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Special Report: How Nigeria’s foreign relations have fared under Buhari



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AS President Muhammadu Buhari marks six years in office, The ICIR, in this Special Report, takes a look at events and activities that have shaped the country’s foreign relations, including trade promotion, economic relations and bilateral security cooperation. Section 19 of the 1999 Constitution places Africa at the centre of Nigerian’s foreign policy.

Nigeria, with an estimated population of 200 million people, is Africa’s most populous country and the 7th most populous in the world. It is a regional power in Africa and a middle power in international affairs.

Bilateral economic relations

Nigeria partially closed its borders in August 2019 owing to lack of compliance by its neighbouring countries to the rules governing cross-border trade, but the country began reopening them in December 2020.

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International trade between Nigeria and the neighbouring countries has always been beneficial. Nigeria’s signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), projected to become world’s second largest free trade area,  is set to expand this, analysts say.

Nigeria earned $823.06 million  from export to ECOWAS countries and $2.72 billion  from shipping out products to Africa in the first quarter of 2020. In the second quarter of 2020, export to the whole of Africa was estimated at N401.4 billion, while goods worth N149.3billion were exported to ECOWAS. This, according to analysts, is set to expand owing to the AfCFTA.

Besides AfCFTA, Nigeria has signed a number of bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding aimed at strengthening its relations with other countries and driving Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the country to accelerate development and improve the lives of citizens.

Some bureaucratic constraints to doing business in Nigeria have also been addressed by the unveiling of the Nigerian Visa Policy (NVP 2020) by the Nigeria Immigration Service. It began on February 4, 2020, in line with reform activities of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) and AfCTA.

To further promote international trade and attract FDIs, the Nigerian government recently declared four international airports Special Economic Zones (SEZs), bringing the total number of such designated areas within the country to 38.

Highlights of Bilateral Agreements/ Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Nigeria since 2019

S/N Type Parties Involved Benefit(s) Date Signed Monetary Value
1 Free Trade Agreement 55 African countries Enhance competitiveness of member states within Africa and in the global market, facilitate investment. July 7, 2019 Combined gross domestic product valued at US$3.4 trillion.
2 Bilateral agreement Nigeria  and Israel Green energy development July 29, 2020
3 Bilateral agreement Nigeria and India Space cooperation: planning and implementation of joint space projects of mutual benefit and interest August 13, 2020
4 Memorandum of Understanding Nigeria and Bangladesh Bilateral Consultations between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria September 28, 2020
5 Bilateral air service agreement Nigeria, India, Morocco, Rwanda and the US Enable free movement of commercial flights among the countries involved. October 6, 2020
6 Memorandum of Understanding Nigeria and the Gambia Deepen collaboration in information sharing and technical skills deployment that will assist the Gambia institutionalise the Treasury Single Account for public financial management reforms. November 18, 2020
7 Memorandum of Understanding Nigeria and Niger Republic Transportation and storage of petroleum products. November 19, 2020
8 Memorandum of Understanding Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Provides a platform for both countries to engage each other bilaterally in many areas – legal, commercial, etc December 1, 2020
9 Memorandum of Understanding Nigeria and China Establish an inter-governmental committee that will coordinate the cooperation and relations between both countries January 5, 2021
10 Memorandum of Understanding Nigeria and the US Provide technical assistance to the NLNG-led Bonny Island Malaria Elimination Project and bring malaria deaths within the community to zero March 23, 2021
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The Visa on Arrival Application Process is open to all business travelers and African Union countries for short visits, except ECOWAS member countries who do not require visas to visit Nigeria and other countries which Nigeria has entered into visa abolition agreements with.

Citizen Diplomacy

Nigeria has become one of the most sought-after markets for student recruiters in major destination countries, including Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, the US, and the UK. Nearly 100, 000 Nigerian students were enrolled abroad in 2020 and the number of professionals migrating from Nigeria in search of greener pastures abroad is on the increase.

President Muhammadu Buhari shortly after a reelection in 2019 approved the establishment of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) to encourage diaspora Nigerians to be good ambassadors of the country and mediate relations between the Nigerian government and Nigerians in the diaspora for mutual developmental benefits.

The commission has, through this time, shown commitment towards the welfare and well-being of the estimated 17 million diaspora Nigerians, by organising town-hall meetings, interventions during xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in Ghana and South Africa, evacuation of thousands of stranded citizens back home and response to petitions from Nigerians abroad.

