The Obasanjo Doctrine The Importance of Foreign Policy in Present-Day Nigeria

Olusegun Obasanjo’s foreign policy successes did not always translate domestically. It appears the Obasanjo administration sometimes sacrificed domestic stability for improved foreign relations.

Olusegun Obasanjo is one of the most polarizing personalities in Nigeria’s history. To some, he remains the gold standard against which his successors in the Fourth Republic (1999-present) are judged and found wanting. Many others argue that his poor institutional management, domestic policy and attempts to maintain influence post-presidency have greatly damaged his image.

Yet, one area that deserves to be studied is his work on Nigeria’s foreign policy. Obasanjo’s foreign policy approach was neither novel nor original—Nigeria’s size and population demand that the country aspires to the role of a regional hegemon. This role has often come with the added responsibility of exercising significant influence in the West African region and on the continent to support pan-African independence movements and oppose undue external influence on the continent.

Nigeria’s ambition to lead the continent has been outlined by past heads of state and presidents. Yet, more so than any other head of state, Obasanjo was able to deliver on a strategy aimed at achieving this aim. Borrowing from a term often used to espouse the policy framework of an administration, the ‘Obasanjo Doctrine’ remains a necessary body of work to study for any subsequent administration seeking to deliver on the promise of maintaining Nigeria’s status as a regional hegemon.


To properly assess Obasanjo the agbada-wearing democrat, it is important to first assess his term as a military head of state. The major accomplishments Nigeria recorded during Obasanjo’s military term (1976-1979) include pursuing an active policy to support anti-apartheid rebel movements in southern Africa and strengthening Nigeria’s position regionally. However, perhaps General Obasanjo’s most famous achievement was delivering on the initial promise of the 1976 coup plotters, such as his deputy Lt-Col Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Colonel Joseph Garba, of a successful transition from military to democratic rule. Before handing over in 1979, Obasanjo’s military regime recorded major strides in entrenching Nigeria’s position as a force to be reckoned with on the continent.

Although former head of state, Yakubu Gowon, is often credited for the creation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Gowon’s removal from office meant that it fell to successors, Murtala Mohammed and then Obasanjo, to move the ECOWAS from paper to posterity. One of the first major debates concerning ECOWAS was where the headquarters of the new organization would be located, with a growing number of Francophone West African states clamouring to host the body.

Aware that hosting ECOWAS would place such an important organization under its sphere of influence, Obasanjo led a sustained campaign to ensure that Nigeria would host the regional bloc to reflect Nigeria’s status as the regional hegemon. ECOWAS also helped address a key concern, which can be observed from recently released documents that show France supported Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). Among the reasons mentioned in the document for France’s support was the aim of crippling an anglophone giant in the region.

Noticeably, as the war drew to a close, it was the Ivory Coast that offered General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, asylum. Therefore, to avoid any neighbours supporting any future conflicts that would affect Nigeria’s territory, and compromise hegemonic aspirations, asserting sufficient control over a strong regional bloc would be a key component of any policy moving forward. But support during the civil war was not limited to the Ivorians—Gabon, Tanzania and Zambia also went against Nigeria’s wishes in recognizing Biafra. So, ECOWAS would be important for Nigeria not just to exert influence in the region, but also in other parts of the continent.

As head of state, Obasanjo put concerted effort into increasing Nigeria’s influence, by positioning Nigeria strategically as a frontline supporter of African states under apartheid or white minority rule. In 1976, Nigeria provided a considerable amount of financial aid to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola and supported the movement at international organizations, such as a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in 1975.

Another major effort Nigeria made was in hosting the 1977 World Conference for Action Against Apartheid, which saw an increase in divestments from the South African economy and challenged trade relations with South Africa. As recounted by Joseph Garba, presidents such as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda who had earlier recognized Biafra, would later grow to appreciate and welcome Nigeria’s involvement in efforts to reconcile the frontline states with international actors involved in the fight against apartheid.

Jimmy Carter’s visit to Nigeria in 1978 highlighted Nigeria’s growing importance to US foreign policy—as well as changes in Nigeria’s outlook on communism and apartheid in Southern Africa. Obasanjo would leave office in 1979 after handing over to, Shehu Shagari, a democratically elected president. This move would contribute to removing Nigeria from a collective of pariah states with disputed and dictatorial leaders. It would also lead to Obasanjo becoming a well-regarded option for the role of secretary-general of the United Nations.


