African view: Obama snubs Nigeria?

US President Barack Obama (left) and Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua (right)

Barack Obama is not stopping over in Nigeria to meet Umaru Yar’Adua in July

In our series of weekly viewpoints from African journalists, Sola Odunfa considers US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to Ghana in a letter from Lagos:

Last weekend a recently retired senior Nigerian diplomat sat virtually alone at a bar in his club contemplating rather than drinking the glass of soda water on the coffee table before him.

After watching him for some time I approached to cheer him up.

 We would persuade the White House that a touchdown in Nigeria would serve our mutual interests 
Retired diplomat

He was not interested in any subject but the impending one-day visit of Africa’s own president of the United States to the continent.

“This cannot happen,” he said.

“What cannot happen?” I asked. “This is not the first time the most powerful man in the world would be visiting the continent of the dark man.”

“Sola,” he answered with a dry smile. “In my time in the foreign service, all of us in our missions in Europe and America would have been mobilised to ensure that President Obama would make at least an airport stop-over in Nigeria next door.

“We would persuade the White House that a touchdown in Nigeria would serve our mutual interests.”

‘Giant of Africa’

As the discussion or, more appropriately, the lecture went on, I found that the former career diplomat’s discomfiture was caused, not by the apparent snub of “the Giant of Africa”, as Nigerians love to describe their country, but by what he concluded was the death of Nigeria’s foreign service.

As far as my respected friend was concerned the government had declared the foreign service redundant.


Nigerian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone

Nigeria has intervened in regional conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia

“That cannot be the case,” I said. “Remember that Foreign Minister Ojo Madueke declared long ago that Nigeria’s foreign policy was ‘Citizens’ Diplomacy'”

That is, the government would do whatever was necessary to protect Nigerians everywhere in the world, including applying tit-for-tat actions when a Nigerian was maltreated abroad.

“That was a hollow statement meant for newspaper readers,” the diplomat replied.

In fact, he said, Nigeria began practising citizens’ diplomacy under military rule: Lawyers were recruited into the foreign service, trained in diplomacy and posted to key missions abroad to advise Nigerians.

When necessary those lawyers attended court hearings to keep a watching brief for Nigerians.

In time, according to him, every government knew that if they maltreated innocent Nigerians in their country, their own citizens in Nigeria would not be left untouched.

Also, he said Nigeria became active in the international institutions set up to formulate a global immigrant policy, given the large numbers of Nigerians in Europe and America.


Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo

Olusegun Obasanjo threw his weight around when he was president

Nigeria’s clout as “Big Brother” was well established in Africa, especially in the western sub-region, so, no serious international discussion on Africa would be held without the participation of Nigeria.

“What has brought about the change,” I asked.

He did not mince words:

• Perceived systemic corruption has led to distrust in important circles

• The economic downturn has meant that the government can no longer back its diplomacy with funds

• Lastly President Umaru Yar’Adua, unlike former President Olusegun Obasanjo, has not been seen to demonstrate any serious interest in matters beyond Nigeria’s shores.

It is not only President Obama who is perceived by Nigerians to have snubbed their country, even small African nations now behave with little consideration for what the reaction of Nigeria might be.