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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

What President Buhari can Learn from Prime Minister Modi’s Foreign Policy

Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office has witnessed a remarkable reinvigoration of India’s foreign policy, with several bold initiatives taking observers by surprise. What can President Buhari learn from Prime Minister Modi's diplomatic outreach in his first year as he draws up his own foreign policy agenda?

President Muhammadu Buhari and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on their respective Inauguration Days
Prime Minister Modi completed his first term on May 26, three days before President Buhari’s inauguration on May 29. While on the domestic front his one year in office is generally said to have achieved mixed results, his bold forays on the international front however “surprised just about everyone” and has been widely praised. He has reoriented India’s foreign policy, reinvigorated its regional diplomacy, and revitalised key partnerships – notably the Indo-US and Sino-Indian relationships. 

Let’s take a look at one of Prime Minister Modi’s key diplomatic initiatives, and see how it can work for Nigeria.

Neighbourhood First Policy: Reprioritising India’s Immediate and Extended Neighbourhoods

India’s regional diplomacy was widely felt to have badly stagnated under previous governments. This neglect had seen China make significant inroads into South Asia – India’s traditional ‘sphere of influence’ – over the past decade. By pouring investments into the region China increased its clout at India’s expense. Ambitious infrastructure projects, soft loans, and development aid were China’s preferred method of filling the vacuum opened up by India’s apathy. 

By 2014, the year Modi came to power, Pakistan – India’s most troublesome neighbour – was already firmly lodged in China’s orbit. More worryingly for India’s strategic planners, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka were widely perceived to be gradually tipping China’s way. And Bhutan – “India’s long-standing, steadfast friend” – had long endured a “mix of persuasion and coercion” to get it to “open relations with Beijing”.

Even before coming to office Modi had hinted at where his foreign policy priorities would lie. And once in power he wasted no time in injecting energy into what he termed his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. For his inauguration, invitations were extended to all the SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders – the first time this had been done. His first two state visits were to Bhutan and Nepal, underscoring his commitment to bolstering relations with India’s smaller neighbours and highlighting his intentions to assert India’s primacy in its ‘immediate neighbourhood’. 

Graph of Prime Minister Modi’s first year’s foreign trips. Source:

By the end of his first year Modi had visited almost all of India’s South Asian neighbours – signing deals ranging from infrastructure projects, such as the two hydropower dams for Nepal worth a combined $2.4bn; to opening new lines of credit, such as the $2bn for Bangladesh and the $318mn for Sri Lanka; to improving defence ties and people-to-people exchange programmes in the neighbourhood. The only SAARC countries not visited by Modi in his first year were Pakistan, due to fraught relations; Afghanistan, whose leader paid a state visit to India instead; and the Maldives, due to a political crisis in that Island nation.

At home, Modi pushed for and secured Parliament’s bipartisan ratification of the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement. A landmark achievement which defuses one of the most contentious issues between the two countries. Modi’s second year in office has so far not seen a slackening in the tempo of his regional outreach. The goodwill generated from his recent state visit to Bangladesh, where a raft of 22 deals where signed including the historic one settling the border dispute, has gained Indian cargo vessels access to two ports, including the strategically sensitive Chinese built Chittagong port. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi presents the transcripts of the Parliamentary debates on the landmark Land Boundary Agreement to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh during his state visit to the country, 6 June 2015. Source: The Indian Express.  

Modi’s activism on the international stage in his first year has also seen him breathe new life into India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ policy with state visits to three Indian Ocean island nations (Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka), five East Asian countries (Japan, Singapore, China, Mongolia, and South Korea) and two South Pacific countries (Australia and Fiji). In each of these, there was a “special emphasis on strengthening economic and security ties”. 

The extended neighbourhood policy had previously rested on a ‘Look East’ policy, and the notion of India being a ‘balancing power’. Modi rebranded these. India is now to ‘Act East’ and will see itself as a ‘leading power’. In other words, rather than merely reacting to strategic developments around it – policies that in the past decade had seen China increase its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region at India’s expense – India as a rising great power will now be proactive in taking the lead to shape the economic and security environment of its immediate and extended neighbourhoods.

A Neighbourhood First Policy for Nigeria?

Like India, regional power status is deeply ingrained in Nigeria’s foreign policy identity. And like India, Nigeria in material terms has no peer equal in its regional neighbourhood. On one important indicator of regional influence, Nigeria seems a regional power per excellence. Of the so-called ‘Big Five’ – Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa – Nigeria has served as West Africa’s representative on the Peace and Security Council (the African Union’s apex decision making body) since its founding in December 2003, whereas the others have been rotated by their respective regions. Nigeria has been in the PSC for all 12 years of its existence, Algeria 9 years, Ethiopia 8 years, South Africa 7 years, and Egypt 4 years. 

