NATO Nigeria and Its Strategic Global Role

155 views | Akpan Akata | March 15, 2021

While seeking to resolve its security and economic challenges and in spite of being pejoratively mocked as NATO, Nigeria entered 2021 focused on playing pivotal roles in the international arena regardless of the deepest global recession the COVID-19 pandemic triggered. No country in 2020 escaped the pandemic unscathed. The plague is still having large and persistent negative effects on the world economy.

NATO, a military and political alliance, stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It was created in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and several Western European countries to provide collective security against the defunct Soviet Union.

NATO was the first peacetime military alliance the US entered into outside of the Western Hemisphere. After the destruction of the Second World War, the nations of Europe struggled to rebuild their economies and ensure their security. The former required a massive influx of aid to help the war-torn landscapes re-establish industries and produce food, and the latter required assurances against a resurgent Germany or incursions from Russia.  

However, within the diplomatic circle, diplomats are not referring to Nigeria as a military might. For them, Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari’s watch is, No Action Talk Only (NATO). They may be right. Nigeria is good at talking, and sluggish in taking action. That sluggishness has allowed the scourge of Fulani herdsmen and bandits to fester.

The tardiness of the Buhari administration notwithstanding, former Permanent Secretary of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2010-2014), and Ambassador/Permanent Representative of the country to the United Nations, Martin Uhomoibhi, in an interview with a diplomatic magazine disclosed that Nigeria’s global ascendancy is unstoppable, insisting that ‘’nobody can stop Nigeria’’.

On the attainment of independence, Nigeria was quickly absorbed into the UN on October 7, 1960 as the 99th substantive member. Through the UN, Nigeria has been committed to the principle of multilateralism and, since 1960, the country has consistently involved in UN’s peace-keeping and other joint-multilateral peace-keeping missions and commitments to world peace and security.

Nigeria’s role in UN Peace-keeping Operation dates to 1960 in the Congo, a few days after its independence. The country’s role in the Congo peace-keeping mission was not limited to the supply of troops and other logistics it also commanded the UNOC operation. Shortly after its independence, Nigeria vigorously supported liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and Cape Verde, and in Rhodesia, South Africa and West Africa.

The defunct Organisation of African Unity became the preferred platform for Nigeria to advance its diplomatic and foreign policy objectives in the promotion of decolonisation of African states that were not independent at the time of its UN membership. Its foreign policy objective at the UN was not aimed at promoting democratisation, but rather the promotion of African unity and development. The return of the country to civilian rule in 1999 accorded it the opportunity to use the UN to project its foreign policy objectives towards the promotion of democracy in Africa.

Promoting democracy in Africa

In the 1980s, Nigeria was the largest volunteer and supplier of troops to UN peace-keeping missions around the world. Apart from Congo, it participated in UN peace-keeping missions in Lebanon, Chad, Angola, Namibia, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan (Darfur), Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the West African sub-regional level, Nigeria led ECOMOG interventions in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflicts, underscoring the imperative of using the military as an instrument of foreign policy to deter acts that threaten security, peace, and development in the sub-region.

Based on the arguable ECOMOG success story in Liberia, UN authorised the formation of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) on October 22, 1999 under UN Security Council Resolution 1270. The resolution authorised the deployment of a maximum of a 6000-strong military contingent including 260 military observers. This number was later reviewed upward to 17,500 in response to unforeseen circumstances. The troops’ contributing countries included Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Zambia, making UNAMSIL a truly multilateral force.

Armed with the experience in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Nigeria persuaded UN to take over peace-keeping missions from ECOWAS. With that, a renewed approach to sub-regional security initiatives became the guiding principle of the country. Former President Goodluck Jonathan, in his address to the UN General Assembly in 2011, maintained the position of his predecessor on Nigeria’s stance on a multilateral approach to conflict resolution.

He argued that “too much efforts and resources on military aspects of peace and security” have been spent at the expense of intervention and preventive diplomacy. Against this shift, in the last ten years, Nigeria’s peacekeeping approach and strategies at the level of the UN have somewhat tilted towards an Afro-centric and pro-interventionist foreign policy, guided by the principles of multilateralism.

In addition, Nigeria foreign policy decision on military intervention in the resolution of African conflicts since 1999 at the level of UN was also more evident in the Malian crisis (2012–2013), when in November 2012 the UN Security Council authorised ECOWAS, with the support of the AU, to deploy a co-ordinated intervention force to recapture northern Mali from the Islamist jihadists and their allies. ECOWAS failed to react speedily, planning to deploy troops by July 2013. In the absence of Nigerian troops in Mali, Paris deployed its troops and intervened in the Malian crisis in 2012, which led to normalcy in Mali and restoration of the democratically elected government on July 7, 2013.