In 1999, having replaced his military fatigues for his flowing agbada, a democratically elected Obasanjo was faced with a different set of challenges. Nigeria had been suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1995 (Nigeria would eventually be re-accepted the day Nigeria returned to democratic rule). The hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine was met with considerable international opposition, which prompted the Abacha regime to boycott the 1996 African Cup of Nations tournament that took place in South Africa.

Alongside these challenges, Obasanjo was in the company of a ‘renaissance of African leaders’, including Thabo Mbeki who was leading South Africa as Nelson Mandela’s successor; Muammar Gaddafi who was re-centring Libya as an African state; and Ethiopia’s Mele Zenawi who was beginning an economic revolution. As earlier alluded to, any Nigerian president would have been expected to develop a policy to either regain or consolidate a hegemony in the region and potentially expand Nigera’s sphere of influence across the continent.

During his first term as democratic president, Obasanjo carried out 113 foreign trips, aiming to re-establish ties with allies and international organizations and to gain support for the new republic. His diplomatic engagement, and the increased private sector investment, which followed as a show of faith towards this democratic era, contributed to the growth of Nigeria’s GDP from an estimated $36 billion in 1999 to $166.4 billion at the end of Obasanjo’s term in 2007.

A crowning achievement of Obasanjo’s term was combining diplomatic efforts and economic negotiations, with his economic reform team, led by then-finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in securing a cancellation of $18 billion of the country’s foreign debt. (Okonjo-Iweala is the present director-general of the World Trade Organization).

Despite the domestic challenges, the Obasanjo administration maintained a clear commitment to returning Nigeria to its place among the continent’s hegemons. Two of the federal ministries during Obasanjo’s first term were expressly devoted to foreign engagements: the expected and traditional Foreign Ministry and the newly created Ministry for Cooperation and Integration in Africa. This team would no doubt play a role in supporting Obasanjo’s efforts in aiding the Organization of African Unity (OAU)’s transition to the African Union (AU).

Arguably, the evolution of the AU was due in part to the aligned interests of Obasanjo and Mbeki. Both were eager to reform the organization to fit in with their foreign policy interests. For Obasanjo, his motivation came from a 1991 meeting of the OAU. As chair of the African Leadership Foundation, he had worked on the development of a resolution that focused on security, stability, development and cooperation to maintain peace on the continent.

The resulting resolution had been largely abandoned till Obasanjo’s return to power in 1999. Once reinstated, it led to a repositioning of the AU towards more active intervention and involvement in conflict resolution, evident in the expanded role of today’s Peace and Security Council in the AU. Obasanjo’s deft management of Nigeria’s role can be seen in its continued presence on the AU’s Peace and Security Council and in getting ECOWAS’s endorsement to permanently serve with one of its seats.

A final, and often-underappreciated tranche of Obasanjo’s foreign policy work was his ability to leverage cultural diplomacy. This involved using the exchange of cultural aspects—such as art, culture, music, sports—to develop strong partnerships and connections with other groups. In 2000, Nigeria stepped in to co-host the African Cup of Nations with Ghana after original hosts Zimbabwe pulled out. Nigeria also hosted the African Games in 2003 in Abuja, using the event to develop a stadium in Abuja as well as the Games Village that was turned to a housing estate after the event. Obasanjo would also repeat a trick from his first stint in power by hosting then-US president Bill Clinton, a move that was linked to a tacit recognition of the growing role of Nigeria on the continent and a desire to support Nigeria’s work. These events afforded Nigeria the opportunity to welcome guests and change the narrative at pivotal moments. Obasanjo’s achievements showed an attempt to thread foreign and domestic achievements, although his success in the former did not necessarily translate into the latter.


Rightly so, Obasanjo’s time as president reflects the significant impacts of his domestic policies and the mixed legacies that these policies left behind. But how does an Obasanjo Doctrine that focuses on the foreign policy component of an administration dovetail with domestic concerns that were equally important? Going even further, which aspect would take precedence if a conflict was to arise—domestic considerations or foreign impact?

