Since its declaration of independence in 1960, Nigeria has played an active role in promoting regional stability and economic development. The West African country has been a leading member of both the African Union and ECOWAS. Through successive administrations, Abuja has adhered to the widely held mantra, “African solutions to African problems”.
Nigeria’s commitment to regional growth and development goes well beyond rhetoric. For example, the country is the fifth-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions and has played a leading role in promoting peace in the region. Abuja has provided support for democratic elections held in many African countries, including Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger and Senegal.
Nigeria is also crucial to ECOWAS, the 16-member regional body established in 1975. The country represents 77% of West Africa’s GDP and is essential to any efforts towards further regional economic integration. Currently, trade within ECOWAS stands at just 9% of the region’s total trade balance. However, ECOWAS is Nigeria’s second largest non-oil export market, generating earnings of $350m in 2014.
Ensuring regional collaboration and integration remains a priority. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has made it clear that Nigeria’s neighbours and wider neighbourhood will be central to the country’s foreign policy. Speaking to the local press in March 2016, Geoffrey Onyeama, foreign minister in the Buhari administration, said, “Africa has always been the centre piece of our foreign policy.”
This was clear from the beginning of Buhari’s presidency. Within two months of taking office, he had visited seven countries, five of which are on the continent – Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and South Africa. These visits, according to Onyeama, were part of a clear policy of supporting the government’s domestic ambitions – improving security, pursuing economic development and eradicating corruption.
As is evident from the president’s travel itinerary, security is currently top of the country’s agenda. Buhari took immediate trips to the four other countries fighting the Islamic insurgents of Boko Haram – Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The president also welcomed his counterparts from Benin, Chad and Niger, as well as the Cameroonian defence minister, to Abuja. As a result of these talks, a new 8700 soldier strong regional fighting force was announced in June 2015. This boosts the existing Multi-National Joint Task Force, which is led by a Nigerian commander and is staffed by the five nations currently engaged in action against Boko Haram.
These diplomatic and military efforts appeared to bear fruit initially. In December 2015, the Nigerian president declared that the country had “technically won the war” against the militants. He told the BBC that the group could no longer mount conventional attacks against security forces or population centres.
Yet in the first months of 2016, militants launched a number of improvised guerilla-style attacks and suicide bombings. Between Buhari’s December 2015 declaration and the beginning of February 2016, the group killed more than 200 people, adding new casualties to an insurgency that has claimed more than 20,000 lives and created more than 2m refugees.
While the new regional policy has had mixed success in achieving its security goals, it has represented a positive step forward in terms of relations in the neighbourhood. This is particularly clear when it comes to Cameroon. Indeed, relations between the neighbours had been fraught for some time. Small border disputes, including that over the Bakassi Peninsula, contributed to lingering tensions.
However, with Buhari making security cooperation paramount, the situation has improved. Abuja is building on a long-held policy of economic cooperation by also focusing on political and security cooperation. This is likely to lead to greater future regional unity.
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