UK’s Asylum for the IPOB: Beyond the Myths and Reality of Foreign Policy Reviews in Nigeria

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

There were two major events in the past one week: the holding of a conference on Nigeria’s foreign policy and the consideration of a possible grant of political asylum to members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) by the Government of the United Kingdom. One important nexus between the two events is that they are both about foreign policy challenges that have always, at best, not been well addressed. For instance, how do we explain the quest for and the grant of an asylum to the IPOB? What is an asylum in international diplomatic practice? Should the reaction of the Federal Government, through the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, to the grant of asylum by the British be an issue of concern?

In the same vein, what is a foreign policy review? In which way does the operational word ‘review’ different from an amendment or modify? When should there be a review of foreign policy? In fact, what should we mean by foreign policy as distinct from a domestic policy? There have been calls for a comprehensive foreign policy review. When is a foreign policy review comprehensive or holistic? Is it from the perspective of contents of foreign policy? Participating stakeholders in the foreign policy conference? Must there always be an organised conference before a foreign policy review can take place?
These questions are necessary because the House of Representatives, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held a Conference on Foreign Policy on… on the basis of which the Kingsley Osadolor-anchored Good Morning Nigeria show focused on April… and during which many controversial issues were also raised. Perhaps we should ask at this juncture: can we review a policy that does not exist? Can foreign policy be an all comers’ business?

Without any shadow of doubt, asylum cannot but be an important issue in foreign policy, because it is very political in conception, self-protecting in design and unquestionable in outcome. It squarely falls under the exercise of political sovereignty whenever it is considered and granted by every sovereign State. Vie Internationale observes that the Government of Nigeria always thinks after action, not before. We strongly believe that the conduct and management of Nigeria’s foreign policy is largely predicated on poverty of ideas. If not so, there should not have been any public outbursts about asylum by Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed.

Asylum in International Diplomatic Practice
The basic principles for granting asylum to an individual in international relations are well known. They are a truism. There are reasons for requesting for an asylum by seekers, and qualifications for eligibility to apply. In the same vein, there are also reasons for accepting or not accepting to grant an asylum. This is where there can be need to rightly talk about foreign policy review, in terms of foreign policy as a technique of relationship, as distinct from foreign policy as a strategic objective. There can be time to plan for a once-and-for-all holistic conference to review foreign policy when it is about change in focus and new interests.

It is useful to note that asylum is internationally and nationally regulated, particularly for refugees, particularly the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). There is the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, generally referred to as the 1951 Geneva Convention or the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951. In other words, one can become a refugee by force of necessity as a result of unprovoked wars. Many IDPs often run helter-skelter to escape being trapped when there is a crisis or conflict. Consequently, it is not when one has committed a political crime or one is victim of an impending persecution that asylum is sought. Generally, asylum is hardly given if crimes are involved
Grosso modo, for an asylum to be considered and granted, an applicant for it must be under the fear of persecution in his or her home country and the fear of persecution must be driven by reasons of either race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership of a particular social group. In other words, an asylum applicant must be able to prove beyond every reasonable doubt that he or she is evading persecution on account of anyone of the five foregoing conditions, which are internationally considered as ‘protected grounds.’

Apart from these general conditions, States also have different considerations for granting asylum. There are bilateral international instruments compelling States to grant asylum to refugees. In fact, each country defines, on the basis of sovereign right, the conditions for grant of an asylum status, as well as the number of applicants to be admitted. In the United States, for instance, the number of African asylum seekers who were admitted into the status of an asylee, has been on the increase since 2012: from 10,608 in 2012; 15,980 in 2013; 17476 in 2014; to 22,472 in 2015 and 31,625 in 2016. The number began to decline with 20,232 as from 2017; 10,459 in 2018; and only 4,160 in 2020. The sharp decline can be explained by the factor of COVID-19 pandemic which emerged in March of 2020.

