In recent days, the traditional and online media have been agog with the news of the purchase and donation of 10 Toyota Land Cruisers V8 vehicles worth N1.4 billion to the Niger Republic and even denial by the so-called recipient country. In fact, the online media have so sensationalised it that anyone coming from planet Mars would think that this has never happened before in the history of Nigeria-Niger bilateral relations or with any of the neighbouring countries. I actually watched the news and sympathised with the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, seeing how she was struggling very hard to defend the initiative which couldn’t have been her idea (nor is she in a position to either assess or recommend for approval).
According to Mrs Ahmed, “Let me just say that over time, Nigeria has had to support its neighbours, especially, immediate neighbours, to enhance their capacity to secure their countries as it relates to us. This is not the first time that Nigeria had assisted Niger Republic, Cameroon or Chad. The President makes an assessment as to what is required based on the request of their presidents. Such requests are approved and interventions are provided.” She added: “Nigerians have the right to ask questions, but also the President has the responsibility to make an assessment of what is in the best interest of the country and I cannot question the decision myself. So, it is in the best interest of Nigeria to do so for our neighbours.”
Let us be clear, Mrs Ahmed is right with the above explanation. She cannot in good conscience question the decision that must have been taken by the highest organ of government, the President and possibly the National Security Council after the advice of an Inter-Ministerial Consultative Committee. The minister is also right that over time, Nigeria has had to support the countries in West Africa and beyond. In fact, donation has always been part of our foreign policy actions. So it is not a decision taken lightly.
Just a reminder, as recent as 2019, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), who was then the Chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State, approved the donation of $500,000 to Guinea Bissau to support the county’s elections process. Nigeria also supported the country with 350 units of electoral kits, 10 motorcycles, five Toyota Hilux vans and two light trucks. According to the report, this vital assistance was necessary to ensure that legislative elections were held in Guinea Bissau, which should help in stabilising the country.
It is apt to state that requests for such donations do originate from the countries directly. In this instance, the request for such vehicles would have emanated from the government of Niger Republic through either the Embassy of Nigeria in Niamey or the Embassy of Niger Republic in Abuja through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the government of Nigeria. Such donation would be assessed based on the need of the requesting government and what Nigeria stands to gain from the donation. It is after such assessment by the agencies of government, led by the Ministry of Affairs, that the President would be requested to give his approval.
Moreover, the approval for this particular request has been in the news since February 2022 and Nigerians didn’t raise any eyebrows until now. The question is why the hullabaloo at this time? Ordinarily, this would have gone unnoticed but these are not ordinary times. Nigeria is under siege, economically and security-wise. Any idea of profligacy on the part of the government would be deemed as a lack of discretion, irresponsibility and misplaced priority. This is understandable against the backdrop of the debt service that exceeded retained revenue by as much as N310 billion in the first four months of 2022.
Also, this is the first time the country’s debt service to revenue ratio would hit or exceed 100 per cent; there is the petrol subsidy that is nearing N6.7 trillion; also, there is no hope that the lingering strike in the public tertiary institutions will come to an end soon and the threat of the resident doctors going on strike soon is already causing anxiety among the populace. The bottom line is that Nigeria’s economic situation is not looking good and opponents of the donation can be forgiven for feeling that the government is so insensitive, neglecting the welfare of the citizens but providing luxury cars to the neighbouring country. However, there is never a good time to donate part of the resources you don’t have in excess but, at times, you need to make such decisions in the overall national security interest.
However, considering the mood of the nation, especially now that the goose laying the golden eggs has not laid any egg in the last six months so to say, such donations could have been handled differently and discreetly. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any other agency of government could have been tasked with that assignment. This would have been executed successfully without fanfare and less anger or uproar by the public. There are many such initiatives being carried out by governments all over the world without the public knowing and only those that need to know will have knowledge of it. That is the essence of the trust upon which democratic governments draw legitimacy.
While it is difficult for Nigerians to understand the implicit benefit of the donation, they may also better be conscious or aware that Nigeria is subsidising the sale of electricity to Benin and Niger Republics. This is not so much because Nigeria is self-sufficient or that the national grid is efficient enough to satisfy the demand of the populace but the government must take such decisions in the overall national security interest of the country. The two countries are located in the middle/lower basin region of River Niger and there must be the appreciation that if the two countries decide to go ahead and dam the river, the implications for both Kainji and Shiroro dams and by extension the country are too real and unsustainable in the short and medium terms.
It is pertinent to state that while the populace can be forgiven if they do not understand certain decisions of government, the same cannot be said of the elites that need to appreciate the importance of such decisions rather than stoking unnecessary arguments. There is a need for elite consensus when the government is cultivating the support of neighbouring countries. Such assistance should not be taken for granted because most times it is in our best interest. With the benefit of hindsight, we have seen what can become of the relations with the neighbouring countries if not properly oiled since we have been destined to shoulder the responsibility of the sub-region given the material and human resources available to the country, otherwise the price is going to be unbearable.
At the time of our greatest need and faced with the Boko Haram violence, Nigeria was unable to call the neighbouring countries together to seek their support until France intervened and the first meeting only took place in Paris before the countries agreed to the setting up of the multinational joint task force. The bottom line is that foreign policy unlike other actions is not conducted on the pages of newspapers or in the news media. In fact, publicity and diplomacy are not necessarily correlated. Although it is rather late for the present government, there is no doubt that lessons have been learnt and incoming governments will now know how to handle such requests in future without creating any furore and bad publicity for the government.
My displeasure, however, is the origin of cars donated. The information in the public domain is that foreign cars were bought and supplied or about to be given to Niger Republic Government. That shouldn’t have been so, especially when the same government is encouraging Nigerian institutions to source their needs including vehicles and other items in the country. Moreover, the military and other institutions, including state governments, are buying vehicles assembled or made in Nigeria. The government should have sent made or assembled in Nigeria vehicles and branded same with Nigeria-Niger signage. That way, Nigeria is thus promoting made-in-Nigeria products and the idea that the vehicles will be used for purposes other than the ones intended will be ruled out.
Importantly, there is nothing new in this idea of sourcing items from the donor countries and branding same. Many of the foreign donors operating in Nigeria and many developing countries do ensure that programmes in the recipient countries are executed using supplies and experts from the countries of origin. Nigeria may as well start doing same by ensuring that such donations have Nigerian components. That is what decisive and active foreign policy is all about and not behaving like ‘Father Christmas’ whose charity or donations lack local content and commensurate responsibility on the part of the recipients.
Wale Oloko, a policy analyst, writes via [email protected]