While in Abuja, I remember how I passed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ECOWAS secretariat constantly. Whenever I passed these buildings, I recalled books and varying perspectives on Nigeria’s foreign policy regarding Africa in general and West Africa in particular. Most often, I juxtaposed her role with the ‘pathetic’ or pariah status of Nigeria as a nation-state. Pathetic because, according to diplomats and Nigerian academia, Nigeria since independence has practiced a foreign policy of “Father Christmas” and as the story goes, Santa Claus should be loved and respected which appears not to be the case for Nigeria. Such views can be challenged considering Nigeria’s status in the late 70s and 80s (the Golden Age of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy) mostly derived from her played role in the decolonization of Africa; the end of Apartheid government in South Africa; peace keeping missions in West Africa and her contributions to the formation of pro-African Institutions with far reaching effects. On the flip side and within the contemporary context, Nigeria does not retain such status.

I recall hilariously, when I first read Joe Garba’s Diplomatic Soldering (highly recommended) where he pointed to how Nigeria could have financed the importation of meat to one Africa country; and how despite the brutal assassination of Murtala Mohammed and the nation thrown in mourning, a delegation came with a ‘list’ of what they wanted Nigeria to do for them. Such presents the context of the ‘Santa Claus nature’ of Nigeria’s foreign policy.

Pardon me for boring you with the labyrinth of historical context of Nigeria’s foreign policy from independence to date; But it is expedient for every Nigerian to know that “Africa has been the center piece of Nigeria’s foreign policy.” Demonstrative of this, Nigeria supported numerous independence liberation movements in Africa –e.g. MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique(but to mention a few) –also, she provided financial and material support (when the OAU and its machinery was weak to do it) to ANC and frontline states of Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe against apartheid government in Southern Africa for which she was dubbed a honorary Frontline State. In the 1980s, Nigeria contributed about 20 million US dollars to assist the South West Africa Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) which culminated to the Namibian independence. Nigeria also played ‘legendary’ roles in restoring peace to West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia either through the machinery of ECOMOG, OAU or UN.

The financial contributions which Nigeria made to support her foreign policy objectives in Africa has been enormous even to the point of paying civil servants in some African countries. But considering the gains, Nigeria seems to fall short. Drawing from such conclusions, an astute diplomat contended that despite most African countries recognize Nigeria’s role (demonstrated in her foreign policy objective in Africa), they “call us Big Brother then behind us they call us buffoons.” Most (if not all) African countries have become hypocritical towards Nigeria. In the presence of Nigerian leaders/policy makers and international press who cares to listen, African countries say good things about Nigeria, but behind her, they continue to say terrible things. This diplomat also recalled how after the final match of the last World Cup in South Africa, the Nigerian Senate President said “it seems we don’t have friends.”

Reason for this is simple, since the 1960s when Nigeria adopted the foreign policy objective of Africa as the center piece, she didn’t pursue such on a quid-quo-pro basis. Every foreign policy objective must be considered in terms of what such a nation hopes to gain. Nigeria appears not to have gotten value for both her money and other materials spent in Africa. Other countries continue to shape and fashion foreign policy based on what they hope to gain. For instance, the MPLA led government in Angola rescinded initial fishing concessions given to Nigeria in exchange for her support (please note, Nigeria did not take this up with Luanda); thus totally indicating Nigeria’s usual ‘Father Christmas’ role in Africa. Some have even relatively compared Nigeria’s expected role to what the United State does in the United Nations and other international organizations. The Americans are not ready to pump their money or resources into an organization or union where American interest would not be protected. Nigeria is the largest contributor to the ECOWAS secretariat; this is in addition to her financial position in the AU and other development projects around Africa; but she appears not to have that wielding support desired mostly in the face of the current hypocritical stance of many African Nations.

The question is what are the gains and how best can Nigeria whip-up those earlier sentiments to re-assert herself in Africa and the sub-region? Furthermore, with the growing challenges (specifically, security) in Nigeria, just as she stood beside numerous African countries in dire times, there is the need to reciprocate such relations. Perhaps not strictly in the sense of finance or personnel support, but in the moral support which Nigeria needs to combat various challenges besetting her. Nostalgic of Nigeria’s role in the West African sub-region, she doesn’t have to beckon on other countries to support policies and programs which would be geared towards tackling contemporary security challenges. More so, the machinery of ECOWAS could be a strategic tool in the hands of Nigerian policy makers to ‘demand’ for such respect and required assistance in other sub-region (mainly towards Central, North and East Africa sub-regions). If Nigeria continues to run a foreign policy devoid of strategic spending based on quid-pro-quo, we would still be the laughing stock of the African community.

A worker deserves his wage; Of course Nigeria has worked towards the political, social and economic improvement of the African continent, but like many others observers and commentators on foreign policy, it is high time the fruits of her labour are evident and respected. However, the blame should not be heaped on externality factors. Nigeria is one of the countries where for her ‘charity begins aboard’ instead of at home. Foreign policy is only an extension of how serious a country takes herself at home.

Austine Okere lectures International Economic Relations and Development Studies at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Anambra State, Nigeria. He is a member of the editorial board UZU – Journal of International Studies and History. In addition to this, he is the co-creator of the Young Lecturers’ Forum in the University which promotes inter-disciplinary research among young lecturers in Nigeria.