Bola Tinubu

THE two superpowers with which Nigeria, especially under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, has the strongest economic and military ties, as well as political and ideological sympathies, are China and Russia. Yet, both countries pose the greatest threats to the post-war international order, premised on the rule of law, principles of self-determination and prohibition of the use of force under the United Nations’ Charter. 

China, under its totalitarian leader, Xi Jinping, constantly threatens to annex its neighbour, Taiwan, on which it stakes a territorial claim. Russia, led by its despotic leader, Vladimir Putin, invaded its neighbours several times, including Crimea in 2014. Now, it’s at it again! On February 24, after months of sabre-rattling and war mongering, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in what one US defence official described as “the largest conventional military attack on a sovereign state in Europe since World War II”.

Inevitably, Russia’s aggression provoked strong condemnation and sanctions from the world’s liberal democracies and the opprobrium of civilised people all over the world. At the United Nations, the Security Council tried to pass a ”substantive” resolution condemning the invasion. Unsurprisingly, Russia, one of the council’s five permanent veto-wielding members, vetoed the resolution. China, Russia’s only superpower ally, declined to support the resolution, opting to abstain instead. 

However, at the UN General Assembly, where there’s no veto but whose decisions are merely hortatory and not legally binding, 141 of the 191 UN members voted to condemn the invasion. The resolution demanded that Russia withdraw its military forces “immediately, completely and unconditionally” from Ukraine. Rightly, Nigeria voted in support of the General Assembly resolution; in other words, Nigeria voted at the UN to condemn Russia’s unprovoked aggression towards Ukraine. 

Some commentators have questioned Nigeria’s decision to vote against Russia at the UN, given its close ties with Russia. But those saying that utterly misread the strength of world opinion against Russia’s invasion of an independent country. Take a look at the five countries that voted against the UN resolution – Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia (itself) and Syria. Is that the company Nigeria should be keeping? Nigeria would have faced widespread condemnation if it had voted against the resolution. 

Even abstention was not an option, as it would have put Nigeria in the same category as the 35 countries that sat on the fence on such an issue of global magnitude. In that regard, South Africa’s abstention came as a surprise. But Nigeria has more at stake reputationally.

Think about it. Amina Mohammed, Nigeria’s former Minister of Environment, is the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations since 2017. Professor Ibrahim Gambari, President Buhari’s Chief of Staff, was Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser to several UN Secretaries-General. I would be surprised if Mohammed and Gambari had not advised Buhari that it would be harmful to Nigeria’s reputation if the country voted against the General Assembly’s resolution rightly condemning Russia’s assault on an innocent country.

Yet, despite Nigeria’s face-saving in voting for the UN resolution against Russia’s aggression, it cannot escape criticism for all along cosying up to the world’s most authoritarian and illiberal powers. Some might say Nigeria’s relationships with China and Russia best serve its economic and military interests. But economic and military interests can’t trump the values of freedom, rule of law, human rights, etc., that are the foundation of true democracies.

Yet, it is precisely the same liberal world order that Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have always undermined, using sheer force to trample over the rule of law, human rights as well as the democratic and self-determination rights of their neighbours.

Consider this. Ukraine regained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. But 30 years later, President Putin justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that the country is a “fake”; that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people”; that he’s fighting to root out “Neo-Nazis” from Ukraine; and that he wants to liberate Russian speakers in a speakers region in Ukraine. Hitler gave similar excuses for annexing Austria in 1938!

For those Hitlerian reasons, Putin’s forces launched horrific invasion of Ukraine, attacked Europe’s largest nuclear site in south-eastern Ukraine, put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, destroyed Ukrainian cities, and triggered what the UN says could be the biggest refugee crisis since 1945 as 1.5 million flee the conflict.

The Ukrainians’ resistance and the indefatigability of their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, are impressive. In addition to giving military aid to Ukraine, the West has imposed crushing economic and financial sanctions on Russia. France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said: “We will provoke the collapse of the Russian economy”. Multinational companies, including the world’s biggest credit and debit card firms, such as Visa, Mastercard and American Express, have deserted Russia, deepening its economic isolation. 

Which brings us back to Nigeria. Truth is, Nigeria faces existential systemic risks if it’s over-dependent on China and Russia because their international isolation and ostracism would decimate Nigeria’s economy. For instance, if China invades Taiwan, it will face full-scale economic and financial warfare of an unheard-of nature and scope, and the spill-over effects on the economies of China’s client states would be utterly devastating.

Sadly, Nigeria is over-reliant on China and Russia. China almost unilaterally funds and builds Nigeria’s infrastructure, for which Buhari never stops thanking President Xi. As for Russia, President Buhari said in 2020 he would “inject fresh energy into Russia-Nigeria relations”. Indeed, he pushed hard for the military and technical cooperation agreement that was signed in 2021, under which Russia would supply arms to Nigeria and train its soldiers.

But why Russia and China? Well, as Western countries harangued Nigeria about human rights abuses, brutal military clampdown on separatist agitators and peaceful protesters, Buhari turned to Russia and China who are willing to give arms and infrastructure loans without asking questions. The Buhari government is temperamentally at ease with Russia and China despite their values. That puts Nigeria in league with rogue superpowers!

*First published on March 10, 2022

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