Nigerian soldiers and officers during Liberia’s first Civil War. The officer in the foreground is Major General Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, ECOMOG’s then-Field Commander. Photo Credit: Corbis/Patrick Robert.

In reality however, just like India, Nigeria’s regional influence has badly declined in the past few years. A combination of state weakness, lack of strategic vision, and mounting domestic troubles have led its foreign policy to be described as “weak and incoherent”, and being in “self-inflicted decline”. Nothing best illustrates Nigeria’s dramatic loss of influence over its neighbours than the fact that it took the intervention of France and a Security Summit in Paris convened by President Hollande in May last year for Nigeria’s Lake Chad neighbours to take its pleas seriously about the need for a regional coalition against Boko Haram. When a regional power has to seek the intervention of an external power before its smaller neighbours take its existential security concerns seriously, this is an indication that its regional diplomacy is in serious need of reforms.

Like Prime Minister Modi with India, President Buhari should therefore also make an intensive and wide-ranging reengagement with Nigeria’s neighbours a key component of his foreign policy agenda in his first year. Nigeria’s weak state capacity and current economic troubles means the type of ‘big bang’ policies – multibillion dollar credit lines and multiple infrastructure projects – that Prime Minister Modi unveiled in his first year’s regional outreach are probably off the table for now for President Buhari. But there are some initiatives that can be undertaken. 

So what fresh ideas can President Buhari initiate to shake up Nigeria’s regional diplomacy in his first year in office?

Nigeria is also a Central African Country: Apply for Membership in the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)

The phrases ‘immediate’ and ‘extended’ neighbourhoods are not used in Nigeria’s foreign policy discourse. But the ‘concentric circle’ concept which frames how Nigerian foreign policy makers view our region captures the same essence. It equates Nigeria’s immediate neighbourhood to the ring of countries that surround us and, in the maritime domain, to the Bights of Benin and Bonny. Our extended neighbourhood is seen as comprising the West African region and the Gulf of Guinea. I think this view of our extended neighbourhood is incomplete. Nigeria should see its broader region as also encompassing Central Africa. 

Consequently President Buhari should submit an application for observer status in ECCAS in his first year in office, with a view to eventually fully joining the organisation. Let me explain.

Map of ECOWAS and ECCAS member states. Map modified by author. Original map at

Nigeria traditionally sees itself as a West African country. And West Africa has been the arena of Nigeria’s boldest and most celebrated diplomatic initiatives to date – the establishment of ECOWAS in 1975 and the ECOMOG interventions of the 1990s. 

Geography, economy, history, and culture however suggest Nigeria is a West and Central African state. Geographically for example, Nigeria shares land and sea boundaries with six countries: Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, and Sao Tome and Principe. Of these, only Benin and Niger are West African states and members of ECOWAS. Our other four neighbours are Central African states and members of ECCAS. Our longest land boundary is with a Central African and ECCAS state: Cameroon. 

Similarly, Nigeria’s most pressing security challenge – Boko Haram’s terrorist insurgency – is concentrated along our borders with our Central African neighbours, Cameroon and Chad; countries that together with Niger and Benin constitute the five nation regional coalition we want to establish to combat the insurgency. To all intents and purposes, Nigeria’s defence diplomacy will be oriented towards our Central African border for the next few years.

Nigeria’s economic linkages further reinforces the point that Nigeria is as much a Central African as it is a West African country. According to UNCTAD’s report on intra-African trade (pg. 22-27), all thirteen countries that count Nigeria as among their top five export partners are exclusively West and Central African states. Five of these – CAR, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe – are Central African and ECCAS countries. 

Similarly of the eleven countries that count Nigeria as among their top five import partners, three – Cameroon, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea – are in Central Africa and ECCAS.
The historical, cultural, ethnic, and familial bonds between Nigeria and its Central African neighbours completes the linkages binding Nigeria to the fate of its ECCAS neighbours.

Joining ECCAS will therefore broaden Nigeria’s strategic horizon and give our foreign policy planners a more accurate perspective of our extended neighbourhood. Joining ECCAS will also incentivise Nigeria to actively participate in shaping the economic and security environment of Central Africa. 

Now that African integration seems to be gathering pace – the agreement to establish the Tripartite Free Trade Area between the 26 member states of COMESA, EAC, and SADC, was signed on June 10 in Cairo, and the deadline for establishing a Continental Free Trade Area has been set for 2017 – joining ECCAS will leave Nigeria best placed to take the lead and advocate for harmonizing the integration agendas of West and Central Africa.    

Improve Relations with Cameroon: Push for Parliamentary Ratification of the Green Tree Agreement

In some respects, Cameroon is Nigeria’s Pakistan. While in recent times Chad has done its best to challenge for that title, Cameroon remains Nigeria’s most difficult neighbour. It is so far the only country that Nigeria has come to the brink of interstate war with over a territorial dispute. 

One of the main sources of Nigeria-Cameroon distrust and tension is the issue of the Bakassi Peninsula. The International Court of Justice settled the question of territorial sovereignty over the peninsula in Cameroon’s favour a decade ago. President Obasanjo signed the 2006 Green Tree Agreement – the treaty ceding sovereignty over the territory – and the peninsula was formally handed over to Cameroon in 2008. The treaty however proved highly unpopular in Nigeria. Consequently to date the National Assembly is yet to ratify it. This makes the 2008 handover potentially illegal under Nigerian law and leaves open the possibility, however unlikely, that Nigeria could retake the territory by force.
As a confidence building measure, and to reduce areas of tension with Cameroon, President Buhari should lobby the National Assembly to ratify the treaty within his first year. To placate critics at home and gain something for Nigeria abroad, ratification of the treaty should be linked to Cameroon supporting Nigeria’s bid for ECCAS membership. While the treaty ratification will not resolve all of Nigeria’s problems with Cameroon – the difficult issue of fully demarcating Nigeria’s maritime boundary with Cameroon will remain – it will create a more positive atmosphere for Nigeria’s diplomatic engagement with its difficult neighbour. 

The goodwill generated from this initiative will also open up opportunities in other areas of bilateral relations.

Boko Haram should not Dominate Nigeria’s Regional Diplomacy: Visit More Countries and Broaden the Agenda

President Buhari’s neighbourhood diplomacy has so far been shaped by the need to establish a regional coalition against Boko Haram. He has moved with impressive speed and purpose to realise this singular goal. Making Chad (June 3) and Niger (June 4) his first two state visits, and a week later (June 11) hosting the leaders of Benin, Chad, Niger, and a representative of the Cameroonian President to a Summit in Abuja to clear the way for the establishment of the long-awaited Multi National Joint Task Force have yielded positive results. 

A Nigerian has been chosen as the MNJTF’s commander. More significantly, our coalition partners seem to have accepted President Buhari’s proposal that the force be permanently commanded by a Nigerian for the duration of its mission. 

President Buhari on arrival in Niger Republic with his counterpart President Issoufou. Photo Credit: Paul Ibe

Boko Haram however should not dominate President Buhari’s regional diplomacy in his first year. The momentum from this renewed regional engagement should be leveraged to score gains in other areas of bilateral relations, such as improving regional trade and infrastructure, and driving the regional integration agenda. 

UNCTAD’s report on intra-African trade for example shows that Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have large net trade surpluses on food items with the rest of the world, and Nigeria runs a large deficit on same (pg. 35). This provides a possible opportunity for expanding trade with Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire for example. 

President Buhari should therefore broaden his regional state visits to encompass other West and Central African countries. A true neighbourhood first policy must be comprehensive in its agenda. Security should be only one component of this regional outreach. The same visibility and energy that has accompanied President Buhari’s coalition building tour of Chad and Niger should also be brought to bear to state visits where trade and other bilateral issues are on the table.

These three initiatives, if pursued in President Buhari’s first year, can serve as the foundation upon which Nigeria’s foreign policy can be refocused back on what should be the country’s most important partners: its immediate and extended neighbours.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

From ‘Elusive Friendship’ to Realistic Partnership (Part I)

Opportunities and Limits of a Nigeria-Russia Rapprochement

President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Vladimir Putin signing the “Declaration on the Principles of Friendly Relations and Partnership” between Nigeria and Russia, March 6 2001 (

20 May 1974, General Yakubu Gowon departed Lagos for an 8-day State visit to the Soviet Union. The first ever such visit by a Nigerian Head of State. It was a symbolic gesture of gratitude to the Soviet Union for helping the Federal Government win the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). It was also meant to open a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries. A state of “high alert”[1] and ideological suspicion had characterised the relationship before the Civil War[2]. There were high hopes at the time that, guided by pragmatism and mutual interests, cooperation would now deepen. Despite this optimism however, bilateral ties never moved beyond what Maxim Matusevich, a scholar on Nigeria-Russia relations, describes as an “elusive friendship … forever fluctuating between protracted periods of stagnation and an occasional declaration of friendship”[3].

