Implications of Nigeria’s abstention on Palestinian vote – Charles Onunaiju

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In what Thisday newspaper called “pivotal foreign policy shift”, Nigeria’s foreign policy actually took a dramatic plunge to new lows, when on December 29, 2014, the country abstained from a vote at the United Nations Security Council that would have set a definite timeframe for the end of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian land. For sure, the United States of America would have exercised her veto to shot down the resolution, even if Nigeria had voted for it but at least, we would have been true to our fundamental principle of long-standing aversion to any form of colonisation, land grab and racial discrimination which have been the primary bases for Nigeria’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Credible reports have it that Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry was fully geared to exercise the country’s traditional vote in favour of the resolution for a time-table to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands until the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, placed a direct call to President Goodluck Jonathan. The call evidently threw the country’s foreign policy machinery into disarray, with explicit instructions for Nigeria’s permanent delegation in the UN to vote against the resolution or at best refrain from any voting at all. And with Nigeria’s abstention, the resolution fell apart, after falling short of Nigeria’s one vote to sail through, though with only a potential Washington veto to thwart it, had we voted for the resolution. Even reports said that the Israeli foreign ministry was pleasantly surprised at Nigeria’s last minute abstention, as they expected a yes-vote to the resolution.

The Palestinians were shocked beyond words. Their ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Montazer Abu-Zeid, captured the mood of his people when he told reporters that, “It is a shock for us, why they (Nigeria) abstained. It was a surprise because the ministry of foreign affairs informed me that they would vote for us and I have informed my president and foreign minister as they assured me they would vote for an end to the occupation”.

Further ruminating on Nigeria’s volte-face, the Palestinian envoy said: “It is a sad day for us. Nigeria has recognised the state of Palestine since 1988 when it was even difficult times. They voted for the two state solutions; they voted for us on all issues on Israel and Palestine. Nigeria has been a big brother to us but at this crucial time, to vote to end the occupation, they abstained.”

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However, it should be made clear, that Nigeria’s traditional pro-Palestine stance is not derived from unqualified support for the Palestinians or any subsisting antipathy to the Israelis but from a principled stance with explicit commitment of Nigeria’s foreign policy to oppose any form of colonisation and racial discrimination. There is no other way to describe Israeli seizure of Palestinian lands than colonial occupation. Based on this principle, Nigeria recognised the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic which also operates a mission in Abuja. It is thus a pity that with just a phone call, from the Israeli prime minister, President Jonathan destroyed one of the core and enduring principles of Nigeria’s foreign policy.

Had the President and his handlers showed any tact, it would have been enough to tell the Israeli pestering prime minister, that it was an election period, and any such dramatic shift in our traditional stance, could cost some goodwill and votes. Netanyahu himself, who trade on votes of the extremist Jewish settlers on the occupied Palestinian lands, should have shown some understanding. Some observers have speculated that the Presidency may have been swayed by Israel’s increasing co-operation with Nigeria, especially in the area of providing weapons for the country’s war against terror.

However, as plausible as this position may sound, there was a similar parallel, but which did not compel Nigeria to abandon her foreign policy principle. During the civil war, a former external affairs minister was quoted to have said that, “Other NATO countries followed Britain and America’s lead in imposing an arms embargo on Nigeria and in desperation, Nigeria turned to the Russians who agreed to sell arms to the Federal Government”. He added that “this was purely a commercial transaction and those of our critics who thought that this would automatically lead to an ideological shift towards the Russians in our post-war foreign policy need to know that we paid cash for these purchases at a time when our foreign exchange reserves were abysmally low”. (Diplomatic soldiering: The conduct of Nigeria foreign policy, 1975-79 by Joe Garba, page 180)

Even now, Nigeria’s foreign reserves are on a downward spiral as oil revenue continues to plunge. Israel is definitely collecting cash for all purchase as her war economy is equally on a downward spiral. Why therefore, would Nigeria jettison one of its core foreign policy principles? Some have speculated that President Jonathan with his retinue of Pentecostal pastors may have thought that an extension of support for Israel would have amounted to a Christian obligation.

It may interest them that the birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, in the West Bank of the Palestinian territory, also takes a daily pounding from the Israeli occupation force. However, no matter how the decision to assault one of the pillars of Nigeria’s foreign policy came about, President Jonathan has confirmed a long standing public view that the regime is clueless. The implication of such a behaviour that even left the country’s foreign policy establishment in the lurch, is that most of the world would not be able to find synergy and consistency between our foreign policy principle and international behaviour. It will be hard to take Nigeria’s foreign ministry seriously as far as President Jonathan is in charge of the country.

In 2011, Nigeria under Jonathan made a similar and even worse foreign policy blunder that had implications in the escalation of the domestic terror attacks. The African Union had taken steps to find a negotiated settlement to the then festering crisis between the Benghazi-based opposition Transitional National Council and the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddaffi. The opposition TNC clearly backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation with air cover and generous supply of equipment from NATO was desperately moving to secure a military victory. Most of Africa, especially South Africa, seemed to understand the far-reaching implications of a NATO-backed military victory for the insurgents and stuck to the gun of a negotiated settlement. President Jonathan broke away from the emerging African consensus on a negotiated settlement and became the first African country of significance to recognise the NATO backed TNC in Libya.

With NATO generous air campaign, the Gaddaffi regime was violently overthrown and with the country thrown into chaos, the well supplied armoury was thrown open. The formerly ragtag Boko Haram extremists and other insurgents in the sub-region laid their hands on the sophisticated weapons from the Libyan armoury with a consequence for escalation of the insurgents’ activities both in Nigeria and the West African subregion. Since then, the terrorists in Nigeria have increased in their capabilities and their weapons have become more sophisticated. The destabilisation of Libya directly fed to the growing insurgency in Nigeria and the Jonathan administration is reasonably complicit in the act and its consequences of the thriving terrorist activities both in Nigeria and the sub-region.

Foreign policy is not an exclusive toy of any President as its principles are not defined lightly and therefore cannot be altered or jettisoned at the pleasure of anyone. It represents the core value deriving from a reasonable national consensus and therefore not subject to the whirlwinds of mere passing events both local and international.

The ripples of Nigeria’s behaviour at the UN Security Council, late last year, will definitely ruffle feathers in the diplomatic community where it might appear that the magic wand to thwart Nigeria’s foreign policy is a mere telephone call from any world capital.

 

 

 

 

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