Leadership is central and critical to successful conflict management and the security policy of ECOWAS. The non-participation of Nigeria in the resolution of Guinea Bissau’s conflicts therefore ultimately led to its premature termination of the peace-keeping mission. Scholars are of the view that the pre-eminence of Nigeria’s shift and redirection in security architecture in Africa at the level of UN and other regional peace-keeping organisations cannot be divorced from its domestic contradictions and challenges in the last 21 years since the return to civilian rule.

Bidding for a permanent seat at UN Security Council

In Abuja, AU Summit in January 2005 ratified the decision made by the Executive Council of African foreign ministers on the quest for Africa to be represented in the UNSC. The council further examined the high-level panel’s report and set up a committee of 15 members to form a common African position on this question.

According to Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, President Buhari’s current Chief of Staff, in February 2005, a committee meeting in Swaziland produced the “Ezulwini Consensus.” The Ezulwini Consensus calls for the need to expand the size of the council from 15 to 26 members, with equal and fair representation of Africa. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, agreed on a common position to support a bid for Nigeria to hold a permanent seat on the UNSC, which was sequel to US interest for Egypt or South Africa to hold such a seat.

Though it does not have a clean human rights record, Egypt was favoured by US for the UN seat. However, Nigeria’s role and commitment in the global arena cannot be over emphasised. According to Lord-Mallam, “no state in the international system has contributed” as much as Nigeria in UN peace-keeping operations; not even the US per capita.

On September 19, 2017 President Buhari in a speech at the General Debate of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in New York, harped on the need for the Security Council to address the Middle East crisis and North Korea’s weapons development.

However, as the health and human toll of the COVID-19 pandemic keeps growing, the economic damage is already evident and represents the largest economic shock the world has experienced in decades. Last June, the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects describes both the immediate and near-term outlook for the impact of the pandemic and the long-term damage it has dealt to prospects for growth.

The baseline forecast envisions a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP in 2020, using market exchange rate weights—the deepest global recession in decades, despite the extraordinary efforts of governments to counter the downturn with fiscal and monetary policy support.

Over the longer horizon, the deep recessions triggered by the pandemic are expected to leave lasting scars through lower investment, an erosion of human capital through lost work and schooling, and fragmentation of global trade and supply linkages. Those who know better say the extreme uncertainty about the path, duration, magnitude, and impact of the pandemic could pose a vicious cycle of dampening business and consumer confidence and tightening financial conditions, which could lead to job losses and investment downturn.

Apparently not frightened, Nigeria is determined to ensure that the world’s largest free trade area since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) becomes a reality. Interestingly, Nigeria has ratified the free trade deal which comes into effect on January 1, 2021. It’s a key move for the ambitions of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) given Nigeria’s status not just as one of the continent’s largest economies but also as its most populous country.

Last November 11, Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council (FEC) ratified the country’s membership of AfCFTA, ahead of the December 5, 2020 deadline. AfCFTA aims to create a single market for goods and services in the continent.  By 2030, the market size across the continent is expected to include 1.7 billion people with over $6.7 trillion of cumulative consumer and business spending—if all African countries join the agreement.

Yes, for over a year, Nigeria’s land borders with Benin, Niger, and Cameroon were closed as the Buhari administration aimed to stop the worrisome smuggling of food items which it says undermines local agricultural businesses. It was a protectionist move that was in line with previous policies under the administration.

Previously, President Buhari has taken trips to four African countries fighting the Islamic insurgents of Boko Haram – Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. He 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 countries currently locked 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.

However, 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.

But, 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.

Unarguably, with President 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 in the years ahead.

In the mean time, Nigeria is the fifth-largest contributor to United Nations peace-keeping missions and has played a leading role in promoting peace in the region. Abuja has been providing support for democratic elections held in many African countries, including Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger and Senegal.

Nigeria is equally crucial to ECOWAS, a 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 9.00% of the region’s total trade balance. However, ECOWAS is Nigeria’s second largest non-oil export market, generating earnings of $350 million in 2014.

Therefore, ensuring regional collaboration and integration remains a priority for the Buhari administration. The administration has made it unequivocally 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, Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, 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. 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.

Undoubtedly, during his first year in office, President Buhari embarked on an active foreign policy. It was not surprising that in July 2015, just eight weeks after taking office, he travelled to Washington DC. Nigeria has long held strong strategic and military ties with the US.

While the country is no longer a large market for Nigerian crude, the US, along with the EU, accounts for more than 60% of foreign direct investment in the West African nation. Buhari’s trip, the first of three to the US during his first year in office, showcased the importance of these bilateral relations and offered a strong endorsement of his new administration’s agenda.