Nigeria’s recent difficulties in procuring weapons from the United States to better combat Boko Haram has seen it turn once more to Russia for help; a move reminiscent of the Civil War days when the Soviet Union armed Nigeria following equivocations from its western partners. Russia, keen to expand its influence in Africa and find new markets for its arms, obliged by providing a $1 billion loan to the Nigerian government to purchase Russian made weapons. Furthermore, following Nigeria’s cancellation of a US military training programme over refusal to sell it combat helicopters, Russia is now said to training Nigerian Special Forces in counterinsurgency warfare. This has led many to suggest that perhaps an era of renewed partnership between Nigeria and Russia is at hand.  

Looking back at the trajectory of Nigeria-Russia bilateral relations since independence in 1960 can offer useful lessons on the opportunities and limits of a Nigeria-Russia rapprochement. It will also allow for a more realistic assessment of how this potentially important and valuable partnership can be strengthened and made more durable.

This post is the first of three instalments that will trace the trajectory of Nigeria-Russia relations from 1960 to date, and make suggestions for strengthening bilateral ties. This post will look at the state of the relationship in the 1960s. The second instalment will continue the narrative and look at the cordial ties of the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s when relations stagnated and withered, and the period of renewed contacts in the 2000s. The final instalment will discuss the opportunities and limits of a Russia-Nigeria rapprochement in a changing world, and explore how bilateral relations can move from an ‘elusive friendship’ to a more realistic and enduring partnership.

1960 – 1966: Distance and Suspicion

Nigeria’s first bilateral contacts with the Soviet Union in the 1960s occurred against the backdrop of a highly polarised international system, which shaped the nature of the relationship between the two countries. Upon independence in 1960 Nigeria proclaimed itself to be “nonaligned” in the Cold War conflict, and equidistant between the two superpowers and the two blocs they led. The reality however was different. 

The first indication of Nigeria’s western orientation was the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact which Nigeria’s leaders had signed in 1958 under colonial tutelage, and which was retained after independence. The Pact stated Nigeria would acquire modern weapons, training, and technical assistance in return for Britain maintaining military facilities in Lagos and Kano. The Pact also allowed both countries “complete and unrestricted rights over each other’s airspace”[4]. How Nigeria would have put into practice this privilege was any one’s guess as it lacked both an air force at the time and a strategic need to project power over northern Europe even if it had one. The Pact was eventually repealed in January 1962 after strong domestic opposition[5].

The issue of diplomatic recognition and opening of embassies was another indicator of Nigeria’s unequivocal western choice during this period. Soon after independence Soviet officials, keen to cultivate ties and expand contacts in Africa, approached Nigerian officials with a view to establishing diplomatic relations. The advance was rebuffed[6]. Vocal domestic opposition and the need to maintain an image of nonalignment eventually made the government reconsider its decision[7]. The Soviet Union was finally granted permission to open it Lagos embassy in March 1961[8] – five months after Independence. Nigeria reciprocated a year later and opened its Moscow embassy in 1962.

An Institute of Army Education study on ‘Nigeria’s Foreign Policy, 1960-1976’ describes the restrictions that were placed on the Soviet mission after the embassy was opened: 

[W]hen the Soviet embassy was established in Lagos in 1961, the number of its diplomatic staff was limited to ten whereas no such restriction was placed on the diplomatic missions of West European countries or the United States of America. The Soviet embassy was allocated a paltry figure of five diplomatic car plates whereas Britain and the United States of America were entitled to one hundred each. It can therefore be asserted that even the opening of the Soviet embassy was grudgingly conceded: a camouflage to the outside world that Nigeria was non-aligned[9].

Eghosa Osaghae, a scholar of Nigeria’s political history, reflecting on Nigeria’s foreign policy in the First Republic (1960-1966), said: 

[R]elations with Britain and the West were conducted in a manner that sometimes cast doubts on the country’s independence[10].

Similarly Joe Garba, Nigeria’s most famous soldier-diplomat, commenting on this period, noted:

One weakness ... was that although we were supposed to be nonaligned between the power blocs, this was not always evident, to say the least, in our attitude[11].

Four factors best explain Nigeria’s strong pro-western orientation and cold relations with the Soviet Union during this period.

Anti-Communism of the Ruling Elites

The first was the hostility of Nigeria’s ruling elites towards communism and its atheist ethos; which led to a pervasive suspicion of the Soviet Union. Nigeria’s ruling party in the First Republic, the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), was led by the most conservative part of the Nigerian establishment – the North’s aristocratic class. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, was said to harbour a deep seated fear of communism[12]. The Soviet’s for their part had a very dim view of Nigeria’s entire ruling class at independence. The Africa correspondent of the Soviet mouthpiece Pravda described Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region and arguably the most influential politician in the country, as the “most reactionary figure on the contemporary Nigerian stage”[13]. Similarly a publication to acquaint Soviet elites with the newly independent Nigeria’s political landscape described the main opposition party as being led of “feudal marionette princes of Yorubaland”[14].

