A year after the Covid-19 crisis shut down global supply value chain, leading to the distruptive rise of new powers and alliances, Nigeria, like many countries ramped up its diplomatic efforts in 2021 targeted at luring fresh opportunities and bolstering older ties needed to push through the rough edges of the prevailing times.
A panorama by The New Diplomat‘s editorial team shows that the issues that topped Nigeria’s foreign agenda for the outgoing year included global support for her response to Covid-19 pandemic, widespread insecurity, trade and socio-economic development; the climate crisis and geopolitics in the ECOWAS sub-region, Africa and around the world as the country continues to seek an increase in her global political role, notwithstanding the deluge of domestic issues that often set her back.
In spite of the topsy-turvy of 2021 geopolitics, earlier in the year, Nigeria — Africa’s largest economy and population, was able to rally global support for former minister of finance, Dr. (Mrs) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who emerged as the Director-General of World Trade Organisation (WTO) on 15th February, 2021.
Okonjo-Iweala made history by becoming the first black and the first woman to become the head of the Geneva-based organisation. Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment came months after Nigeria’s former minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina was re-elected as President of the Africa Development Bank on 27th August 2020, for a second term of five years, fighting off strong opposition to his re-election by the U.S and other European allies, with home support from Nigeria, her people and much of the regional governments.
‘Buhari’s Foreign Trips’
To push many of the country’s agenda in the international space, President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on many foreign trips this year amid the chaotic travel restrictions imposed by countries over Covid-19 fears, and lately to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.
Checks by The New Diplomat revealed that Buhari, who is now at the tail-end of his administration made a total of nine international trips this year alone, the third highest since his almost seven-year reign as democratically elected President kicked off. In 2016, he made 21 trips and 16 in 2015.
Buhari opened his account on international travels this year on March 30, when he travelled to London for a routine medical check, his first since the COVID-19 outbreak in late 2019.
The President’s first real official engagement outside of Nigeria’s shores came in the second part of the year, on July 27, when he travelled to London to attend the Global Education Summit on Financing Global Partnership for Education (GPE) 2021-2025.
Below are some of the international trips the President made as well as some commitments made by the country in 2021.
‘United Nations General Assembly, New York’
1. President Buhari who addressed the 76th General Assembly on September 24 called for a fairer and more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to all countries. The president at the high-level meeting also called for the strict enforcement of the Arms Trade Treaty across the world in a bid to end the proliferation of illicit small arms and ammunition which has continued to bedevilled Nigeria and Africa, further fuelling terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa.
’26th Conference of Parties (CoP26) on Climate Change in Glasgow’
2. Nigeria at the CoP26 pledged to cut its carbon emission to net zero by 2060. Speaking at the summit, Buhari also called for the fulfilment of US$100 billion a year pledge to developing nations like Nigeria to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in global temperature. The New Diplomat recalls 12 years ago, at a United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, some developed nations made a pledge to donate $100 billion to developing countries, however the pledge is yet to be met.
‘2nd Intra-African Trade Fair 2021 in Durban, South Africa’
3. President Buhari and members of his delegation attended the second Intra-African Trade Fair (IATF) on November 15, a forum convened by the African Export-Import Bank (AFREXIM), in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat. Addressing the IATF, Buhari said Nigeria is committed to achieving free trade across Africa. He also oversaw the creation of the enabling business environment investment deals worth $40 billion into Africa.
The President was also in France, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Turkey recently for sundry investment summits and collaborative efforts with countries.
It is also worth noting that Nigeria in 2021 assigned portfolios to 52 non-career and 43 career ambassadors, a process which had earlier begun in 2020.
Among the Ambassadors who received letters of Credence is the former Commissioner for Information in Delta State and founding Publisher of The New Diplomat Multimedia Limited, Hon. Omah Djebah posted to the Kingdom of Thailand as the envoy of Nigeria and Head of the mission in the Southeast Asian nation.
Similarly, former Chief of Defence Intelligence, Air Vice Marshal Sani Usman; former Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas; former Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusufu Buratai (Rtd); former Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin were also handed ambassadorial portfolios amid initial backlash over their handling of the nation’s security while they served in the military as helmsmen.
‘Antony Blinken’s Visit To Nigeria’
US Secretary of State, Mr Antony Blinken visited Nigeria on November 18, his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa since Joe Biden became President in January, 2021.
The trip by Blinken who met with President Buhari in Aso Rock, was part of his three-nation trip to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal seeking to boost US influence on the continent.
