After the Golden Era Restoring Nigeria’s Foreign Policy Towards West Africa

Nigerian politics matter at home and abroad, particularly for West Africa. Likewise, West Africa’s stability or otherwise matters and has real implications for Nigeria. Unlike the Muhammadu Buhari administration, Nigeria’s next president cannot afford to neglect foreign policy in favour of an overemphasis on domestic issues. 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A Nation Divided. Buy the issue here.

As far back as 1977 when Ali Mazrui published his book, Africa’s International Relations, the prominent political writer and scholar described Nigeria as a country ‘on its way to becoming the first major black power in modern international politics’. At the time, Nigeria was famous for its non-alignment principle during the Cold War. After independence, the Tafawa Balewa administration repeatedly affirmed Nigeria’s vision for steering regional and continental growth, making Africa the focus of its foreign policy. To back this up, Nigeria’s first National Development Plan (1962-1968) was launched as part of an overall strategy to foster the country’s capacity to become, ‘the industrial heart of an African Common Market’. 

What Balewa’s administration could not achieve due to its short-lived tenure (he was assassinated in 1966), the Yakubu Gowon administration (1966-75), after the Civil War, would partly bring to fruition. The plan to forge an African Common Market, starting with an integrated sub-region to make Nigeria an industrial powerhouse spurred Gowon’s diplomatic alliances and politics in West Africa towards the realization of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975.  

Since 1975, however, Nigeria has neither become the major Black power it was expected to be nor the industrial powerhouse it sought to become. Not only has economic growth been five times slower since the turn of the current millennium, but investors’ confidence has also reduced and consequently Foreign Direct Investments. Nigeria saw a 69 per cent drop in its FDI from $2.3 billion in 2014 to $699 million in 2021. Not least, export value is on the decline. According to a recent Stears article, the volume of Nigeria’s export in 2021 ($47.3 billion) was 68 per cent lower than the number in 2012 ($146.4 billion). Nigeria only exports raw materials, not finished goods, and enduring challenges of insecurity, corruption, theft and vandalism have crippled its production capacity and consequently limited its earning potential.  

By these accounts, it makes sense that the focus of the next president should be seeking long-term solutions to these domestic issues. Yet one ignored but equally important discussion point is the impact that Nigeria’s challenges have on the West African sub-region and the benefits regional stability and integration would have on Nigeria’s domestic and international interests. Nigerian politics matter at home and abroad, particularly for West Africa. Likewise, West Africa’s stability or otherwise matters and has real implications for Nigeria. Unlike the Muhammadu Buhari administration, Nigeria’s next administration cannot afford to neglect foreign policy in favour of an overemphasis on domestic issues.  

A stable Nigeria is crucial to the progress of West Africa and vice versa. Therefore, leaders cannot continue to treat regional issues with disinterest or little interest at best. Alongside fostering peace and development at home, the incoming president should also develop a bold and assertive foreign policy for West Africa. Top on the agenda should be rallying West African leaders to forge a common defence policy to address insecurity and terrorism; more active participation in peacekeeping through ECOWAS and African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council where Nigeria is the longest-serving member, and more effort to coordinate regional integration through cultural education.  

The traditional argument is that Nigeria needs to resolve its internal issues before it can address external concerns. However, foreign affairs are not unconnected to Nigeria’s domestic realities. Therefore, the challenge before the next president is to develop unique strategies to address both domestic and foreign issues concurrently. 


The question about the role of big states in Africa has been on for several years. Countries like Nigeria, with economic and political clout, are expected to step up to influence reforms across the continent. Nigeria in previous years has lived up to such expectations. In past years, Nigeria has constantly leveraged political and economic influence to advance its national interest but also foster regional cooperation and advocate for African development. Several regional and continental initiatives have been launched in Nigeria or driven by the Nigerian governments of the past.  

Nigeria was crucial to the formation of ECOWAS in 1975, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 which later became the AU in 2002, and the African Development Bank in 1964. During the military rule, Nigeria worked to ensure stability in West Africa deploying troops and funds through the ECOWAS Monitoring Group to end civil wars in Liberia under Ibrahim Babangida’s regime in 1990 and Sierra Leone under Sani Abacha’s regime in 1998. Nigeria was also well-positioned as a defender of democracy and peace and stability within the continent in the years since the return to democracy, particularly under Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration. An example was when the then-president of São Tomé and Príncipe, Fradique de Menezes, was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2003. Menezes was visiting President Obasanjo in Nigeria to discuss oil development when the coup happened. Nigeria with other African and international partners worked to restore São Tomé’s president a week later, with Obasanjo escorting him back to his country in the presidential jet.   

Through the years, Obasanjo was the president who really advanced a conscientious foreign policy. The end of his tenure in 2007 is now synonymous with the end of the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Nigeria’s past international engagements have not been without criticisms though. There was opposition from members of the public to the peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone mainly on the grounds of corruption and lack of freedom at home. Obasanjo was often criticized for placing foreign considerations above domestic issues. 