To Northern Nigeria’s ruling class, expanding ties with the Soviet Union beyond what was minimally necessary was perceived as a threat to the country’s religious and social order. As noted earlier, diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were only established following pressure from domestic opposition. Aid and bilateral agreements from the Eastern Bloc were rejected[15].

Osaghae’s highly readable and comprehensive overview of Nigeria’s political history since Independence noted that:

Nigeria pursued a policy that bordered on hostility towards the USSR and other members of the Eastern Bloc – this was partly informed by Balewa’s personal fears of the dangers of communism… [T]he Nigerian government … placed restrictions on travel to the Eastern bloc countries and communist literature[16].

Anti-communist sentiments went beyond the Northern establishment. In a tour of the United States a week before independence, Jaja Wachukwu, the-then Speaker of the House of Representatives and an influential south-eastern politician, confidently declared to his American hosts: “Communism does not exist in Nigeria and cannot expect to exist”[17].

Pro-British Sentiment

The second was the deep sentimental affection which the ruling elite at the time still felt for the former colonial power, Britain. Ibrahim Gambari, one of Nigeria’s most respected diplomats and a Foreign affairs minister in 1984-1985, explaining why Nigeria’s leaders retained the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact after independence, said: 

[T]he political climate and attitude of Nigerian leaders just before independence were such that any apparently reasonable British demand would be agreed to… [A]ll the major political parties … went out of their way not to antagonize the British. Indeed few Nigerian leaders or legislators challenged the British assumption that in any government training of future Nigerian diplomats the British Foreign Office would play the dominant if not exclusive role and that the British would continue to represent Nigeria in many countries after independence. It seemed, therefore, that the … Defence Agreement … was only another dimension of the generally warm, though uneven, relations between Nigeria and Britain[18].

A survey of the attitudes of the country’s political leaders conducted in the 1960s underscores Nigeria’s pro-western orientation during this period. 100 Federal legislators, selected through random sampling, were asked how Nigeria should position itself in the Cold War conflict. 50% said the country should be neutral, 41% said the country should be aligned with the West, whereas a meagre 2% expressed a preference for an alignment with the Soviet Union[19].

Economic Dependence

“British colonialism had helped to fully incorporate Nigeria into the international capitalist order”[20]. Therefore as a recently decolonised, less developed, country on the margins of the western capitalist system, Nigeria's economic and technological underdevelopment inevitably placed it in a relationship of dependence on the west for its social and economic development. Britain’s imperial departure from Nigeria had been a negotiated exit which removed the empire’s political presence but kept the economic umbilical cords connecting the former colony to its metropole firmly in place. Consequently Nigeria’s foreign investment and trade patterns continued to be dominated by Britain.

Banks such as Barclays and Lloyds dominated Nigerian finance[21]. Two British companies – John Holt and United Africa Company (UAC) – had a near monopoly on the trading, import-export, manufacturing and distribution sectors. The UAC, for example, controlled 41.3% of the country’s import and export trade[22]. Similarly the First National Development Plan (1962-1968) heavily depended on western finance to realise its goals. The NDP was the government’s master plan to place the country on the path to economic development and industrialisation. 50% of its funding however was to be sourced from western countries and western-led International Financial Institutions (IFI), such as IMF and the World Bank[23]. Furthermore Britain was to assist in negotiations with the IFIs and other bilateral and multilateral donors[24].

Cold War Tension

The wider landscape of the Cold War provides the fourth lens through which to view Nigeria’s inability to build enduring ties with the Soviet Union during this period. Europe’s imperial powers, weakened by the devastations of WWII and unable to reverse the growing tide of nationalism in their colonies, sought instead to replace direct imperial control with loose spheres of influence. This they felt would not only preserve their privileged access to natural resources in the newly independent states, but also enable them to maintain the pretence of great power status in a world now unquestionably dominated by two superpowers. 

The dénouement of Europe’s empires in the 1950s and 1960s however aslo coincided with the period when Cold War tensions reached their peak; the Korean war of 1950-53, the beginning of the breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the mid-1950s, the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Berlin Crisis of 1958-1961, and the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, all profoundly destabilised superpower relations between the United States and the Soviet. This consequently meant the United States often actively encouraged and materially supported its European allies’ in maintaining their spheres of influence, to block out Soviet penetration[25].

