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Nigeria worries about its declining influence in Africa

Mar 25, 2006 (ABUJA) — Nigeria’s influence within the African continental body-African Union-seems to have waned in recent years: there is worry even among Nigerian diplomats, some serving and others retired, that if unchecked, this trend could endanger Nigeria’s traditional African-centred foreign policy direction and further dampen the country’s international image.

Obasanjo_with_Bongo.jpgSome diplomats are attributing some of that decline to President Olusegun Obasanjo’s extended chairmanship of the AU. The AU chairmanship is normally for a year, but Obasanjo got an extension for six months until January this year when Congo was chosen to assume the headship of union in Sudan.

The Guardian on Saturday has learnt exclusively that at least four specific diplomatic failures in the last few years have accentuated this worry within diplomatic circles.

No Nigerian is among the eight AU commissioners and the only Nigerian candidate that contested for the position of AU commissioner for political affairs in 2003 was defeated by the current holder of the position who hails from Gambia.

This is considered a decline in Nigeria’s influence within the continent because in the old Organization of African Unity (OAU), there was what diplomats described as a gentleman’s agreement that while Nigeria should not seek to hold the position of secretary-general, there had to always be a Nigerian assistant secretary-general.

The reason for this agreement was Nigeria’s huge financial contribution to the OAU as one of the highest financiers. So, it was reasoned that Nigeria would not become overbearingly influential in the organization at the expense of other less rich African countries. This is similar to the gentleman’s agreement at the UN that none of the five permanent members of the UN should normally seek the position of Secretary-General.

In the new AU structure, there is no secretary-general, but the equivalent is the chairman of the AU commission, a position currently held by former Malian President Alpha Konare. But the new position equivalent to that of assistant secretary general are the positions of commissioners. Apart from the AU commission chairperson and the deputy, there are eight AU commissioners.

Currently, the AU Commission is led by a Chairperson Mr Alpha Oumar Konare, from Mali and a deputy chairperson, HE Mr Patrick Mazimhaka from Rwanda.

The second diplomatic disgrace that Nigeria suffered in the AU was the loss last January when Nigeria presented a candidate for the position of judge at the African Court of Justice, an organ of the AU. There were 11 positions at the court and only 12 countries were interested. That meant only one country would have to lose.

After the first round of voting, 10 countries secured the required number of 27 votes needed at the AU meeting in Sudan to emerge as judges. But Nigeria and Burkina Faso could not muster enough votes. While Burkina Faso had 26 votes, just one short of the required 27, Nigeria had a disgraceful 13 and had to withdraw its candidate to avert further shame in the next round of elections leading therefore to the election of the candidate of Burkina Faso. So out of the 11 positions being sought by 12 countries, Nigeria was the only loser.

The third diplomatic failure that diplomats point to was the thumbs-down that the AU gave Nigeria last August at an emergency session of the union’s summit in Addis Ababa. Incidentally, the session was called by Nigeria as chairman of the AU, to present Nigeria and South Africa’s proposal on how best African countries could be positioned to join the UN Security Council as permanent members in the ongoing talks on UN reforms.

Nigeria had led the continent’s foreign ministers to fashion out an acceptable formula with others at the UN who also have similar ambitions, especially the well-known G4 countries of Japan, India, Brazil and Germany. The deal was that the AU and the G4 working together would mobilise maximum support at the UN to realise a joint resolution tha t would successfully pass at the general assembly during a debate on the issue of Security Council reforms. That would mean the G4 countries could join the council alongside two African countries.

After Nigeria’s foreign minister had led what looked like a virile shuttle diplomacy alongside South Africa, meeting with the G4 in New York, London and sundry places working out an agreement, President Olusegun Obasanjo called a meeting to ratify the proposal. But at that AU emergency summit last August, Nigeria suffered a diplomatic disgrace when the AU leaders snubbed Nigeria and went ahead against Nigeria’s very strong opposition to demand not only permanent membership of the UN Security Council, but also veto powers. Nigeria was leading the proposal that Africa should accept the idea of permanent membership without veto powers first just like the G4 countries and then later demand the veto power.

An inside diplomatic source said it was unbelievable that Nigeria called the meeting and chaired it, but was nonetheless rejected by a majority of the 40 heads of states led by Libya, Egypt and some other northern African countries.

Although not strictly within the AU, but nonetheless an African institution, Nigeria’s loss of the African Development Bank (ADB) presidency last year is also a big diplomatic blow, according to diplomats, especially because Nigeria had hosted the meeting in Abuja which was to elect the president with Nigeria eyeing the position of ADB president.

But in an election hosted in Nigeria the candidate could not secure victory. None of the candidates eventually won the sufficient number of votes. So, another meeting to complete the election was held in Tunisia where Nigeria eventually lost to the candidate from Rwanda.

A knowledgeable diplomatic source said one of the reasons for that loss was because a serving Nigerian minister refused to support the Nigerian candidate and instead backed the candidate from Rwanda. But in the ADB, there are also some external member countries, based largely on their financial contributions to the bank. Some of them including the US openly campaigned against Nigeria.

Following, Nigeria’s influence at the AU, sources say that at an AU summit last year, the President of Zambia Levy Mwanawasa practically lashed out at Obasanjo’s style and leadership of the AU in the presence of other African leaders.

Attempt by The Guardian on Saturday to speak to Prof Olusegun Akinsanya Nigeria’s Ambassador to the AU, who is also ambassador to Ethiopia was unsuccessful. Calls to his office in Addis Ababa were not returned. But the media spokesman of Nigeria’s permanent mission to the United Nations, Mr Okon Isong simply said “we are aware of this” and added that the ambassador to the UN was the best person to speak on the matter. However, the Ambassador, Alhaji Aminu Wali referred our reporter to Ambassador Akinsanya, who was not available for comments.

The Nigerian Guardian