The commission is working with the National Assembly and other stakeholders towards an amendment of the Electoral Act, just as it is partnering with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) for diaspora mapping and has commenced the data capturing of Nigerians in parts of West Africa, Europe, Asia and Americas for effective planning purposes, especially in view of the much anticipated diaspora voting.

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Diaspora Remittance

Annual remittance from Nigerians abroad in 2019 peaked at $25 billion, representing over  8 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the United States sending about one-thirds of the total volume of remittances to Nigeria, followed by the UK’s 20 per cent, and then Cameroon with 12 per cent.

Remittances for 2017 and 2018 were $22 billion and $23.6 billion respectively, with the PwC projecting $29. 8 billion and $34.8 billion for 2021 and 2023 respectively.


Source: IMTC

Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Godwin Emefiele said that initiatives such as the new Diaspora Foreign Exchange Remittance policy and the Naira 4 Dollar scheme, targeted at boosting forex in the country, were already yielding the desired results and the bank was targeting to hit $2 billion monthly from diaspora remittances. In March, Emefiele said weekly diaspora remittance surged up to $30 million from $5 million.

“We believe this measure (provide remitters with the option of sending foreign exchange to beneficiaries in Nigeria) will help to significantly boost inflows of forex and create much more liquidity in that space,” the CBN  governor said during a press conference in December 2020.

However, family support gulps 70 per cent of total foreign remittances inflow while local investment, particularly real estate, account for 30 per cent of these funds.

NIDCOM, in collaboration with the Debt Management Office (DMO), plans to re- launch diaspora bonds first introduced in 2017 which gave a $300 million boost to the Nigerian economy. The Nigerian government sees this move as an alternative to external borrowing as Nigeria’s public debt hit N32.9 trillion in December 2020.

“We are finalising the framework and the objectives of issuing a Diaspora bond. Those who are investing in the bond will know that the proceeds are billed to develop specific projects that have been designed and that will be projects that are part of national priority either in terms of real sector or in terms of infrastructure,” Director-General of DMO Abraham Nwankwo disclosed in March.

In addition, the Federal Executive Council, on April 23, adopted and approved the National Diaspora Policy that would promote trade, FDI and guarantee diaspora Nigerians their right of participation in the socio-economic development of their homeland.

Local and foreign financial aids received since 2017

Nigeria has received $4.1 billion foreign support in the last six years, according to data obtained from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). The highest amount, $943 million, was received in 2017, while $159 million – which is the lowest -was received in 2015.

The second highest amount during this period was $927 million in 2018, just as the country prepared for general elections the following year and the country’s security situation became fragile. However, total funding for 2019 fell by $164 million but rose to $801 million in 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

S/N Year Total Incoming Funding
1 2015 $159 million
2 2016 $468 million
3 2017 $943 million
4 2018 $927 million
5 2019 $763 million
6 2020 $801 million
Total                                                   $4.1 billion

Table showing at a glance international funds received by Nigeria since 2015

As at April 2020, US funding for the management of Covid-19 in Nigeria reached $21.4 million. Leading financial institutions such as Access Bank, Zenith Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank and some wealthy individuals, including Aliko Dangote, Tony Elumelu, Femi Otedola, Abdulsamad Rabiu, Herbert Wigwe, Segun Agbaje, Tim Ovie and Emmanuel Lazarus, also donated over N14 billion, while the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) gave N11 billion.

A lot of of the funds received between 2015  and 2020 were geared towards combating terrorism and post-insurgency recovery – improving the living conditions of the North-East population, safe school initiatives and rebuilding basic and social services. These capital transfers, however, have not been followed up by the necessary technology transfer vital for development.

As part of initiatives to accelerate the country’s digital economy, the Nigerian government entered into partnership with Microsoft Corporation to upskill five million citizens over the next three years.

The recent summit on the Financing of African Economies, convened by the French President Emmanuel Macron, was committed towards developing a new Alliance for Entrepreneurship in Africa, which would focus on mobilising financial and technical resources, with explicit support towards African Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).

Bilateral Security Cooperation

Since 2009, Boko Haram has carried out a regular string of attacks against Nigerian security forces and civilians. The group has killed more than 30,000 people in its effort to establish an Islamic caliphate.

In the early months of Buhari’s first term, Nigeria partnered with the European Union Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel to respond to the threat of Boko Haram, strengthen African economies and to reduce poverty on the continent.

Instability and conflicts in Africa pose a range of threats and security challenges for Europe in terms of illegal cross-border movements, as the continent remains top choice for African migrants seeking to escape hard economic situations back at home.