No one in Lagos could have failed to notice Guinea’s fate when, in a referendum conducted across the entire French Union in September 1958, it rejected autonomy within a new French Community and instead defiantly chose immediate independence; the only one to do so. De Gaulle’s response was swift, harsh, and extremely spiteful. Development assistance, bank credits, and French civil servants were immediately withdrawn in a bid to collapse Guinea’s economy and serve as a warning to others.

Elizabeth Schmidt’s Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea 1946-1958 vividly describes France’s response:

[A]ll French technical and administrative personnel were ordered to leave the territory. They were directed to take with them or destroy all materials and archives, including registers of vital statistics… Intense pressure was applied to teachers vacationing outside of Guinea not to return to the territory after the referendum ... [P]lans to build a major dam on the Konkouré River, which would provide Guinea with a significant new source of hydroelectric power, were cancelled... Beyond these economic penalties, technical services were sabotaged and equipment destroyed.

Telephone wires were cut, even in the main government building. Cranes at the port of Conakry disappeared. Military camps were stripped of their equipment, and hospitals of their medicines. Soldiers in Dalaba burned their barracks. In Sérédou, formulas for the production of quinine vanished. In Beyla, French doctors absconded with stocks of medicines from the hospitals and brand-new vehicles from the health center, all of which were sent to the Ivory Coast. Finally, in a gesture laden with pettiness and symbolism, state dishes were cracked[26].

Despite its discomfort with France’s behaviour, heightened Cold War tensions of the time meant the US chose not to antagonise its NATO ally by extending aid to Guinea. As an official at the State Department Policy Planning Staff noted of US policy towards the decolonised states of Africa and Asia during this period:

Our policy should be based on the general premise of the right to self-determination… Obviously, so long as the present world tensions prevail, our national interest is closely bound to precisely those countries which still to [a] greater or lesser degree carry the stigma of colonial imperialism. When the tensions safely subside, other considerations will become valid[27].

For Nigeria therefore, the highly adversarial Cold War environment of the early 1960s and the country’s dependence on the west for its economic development sharply curtailed its freedom of action on the global stage. An “identity of interests, values and ideological orientation between … the Nigerian ruling elite and their Western counterparts”[28] further placed a distance between Nigeria and the Soviet Union during this period.

The 30 month Civil War (6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970) transformed the nature of Nigeria-Soviet bilateral contacts and cleared the way for closer relations.

1967 – 1970: The Zenith of Friendship

Britain’s calculating response to arming the Federal Government and the US’ arms embargo finally shed Nigerian officials of their rose tinted view of relations with the west. In contrast, the Soviet Union’s swift response to arming the Federal forces powerfully demonstrated the value of enlarging diplomatic contacts with Moscow, and of diversifying the country’s relationships more generally. Ironically the Soviet Union reportedly provided only “about 30 per cent of the arms imported by the federal side”[29]; with Britain supplying the overwhelming bulk. The true value of the Soviet arms contribution was in the calibre of weapons it provided – particularly jet aircrafts and bombers which Britain and the United States refused to supply. 

As the clouds of war gathered, on 2 July Gowon sent “identical wires to [US] President [Lyndon] Johnson and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson requesting the immediate sale of twelve fighter-bombers, six [patrol] boats, and twenty-four antiaircraft guns”, with “deliveries to begin within forty-eight hour”[30]. The response of Nigeria’s western partners was disappointing to say the least. The United States, weighed down by its mounting troubles in Vietnam and unwilling to be drawn into another Third World conflict, refused to sell arms to the Federal Government. At a press conference on the outbreak of the war, Secretary of State Dean Rusk signalled the US’ intentions to remain on the side lines: “We regard Nigeria as part of Britain’s sphere of influence”[31].

Britain, with substantial investments in Nigeria, couldn’t afford to be so detached. The antiaircraft guns, patrol boats, and much more besides, were supplied; but, to the intense disappointment of Nigerian officials, the fighter-bombers were “ruled out”[32]. The decision to sell Nigeria any arms at all had in fact only been taken after extensive discussions within Whitehall – that “bore not a trace of sentimental attachment to Colonial Nigeria”[33] – about how best to protect British oil interests in the now rebel held Eastern region. Soon after the war broke out, Britain’s High Commissioner in Lagos cabled the Foreign Office in London:

In the new circumstances it must clearly be a principle object of British policy to avoid doing anything which could seriously antagonise the State of Biafra in case it is successful in vindicating its independence. Our interests, particularly in oil, are so great that they must override any lingering regret that we may feel for the disintegration of British made Nigeria[34].

