Saturday, 3 October 2015

STREAMLINING FOREIGN MISSIONS

Muhammadu Buhari, President, Federal Republic of Nigeria
President Muhammadu Buhari struck a most appropriate tone, the other day, when he said that Nigeria’s foreign representative missions should be based strictly on appropriate needs and getting value for money. And his hint of the administration’s possible pruning of the missions is understandable. So is his specific charge to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, to raise a committee to examine the whole issue of the nation’s representation abroad, with a view to either keeping the existing structures or reduce the 119 missions to only needed and a manageable number.

This is, indeed, in line with current economic realities as the four month-old administration works out ways to cut the cost of governance towards maintaining standards and quality. However, in doing all these, the government must be guided more by the fact of the country’s history and its proposed destination in the next 20 or 30 years.

A word of caution is equally appropriate: the government has to make haste slowly so as to avoid the country retreating into itself just when its presence should actually be felt on the world stage. Missions in some places may be a waste of resources but where they are effective, they can be used as means of projecting power and maintaining direct contact with needed friendly nations.

In the immediate past, stories of serious neglect, underfunding and idle officials have certainly been the lot of many missions in the Nigerian foreign service. Therefore, the president could not have been far from reality when he stated without pretensions that there was no point operating missions all over the world with dilapidated facilities and demoralised staff.“ Let’s keep only what we can manage. We can’t afford much for now. There’s no point in pretending.”

If the painted picture is true, it is unimaginable what statement past leaders were making by keeping unmanageable diplomatic missions that have become the butt of jokes and an embarrassment to the country and her diplomats.

Other challenges before the Foreign Affairs Ministry listed by its permanent secretary after briefing President Buhari included the absence of a Foreign Service Commission, policy inconsistency and training deficiency, among others. But, will streamlining foreign missions have any negative impact on operations? The ministry does not think so. Again, the proposed review has no timeline. This is, happily, suggestive of an exercise to be done carefully, devoid of the usual official quick fire approach to sensitive national issues which are later jettisoned when reason prevails.

Underscoring the need for a comprehensive review of the country’s foreign policy, the permanent secretary stated that the last comprehensive review or report was in 1986, almost three decades ago. This is scandalous in a dynamic diplomatic environment. It is, however, refreshing to learn from the ministry that the fundamentals of our foreign policy as defined by the objective principle are not only sound but also relevant. What changes is the nuance that governments and regimes bring from time to time.

Nigeria, of course, has never been short of appellations for its foreign policies at every point in time, but a conscientious pursuit of the ideas is another story. At least five different themes as developed by different regimes or governments in recent times have been identified. Starting with the 1975 ‘Africa has come of age’; Concentric Circle Concept (of the regime of Gen. Buhari – 1983-85), Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s twin ideas of Concert of Medium Powers and Economic Diplomacy from 1985 until his stepping aside in 1993, Citizen Diplomacy of the late Umaru Yar’Adua and Jonathan Goodluck’s Transformation Agenda, the high-sounding tags were always there but only in a few cases were they given clarity in definition and diligence in pursuit.

Without jettisoning the functional aspects of these earlier policies, the current administration must ideally pursue its own priority in security, the economy and anti-graft fight if it would not turn out to be another empty sloganeer in foreign policy. Envoys must be well grounded to explain the new vision to the world for effect. The global community must be made to understand Nigeria with a view to acknowledging her as the continental leader that it should be in Africa.

Aiming for that leadership status would mean consideration for professionals being posted to spheres of influence of the country, sending the best and experienced ambassadors to contiguous states whose security and economy are tied to Nigeria’s. Nigeria, of course, needs to keep friends all over the globe as a means of projecting power. If she withdraws from a particular location as a result of mission pruning, the government must still be able to maintain presence and influence in that country.

Doing these are necessary so the world would see Nigeria as an influential powerhouse. But it demands the cultivation and delivery of a clear message with words and deeds. Nigeria must expedite the development of its education system, infrastructure and health care system to project the image of a strong country.

The nation’s population, especially of the young is huge and, if well educated in a radically changed system with original Nigeria-Centric Syllabus, that have development as well as the people’s cultures as their focus will translate to enormous power.

The nation’s foreign policy must indeed be rooted in the recognition that Nigeria’s is crucial to the survival of Africa politically and economically. (guardian)