By Owei Lakemfa
The culture in Nigeria is that after Presidential Elections, politicians, hangers-on, propagandists, relatives and a rainbow of persons gather like ants over sugar. Primarily, the gathering is to partake of the honey which is how they see the emergent government.
In fact, for many, elections are the best investment they can make, and they need to quickly recoup the funds invested. The Tinubu administration has so far, exhibited the symptoms of that national disease.
The first race is for ministerial positions where the competent is usually crowded out by the desperate. So, usually, bright, competent persons with a sense of commitment and unique skills to offer, are left out.
After the 100 metres dash for ministerial slots is completed, the next race is to fill the positions of government institutions including agencies. The third race for those who might have lost out in the two previous races is to fill board appointments.
After this, the race shifts to the filling of ambassadorial slots as many politicians and the boys see this as part of the electoral booty to share.
In my view, just as President Tinubu unadvisedly threw the country of over 200 million into a cataclysmic spin by withdrawing the fuel subsidy which had provided some stability for the populace, so also has he committed the same avoidable mistake as the uninspiring Buhari administration by removing all our ambassadors without ready replacements. The only exceptions were the two United Nations, UN Permanent Representatives in New York and Geneva. Both were exempted only for the purposes of the then-upcoming UN General Assembly.
No country that sacks all its ambassadors, leaving every mission in the hands of charge d’ affairs ad interim, that is somebody temporarily deputising for an absent ambassador, is taken serious.
Another major pitfall of the Buhari administration which I advise President Tinubu to avoid in the abiding interest of Nigeria, is the temptation of appointing ambassadors as compensation to acolytes.
This culture is a tragedy that has befallen the country since 1979. Researchers, Ademola Azeez and Segun Oshewole writing in the September 30, 2021 edition of ‘The Round Tab’ the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, said the appointment of non-career ambassadors in the Murtala-Obasanjo military regime was almost nil. This malaise, they said began with the Shagari administration which compensated the party faithful with over 30 ambassadorial slots. The Maradonic Babangida regime maintained this number, while Obasanjo, as elected President, took this to an all-high level of about 70! They reported that the Buhari administration had 60 non-career ambassadors to 40 career ambassadors.
Some may argue that this is the culture amongst cowboys, so? How can some otherwise knowledgeable people always point at bad examples for us to follow and not good ones?
Let me state categorically; I am not saying that non-careerists should not be appointed ambassadors. We may have people with exceptional skills, experience or relationship with particular countries which can be useful for us. What I am emphasizing is that such should be the exception and not the rule.
For instance, compensating Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai with ambassadorial posting to Benin Republic after his January 28, 2021 removal as Chief of Army Staff, was unpatriotic. As it turned out, his skills as a soldier and a snake merchant, were useless in that country.
The height of such thoughtless appointment was reached in 2017 when Buhari appointed 82-year-old Justice Sylvanus Adiewere Nsofor as Ambassador to the United States. The man could hardly walk! Nsofor had in the 2003 Presidential Election Panel, given a dissenting opinion in the contest between then President Obasanjo, and his All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP challenger, retired General Muhammadu Buhari. A dozen years later, Buhari won the presidency and apparently decided to compensate the retired justice with an ambassadorial posting without enquiring about Nsofor’s health!
There was another non-career ambassador whose health status was not ascertained before his appointment. After getting to our mission, he simply spent his time travelling for medicals.
For some of the politicians, going on ambassadorial posting is like being sent to Siberia. In any case, such posting does not stop their political ambitions. For instance, the appointment of Olu Agbi, a professor of diplomatic history as Ambassador to Greece and Australia could ordinarily, not be faulted. But he had political ambitions and left his posting in Australia in September 2010 to come and run for elections. In his absence, our Mission there was unmanned.
It should also be pointed out that the salaries and allowances of our ambassadors cannot be compared with those of Ministers and other political appointees, so some of the non-career ambassadors are simply frustrated. This may be responsible for some of such persons, carting away furniture and other property when they leave our missions. It is unlikely that a career ambassador who is a public servant with severance pay and pension to collect, would engage in such recklessness.
As we know, some of our missions cover multilateral institutions like those on environment. A non-career ambassador who was the Secretary of a Local Government Commission, was appointed ambassador to one of such missions. He of course, had no clue about the multilateral bodies in which he was supposed to represent the country.
For every politician appointed an ambassador, a career diplomat is deprived an ambassadorial posting.
Also, our ambassadorial appointments should not be a reward system for politicians. So, I suggest that President Tinubu reverses this ugly trend by appointing career diplomats as ambassadors with a sprinkling of non-career ambassadors. The advantages include the fact that the former would have spent a minimum 25 years in service, trained to advance the country’s interests internationally, been exposed to various aspects of diplomacy, and have institutional memory.
Appointing mainly career ambassadors would also ensure that many of them spending the statutory 35 years in service, would cap their careers with ambassadorial postings rather than be ambassador in situ.
Also, it is career diplomats that can best translate into practice the Tinubu administration’s 4D foreign policy of Democracy, Demography, Diaspora and Development.
My experiences as President of a think tank on foreign affairs, the Society for International Relations Awareness, SIRA, as a former ambassador in the African Union, AU representing the African Workers, and my wide travels including across dozens of African countries, revealed that Nigeria has some of the most intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful and experienced diplomats in the world. Where diplomats from many African countries may be intimidated or afraid to articulate positions contrary to those of powerful countries, Nigerian diplomats are not afraid. There is no reason we cannot build on such a huge resource rather than fritter such power away as compensation for politicians.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.