During his first few years in office, President Muhammadu Buhari showed enthusiasm on working with regional leaders. He pushed for a multilateral approach to addressing insecurity through the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which was launched in 2014 with three other Lake Chad countries, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. His enthusiasm and prioritization of regional cooperation then showed in his visits to Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger as soon as he assumed office from June to August 2015. He also disbursed funds in 2015, $21 million out of $100 million pledged to the MNJTF. His efforts then boosted the morale of the leaders and troops of the other countries that made up the MNJTF.  

But since then, the MNJTF has been plagued by poor funding, the military offensives have not been properly coordinated, and historical and ongoing mistrust due to border disputes, and inadequate support among member countries have led to reduced collaboration and intelligence sharing. As a result, the MNJTF, which started with some victory over Boko Haram, has been unable to conquer the jihadist group. Rather, Boko Haram has split into multiple factions.  

In December 2019, Chad recalled more than 1,000 of its troops from Nigeria without adequate communication with other MNJTF members. Then Chadian president, Idriss Déby, complained that his troops did most of the fighting with insufficient support from Nigeria or its neighbours.  The perception was that the Nigerian side showed little effort and its weakness to handle the crisis continued to cause resentment about the spillage of the Boko Haram crisis to the Lake Chad region.  

In recent years, Nigeria has been silent on the international front. There has not been a major effort to address cross-border insecurity and terrorism crises from Buhari’s government, beyond vows and calls for cooperation at regional events. There was an instance when President Buhari donated N1.4 billion worth of vehicles to Niger Republic, which could be considered a misplaced priority. While this shows in some sense a renewed, if late, commitment to cultivating regional relationships again, the move arguably was not adequately calculated and not properly communicated. Nigeria was also hesitant and was one of the last to join the African Continental Free Trade Area, even though there has been  sustained advocacy for an African common market since Balewa’s administration. 

For one thing, the challenges that Nigeria faces today, years since Obasanjo’s internationalist orientation, have changed. Insecurity has worsened, poverty has deepened as have other socio-economic woes. At the same time, West Africa is facing diverse new and existing challenges exacerbated by climate change, poor leadership and the historical malformation of the sub-region. That Buhari’s focus has been on domestic issues is, therefore, understandable.  

The incoming leader, however, faces unique challenges at a crucial period in Nigerian and world history. As Femi Gbajabiamila, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, said in 2022, Nigeria must properly define the foreign policy terms in which it engages an ever-changing and dynamic world. When faced with two inevitable choices, following President Buhari’s path by focusing overly on domestic affairs or creating a new mode of engaging with local and international issues, the incoming president should be encouraged to forge a new path. He should fashion unique approaches in a way that ensures a balanced focus on domestic and foreign affairs across all critical areas including security, trade, and peacebuilding. 


The insecurity crisis in West Africa and the Sahel needs decisive actions as it has dragged on for too long. This is the time for coordinated action amongst West African states against organized crime, insurgency and terrorism. Nigeria should lead coordinated efforts in partnership with suitable external parties.  

The nature of the insecurity crisis is complex, dynamic and ever-evolving. As such, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot work. Moreover, any counterinsurgency move that doesn’t consider the lives or human rights of community members would be counterintuitive. At the same time, trying to solve insecurity without resolving corruption would be ineffective. Corruption, state dysfunction and lack of trust in governments motivate insurgents to want to create alternative governments. On the other hand, corruption among public officials and security forces through defence procurement has over the years hampered serious interventions, leading to a lack of resources and proper remunerations for soldiers on battlefronts. Military forces of respective countries in the sub-region are over-stretched because of having to deal with multiple threats and security crises. Thus, the next president needs to focus on the process of designing solutions to this multi-layered and dynamic security crisis alongside regional leaders and multilateral stakeholders. 

In December 2022, leaders from ECOWAS countries said they were working towards creating a regional peacekeeping force to combat jihadism. However, no specific details as to when and how this regional force would be established and its processes have been provided. The defence ministers have agreed to meet in the second half of 2023 to discuss this. The challenge is that leaders work too slowly in creating solutions to crises that don’t wait for them. The next administration should make urgent efforts to coordinate regional action on this. They should also draw lessons from the structural, funding and procurement challenges that hampered the effectiveness of the much smaller MNJTF. 

Even though West Africa has the most open visa policy among the regional economic communities in Africa, the porosity of its borders has led to the infiltration of armed groups and the illegal sale of arms. Partly in response to this, between 2019 and 2021 Nigeria closed its borders, preventing the movement of goods from neighbouring countries. This policy which contradicts the Freedom of Movement Protocols of ECOWAS aimed to prevent the import of agricultural products and illegal arms trading, in a bid to promote domestic production and curb insecurity.  

