It has become commonplace to criticize Nigeria for its electoral shortcomings, its corruption and, more recently, its leadership crisis. But focusing on these negatives, however they may be based on truth, ignores the vital role Nigeria has played on the continent over the years of African independence. It is not inaccurate to say that Nigeria has been Africa’s essential nation. This point was hit home in comments during the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation’s Nigeria Today forum on May 29.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo reminded the crowd of the interventions –militarily through peacekeepers and diplomatically – that have changed the history of Africa. Obasanjo, who was appointed Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, recalled his service among the United Nations organization in Congo in the early 1960s. Led at one point by Nigerian Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the UN operation helped stem the tide of chaos that seemed ready to blow this giant nation apart and helped consolidate its transition to independence.
When the civil war in Angola threatened to undo the country’s independence from Portugal in the mid-1970s, it was Nigeria’s endorsement of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola government that consolidated African support and later international support for the liberation movement that held control of the capital. American and other support for the coalition of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola faded away in short order due to the broad African support for the faction the Nigerians endorsed. In the late 1980s, when a Cuban pullout from Angola was complicated by concern over a withdrawal by the South Africans from Namibia, Nigerian diplomacy was instrumental in both situations being resolved.
Nigeria played a major role in the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the height of the bloody civil wars in both countries, Nigerian forces took the lead in establishing order. ECOMOG’s success in Liberia creating conditions that allowed for the presidential and legislative elections in July 1977. In Sierra Leone, ECOMOG restored constitutional legitimacy by reinstating the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in February 1998.
It should be remembered that Nigeria went further in both cases by arresting and detaining Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, and allowed Liberian leader Charles Taylor to be exiled in their country. Both moves were calculated to create space for a lessening of violence and a restoration of peace in these countries. Nigeria later arrested Taylor when he was determined to be in violation of the exile agreement and turned him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he is on trial today.
When São Tomé and Principe President Fradique de Menezes was briefly overthrown during a visit to Nigeria in 1995, the Obasanjo government, acting in concert with other African governments, restored Menezes to power Obasanjo personally escorted him back to his capital in São Tomé and Principe.
There are countries with military power and countries with economic power and countries whose leaders have the clout to make an impact internationally. However, no other nation has combined all three as consistently as Nigeria.
In the history of the Nobel Peace Prize from 1901 to today, there are nine people of African birth or descent who have won: four South Africans (Albert Lituli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Frederik De Klerk), three Americans (Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama), one Ghanaian (Kofi Annan) and one Kenyan (Wangari Maathai). You’ll notice that no Nigerians are on that list, even though peace could not have come to several countries in Africa without Nigerian intervention.
Again, Nigeria is often placed in a bad light for developments inside its borders or for the crimes of a relative few involving others in the international community. Nevertheless, when things get tough in Africa, who do we call?
Given Nigeria’s important role in maintaining peace and allowing for development in Africa, why do we so often stand back and watch problems develop in Nigeria and not try harder to help the continent’s bulwark to overcome its challenges. It is true that Nigerian pride often sees outside intervention as interference, but we must make them understand that our helping hand is not aimed at taking control of the levers of power, but rather an attempt to steady a friend experiencing difficulties.
The U.S. should remind its friend Nigeria of the Ibo proverb: “Emergency overtakes a champion but then it’s that same emergency that makes a true champion.” Nigeria has been at point zero of some of Africa’s most troubling crises, and has proven its value in them. Still, a champion does not have to operate without the help of friends.