’ of promises that may not be fulfilled. But Onyeama disagreed with this thinking, explaining that the foreign policy direction of the government is anchored on “Economic Diplomacy.”
According to him, “foreign policy is broad and dynamic. It changes day by day according to a lot of different variables and factors. Our foreign policy is an extension of our domestic policy and interests.
“Mr. President has articulated the priorities of his government in three major pillars: Security, economy and governance (fight against corruption). Our foreign policy has to respond to those priorities and helping the government achieve the objectives. So, we have looked at ways in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can contribute to one of those three priorities in a very concrete way. It is very easy to get caught up in academics of foreign policy slogans. We have one of those: ‘Economic diplomacy.’ But what does this really mean, concretely to the country?”
Implementation of economic diplomacy
Onyeama said as part of efforts to achieve the objectives of “economic diplomacy,” his ministry had decided to establish business database in the 119 missions of the country abroad. He said the matchmaking business data will give relevant information on business in Nigeria, visa requirements, local business contacts and other facilities that could attract foreign businessmen.
“We will appoint dedicated staff in the 119 missions to push the market access in each of those countries. There will also be a mechanism for monitoring staff-performance and what we need to improve performance. The policy will be implemented in cooperation with the Ministry of Trade,” he said. He added that the embassies would also have the responsibility of attracting ‘foreign direct investments.’
Nigerians in Diaspora
The minister said Nigerians, living abroad would be encouraged to take advantage of the data base in the 119 missions and obtain business information that will enable them to return home to invest without tears. “A lot of Nigerians want to come home and do business but they don’t have relevant information to know where they will fit-in and the risk involve,” Onyeama observed.
Special focus on Africa
The minister explained that the Buhari administration intended to explore fully business opportunities in African countries. How will this be achieved? He said: “We have observed that only about 12 per cent of trade take place among African countries. The rest is between African countries and oversea countries.
“So, we want to focus on intra-Africa trade. For this reason, we are looking at how to promote free movement of businessmen across the continent. We recognise that currently, there are barriers, such as visa requirements, etc. Again, here the Foreign Affairs Ministry can make contribution.”
Onyeama said the government intended to kick-off the Africa business plan with eight countries at the highest level, coming together to sign-up within a year while others will join later.
Africa remains centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy
Though the Buhari administration has put emphasis on “economic diplomacy,” Africa remained the centrepiece of the administration’s foreign policy, Onyeama said: “Africa has always been the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy. We are here in Africa. We are Africans, whether we like it or not. So, that has to be. But what this means in concrete terms is that this administration is committed to Africa integration. This is a vision our founding fathers had always promoted after independence. This explains the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to African Union (AU) as one of the steps towards achieving this ideal for full economic integration and eventually political integration.
“Here in Nigeria, we are taking concrete steps, as part of our foreign policy and this explains why we are emphasising the importance of democracy and security because if we have to integrate, we have to pursue the same political ideals and security in the continent.”