Nigeria is an important regional economic partner for the European Union (EU)’s economic investments. The EU is a major importer of Nigerian oil and gas (around 20 per cent of crude oil and 80 per cent of gas) and a major investor in Nigeria.

An agreement on defence and security partnership between Nigeria and the United Kingdom was signed in August 2018 as a way of enhancing cooperation in tackling corruption and reducing poverty while curbing terrorism. Nigeria is also a vital member of the Defeat ISIS (D-ISIS) coalition and in October 2020, hosted a virtual D-ISIS conference with the United States.

In January, the country signed a MoU with China after reaching seven important consensuses to, among other things, deepen military and security cooperation in an effort to enhance its capacity in safeguarding national security.

At the regional level, a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was approved by the African Union on March 3, 2015 to coordinate military operations between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to fight Boko Haram extremists. In spite of these collaborations, Boko Haram and other armed groups continue to carry out unprovoked regular string of attacks against Nigerian security forces, facilities and civilians, almost unchallenged.

In recent times too, kidnapping for ransom has become rampant. At least $18.3 million was paid to kidnappers as ransom (mostly by families and the government) between June 2011 – March 2020, according to a report by SB Morgen (SBM) Intelligence, a Lagos-based political risk analysis firm.

Commander of Operation Safe Corridor (OPS) Bamidele Ashafa disclosed that 1,000 Boko Haram members had so far been prosecuted with 500, jailed.

“The jailed are serving various jail terms for up to 60 years. The minimum term is five years. Arrangements are also being concluded to begin the trial of another set of Boko Haram suspects. That will start between now and June,” Ashafa said at the National Defense and Security Summit held in Abuja in February.

The 2011 Terrorism (Prevention) Act amended in 2013 allows law enforcement agencies to detain and prosecute terror suspects and permits the death penalty for those found guilty of committing, attempting to commit, or facilitating acts of terror. In reality, terrorist suspects are rarely arrested and where they are, the process of getting a conviction is very slow.

Nigeria’s Membership in International Organizations

In September 2017, the Nigerian government took a decision to withdraw membership of 90 international organisations as a result of a backlog of $120 million in membership dues and other financial commitments, which were causing embarrassment to the country.

Nigeria is currently a member of 324 international organisations, among them are: the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, African Union (AU) , Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Nigeria remains active and holds several positions across a number of these organisations. For example, President Muhammadu Buhari, in August 2018, was elected by his West African peers to chair the ECOWAS for a one-year term, while Arunma Oteh was treasurer and vice president of the World Bank from 2015-2018.

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande was elected in 2019 as president of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, just as the current Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed was appointed to the position since 2017.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in March, became the first woman and the first African director-general of the World Trade Organization a year after she was appointed to serve as a member of the newly established External Advisory Group of the International Monetary Fund.

At the African Union (AU), Bankole Adeoye was elected commissioner of political affairs, peace and security in February and is expected to take full control of peace and security priorities, and activities at the AU Commission.

Similarly, at the 26th Meeting of the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC) held on February 3, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources Timipre Sylva was mandated to undertake a mission as special envoy to Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and South Sudan.

Also, a number of Nigerians have been appointed into the service of foreign governments for their outstanding track records. The UK government, for instance, appointed Helen Grant as the prime minister’s special envoy on girls’ education and trade envoy to Nigeria; Kemi Badenoch as junior minister for children and families, and Chinyelu Onwurah as minister for science, research and digital.

In the US, Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo serves as an associate White House counsel; Osaremen Okolo as a member of the Presidential COVID-19 Response Team; Adewale Adeyemo as deputy treasury secretary and Enoh Ebong as acting director of the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). Kaycee Madu is justice minister and solicitor general of Alberta, a province in Canada.

Nigeria seems to have made laudable achievements in its foreign relations but still faces the challenge of redeeming its image battered by corruption and human rights violations, among others, and return to the path of global reckoning. The articulation of better image for Nigeria internationally, which is one of the foreign policy objectives prescribed in the vision 20:2020, remains a goal for the government.  However, there is no love lost between Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates owing to the type of Covid-19 test Nigerian passengers are expected to take. The US under Donald Trump had banned Nigerians from migrating to the country on permanent basis, but President Biden has reversed it. Many Nigerians in the diaspora are frustrated by the Immigration when they plan to have new passports. Complaints of lack of passport leaves have been a major source of worry for the diasporans.

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