While its intention was no doubt noble, the border closure wasn’t deemed successful. Nigerian manufacturers lost out on cross-border trading and insecurity worsened during the period. It also led to an increase in food inflation. This led to high food prices which gave smugglers incentives to keep importing. The border closure was criticized by neighbouring countries, including Ghana whose traders complained the closure had negative impact on their businesses. Nigerian’s exports to West Africa which was valued at N2.2 trillion in 2019 before the border closure and subsequent pandemic has not returned to such peak levels. 

As this shows, the border closure was not very effective in curbing insecurity and was not helpful for the economy. This re-emphasizes the need for addressing insecurity and corruption on a regional scale through innovative means. 


The West African sub-region has been engulfed in political instability with bouts of military coups. Mali has recently witnessed two coups while Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau have recently witnessed one failed or successful coup attempt. In December 2022, The Gambia also foiled a coup attempt with eight soldiers charged with treason.  

There were fears that Nigeria could also plunge into a similar situation in 2022 but the military reassured there were no such plans. Now that the elections episode which has dominated the national politics for almost a year is relatively behind, the incoming president must begin to devise ways to spearhead solutions for the troubles across the West African sub-region. For one, the region’s volatility and instability call for regional support, one Nigeria has experience leading. The ECOWAS region can be so much more, but it is lacking effective leadership.  

Recent reports from the Institute for Insecurity Studies on the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) have also resounded the call for big states with political and economic influence to take on more leadership roles to drive agendas that promote a stable, peaceful and prosperous continent. The role of big states in driving such progress was evident when the OAU was transformed into the AU. The PSC was established, in part, to provide an enhanced avenue for nations to take on leadership roles on the continent. Part of the responsibilities of its members are to participate in peacebuilding and conflict resolution efforts within their region and Africa. Nigeria is the longest-serving member of the PSC and has served for 18 years since it was established. That Nigeria is the only member that has been part of this important council for that long again emphasizes Nigeria’s strategic importance. It is high time Nigeria lived up to the actions expected of it in facilitating defence policies and promoting peace and stability in the West African region and Africa by extension.  

As the government intervenes abroad, it needs to pay attention to the cases of violence at home. There is a need for dialogue with agitators from the Indigenous People of Biafra in the South East to addressing banditry and terrorism from groups such as Boko Haram in the North. Unaddressed crises at home can drive instability in the sub-region and, as such, the next president will need to show that he is a president for all and not just the section of the country that voted for him. There should be initiatives, in his first few months in office, to carry along the already aggrieved south-eastern part of the country. His cabinet should also reflect that conscious decision to carry everybody along. The president should pay visits to the South East and hear directly from the community members their agitations and seek community-led efforts to address the issues tabled. The sit-at-home directive prevalent in parts of the South East is already hurting the region. Long-lasting peace efforts are therefore needed to quell tensions and end the crisis of unknown gunmen. 

Should domestic violence remain unaddressed, this could impact neighbouring countries. Unrest and violence could lead to an influx of people into neighbouring countries that are unprepared to deal with such issues. Nigeria’s inability to tackle existing insecurity issues has already affected neighbouring countries. The Boko Haram crisis has extended to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon while neighbouring Benin is also experiencing the crisis of kidnapping for ransom which is believed to be a spillover from Nigeria.   

These crises—particularly those around religious extremism and ethnic conflict—cannot only be addressed through guns and bullets. More collaboration and integration could foster innovative solutions. Not much emphasis is placed on it, but cultural diplomacy could unlock massive potential for collaboration within the subregion and within the country. 

Messaging would be important for the next administration. There is a National Orientation Agency which is not active. There should be appropriate campaigns from the ground up, through all forms of mass media, consistently and over the long term, preaching a message of peace, religious tolerance, principles of love and the values of the country’s ethnic diversities. This is more domestic but in terms of regional scale, more cultural exchange programs can be launched between respective countries to foster collaboration, dialogue, research, innovation and problem-solving among youths of respective countries while developing them to be ambassadors for these values. These are long-term strategies that can better position Nigeria and the West African region to harness the true strength of the diversity and enormous potential in the subregion rather than be hampered by intolerance and lack of cooperation. 

Regional efforts without appropriate domestic considerations and initiatives could inevitably lead to wasted efforts. Without peace and stable economic growth at home, Nigeria’s international efforts would not be deemed credible. The important thing, therefore, is not to overemphasize one to the detriment of the other. Nigeria needs technocratic and visionary leadership that not only manages the domestic economy but is poised to reposition the country’s standing in the comity of nations. Nigeria needs to focus on creating a stable and friendly regional atmosphere and improving its industrial and productive capacity. This is easier said than done, but it is nonetheless what the incoming president ought to start thinking about when compiling profiles of members of his cabinet and heads of strategic foreign missions

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