While speaking with ECOWAS diplomats who had converged at the bloc’s headquarters in Abuja, the US Secretary of state said Biden’s administration considers Africa as a “major geopolitical power” where it can deliver tangible benefits. But in the diplomatic circle following the visit, many had argued that Blinken in his message to ECOWAS subtly expressed America’s concerns towards the rising Chinese investments and then its influence on the African continent as the two superpowers continue to slog it out for the number one global dominance, no thanks to Covid-19 disruptions.
A former Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi while weighing in on the ongoing power tussle between U.S and China, as well as how that relates to the duo’s relationships with Nigeria, opined that “there’s a competition, right there, of course they’re not happy, they (U.S) will not be happy because there’s a new world order coming up and Russia is not going to be the new competitor to United States. It’s China. They’re not going to be happy about this because this is a natural challenge to the leadership and control of the new world order being put in place. And this is part of why Nigeria was chosen (for the Blinken’s trip)…we’re still a powerful voice to be reckoned with in Africa and in the world.
“In spite of the battering that our economy gets if you look at the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNP (Gross National Product) of Nigeria, you’re not going to come to the conclusion that this a country that you can sniff at.”
The retired diplomat further observed that the “Chinese factor” in the Nigerian-American relationship will continue to be the “elephant in the room” going forward.
Meanwhile, during his visit, Blinken added that Biden administration “firmly believes that it’s time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics –- and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become.”
He acknowledged reasons for cynicism, saying that Africans too often “have been treated as junior partners — or worse — rather than equal ones”.
“And we’re sensitive to centuries of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation that lead to painful legacies that endure today.”
However, it would be recalled Nigerian Foreign Minister, Mr Geoffrey Onyeama, speaking at a news conference alongside the US Secretary of State, dismissed concerns about China, saying that Beijing provided needed funding.
“We would have gone with anybody else that was providing something at a competitive rate for us,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s a good thing for you if you’re the attractive bride and everybody is offering you wonderful things.”
‘Nigeria’s Vaccination Drive’
On COVID-19 vaccines, Nigeria, in 2021 received its first set of vaccines and kick started the vaccination programme. On 2 March, Nigeria received its first shipment of four million Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses from the COVAX initiative which arrived at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.
Vaccination began on March 5 with Cyprian Ngong, a doctor at National Hospital, Abuja, becoming the first person in Nigeria to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Buhari also received his first jab of COVID-19 vaccine on 6 March.
Since the commencement of the Vaccination programme, Nigeria has benefitted from global vaccines donations, with the United States topping the list of the country’s major donors. As of December 9, 2021, US has donated over 13 million doses to Nigeria in partnership with COVAX, while the United Kingdom has donated 1,292,640 doses to Nigeria as of December, 2021.
Also, a total of 6,542,582 Nigerians have received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of November 29, 2021, according to data obtained from the official website of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). A total of 3,595,400 Nigerians have received two doses of the vaccines.
‘Omicron Travel Ban & Fiasco’
And just as nations were still struggling to shake off the debilitating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of the Omicron variant of the virus in South Africa on November 6, 2021 sent shockwaves to global markets. The news forced countries to impose a slew of travel restrictions on African countries, including Nigeria.
Whereas the United Nations was quick to caution countries against the measure dubbed as ‘travel apartheid’ by the UN Secretary-General and world’s number one diplomat, Mr Antonio Guterres, the warning didn’t stop countries from slapping African countries with travel ban described as ‘discriminatory’ and ‘punishment’ for South Africa’s transparency in quickly sequencing the variant of concern and reporting it to World Health Organization appropriately.
On December 6, the United Kingdom added Nigeria and 10 other African countries to its travel Red List despite Omicron infections also spreading rapidly throughout the British community.
Canada, Argentina, Saudi Arabia U.S and later Singapore were among nations that also introduced similar restrictions that specifically targeted Nigeria.
Following the flight restrictions to and from Nigeria, UK for instance only allowed British citizens and eligible visa holders to fly from Nigeria, sparking chaos and frustrations among Nigerian travellers at the Lagos and Abuja airports amid the yuletide festivities.
The blanket travel ban was later lifted on Nigeria by the UK, thanks to deft diplomacy between Nigeria and its erstwhile colonial master, two days after the Nigerian government, through its Minister of Aviation, Captain Hadi Sirika had in a leaked audio threatened to ban airlines coming from countries that imposed restrictions on Nigeria without following science. Aside UK, several other countries have since lifted the hasty travel ban on Nigeria and other African countries due to the Omicron fears.