The essence of the foregoing figures is simply to underscore the issue of asylum in international relations. Even though the Washingtonian authorities often place a ceiling on the number of asylees to be admitted in a given year, there have generally been more arrivals than approved ceilings, especially when there are situations of force majeure.
In the specific case of the United Kingdom that has reportedly received applications for the grant of asylum and refugee status to the prohibited IPOB members, it should be noted that asylum and refugee status necessarily go pari passu. Whoever is seeking to live in the UK must first of all apply to be an asylee in order not to be lawfully resident a refugee, and particularly to also qualify to work in the country and benefit from social amenities provided by the Government.

In determining the eligibility of the IPOB and MASSOB applicants for an asylee status, the British Government released on April 21, 2021, a ‘Country Policy and Information Note Nigeria: Biafran secessionist groups.’ It ‘directed its decision makers to consider if a person who actively and openly supports IPOB is likely to be at risk of arrest and detention and ill-treatment which is likely to amount to persecution.’ More important, the decision makers were also instructed ‘to consider if the Nigerian government’s actions are acts of prosecution or not persecution. Those fleeing prosecution or punishment for a criminal offence are not normally refugees. Prosecution may, however, amount to persecution if it involves victimisation in its application by the authorities.’

Three points are noteworthy in the notice of instruction given to the decision makers: determination to consider applications for asylum; grant of asylum on the basis of fear or act of persecution; non-preparedness to consider criminally-oriented applicants. In this regard, can it be rightly argued that there are no legitimate bases for any Nigerian to seek asylum in light of the deepening situation of insecurity in Nigeria? Let me note at this juncture that it cannot but be most unpatriotic and very cowardly for a Nigerian, worth his person and dignity, to seek to check out of the country because of insecurity challenges. However, it is also an act of reckless foolishness not to seek to check out when certain ethnic group openly declare whoever does not accept an Islamic Caliphate in Northern Nigeria or who are considered infidels because they do not accept Islam, or who disagree with their ethnic group, should be considered very eligible to be shot dead first.

Explained differently, it is either you accept an Islamic imposition and you have the right to live peacefully without being targeted to be kidnapped or aggressed, or you refuse to accept Islam and one will be brutally killed. This was the message conveyed in a statement sent to the Geidam community in Yobe State by the Boko Haram insurgents last week. The statement is not as of concern as the attitudinal disposition of the PMB administration.
There is no disputing the fact that the IPOB and the MASSOB have been agitating for separate identity. They specifically are asking for the sovereign State of Biafra because of perceived political marginalisation and persecution. Why is it that the play of politics has been made so difficult to the extent that it has not been possible for an Ibo indigene to be Nigeria’s First Citizen? Is it because the 1967-1970 war has not officially ended? End of battles but the war continues?

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has been asking for the control of mineral resources in its area in the manner gold is being mined by Government and people of Zamfara State. In a normal setting, there should not be one set of rules for one group of people and another set of rules for another ethnic group. What is allowed in Zamfara State should not be prohibited in another State. Most unfortunately, this is what obtains in Nigeria and over which the Federal Government has always been quiet, but which is a major of anger for many law abiding people in the country.

It is also a major rationale for the agitation for self-determination and calls for separatist governments. The agitation for Oduduwa Republic is largely a resultant from the perception of the Fulani ethnic stock as born to rule, the impact of which has been to the detriment of the interests of other ethnic groups. Fulani offenders are reportedly allowed free hands and quickly released with impunity when they are under police investigation. This is another perception fuelling national disunity. It is even believed that law enforcement agents are not always enthusiastic in prosecuting a case in which Fulani people are reportedly involved. Why are Nigerians in this type of dilemma?

And true enough, Chief Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo, GCFR, and three-time Head of State of Nigeria, publicly told all Nigerians that the PMB administration has a Fulanisation agenda, the origin of which we already traced to a debate initiated by Senator Fagbenro Beyioku at the Senate in 1961. One major problem of the Fulani herdsmen is that they do not believe that there is no more terra nullius. Every land in Nigeria is titled. Engagement in open grazing cannot but involve trespasses. In the eyes of the Fulani herdsmen, all unexploited land, including government reserved forests and other swathes of land, can be occupied and exploited by them.

