From Well-Worn Fatigues to Well-Tailored Suits Joseph Garba’s ‘Diplomatic Soldiering’

In Diplomatic Soldiering, the late General Joseph Garba, one of Nigeria’s earliest foreign ministers, presents a case for the tacit but present ‘Big Brother’ role that Nigeria has sought to play across Africa.

Over the years, scholars have taken various approaches to defining African statehood. Some scholars, such as Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg, have considered African states with an air of superiority that comes from viewing Africa through Western lenses. Others, such as Frederick Cooper, have identified fault lines and social cleavages that divide the continent’s individual countries but keep them in place through the ability of new administrators to ‘guard the gate’ through resource management. Few, however, ever give credit to Africa’s young states for trying to muddle through their differences and precarity or, in other words, in a way that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the issues new states encounter.

For Africa’s young states, ‘African solutions for African problems’ usually meant internal arbiters and guardians eschewing the influence of former colonial powers and bearing the responsibility of shaping their own future. This organizing principle is a recurring theme in the late General Joseph Garba’s memoir, Diplomatic Soldiering. As Nigeria’s minister of external affairs from 1975 to 1978, Garba was charged with brokering peaceful settlements to contentious issues, such as the Angolan Crisis of 1974 to 1975, and advancing Nigeria’s influence on the African continent. In chronicling his time in office, Garba is able to illustrate the many steps Africa’s early post-colonial leaders took to create a pathway to statehood for their respective countries.


Among Nigerians, Garba is perhaps best known as the Brutus to General Yakubu Gowon’s Caesar. Garba gained the moniker after serving as the commander of the Presidential Guard Brigade that deposed Gowon in 1975, while the head of state attended an Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala. In diplomatic circles, however, Garba is remembered for holding several high-profile positions within the United Nations, including stints as the president of the UN Security Council, the 44th president of the session of the UN General Assembly and Nigeria’s permanent representative to the UN.

Garba’s diplomatic career is the focus of his book, beginning with his recollection of the 1975 coup that terminated the Gowon regime, before venturing into his emergence as commissioner of external affairs and the various assignments he devoted his time to as chief envoy. There is considerable focus on the influence and impact of the civil service leadership in assisting Nigeria’s military leaders who came to power armed with little policymaking and governing experience. Garba divides the book into 12 chapters, with the first two focusing on getting to grips with his new role in the foreign ministry, while others cover different flashpoints from key highlights of his time in government service. He shares some thoughts on Nigeria’s relations with superpowers such as the United States and the then Soviet Union, former colonial powers and the broader implications of a global world order governed through international organizations.

Like many Nigerian leaders during the years of military juntas, Garba was ill-prepared for the portfolio he was assigned. He was a career soldier who was convinced by his colleagues to support a replacement of the nearly decade-long Gowon regime. Garba and his colleagues, including then Lt. Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed, shared concerns about the unfulfilled promise of Nigeria’s return to democratic rule, believing that the military brass had become too entrenched in their positions of authority. While lower-ranked officers technically led the 1975 coup, there was tacit support for the putsch from the eventual beneficiary of the change of government—the widely respected Brigadier General Murtala Mohammed.

Garba provides one of the few notable insider accounts of the post-coup deliberations, including how victors of the transition shared their spoils. Garba’s last-minute appointment as foreign minister (after others had sought the ‘juicier’ portfolios of transportation and defence) demonstrated the low level of importance the coup-plotters ascribed to foreign policy. Garba was also gracious to the civil servants he worked with during his time as Nigeria’s envoy, highlighting the expanded role played by senior bureaucrats to support administrations led by unseasoned political appointees and academics through the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA).


In Diplomatic Soldiering, Garba praises the Obasanjo military regime (1976 – 1979) for having a clear vision of foreign policy, centred on supporting independence and liberation movements across the African continent. Garba holds his own in multiple interactions with a broad range of statesmen, including revered leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, feared despots such as Idi Amin and Mengistu Haile Mariam and nationalist revolutionaries like Robert Mugabe and Agostinho Neto. In one such exchange the book provides, Garba describes this terse exchange with Ethiopian dictator Mengistu:

In a rare show of temper towards a foreign Head of State,’ he writes, ‘I told Mengistu that I had not come all the way to Addis Ababa to take home nothing…throughout our conversation, we had kept alluding to the fact that we were both soldiers and should not be encumbered by diplomatic niceties. I seized on this to tell him that if indeed he meant what he was saying the first thing he should understand was that he might be Head of State, but he was still a lieutenant-colonel while I was Brigadier. He laughed, the tension eased and we got down to serious business after.

In 1975, the OAU held a meeting to determine a collective African position on the Angolan Civil War. This also led to a subsequent bilateral meeting in Luanda with the new government to establish relations. In recollecting these meetings, Garba illustrates an attempt to reconcile personal animosity with posterity. Garba makes no secret about his belief that Angola’s political leaders demonstrated insufficient gratitude for the financial and political assistance Nigerians lent in support of Angolan independence from Portugal. He writes, for instance, ‘But in the bilateral terms which are, after all, the core of relations between states, we gave and gave to Angola, and in return got nothing’.

