Opinion

Cheta Nwanze: What is Nigeria’s interest in Ukraine?

I’d like to begin this by saying something important: the attack on Ukraine is immoral and wicked, and deserves all the uproar that has accompanied it from wherever. Sadly, that is about where it will get. The world of geopolitics is not a moral place, and to quote the Athenians when they sent an ultimatum to the Melians during the Siege of Melios, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Herein lies the meat of the matter from my point of view: in the end, the world of international geopolitics is about might being right, not about anything else. It is the reason why, without any irony, a former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, could sit at a Fox News desk two nights ago, and pontificate about Russia’s illegal action, secure in the knowledge that she was a US National Security Advisor when her country lied to the world and then illegally invaded the sovereign country of Iraq, less than two decades ago. In the end, this whole conflict is about self-interest, and powerful countries will do what they can to either protect, or advance their interests.

As far back as a decade ago, notable Western geopolitical scholars and strategists had warned about the Western push to co-opt Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence, warning that it would backfire. George Kennan, a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, and a major architect of the Truman Doctrine for containing Russia, was critical of US efforts to expand NATO until he died in 2005 aged 101. Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, and the architect of the rapprochement between the US and Mao Zedung’s China, warned about the NATO expansion many times, and including in a seminal piece in the Washington Post in 2014. John Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading geopolitical scholars, said in a University of Chicago lecture in 2015 that, “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked. What we’re doing is in fact encouraging that outcome.”

I could go on and on, but I guess my point has been made about warnings from leading Western diplomats and scholars about where we are today, but unfortunately, the people in charge of Western diplomacy remained adamant, and just this morning, I heard a UK Member of Parliament say something along the lines of ensuring that Vladimir Putin would end up in the dock at the International Criminal Court. This kind of hubris is the kind of hubris that ensures that the conflict will only get worse. Russia is not some weak African country, they have the means to enforce their will, and at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I’ll say that they will win the shooting war in Ukraine. Whether they will win the war after the shooting has stopped is another matter, but then again, recent history has shown us that what comes after the shooting has stopped is a whole different story. We saw that in Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan.

Here is how I think this will end: Ukraine will be a wreck, Russia will be pushed deeper into China’s economic orbit, and the Chinese will create an alternative system to the one that the West is using to punish Russia. Get ready for a parallel internet, an alternative to SWIFT, and the use of the Yuan for more and more international trade. Germany will rearm and eventually be a bully in Europe because after this excitement, the Americans will still withdraw from Europe as their local politics becomes more and more bitter. The UK, searching for a place in the post-Brexit world will become more of America’s bitch, while France will be faced with the choice of either accepting to be Germany’s subaltern, or do more malpractice in Africa in order to compete with Germany. I suspect they will try to compete, so sorry for West Africa. Meanwhile, in Asia, as America focuses more inwards, Japan will rearm in order to avoid becoming China’s bitch. Yes, we are now in a far more dangerous geopolitical world, and again it’s kinda OK (not really) as that is the natural order of things. We are getting to the end of Pax Americana, and serious countries are going to jostle to fill the gap that will be created by America’s increasing disinterest in the international system.

Now speaking of weak African countries, I was disappointed to read of Nigeria condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. There are a lot of questions to be asked of our foreign policy elite in that action, starting with, what are Nigeria’s interests? Are they served by joining a bandwagon to pile in, or are they served by being circumspect like India has been?

India, a country with a keen sense of self and of its history, has taken its own interests into account first and has sat solidly on the fence in this matter. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi simply appealed for a ceasefire, but did not take a stand on the issue. He is right. India has a huge agricultural economy, and a significant portion of its input, especially fertiliser, comes from Russia. As a matter of fact, the Indians are working on a mechanism to trade with Russia using their own currency in order to avoid the impact of Western sanctions. This is what serious countries do. 

Germany, the leading country in the EU, dithered on sanctioning Russia for years in the face of pressure from the Americans. Eventually, they suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but crucially, the first Nord Stream pipeline is still pumping Russian gas to German homes. The UK has put sanctions on the Russians and made a lot of noise about it, but to quote the British commentator, Nick Ferrari, we have done the opposite of using soft words and a big stick. The Italians openly lobbied to remove luxury goods from the list of sanctions the EU was preparing, because that would have hurt their economy.

Ultimately, everyone is out for his interest, regardless of what cloak they attempt to dress it up in, and in the final analysis, only pay lip service to the values of human rights and sovereignty they profess. The Eastern European countries that are screaming about human rights and sovereignty are only doing so because it is in their interest to get the Americans in and protect them from Russia, their historical oppressor. I would point out that their very attitude towards Nigerian (and other African) students, shows very clearly that when it comes to others, their talk about human rights et al will dissipate, and this is where we come right back to our interests.

In the last three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in a unipolar world, the West has not shown much interest in a better Africa. Following the Lekki Massacre a year and half ago, asides from token noises made, what have the Western powers done to advance their so-called commitment to democracy and the rights of Nigerians? They have continued to advice our murderous military and sell them weapons. It is almost unarguable that a lot of the new economic packages that the West is sending to our neck of the woods is in response to the rise of China. Heck, they never say anything when France misbehaves in our part of the world (and the French have been misbehaving for decades here). It is alright to be honest, because the bitter truth is that we do not rank high on their ladder of interests, and this is the game we need to learn to play.

What are Nigeria’s national interests? How do we pursue those interests? Who do we have to play against to advance those interests?

I suspect that sheepishly following Western interests would actually be acting against our own interests. 

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Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence

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