Although Britain eventually committed itself to Nigeria’s territorial integrity and backed the Federal Government with diplomatic and material support, Gary Blank’s detailed study, based on declassified documents, of Whitehall’s decision making process during this period illuminates the hard-nosed realism that shaped Britain’s ‘One Nigeria’ policy:

Analysis of the primary documents reveals that London was never as committed to the FMG [Federal Military Government] during the first months of the crisis as its later pronouncements suggested. The ‘equivocal and non-committal’ nature of London’s initial policy stemmed from a debate within the government and civil service over the best way to serve ‘British interests’ – particularly economic interests – amidst a highly tumultuous and uncertain series of events…[35]

[By December 1967, however, after it became clear the FMG could win] all players now converged on a ‘One Nigeria’ policy … [I]t was fully accepted by both the British government and Shell-BP … that only the abject defeat of the Biafrans would ensure the maintenance of Shell-BP’s investments, and – crucially for Britain – a resumption of Nigerian oil flow[36].

For Moscow, the onset of hostilities provided it a “golden chance” to improve relations with Lagos[37]. For Nigerian officials it cleared the way for a thaw in relations with the Soviet Union. The Civil War saw a marked improvement in the previously distant relationship.

Let down by the US’ and Britain’s response to its plea for aircrafts, Nigeria looked elsewhere and found the Soviet Union “waiting in the wings”[38]. On August 2 1967, a Nigerian delegation led by Chief Anthony Enahoro, the-then Minister of Information and Labour, signed an arms deal, under the cover of a “cultural agreement”, with Soviet officials in Moscow[39]. A week later, 9 August, two jet fighters were delivered to Nigeria. By mid-August, up to 20 jet aircrafts and 200 Soviet technicians had reached Nigeria[40]. In 1969, after supplying only air weapons for the preceding two years, the Soviet Union scaled up its material support by adding ground weapons – including artillery and a “considerable number” of rifles[41].

Some scholars suggest Soviet supplied artillery “played a crucial part in the final determination of the conflict”[42].

Off the back of the Civil War cooperation, trade picked up between the two countries. Though much of the increase was due to the arms sales, Nigeria’s economic engagement with the Soviet Union nevertheless broadened during the war years. Soviet manufactured and consumer goods – passenger cars, cement, sugar, fabric, welding machines etc. – made their first appearance in Nigeria; and the Soviet Union imported, amongst other things, cocoa beans, palm oil products and timber from Nigeria[43].

The intensity of contacts similarly increased. A highly publicised goodwill visit to Moscow in mid-1968 was undertaken by Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, underscoring the warming ties between the two countries. The final communique from the trip became “the first ever document signed between Nigeria and the Soviet Union”[44]. The restrictions that had previously been placed on the Soviet embassy were relaxed, and the Soviet Union was allowed to open a new embassy chancery and host cultural activities[45]. The Federal Government also finally consented to the arrival of a Soviet military attaché[46], where only Britain and the US had enjoyed such diplomatic privileges.

The deepening and broadening of contacts during this period however, whilst placing bilateral relations on a more positive trajectory, in retrospect marked the zenith of Nigeria-Soviet cooperation. 

The next instalment will look at Nigeria-Soviet, and then Russia, relations from the 1970s to the 2000s.



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Eghosa E. Osaghae. (1998), Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Elizabeth Schmidt. (2007), Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946-1958. Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Fredrik Lovevall. (2012), Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House.
Guy Arnold. (2008), The A to Z of Civil Wars in Africa. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press.

Jimi Peters. (1997), The Nigerian Military and the State. London: Tauris Academic Studies.

Maxim Matusevich. (2003), No Easy Row for a Russian Hoe: Ideology and Pragmatism in Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1991. Asmara: Africa World Press.

Maxim Matusevich. (2007), ‘An Elusive Friendship: Nigeria-Soviet/Russian Relations, 1960-2000’, in Ulric R. Nichol (ed.), Focus on Politics and Economics of Russia and Eastern Europe. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Odd A. Westad. (2005), The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Journal Articles

Gary Blank. (2011), ‘Britain, Biafra and the Balance of Payments: The Formation of London’s ‘One Nigeria’ Policy’, London School of Economics. Download PDF here.

Gerald E. Ezirim. (2011), ‘Fifty Years of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy: A Critical Review’. Download PDF version here.

Oye Ogunbadejo. (1988), ‘Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1987’, African Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 346: pp. 83-104.

R. A. Akindele. (1986), ‘Nigeria's External Economic Relations, 1960-1985: PART II: With Special Emphasis on External Loan Transactions, Foreign Private Investment and Geographical Expansion of Trade Frontiers’, Africa Spectrum, Vol. 21, No. 2.

Shohei Sato. (2009), ‘Britain’s Decision to Withdraw from the Persian Gulf, 1964-1968: A Pattern and a Puzzle’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 37, No. 1: pp. 99-117.