On arriving at Luanda for a 7 a.m. meeting with the president, he was kept waiting and delayed by different courtiers including Paolo Jorge, an interpreter-turned-foreign minister, whose approach to Garba he describes as ‘a deferential attitude…given way to a self-assured, not to say arrogant one’. He would later leave Angola at 3:30 p.m., without meeting the president or his counterpart at the foreign ministry, an instance he describes as the first and only time in his career he was treated in that manner. Garba insists, nonetheless, that the decision to expend significant financial and political capital in supporting the MPLA’s independence struggle in Angola was morally and strategically the correct one in light of  Nigeria’s foreign policy objectives. Thus, he writes, ‘What, after all, did Nigeria gain? High visibility in the international community; an awakening of our government officials as to what serious lobbying involved; and rallying a large percentage of our population to an international cause’. It is this cardinal point that showcases the value of Garba’s contributions to Nigerian foreign policy scholarship—as the chief diplomat of an administration articulating a bold and clear foreign policy vision.

Yet, Diplomatic Soldiering raises more questions than answers, with few active participants around to address them. The book is a retelling of the author’s experiences and largely sidesteps hot-button debates typically associated with the 70s—such as the degree to which former colonies should retain ties with former imperial powers or what continental integration should look like. This leads readers to question whether ideological or expedient considerations drove foreign policy decision-making during that period—unfortunately for readers, Nigeria’s foreign policy was centralized during the Obasanjo regime and not formulated in the ministry that Garba headed. Equally, there are few archival materials or first-hand accounts from the Obasanjo regime publicly available.

Readers of Garba’s memoir are also not granted the opportunity to weigh the ramifications of Nigeria’s policy choices. Choices such as whether the extensive investment in resolving crises involving the frontline states paid any dividends for Nigeria; or why Nigeria failed to institutionalize crisis and conflict management within the organs of government, as opposed to the pursuit of personal diplomacy by Nigerian leaders. Readers get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Nigeria’s ‘golden era of foreign policy’, but it is not made clear what impact pursuing those objectives made to Nigeria’s broader interests. Diplomatic Soldiering does not articulate a clear link between Nigeria’s domestic concerns and the country’s foreign policy goals. Instead, the book leans too heavily on scholars and media commentators (to the exclusion of ordinary citizens) for analysis of this linkage between the domestic and international context.

And yet, Garba raises a thorny issue that has stumped many Nigerian diplomats for decades—what to do about Nigeria’s smaller, less wealthy neighbours who are anxious about its regional hegemony. A notable example is Nigeria’s 1977 bid against Niger Republic for a UN Security Council seat. Despite attempts to settle the issue bilaterally, including visits to and from Niamey, the situation was unresolved. Garba refers to this period as the ‘most difficult period of my diplomatic career’, and his involvement ranged from meetings with Francophone African representatives angry at the move to lobbying UN member states from other countries. The effort to gain allies within the continent failed, as a UN source eventually informed Garba that ‘only five African countries voted for Nigeria in the end’. Despite this, Garba argues that Nigeria’s stature on the continent necessitated a more active role as the continent’s voice in international fora like the UN Security Council. While he asserts that ‘there comes a time when a sovereign and independent country has to decide, for better or for worse, that her national interest must take precedence over good neighbourliness,’ he does not offer much in the way of specifics regarding how to balance competing interests on a continent that seeks collegiality at the expense of powerful hegemons.


In a later edition of Diplomatic Soldiering, Garba adds an epilogue that serves as an inflection point from the documentation of his original thoughts. The epilogue reflects on incidents that followed his term as Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN. Leaning from his term as president of the 45th session of the general assembly, he argues that smaller states need to leverage fora such as the United Nations to counterbalance the agenda of more powerful states.

Reading Garba’s memoir decades after it was originally written, with the continent in the throes of a new international order and a revamped continental organization, is an interesting exercise. For one thing, Garba could not have foreseen the expansive role that a post-apartheid South Africa could play on the continent—with figures such as Nelson Mandela, who held a role as an elder statesman and icon for peace and conflict resolution. Neither could he have seen Thabo Mbeki serving as inaugural chair of the later created African Union. Also, for a foreign minister under an administration that adroitly exploited soft power by hosting FESTAC ‘77, Garba gives little consideration to the role that culture ambassadors can play in facilitating people-to-people relations and foreign policy agenda-setting.

Diplomatic Soldiering serves as a reminder of the gaps in the scholarly literature on Nigerian foreign policy analysis, and the considerations that drive key decisions made in this domain. Published work detailing the considerations, negotiations and execution of key instances of Nigerian foreign policy by active participants are few and, in the case of this book, not readily accessible. Garba’s memoir is nonetheless useful as an introductory guide to conceptualizing how questions about Nigeria’s role on the continent, and the world at large, have continued to mystify Nigerian diplomats for decades. We also see Garba defend the pragmatism of the Balewa administration’s ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy and can trace the logic of such pragmatism to the current era engagement on the continent by the big powers. Garba defends the inaugural prime minister’s insistence that Nigeria should not choose a side in the ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union but should engage constructively with each side on a case-by-case basis, a position which continues to sustain itself today among many African leaders.

However, cultivated this may seem, Diplomatic Soldiering shows the makings of the closest Nigerian equivalent of a Monroe Doctrine, asserting that the issues on the continent will affect Nigeria, and that it is in our interest to be involved and active in these issues because they can make or mar our future. This alone justifies the need for the tacit but present ‘Big Brother’ role that Nigeria seeks to play, to varying degrees, on the continent. Currently, given that foreign policy is not as scrutinized as fiscal or domestic policy when leaders seek elected office, Diplomatic Soldiering is a necessary reminder of what can be achieved when there is dedicated focus on harmonizing domestic and foreign policy

Diplomatic Soldiering
Joseph Nanven Garba
268 pp. Spectrum Books. 1991

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