Former US President, Barack Obama, told the press, “President Buhari comes into office with a reputation for integrity and a very clear agenda, and that is to make sure that he is bringing safety and security and peace to his country.”

This was an important message, given that relations between the two countries had become strained under the previous administration. Disagreements over corruption and human rights in Nigeria, as well as limited US military aid, caused tension. This was evident at the end of 2014 when the Nigerian military cancelled joint exercises with its US counterpart because of US reticence in providing military helicopters to the Nigerian Armed Forces.

Thus, Buhari’s visit, had important symbolic value. It reaped certain concrete benefits. Following his election victory, the US announced that it will contribute $5.00 million to a new multinational task force fighting against Boko Haram, as well as provide military trainers to help the Nigerian military in its struggle against the Islamist insurgents.

Buhari has also spent significant time on official visits throughout the Middle East, conducting negotiations with the Gulf’s large-scale oil producers. While the global oil glut and the concomitant price slump dominated discussions, other important issues were broached. For instance, the president concluded a wide range of agreements with the UAE, which included deals on double taxation and trade.

Perhaps, the most important deal concerned the repatriation of stolen funds and the extradition of suspects in money laundering cases. The pact was a crucial step forward for the president’s anti-corruption agenda. Local press reports estimate that upwards of $200 billion stolen by former government officials from the country’s Treasury was parked in banks or properties in Gulf countries.

Further enhancing Nigeria’s strategic role in the comity of nations is its abundant natural resources. The country is widely known for its vast hydrocarbons wealth. As at 2015, it was home to 37.1billion barrels of proven oil reserves. At current production rates, this will give the country another 43 years worth of oil revenues. In the same year also, he country contained 5.1trillion cu metres of natural gas, accounting for 2.7% of total global reserves.

Interestingly, Nigeria possesses much more than oil and gas. It is home to significant deposits of coal, iron ore, lead, limestone, tin and zinc. It also has rich land and water resources that are ripe for further agricultural exploitation. Without the doubt, the agricultural industry remains a mainstay of the economy, accounting for 23.9% of GDP and upwards of 70% of the country’s workforce.

Around 83.7% of the country’s land area is agricultural, though only 40% is arable. Substantial water resources also assist the agricultural sector. The country has 230 billion cu metres of total renewable water resources. This should help expand productivity through irrigation. As of 2012, only 0.3% (or 2930 sq km) of the country’s total land area was irrigated.


Nigeria’s other major resource is its resilient people. With an estimated 230 million people, the country ranks as the seventh-most-populous country in the world. Already, it is predicted to rapidly climb through these rankings in the coming decades. With a current population growth rate of approximately 3.00%, Nigeria is forecast to reach 440 million people by 2050, ranking it as the third-largest country globally by demographic size.

The country is home to more than 250 different ethnic groups. There are more than 500 indigenous languages currently spoken throughout the country. As Africa’s largest economy, Its GDP was once computed to stand at $510 billion with immense growth potential. A stable and peaceful Nigeria will contribute to Africa’s rise and integration into the global economy. On the other hand, an unstable, stagnant and conflict-driven Nigeria will be a threat to regional and global stability.

When Obama hosted Africa’s leaders at a summit in Washington in 2014, one of the highlights was an impressive gathering of CEOs from many of the largest US companies, to explore new business opportunities across Africa. Importantly, investor interest in Nigeria and across Africa today includes not just oil and mining companies looking to develop and export natural resources, but infrastructure, technology, consumer goods, agribusiness, and manufacturing companies that can sustain growth, create jobs, and improve livelihoods.

US is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria, with many its companies looking ahead to the potential of a large, growing consumer market emerging in the country. It is vital that this investment interest not be undermined by the spread of violence and instability.

Nigeria has shown that it can act. It is busy reforming the system to provide farmers with agricultural input. Today, the private sector distributes fertilizer to farmers, with the government only providing a subsidy. It has created a national database of more than 10 million smallholder farmers to ensure they receive the needed supplies. Nigeria has the potential to be a key exporter of agricultural produce. It has abundant rainfall and a labour force that can increase agriculture production. With continued reforms and infusion of domestic and foreign investment, this sector can grow to feed Nigerians and the wider world.

The country has shown its potential to nurture a growing entrepreneurial class. The emergence of Nollywood, a booming billion dollar film industry, has been made possible by a combination of new digital technologies and a culture of entrepreneurship. Investing in infrastructure (energy, transport, irrigation, and telecoms) to grow other sectors requires peace and stability. The country’s infrastructure gap between now and 2030 is estimated at $2.4 trillion.

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