These are not the best of times for Nigerian diplomacy.
Four days ago, our candidate for the Presidency of the African Union, the Gabonese incumbent, Jean Ping, lost to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for whom the South Africans spared no effort or expense.
President Jacob Zuma himself led the reported 100 plus troops made up of cabinet members and some leading African National Congress figures to ensure that his ex-wife, who until recently served as the country's Foreign Minister and lately, Home Affairs minister, got the job. This automatically gives the South Africans a ring side seat on all the decision making and execution of the African Union.
On the Nigerian side, there was no one to muster the troops, cajole or twist arms where necessary to ensure that Ping got the votes.
President Goodluck who did not give a damn about going to Brazil when Kaduna was burning in June, this time stayed put in Nigeria ostensibly because of the tanker fire in Ahoada that claimed nearly a hundred lives. Whatever the excuse was, at least our number one citizen was not there in person to witness Nigeria's humiliation in Addis Ababa.
Many could not however understand why the foot soldiers were kept guessing as to whether the President or his Vice would turn up to rally the troops especially when the voting stretched into 4 rounds before eventually ending in favour of Nkosazana Zuma. Mr Ping was forced to step down having lost the 3 previous rounds.
In fact, when it looked as if his chance was getting dimmer, clever diplomats began to distance Mr Ping from Nigeria by being clever by half saying, that he is the candidate of Gabon.
This assumes that everyone will forget that Nigeria has made it clear that she was backing him to the hilt since he was also the candidate of the regional body, ECOWAS.
As recently as last week's Punch newspaper quoted Foreign Affairs minister, Olugbenga Ashiru saying " We have not shifted ground, we are working in concert with the ECOWAS group and we will remain with ECOWAS group." He went further to say "Any decision taken by ECOWAS, Nigeria will be there and you know Nigeria is the natural leader of that sub-region; so we'll prefer to have one united position and we stand by that position which we will take."
At a much earlier date in May, the Foreign Minister told the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper the reason why Nigeria was backing Mr Ping. "One of our own guiding principles is the fact that Nigeria believes the post of the AU should not be held by the big countries. We should leave the post to small and medium African countries to hold so they can feel a sense of belonging to the continent,"
Whatever is responsible for the turn of events in Addis Ababa last Sunday, we expect our foreign affairs establishment to carefully study the what-and-why of it so that we learn something from it. This may help as we approach other issues like a permanent seat at the United Nations' Security Council. Already International relations experts like former head of the Nigeria Institute of International Relations and one time Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bolaji Akinyemi argues that " the victory of the South African candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the Presidency of the African Union and the defeat of the ECOWAS and Nigerian backed candidate, Jean Ping, marks the most successful projection of South African power over the African continent. It also marks what should be regarded as the unacceptable defeat for Nigeria's status and policies in Africa".
The foreign relations expert went on to suggest that " Nigeria should now accept as fact that South Africa intends to challenge Nigeria for the leadership position in Africa, if not in the world. Nigeria must now abandon its long cherished policy of not asserting itself in Africa. South Africa does not take prisoners in its foreign policy. Nigeria should now use all the resources at its disposal to fight off this leadership challenge."
To observers like this column, Nigerians lost the game long ago. That is why countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and other members of ECOWAS will choose to go against the common position on the African Union commission that they had agreed to earlier. How else do you explain the lack of strategy of Nigeria wasting its capital over the World Bank Presidency which historically has gone to the United States? That may explain why it was the cannier South Africans who through their own Finance Minister that nominated Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the job knowing full well that it was a long, long shot.
Again on the face off over the visa issue, the South Africans played along to the extent of the public humiliation of sending a minister to come and say sorry over the matter. Well now that the South Africans have poked a finger into the eyes of the erstwhile "Giant of Africa", Nigeria should chew its response carefully.