An example of a foreign thrust taking precedent over a domestic concern can be seen in Obasanjo’s unilateral decision to grant Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, asylum, a decision that led to unrest in the south-south region and criticism before a domestic court’s ruling led to his return to Liberia. Another example would be subjecting Nigeria to the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concerning the Bakassi Peninsula, which the country lost to Cameroon. The latter point remains contentious, with former foreign minister, Matthew Mbu, accusing Obasanjo of barely putting up a fight and agreeing to a transition that turned indigenes into refugees. It is an ever-evolving question, based on the legacy of a decision, on which aspect to prioritize, if ever there is no clear alignment.

Another avenue in evaluating the Obasanjo Doctrine is through its impact on the citizens Obasanjo was elected to serve. Foreign policy is one of the lesser contemplated topics in Nigeria’s public discourse; as such, presidential candidates have often been able to avoid outlining a comprehensive foreign policy agenda during elections. Yet, in the wake of a growing argument between nationalist and globalist perspectives, it becomes important to consider what stance the Obasanjo Doctrine took. Alongside the earlier examples concerning the Taylor asylum and Bakassi, other key interventions included expending significant personnel and funds in quelling unrest in the region at the cost of further investment in necessary domestic infrastructure.

Additionally, it was during Obasanjo’s military regime that ECOWAS introduced its first protocol for free movement of persons, and during his civilian administration that the ECOWAS passport was first trialled. But while this proposal was no doubt designed to support increased trade, necessary domestic policies were not strengthened ahead of the protocol’s implementation. Till date, strong border procedures, especially on land, are not in place and have been the foundation for concerns around neighbours in Niger and Chad being able to vote in Nigerian elections.

Furthermore, during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria, the country’s porous international borders played a part in hampering policies put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. While this cannot be entirely blamed on a laudable plan to ensure easy trade with fellow Africans, the cost of not getting this right is too high and the risks too great. These examples show the legacy of a doctrine that appears to have prioritized external concerns at the cost of those of the citizens it is meant to help.

A final caveat, in looking at the difference in the application of the doctrine during Obasanjo’s military and democratic terms in office, was the ability of the government to effectively communicate its policies to the populace. There are two factors to consider here. Firstly, biased communication can be carried out more easily under military rule where there can be media censorship than in a democratic dispensation, which typically features a free press and opposition parties.

Secondly, there is also the fact that Obasanjo’s term as a democratic leader (1999 – 2007) was longer and more recent than his term as a military ruler (1976 – 1979). This means there’s more time available for us to evaluate the doctrine in a democratic setting but less so under military rule.

During Obasanjo’s first period as a military ruler, the government was so effective at communicating its foreign policy agenda that there was little opposition to citizens contributing 2 per cent of their salaries to the South Africa Relief Fund to assist the liberation struggle in South Africa. This effort was also matched by Obasanjo and members of his government, who publicized their personal donations.

The success of the military regime’s efforts in carrying citizens along was such that musicians, comedians, poets and academics used their professional outlets to contribute to the cause. Conversely, under the democratic dispensation, most of the altruistic actions carried out by the government, such as loans to Ghana and São Tomé and Príncipe, were met with sufficient opposition and criticism which the government was unable to engage with sufficiently.

A solution would involve strengthening the foreign policy architecture. This would include engaging with scholars through, for instance, the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. Another solution would direct the foreign ministry to hold regular briefings with the media, so that citizens are provided with sufficient policy points to use and evaluate these decisions.

These arguments provide a clearer understanding of what the Obasanjo Doctrine is. Having evolved from the original goal of maintaining a regional hegemony and expanding Nigeria’s sphere of influence on the continent, during both his terms, Obasanjo expanded this goal to include providing a ‘Big Brother’ level of support on the continent. Ordinarily, this would be a laudable approach, but the Doctrine’s biggest flaw appears to be a failure to accommodate the divisions between foreign and domestic policy. It is important for governments to ensure citizens are invested in a state’s external commitments but, to this end, it is also necessary to not overlook or sacrifice domestic concerns. Repeatedly, the Obasanjo Doctrine failed to effectively achieve a balance, despite the successes recorded.

But is the Obasanjo Doctrine still necessary and relevant today? There is no single answer to this question. Foreign realities change frequently and the domestic concerns that were factors during Obasanjo’s two periods in power are different today. What is crucial is that future administrations learn the need to ensure effective synergy between foreign and domestic considerations. The most pertinent lesson in evaluating the Obasanjo Doctrine may be that it is a salient reminder of the proverb, ‘Charity begins at home’

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