In the recent days or weeks, Ghanaians have come to witness unilateral land borders closure by one of the so-called sister West African nations of Nigeria, which also happens to be a leading member state of the sub-regional economic bloc popularly known as ECOWAS. According to countless media reports, and more importantly the official account from the policymakers in Abuja, which include the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service Alhaji Hameed Ali, “All goods, for now, are banned from being exported or imported through our [Nigeria] land borders and that is to ensure that we have total control over what comes in.”
A superficial reading of the foregoing explanation by the Nigerian authorities attempting to rationalize the land borders shut down, paints a fancy picture of a serious nation bent on ensuring that its borders are well secured and protected from illegal cross-border activities. However, if one probe a little deep into the Nigerian decision-makers’ attitudes and pronouncements, a more cynical but “normal” portrait of interstates politics begins to emerge to explain Africa’s most populous country’s overall behaviors in the West African sub-region, especially.
Unquestionably, the Abuja apparatchiks are fully aware their unilateral land borders closure seriously undermine all the free movements and the trade agreements ratified under the ECOWAS treaties of which Nigeria is a bona fide signatory. Beyond the ECOWAS sub-region, it is clear Nigeria’s unilateralism, regarding its land borders closure also seeks to upend the unprecedented free-trade accord signed by fifty-four out of the fifty-five African Union (AU) nations, including Nigeria, and all aimed at dismantling the continental trade barriers that have bedeviled this part of the world over the decades.
As Nigeria’s land border melodrama is selfishly unfolding, Ghanaian media/public space is unsurprisingly saturated with limited understanding, yet almost everyone wants to react to Nigeria’s border action, but many of the expressions woefully failed to arrest or clarify the fast-changing convoluted terrain of the 21st century global power politics and international conflicts. Although it is encouraging development for Ghanaians or concerned citizens to express their opinions about some pressing domestic/international issues, those expressions must also acknowledge the complexities inherent in the anarchical international relations.
So, whenever some of us with little insights into the entanglements of contemporary interstate relations hear some Ghanaians naively sharing opinions that Nigeria’s unilateral border closure, for example, amounts to “breaking the spirit of ECOWAS” and its attendant sub-regional economic integration effort, we cannot help but unfortunately laugh at the sheer pretense as if those with easy access to news media are the storehouse of all ideas, but the contrary holds sway.
Readers may recall that in one of the previous articles by this present writer, the piece reminded Ghanaians to keep in mind that like any other sovereign nation-state around the world, Nigeria will eternally pursue its supreme national interests first. Stated differently, the Nigerian policymakers will try to exploit every possible ways to find loopholes within international protocols to promote the country’s objectives regardless of the sub-regional leaders’ attempt toward economic integration modeled after the European Union.
Ghanaians and some of our uninformed media outlets/personnel need to understand countries form alliances as well as enter into international agreements/treaties not necessarily because they are “in love” with each other or they are permanent friends. No, it is not the case at all, but the fact that within international relations landscape, nations have “permanent national interests” as opposed to “permanent friendship.” So let Ghanaians stop calling Nigerians our “brothers/sisters” and instead embrace international realities. It does not matter how persuasive Nigeria’s justification is; what Nigeria is doing today concerning its land borders closure typifies a “regional power” trying to flex its economic muscles toward the relatively weak nation(s). Imagine for a minute, a tiny country of Benin or Togo closes its land borders in unilateral fashion as Nigeria has done, what will be the response of the leaders in Nigeria, assuming their economy’s predominantly depends on Benin or Togo’s market? Does the Nigeria’s unilateral border posture resembles or give us a clue about how the major powers behave in the international arena? Nigeria doesn’t have nuclear weapon, neither is it a major world power, such as United States, China, Russia, France, UK, and so on, yet every now and then it tries to use its market size to bully its smaller sister states, particularly, within the West African sub-region.
In fact, the unfolding power play or behavior in the international politics as exhibited by a “powerful” Nigeria toward its small neighbors is the reason the 5th century Greek political historian Thucydides theorized that within international relations, the relatively big or powerful countries unilaterally call the shots. This is because in the global arena there is lack of enforceable rules/laws or justice. To that end, Thucydides contended that with respect to interstate relations the “strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept."
As the first person to provide the modern world with conceptual framework that explains an unethical and anarchical nature of interstate relations, Thucydides is considered the brainchild of political realism—a theoretical thought that argues that interstate relations are centered on the assumption that “might is always right.” If Thucydides were to put Nigeria policymakers’ behavior in view of its unilateral border closure under scrutiny, most likely the “father” of international relations would reinforce the fact that similar to a full or pseudo regional power, Nigeria is pursuing strategic engagement with its neighboring countries in a manner that noticeably follows a repetitive pattern.
Within this cyclical pattern of a given state’s behavior, such as in Nigeria’s case here, and among a particular structure of nation-states like the ECOWAS member nations, a discernible ranking in the midst of countries helps guide the contour of their relations. Hence, Thucydides would have maintained that even though any reconfiguration within the order of the relatively powerless nations might not disturb a given arrangement, on the other hand, a structure of comparatively strong/powerful countries would certainly unsettle the balance of the system.
It is why Nigeria is unilaterally acting this way because it knows it is the most populous country in Africa; which means it has huge market size that many states not only in West African sub-region but also the entire continent want to have trade relations with. This economic reality is one of the major forces that is driving Nigeria to act sometimes as a regional bully. Obviously, this corrupt but the oil-rich nation’s unilateral land borders closure often exemplify its bullying tactics within the ECOWAS bloc. Either way one may interpret Nigeria’s sub-regional behavior, none of us can discount the fact that the country is just promoting its national self-interests like every modern state does, or it is rather using its bigger size to dominate the smaller nations within this part of the continent of Africa.
Bernard Asubonteng is a US-based commentator, and a Ph.D. candidate for public/foreign policy.
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