By Nnamdi Elekwachi
Thousands of Nigerians are trapped in troubled Sudan where a war is fiercely raging between two factions led by the military and the militia. Problem is, there is no comprehensive list of Nigerians in Sudan available anywhere, from what could be deduced. While some sources say 4,000 Nigerians are facing severe humanitarian condition occasioned by the conflict, according to Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, 5,500 Nigerians were caught up in conflict in the Northeast African state, including students and other citizens.
While countries like the US, UK, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others had begun airlifting and evacuating their citizens, Nigeria is still setting up an ‘evacuation committee,’ the nation’s relief agency (National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA) said in a release. Meanwhile the Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, NIDC, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, was quoted as saying the situation in Sudan was “challenging,” while in another development, foreign affairs minister said flight operations were impossible at the moment, as only road corridor would be used for the evacuation.
Truth is Nigerian missions abroad have weak diplomacy mechanism, render poor consular services and lack a foreign policy framework that is citizen-focused. The war in Sudan did not begin without initial warning signs though. Experts predicted tension escalation following the 2019 ousting of former dictator Omar al-Bashir, ‘the butcher of Darfur.’ Bashir regularised the Janjaweed forces that later morphed into a state-sponsored militia group known as Rapid Support Forces, RSF under Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) who is today having power struggle with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese army, his one-time ally. Since the fall of al-Bashir both groups (militia and military), involved in power tussle, had not been able to reach a compromise on how to arrive at a clear-cut transition programme or to work out a rapprochement. Peace talks collapsed and war remained imminent, said conflict resolution experts.
Diplomacy involves ‘reporting.’ So the question to Nigeria goes: what volume of report in the form of correspondence and feedback did the Nigerian mission in Khartoum send back home to the foreign affairs ministry so that the latter could begin coordinating programmes that take care of Nigerians in Sudan in case of any conflict? Per the Fragile States Index (FSI) report of 2022, Sudan is a failed state with all the indicators befitting one, having ranked seventh globally. Since the nation had been tilting towards conflict, Nigerian mission there should have raised concerns that would see foreign affairs ministry issue a travel advisory, reduce diplomatic staff to skeletal size and be on the alert in case of outbreak of hostility. But nothing of such happened.
The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, NDIC, following failed talks between the rival camps and factions in 2022 should have done better by documenting Nigerians resident in Sudan and advising the president on the course of action to take. According to a source, over 5000 Nigerians were living in Sudan in 2018 with majority of them students, including those on Federal Government scholarship sponsored by Tertiary Education Fund, TETFUND who were studying Arabic, Islamic/Quranic studies, medicine and law.
Since the ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) days, Nigeria had had to airlift her citizens back to the nation as evidenced in war-torn Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote D’Ivoire. Even though there were noticeable lapses and challenges in those operations, the successes recorded during the ECOMOG days of the ‘90s do not pale into insignificance when compared to what we witnessed during the xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa recently. Even Ghana came up with economic sabotage destroying Nigerian businesses few years ago. The role of Nigeria’s missions in all these is not explicitly known yet.
Again, Nigeria’s missions abroad are perennially underfunded for the most part. That explains why diplomats in Accra were forcefully evicted from their premises over rent. The eviction in Hungary was in the news sometime ago too. Maintaining diplomatic ties and relations with another country does not often require setting up an embassy or a high commission there. To save cost, Nigerian embassy in Ethiopia can still coordinate diplomatic activities in neighboring Sudan; even Nigeria could reduce her relations with some nations to consular level based on interest. How do you expect Nigeria to keep embassy in, say, a country that may not have 10,000 Nigerian nationals resident in it or in such other countries whose trade volume with Nigeria is insignificant? Diplomacy is all about interest, and that interest should include the welfare of citizens in a host nation. Yar’Adua and Jonathan era of diplomacy tried to refocus Nigeria’s foreign policy plank from afrocentrism to ‘citizens diplomacy.’ That was christened era of awakening, after the Murtala/Obasanjo era of ‘radical’ diplomacy in Nigeria foreign policy history. Nigeria was able to advance ‘the diplomacy of consequence,’ meaning reciprocity.
Not much in terms of the gains of that policy tool was sustained afterwards, sadly.
Today, Nigeria, it must be said, has lost her relevance in Africa’s conflict diplomacy landscape. It owes to the fact that military enterprises are being run in the continent by foreign and superpower nations that sometimes relegate regional military machinery, alliances and institutions. The Wagner Group in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, alleged to be a Russia-owned military mercenary is just an example. A CNN source reported that the group today is protecting Russian mining interest in Sudan through Meroe Gold mining outfit. It reinforces the old colonial conflict pattern where scramble for resources led to civil wars in Africa and coups d’etat too whose effects remain with the continent up until now. There is also the Dyck Advisory Group, DAG in South Africa, whose role in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique is known.
The likely regional Impact of the conflict is one Africa must take into consideration too. Displacement, if it happens, will destabilise the economies of Sudan’s neighbours. Already, over 20,000 displaced South Sudanese are in Sudan, so a mass return programme could weigh on regional economic stability. Sudan is strategic as a Sahel state and as a North African country that may ‘technically’ be included as a Middle East country. Red Sea, Nile river and other natural resources are what Sudan shares with her neighbours. The ‘Khartoum Declaration’ set in motion the ‘Nile Agreement,’ which though criticised by scholars as inherently flawed, tried to proffer solution on ‘Nile sharing.’ Already, many states contiguous with Sudan have internal conflict. Chad, Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea are already flash-points of sub/regional instability, so Nigeria must be circumspect in the road corridor it wants to use for safe passage of her citizens back home.
Nigeria needs to realign her foreign policy thrust by creating a suitable model for the 21st century. Internecine struggles have changed the landscape of post-Cold War era, international relations scholars agree. Nigeria faces both trans-border and domestic terrorism with Boko Haram insurgency, armed herdsmen, bandits and unknown gunmen posing cross-border and internal security threat, and so Africa should not continue to be the centrepiece or cornerstone of her foreign policy. With all the international mercenaries and non-state militia actors playing big in Africa’s conflict landscape, Nigeria should focus on citizenship diplomacy since she cannot be the global giant in humanitarian intervention like she was from the ‘60s in Congo to ’90s in West Africa. Nigerians as citizens should be our first-line ambassadors and foreign policy focus. It doesn’t mean we can’t be the giant of Africa, it only means times have changed, so we too must change.
Dominating Africa is good, looking inward is better.
Nnamdi Elekwachi, historian and public affairs analyst, can be reached via email@example.com