In fact, they have also argued that they can reside in any part of the country, which is constitutionally allowed, but without wanting to accept that residence in any community outside of their own indigenous areas, necessarily requires playing along with the rules of engagement in their new community. This is another major rationale for the conflict between the Fulani herdsmen and the local farmers in the southern parts of Nigeria. The establishment of Àmòtékùn, a security outfit in the South-West of Nigeria, was prompted by this Fulani factor, and also interestingly why the Yoruba leaders have similarly decided to carve out an Oduduwa Republic out of the current Federation of Nigeria. Consequently, the PMB administration has made life not worth living as a Nigerian. The IPOB and MASSOB saga should be understood within the same framework.

Under the PMB administration, public officers are sacked from office for reasons of embezzlement of public funds, and yet the disgraced officials will still be given letters commending the same sacked officials for jobs well done. How can someone be sacked for wrong doing and, at the same time, still be commended for doing well? One Minister is not only suspected to be currently aiding and abetting terrorism, but on record to have expressed unqualified sympathy and support for Osama bin Laden. It is shameful that the president is defending such a Minister. One unanswered question often asked is this: how do we explain the fact that the same Minister created a social media platform only in Arabic language and is using that same platform for dissemination of government news? Why the double standard?

Myths and Reality of Foreign Policy Reviews
The foregoing issues are necessarily the questions to be asked when seeking a foreign policy review. Nigeria is on record to have organised only two foreign policy conferences that involved participants from the Civil Service, armed Forces, and the general public: the1961 and 1986 conferences. What is particularly noteworthy about the 1961 conference was the importance attached to the need for the establishment of an Institute of International Affairs. The Government of Nigeria had particular interest in being well educated in the area of international affairs. The generality of the participants had input in the discussions leading to the establishment of the eight committees set up. In fact, the first committee listed in the report of the conference was the committee on international affairs. The implication of the importance of foreign policy in national development efforts.

The objective of the April 1986 Kuru Conference was similarly aimed at giving a better image to Nigeria in international relations. It was at the 1986 conference, called ‘All-Nigeria People Conference on Foreign Policy,’ that Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s Consultation Doctrine was given birth to, when the issue of non-support for Libya in its dispute with the United States, was raised. The conference, which was held at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos, came up with many suggested foreign policy directions.

The Foreign Policy Review conference that was held last week in Abuja cannot qualify to be called a serious national or people’s conference, bearing in mind the ambiguity in the notion of a foreign policy review. Was the conference for review of foreign policy as an objective or as means to the objective? The bitter truth of the conduct and management of Nigeria’s foreign policy under the PMB administration is that it lacks lustre and focus. Government wrongly believes that Nigeria has a Foreign Policy Grand Strategy by simply nursing the idea of Nigerians occupying executive positions in various international organisations as a landmark success. In order to make Nigeria great, she needs a foreign policy grand strategy.

Nigeria’s foreign policy must be research driven before it is given a political colouration. A foreign policy conference in which there are no leading research institutions on foreign policy, with limited governmental, non-governmental organisations, and civil society organisations, etc, cannot be seriously described as a true national conference. At best, as at today, Nigeria’s foreign policy is reactive and largely predicated on pillars of poverty of ideas, particularly in light of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publishing a chapter in a book and claiming that Dr. Jaja Wachukwu was Nigeria’s First Foreign Minister. If there is to be any meaningful review of foreign policy, it must begin with ensuring better quality of Foreign Service Officers, functional reorganisation of the foreign policy research institutions, and most importantly, establishment of a separate Foreign Service Commission for the purposes of Nigeria’s larger Grand Strategy. It is by so doing that Government can move from the mythical world to that of reality.

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