Diplomatic relations between Nigeria and South Africa (post-apartheid) have always been marked by tensions. Last week, the relationship was tested even further, leading eventually to the two countries shutting down their high commissions. Nigeria also recalled its high commissioner in South Africa. Cracks in the relationship symbolise failure to apply prudence and tact in diplomacy.
In the ongoing exchange of insults between Nigerian and South African officials over violent attacks against Nigerian citizens and businesses in South Africa, you would be surprised to know that the Nigerian government has just shot itself in the foot. Nigeria has proved to be the weakest link in the quarrel. It handled the situation with some element of spinelessness.
While South African officials openly encouraged attacks against Nigerian citizens and other foreigners, Nigerian officials appeared unsure how to respond. Instead, they preached peace and brotherly relations. You do not talk about peaceful resolution of violence directed against your own citizens by officials of a government that engineered the violence. For how long shall Nigeria continue to play the role of a continental Big Brother that is never recognised, never appreciated, never accepted, and never reciprocated by an ungrateful country such as South Africa?
President Muhammadu Buhari should have learnt how the government of President Goodluck Jonathan dealt forcefully with South Africa seven years ago. In March 2012, South Africa deported 125 Nigerian passengers who had arrived at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg but were denied entry by South African immigration officials. South African officials offered their usual old-fashioned and bizarre excuse that the Nigerians did not hold valid yellow fever vaccination cards.
Angered by that irresponsible decision, the Federal Government of Jonathan retaliated almost instantly by deporting 28 South Africans who had arrived in Nigeria. The reason for the prompt reprisal, it seemed, was to convey a no-nonsense message to South Africa that it did not have dominant control of how to degrade citizens of other countries. This is what is referred to in Nigeria’s local phraseology as do me, I do you, or, in the Mosaic Law, “an eye for an eye.”
That strategy by Jonathan’s government worked effectively because, by the middle of that week, remember South Africa deported the 125 Nigerians on a Monday, South African officials were metaphorically on their knees, speaking in more subdued tone about the need to resolve the diplomatic disaster caused by their zealous immigration officers. The incident showed that, sometimes, it is necessary to apply a policy of tit for tat to advance international relations. Nigeria did so in 2012 and South Africa learned a valuable lesson.
Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, Olugbenga Ashiru (may his soul rest in peace), confirmed the government’s policy when he said the country was ready to match South Africa’s pig-headedness measure for measure, or, if you like, eyeball to eyeball.
In a statement that conveyed the depth of the government’s anger over South Africa’s discourteous and disrespectful action, Ashiru said: “I find the action as totally unfriendly and un-African. You don’t treat fellow Africans that way and we will not leave any stone unturned to get to the bottom of the matter. They should know that they do not have monopoly of deporting travellers and if we feel that the action against our nationals was discriminatory, we will take action to reciprocate and there are various ways of reciprocating.”
In international relations, retribution often serves a country’s interests in times of peace and in times of conflict. Retaliation is used purposefully to end, uphold, or promote diplomatic ties. In 2012, Nigeria revived a policy that had remained inactive for many years. That was the policy of “strict reciprocity” in dealing with issues that threaten the country’s interests. That strategy was hailed because, for decades, law-abiding Nigerians were battered, kicked, shouted at, booed, and insulted by foreign governments and citizens. The 2012 diplomatic showdown underlined Nigeria’s determination to strike back at South Africa any time that country overstepped the bounds of friendly relations and diplomatic courtesy.
Compare the way Jonathan’s government handled the imprudent action by South Africa in 2012 with the pathetic manner the current government of Buhari responded to violence against Nigerians in South Africa. I must make the point that I do not support Nigerians who reside legally or illegally in another country but choose to commit crime, disobey their host country’s laws, and brag about their ability to do anything and get away with it. That is unacceptable. No government tolerates or accommodates migrants and visitors who engage in unlawful activities.
Nigeria used to have a vigorous foreign policy that positioned Africa as the main focus. That foreign policy is tattered. The current policy lacks direction. It lacks focus. It lacks force. It lacks contingency plans to respond vigorously to events that threaten Nigeria’s national interests across the world.
It is perhaps for these reasons that Nigeria is now portrayed as a country of contradictions. Consider this: In the heat of the violence against Nigerians in South Africa, the Federal Government announced it would withdraw from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in South Africa. The boycott was to demonstrate the government’s disapproval of the way South African authorities handled violence against Nigerian citizens.
But, in a strange and awful twist, Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama defended the state governors and other officials who remained at the WEF, an action that contradicted Nigeria’s official boycott of the forum. The ludicrous reason given by Onyeama was that the state governors and other officials were already in South Africa before Nigeria announced its withdrawal from the WEF. That explanation was so unreasonable, so unconvincing, so unpersuasive, and so illogical.
In a united country that speaks with a unified voice, every member of the Nigerian delegation ought to have quit the WEF and returned home forthwith. Nigeria’s failure to pull out all its officials from the WEF in South Africa represented a foreign policy blunder. No matter how Onyeama tried to cover up the slip-up, he did not succeed in fooling citizens.
How duplicitous can a government be? The same government that announced its withdrawal from the WEF turned round to back the continued participation of state governors in the same forum. This is why the world continues to mock Nigeria. State governors did not attend the forum to represent their personal interests. They were there as a part of Nigeria’s delegation.
Let me unpack Onyeama’s argument so we can understand the scale of the minister’s idiocy. If Nigeria was on fire and governors and other officials were already in South Africa, would it be justifiable for the governors and the officials to remain at the forum while their home country was on fire? There are instances in which presidents and prime ministers had to cut short their overseas trips because of events that unfolded in their home countries.
Why do Nigerian officials make a mockery of their country before the world? What happened to our foreign policy that showcased Nigeria as the leading voice of Africa, a continental role model? When a government takes a decision that is in the national interest, every state official must stick to that decision.