President Bola Tinubu and Vice President Kashim Shettima, in their first 100 days in office, hold the record of the most travelled presidency since 1999. The president’s first trip abroad was to France, to participate in the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact. Next was his attendance of the ECOWAS summit in Guinea Bissau, then the AU meeting in Kenya, and the G-20 Summit in India quickly followed. His most significant participation on the global stage was the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last week in New York.
These exclude stopovers in Benin Republic, London and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Vice President Kashim Shettima, on his part, has represented the President in Italy, Russia and at the G77 Summit in Cuba. Some diplomacy scholars have described the president’s diplomatic shuttles as seeking to regenerate economic growth through foreign policy. A common theme in the president’s many foreign trips is the search for foreign direct investments (FDI), re-establishing Nigeria as the premium economic powerhouse in Africa, and stamping its leadership on the sub-Saharan African region.
Historically, this would not be Nigeria’s first attempt to weave its foreign policy around economic diplomacy. General Ike Nwachukwu, as military President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida’s foreign minister, introduced economic diplomacy to the country as a conscious policy. It has simply meant that Nigeria’s economic interests would guide its external affairs and relationships. That interest emphasised Afrocentric self-reliance. The success or failure of the current economic diplomacy efforts is left to political economists to decipher.
However, this new government is wittingly or unwittingly being bullish internationally and leveraging Nigeria’s socio-economic renaissance on its regional relevance and soft power, making it strive for solutions to subregional problems like the coups in the West African region and beyond. It is also pursuing collaborations with global powers and global private capital to direct investments to Nigeria. The president is eager to show the world that Nigeria is ready and open for business and the new government is acting as a significant facilitator and enabler of these business inflows. Nigerians are divided on the value of these global engagements and diplomatic shuttles.
Two schools of thought have thus emerged in this regard. First, those who believe our economic growth can only be strengthened by solid external relations. Especially one that prioritises attracting foreign capital to build up our capital base. The second school believes that the frequency of travel of the leadership is unacceptable, as economic diplomacy as the mainstay of our economic plans is short-sighted. This school believes the country should primarily tackle foundational issues such as insecurity, decrepit infrastructure, poor governance and inefficient institutions before inviting foreign investors. Both schools of thought have some merits in their arguments.
A critical review of the two perspectives reveals that they are not as dichotomous and polarised as they may seem at first. They are part of a two-pod solution to the economic regeneration of Nigeria. A comprehensive economic plan that combines economic diplomacy’s merits, and revitalises domestic structural and economic systems by tackling fundamental local problems is needed, and must be implemented efficiently. There is no chicken-and-egg situation here. One must not do one before the other sequentially. Instead, economic diplomacy can be woven together with domestic improvements, so that both work together and reify each other to produce more remarkable results.
The phrase “strong abroad, weak at home” typifies the common sentiment expressed by observers of Nigerian politics and governance. It reflects the perception that Nigeria tends to perform better internationally than it does in addressing its domestic challenges. This perception creates bias immediately. I advocate a multi-pronged approach to bringing about growth in Nigeria. However, we must synchronise these approaches, so that they are not counterproductive. Thus far, it is established that Nigeria, under President Tinubu, intentionally or unintentionally, is changing the focus of its foreign policy to an economic growth-led policy.
Therefore, the government must match its extensive travels with articulating an overarching economic agenda that shows a direction. Only such an agenda can drive this new economy-centric foreign policy regime. The second established issue is the need to address institutional, infrastructural and socio-economic barriers that can stop us from realising the benefits of economic diplomacy. Indeed, the obstacles are mountainous. The recent disruptions in the domestic economy need to be fixed quickly, with a balance of structural economic innovations and social responsibility at home.
Human behaviour drives the economy. Our perception shapes our actions and inactions. Therefore, this government must quickly work to change the current dominant perception of a collapsing economy, to that of a growing one. This will improve confidence in the system and provide the backbone for growth. The message of economic reform must showcase something new that is on offer from Nigeria. Otherwise, we will have only executive air miles to show in the end. Global capital goes where there are clear opportunities that are unencumbered.
These opportunities must exist in a context of manageable risks and good returns on investment. The Tinubu administration is gradually providing the enabling environment for FDIs, when it pledged to allow companies repatriate revenue through an open and robust exchange system. We advocate that despite the temporary pains of these economic reforms, the government must sanitise the system and make it fit for purpose to attract investments, both locally and internationally. The phrase “strong abroad, weak at home” typifies the common sentiment expressed by observers of Nigerian politics and governance. It reflects the perception that Nigeria tends to perform better internationally than it does in addressing its domestic challenges. This perception creates bias immediately.
When Nigerians feel that a government is bullish internationally, the assumption is that the government will neglect domestic needs. Nigeria faces numerous domestic challenges, including political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, a struggling healthcare system, a poorly performing education system, high poverty levels, unemployment and insecurity. These issues have hindered the country’s socio-economic development and the well-being of citizens. The government must prioritise these issues, as Nigeria strives to convince the world to come and do business with us. Furthermore, this leadership must address the perceived hypocrisy of earlier Nigerian leaders.
What we say to foreign investors differs from what we do at home. The economic policy environment (fiscal/monetary) could be more stable, yet often out of sync with global best practices. The Nigerian factor makes most policies difficult to implement and impunity reigns supreme. The integrity of actors, actions and processes is sine qua non with the trust deficit inherent in the Nigerian business environment. This we must urgently address and Nigeria’s leadership must imbibe and exemplify this. We must never forget that nothing is permanent.
Our regional and continental position is often under threat. Knowingly or unknowingly, in our quest to attract FDIs, we are in competition with other emerging political and economic powerhouses in the sub-region and continent. Therefore, we must strive to maintain our dominance and influence by strengthening our political base and growing our economy. Our leadership on the continent and beyond Africa is non-negotiable. We often play a significant role in international organisations such as the United Nations, African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). We contribute troops to peacekeeping missions and participate in global diplomatic efforts. We are proponents and defenders of freedom and democracy on the continent.
We are pan-African and we lead in initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA). Our diaspora is also known for its lofty accomplishments in fields including Medicine, technology, and business. We must maintain and build on these strengths. The government must rejig the system to improve institutional efficiency and close the governance gap. It should conduct reforms on the ease of doing business, administration of justice, protection of local industries, taxation and ease of capital repatriation. The government must not be seen talking the talk and not working the work. We should remember that the worst thing that can be done to a wrong product is to advertise it.
You will inadvertently kill the product. We must put our house in order and present value and clear opportunities to the world to do business with us. Nigerian challenges are complex. Opinions also vary on the extent to which Nigeria is strong abroad but weak at home. Some argue that Nigeria’s international role does not necessarily translate to concrete benefits for its citizens. Others believe that the country’s international engagements are essential for its global influence and economic well-being. However, only an alignment between our homegrown economic agenda, structural reforms and foreign policy can provide a message of economic renaissance that the administration carries on its extensive foreign travels. A travelling salesperson must carefully brand and package his wares.
• Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.