Interrogating disconnect in Nigeria’s foreign and domestic policies

The book, The Media Imagination in Nigerian Foreign Policy (published this year by Centre for Information Technology and Development, CITAD) seeks to examine disconnect between Nigeria’s foreign policy and its domestic interest and needs. The author, Adagbo Onoja, who was media aide to Sule Lamido as Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister (between 1999 and 2003), enriched the publication with his wealth of experience as a journalist, an academic, and a participant-observer in Nigeria’s foreign policy, telling, vividly, the story of the way Nigeria is perceived in the media and why the country has not harnessed its image for the good of the country and its citizens.

The book appears to have succeeded in framing a comprehensive and workable foreign policy for the country. When it comes to Nigeria, the expectations are really high – both within and outside the country: “The Giant of Africa”, “the most populous country in Africa”, “the largest concentration of Black people in the world”. Unfortunately, the country and its leaders have not come anywhere close to fulfilling the potentials of the country.

Using the first term of Olusegun Obasanjo as civilian president of Nigeria (1999-2003) as the plank, the author examines Nigeria’s foreign policy image in the media using six key issues: President Olusegun Obasanjo’ shuttle diplomacy; Nigeria’s role in the process leading to the formation of the African Union (AU), the successor body to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU); the Zimbabwean land crisis; President Bill Clinton’s visit to Nigeria in 2000; teach politics or the politics of “who goes where and who cannot, through which route and which documentation”; and the faceoff with Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsula.

Divided into three parts with seven chapters, two main issues occupy the space: “what the media does to Nigeria’s image and how Nigeria might derive strategic advantage from the media imagination”. His conclusion is that the media image of Nigeria is both good and bad: one in which the country is seen as “the pivot on which Africa and much of the world turn” but at the same time a looted and mismanaged country afflicted by a litany of woes: corruption, high degree of poverty, HIV/AIDS infection, a dysfunctional society, authoritarian democracy, criminality, and scams.

Essentially, the author believes that our foreign policy has underachieved partly because our leaders have also underachieved. While Nigeria does not seek to dominate other countries, as the author notes, its “asymmetrical diplomacy” or inability to streamline its foreign policy objectives to meet its domestic interest and needs has been the country’s greatest undoing. It is this inability, for example, that explains why Nigeria has embassies and high commissions scattered all over the world, many of them redundant.

Indeed, the strength of the book lies in the understanding and application of the power of the media in defining foreign policy. It is a refreshing perspective that the framers of Nigeria’s foreign policy can tap from.

Very few writers and academics in Nigeria have bothered to explore this angle in foreign policy discourse. The work is equally authoritative. As noted in the acknowledgement, very few people with critical orientation have had the opportunity to ply the Nigerian foreign pitch at the level of a close political rather than career aide of the ministers of foreign affairs.

The question emanating from Onoja’s critical ability and close contact with the implementers of Nigeria’s foreign is: how systematically has Nigeria seized the media imagination as a power resource? In answering this question, the author enumerates the benefits inherent in Nigeria getting its foreign policy right. He argues that the media as a power resource in Nigeria’s foreign policy can be described as work in progress. He concludes by noting that the Nigerian State has not deployed the media the way it deploys the military, diplomacy, intelligence and similar instruments of state power.

The solutions: deliberate development of media infrastructure “with capacity to tell the Nigerian story on a global scale”, taking advantage of the advances in media and information technology, and building a crop of media practitioners with an “Afrocentric appreciation of history”.

The shortcoming, however, is how to put some of these ideas into practice or better still why have these ideas not taken roots in more than five decades of independence? How, for example, can Nigeria build a crop of media practitioners with an “Afrocentric appreciation of history” when history is not taught in Nigerian schools, much less an Afrocentric sense of it?

But beyond our disdain for history is a more fundamental question of the character of the Nigeria nation or state which the author ignores. This is the only shortcoming, if any, of the book. The author’s lack of attention, considering his pedigree as a progressive scholar and activist, to the fact that Nigeria is an “unformed entity” and that this has a direct bearing of its foreign policy is difficult to fathom.

It is not just for nothing that Nigeria has no coherent and workable policy. I think there is a way in which the geo-politics of Nigeria has impacted the way Nigeria projects itself or responds to international issues.

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