That Nigeria became politically independent on the 1st of October, 1960 is a well-known fact. What is lesser known is that Nigeria joined the United Nations Organisation (UNO) or simply UN, on the 7th of October the same year as the 99th member. So effectively, just as Nigeria celebrated its 55th Independence Anniversary, the country should equally be celebrating its 55th anniversary in the Organisation. Is it really worth the while?
The great hopes and aspiration of the young nation was captured in the country’s first Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa’s speech to the Organisation. He said, “Before proceeding to deal in detail with the many questions which are of interest to my country, it is better to state briefly the principles which we have accepted as the basis of our policies in international relations. First, it is the desire of Nigeria – as I have said already to remain on friendly terms with all nations and to participate actively in the work of the United Nations Organizations. Secondly, Nigeria, a large and populous country of over 35 million, has absolutely no territorial or expansionist intentions. Thirdly, we shall not forget our old friends, and we are proud to have been accepted as a member of the British Commonwealth. Nevertheless, we do intend to align ourselves as a matter of routine with any of the Power blocs. We are committed to uphold the principles upon which the United Nations is founded. Fourthly, Nigeria hopes to work with other African States for the progress of Africa and to assist in bringing all African Territories to a state of responsible independence.”
From his speech, which was then largely condemned at home by opposition groups especially Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) for lacking in vigour and vibrancy needed in the face of militant nationalism which was then reigning in Africa, we will discover the fundamental principles governing the Nigerian foreign policy. First is the concept of good neighbourliness. Second, is that Africa will be the focal point of the country’s future participation in the UN and other International Organisations. But how have the country and the UN fared?
Not forgetting the fact that the country itself has its own series of internal problems, the crises in Congo and Rhodesia proved to be a handful for both Nigeria and the UN. The death (or some say murder) of the then UN Secretary General, Dag Hammaskjold, while doing his very best to find a lasting political solution to the crises in Congo might have slowed down or escalated the peace process leading to the murder of Peatrice Lumumba, the charismatic Congolese leader.
The days of the Balewa’s government were numbered as the centre could not hold with things falling apart. Elections were rigged and civil strife was the order of the day. What could the UN do? It was just a matter of time, the military took over power in Lagos and series of unpalatable events were soon to follow. Could the UN have intervened in what was purely an internal affair? We need not over flog the Organisation’s role during the Nigerian Civil War. What could it have done differently anyway?
Nigeria largely forgot about the role of some UN members who covertly supported the country’s disintegration, hence a need to refocus the approach of the country’s foreign policy. The 1970s is just about the golden era of the country’s foreign policy. There were issues, foremost of which was apartheid in South Africa. Nigeria became the focus point of anti-Apartheid regime in Pretoria. The UN began to see Africa through the Nigerian eye. The powerful decision to nationalise Barclays bank and British Petroleum in Nigeria for their covert relationship with the Apartheid regime forced the UN to appoint Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Joe Garba as the Chairman of the UN Anti-Apartheid Committee.
With the death of Murtala Muhammed and the handing over of power to civilians in 1979, the dynamism associated with the Nigerian foreign policy was virtually eclipsed. Nothing much was achieved of Nigeria’s role in the UN.
Most Nigerians were heart broken when in 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) one of the numerous UN agencies delivered a judgement in a dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over what is now known as Bakassi Peninsula which was in favour of Cameroon. This is one decision that Nigerians will remember for a long time to come. Will things ever remain the same again?
With the recent challenge of insurgency, poverty and terrorism in the country, the relevance of the UN is increasingly fast taking the centre stage. So as we celebrate our 55 years in the UN, these are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves!