By Kayode Komolafe
Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, a former foreign minister, admonished recently Nigerians who are wont to “de-market” their country because of its multi-dimensional problems. The scholar spoke at an online forum organised by the Academy of International Affairs with the theme: “Opportunities and Challenges of BRICS.” Not a few strong voices in the public sphere contend that Nigeria lacks the elements necessary to play a leadership role in international affairs. Some of those who hold this view talk down on their country and portray it as the worst place to be on earth. So they cannot imagine such a country aspiring to global relevance. Akinyemi’s counter argument is that the problems of development currently facing Nigeria should not be a basis to perish the thought of the country aspiring to be a regional power and a beacon of hope for the black race.
This idea of a bold foreign policy aspiration even amidst economic and socio-political difficulties has propelled India’s recent outing in the global arena. It is an idea that Nigeria can borrow from India. Come to think of it, India projects itself as the leader of the “Global South” while Nigeria is expected to take its place as a regional leader in Africa. In fact, Nelson Mandela, the first president of democratic South Africa, once voiced this expectation of Nigeria. With a population of over 1.4 billion, India is the largest liberal democracy on earth and Nigeria, another liberal democracy of over 200 million, is the largest black nation. India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Nigeria. The leaf that Nigeria can borrow from the book of the most populous country is the focus of this column today.
As foreign minister in the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida, Akinyemi promoted the concept of the “Concert of Medium Powers” in 1987. The countries proposed as members of the Concert were to act independently of the global powers to influence global affairs. For Nigeria, it was to be an avenue for the country to re-focus its foreign policy objective in a post-apartheid world. It was a bold and strategic move beyond Nigeria’s “Afrocentric” foreign policy at a period when decolonisation of southern Africa had been substantially achieved and the end of apartheid itself was already in sight. Some of the countries that were to be in the Concert of Medium as conceived at the time are today members of BRICS – India, Brazil, Egypt.
Significantly, the concept was a Nigerian initiative, a legitimate ambition to be relevant in global affairs while pursing national interests. In fact the other name for the group is “Lagos Forum” because Nigeria played host to the forum. It’s an irony that 36 years after the Lagos Forum, it was South Africa that invited Nigeria and other African countries to Johannesburg a fortnight ago to “interact” with BRICS.
In making a synthesis of the views expressed at the forum of the Academy, Akinyemi said while Nigeria should not its sleep over the membership of BRICS, the country should demonstrate fresh initiatives to be a global power. Akinyemi said “it is a duty Nigeria owes the black race.” It is expected that the Academy, of which Akinyemi is the president, and similar institutions would make ideas available for policymakers to harvest.
In recent months, a lot of good news India has issued from India. Last week was a shining moment for India as it played host to the G-20. President Tinubu was in India at the time also for a Nigeria-India Biliteral Conference. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be seeking a return to power next year, has become a focus of global attention. He had been in South Africa for the BRICS meeting that resolved to invite more countries including Ethiopia and Egypt (from Africa) to the economic bloc. To start with, the growing diplomatic influence of India at the G-20 meeting was demonstrated by the tone of the communique. Against the preference of the western countries, the G-20 avoided the condemnation of Russia for the war in Ukraine. It rather called for “just peace” in Ukraine as well as respect for international law. The communique also called for a return to the Black Sea Deal to ensure the export of grain from Ukraine. It is remarkable that the western countries agreed to a compromise in the “balanced” tone of the communique. In the previous G-20 meeting in Indonesia, the western nations insisted on an outright condemnation of Russia in the final document despite Russia’s membership of the group. India is now perceived as making the G-20 more inclusive because of its moves to forge compromises in the organisation.
Only last month, India landed an uncrewed spacecraft near Moon in the unexplored South Pole. By that feat, India will henceforth be respected as an international space power. India had been in race with Russia to be the first to land in the Moon’s South Pole. Landing on the Moon is more than a scientific achievement for India; it is a geo-political booster for its profile in the international arena. Modi described the event as the “the dawn of a new India,” and a proof that “ all the countries of the world including the ones in the global south are capable of achieving such feats.
Today, India is the most populous nation and it is aspiring to be an economic, technological and geo-political power. Its middle class is growing with a diaspora that constitutes a huge asset. The dynamic of the Indian federalism is such that power is moving from the centre to the states.
Yet, the poverty rate in India is still 14.96%. of the population of 1.428 billion. That is despite the good news from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in July that about 135 million people, representing 10% of the Indian population were moved out of poverty in the five year-period of 2015 to 2021. Like other economies in the world, COVID-19 devasted the Indian economy, making worse the economic crisis facing the country. Modi is often criticised for being authoritarian in his politics. The opposition parties and human rights organisations have alleged that agents of the state intimidate democratic voices. India is a remarkably diverse and complex country. The mismanagement of India’s diversity by the government still remains a huge problem. The administration of Modi has been accused of Islamophobia. Indeed, the socio-political and economic landscape of India is still defined by an uneven modernity. India has presented humanity with unique experience in the theory and practice of development.
The journey of India’s development has indeed been long and rough especially viewed against the background of the country’s brutal colonial history.
Perhaps, the most crucial factor in the Indian development story is the capacity for self-definition. The country has independently chosen its own direction. To go on this path a nation should not behave as if it needs the permission of a super power to make its own foreign policy choices.
The trajectory of India’s outing on the international stage has gone beyond the old policy of “non-alignment”. This, of course, has been determined by the mix of policies at home. The Indian story is, therefore, a veritable response to the argument of those who see no basis for Nigeria nursing ambition of becoming a global power even in medium terms. They say that the enormity of problems at home would not permit such an aspiration. For instance, they point to the huge challenges of national integration. As envisaged by Indian thinkers, their country has been proving that argument wrong with recent events. An Indian scholar, Sunil Khilnani , seems to respond to the argument in his book entitled “The Idea of India” like this: “… Ultimately, the viability – and most importantly, the point -of India’s democracy will rest on its capacity to sustain internal diversity, on its ability to avoid giving reason to groups within the citizen body to harbour dreams of having their own exclusive nation states. Such dreams of partition and domestic purity are animated by the fantasy that all problems begin and end at the border; they do not. There is no ideological or cultural guarantee for a nation to hold together. It just depends on human skills.
“That is why politics, as an arena where different projects are proposed and decided for and against, has never been more important for Indians.
“In entering the world as a state, India has had to cut its own modern garb. For Indians, this self-fashioning has brought discomforts, pain and risks. But it has also brought them new liberties. India’s experience reveals the ordinariness of democracy – untidy, massively complex, unsatisfying, but vital to the sense of a human life today. It establishes that historical and cultural innocence do not exclude Asian cultures from the idea of democracy. But it does not mean that these cultures – or any other, for that matter – are tailor-made for democracy. It will always be a wary struggle. For opponents of democracy in Asia, the history of this experience is a warning of what can be done. For its advocates, it is a basis of hope.”
In sum, Nigeria does not have to wait until all internal problems are solved before registering its presence in a focussed manner on the international stage. In the course of anti-colonial struggle in southern Africa , Nigeria was deemed a “frontline state” despite the contrary fact of geography. Nigeria was not an economically developed during the period just like now. Yet the government and the people supported the struggle for African liberation. So internal problems should not be an excuse to be absent where it matters to be present. Even the superpowers are bedevilled with their own internal problems; yet they even dictate for others in international affairs. The bug of Afropessimism has made a number of Africans to argue against African nations defining their own path on the global landscape. Maybe, watching India closely on the international stage may be the cure to this inferiority complex.
*Kayode Komolafe is a management team member of Thisday. He wrote this originally for the newspaper