[1] Maxim Matusevich. (2007), ‘An Elusive Friendship: Nigeria-Soviet/Russian Relations, 1960-2000’, in Ulric R. Nichol (ed.), Focus on Politics and Economics of Russia and Eastern Europe. New York: Nova Science Publishers, p. 198.

[2] Oye Ogunbadejo. (1988), ‘Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1987’, African Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 346: pp. 84-88.

[3] Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, Ch. 9.

[4] Jimi Peters. (1997), The Nigerian Military and the State. London: Tauris Academic Studies, p. 72.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

[6] Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, p. 196.

[7] The influential West African Pilot summed up popular sentiment when, in an editorial on the 25th of October in favour of establishing diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, it stated: “The people of Nigeria have nothing against the Soviet Union. Some of us may hate or abhor communism but that does not mean we have nothing to learn from a country that sent its rocket to the moon… We want a Soviet diplomatic mission in Lagos”. (Italics in original). Quoted in Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, p. 197.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Quoted in Gerald E. Ezirim. (2011), ‘Fifty Years of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy: A Critical Review’.

[10] Eghosa E. Osaghae. (1998), Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. London: C. Hurst & Co., p. 51.

[11] Quoted in Anthony O. Ojigbo. (1979), 200 Days to Eternity: The Administration of General Murtala Ramat Muhammed. Ljubljana: Mladinska Knjiga, p. 310.

[12] Eghosa E. Osaghae, Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence, p. 50.; See also Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, pp. 194-201.

[13] Quoted in Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, p. 195.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Eghosa E. Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 51.

[16] Ibid, p. 50-51.

[17] Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Freindship’, p. 196.

[18] Jimi Peters, The Nigerian Military and the State, p. 74.

[19] Maxim Matusevich. (2003), No Easy Row for a Russian Hoe: Ideology and Pragmatism in Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1991. Asmara: Africa World Press, p. 105.

[20] Oye Ogunbadejo, ‘Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1987’, p. 88.

[21] Eghosa E. Osaghae, Crippled Giant, pp. 47-50.

[22] Ibid, p. 47.

[23] R. A. Akindele. (1986), ‘Nigeria's External Economic Relations, 1960-1985: PART II: With Special Emphasis on External Loan Transactions, Foreign Private Investment and Geographical Expansion of Trade Frontiers’, Africa Spectrum, Vol. 21, No. 2: p. 144.

[24] Eghosa E. Osaghae, Crippled Giant, pp. 47-48.

[25] Fredrik Logevall’s fascinating and comprehensive study of the French Indochina war (1946-1954) sheds light on the US role in France’s colonial war. The US essentially financed and armed France. While France was fighting to reconstitute its empire, the US viewed the war as an anti-communist crusade against the Soviet and Chinese supported Vietminh. By 1952 French officials were already thinking of pulling out the war but US pressure kept France fighting until French forces were decisively defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Fredrik Lovevall. (2012), Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House.

Another example was the US pressure on Britain to keep its military presence in southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf after the British Government announced in 1968 that it was withdrawing from those areas by 1971 due to economic difficulties at home. Failing to convince the British to stay, the US stepped in to replace Britain as those region’s strategic guarantor. Shohei Sato. (2009), ‘Britain’s Decision to Withdraw from the Persian Gulf, 1964-1968: A Pattern and a Puzzle’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 37, No. 1: pp. 99-117.

[26] Elizabeth Schmidt. (2007), Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946-1958. Ohio: Ohio University Press, pp. 171-172. 

[27] Odd A. Westad. (2005), The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 131-132.

[28] Oye Ogunbadejo, ‘Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1987’, p. 84.

[29] Guy Arnold. (2008), The A to Z of Civil Wars in Africa. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, p. 165.

[30] Maxim Matusevich, No Easy Row for a Russian Hoe, pp. 112-113.

[31] Guy Arnold, The A to Z of Civil Wars in Africa, p. 265.

[32] Gary Blank. (2011), ‘Britain, Biafra and the Balance of Payments: The Formation of London’s ‘One Nigeria’ Policy’, London School of Economics, p. 79.

[33] Ibid, p. 73.

[34] Quoted in Ibid, p. 76.

[35] Ibid, p. 76.

[36] Ibid, p. 82.

[37] Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, p. 203.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Maxim Matusevich, No Easy Row for a Russian Hoe, pp. 113-114.

[40] Ibid, p. 114.

[41] Oye Ogunbadejo, ‘Nigeria-Soviet Relations, 1960-1987’, p. 91.

[42] Ibid, pp. 91-92.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Maxim Matusevich, ‘An Elusive Friendship’, p. 204.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.