On February 13, 1976, one of Nigeria's most dynamic heads of state to date, General Murtala Ramat Muhammed, was assassinated by a dissident section of the Nigeria Army. He was head of state for only 200 days but his impact has been with the country since then; Nigeria's history has not been the same because Gen. Murtala was here. It was as if he was in a hurry to accomplish all his programmes within a short time, hence his catch phrase "with immediate effect" in all his actions and pronouncements.
Within the short time he was in charge, his government created seven more states, and initiated the movement of the federal capital to Abuja to decongest Lagos; he was the first to probe and punish public officeholders for corruption; and since then every subsequent public name in Nigeria is directly or indirectly an offshoot of the Murtala administration: Obasanjo, Danjuma, Yar'Adua, Akinrinade, Innih, Kanu, Akinyemi, Adelanwa, Doko, Yusuf, Buhari, Babangida and others were all part of that administration. But nowhere did Gen Murtala make greatest impact than in the field of foreign policy.
The Murtala regime correctly identified foreign policy as very important because the most fundamental domestic problems relating to security, the economy, even national identity and unity cannot be tackled only domestically.
They feature prominently in the external environment, and foreign policy is actually about the determination of the external environment of a country. Its purpose should not be anything else but the determination of this environment in ways which foster short- and long-term national objectives.
The period of the Murtala administration coincided with the peak period of the decolonisation process and the liberation struggle of the African countries that were still under foreign rule. Accordingly, Gen. Murtala's regime became unapologetically committed to the liberation of Africa from racial and colonial subjugation.
He gave effective meaning to the Africa-centred foreign policy of Nigeria. He gave moral, diplomatic and material support to the liberation movements across Africa. He recognised the MPLA as the authentic representative movement of the Angolan people in their struggle against Portuguese colonialism and hastened the process of freeing the Africans in Angola. In words and deeds, Gen. Murtala woke up the whole continent and Nigeria was respected everywhere. But what can we say about Nigeria's foreign policy now?
To assess the success or failure of any policy, it is necessary to establish, first, its objectives. Among the objectives of Nigeria's foreign policy are to protect the dignity of Africans, establish a self-reliant economy, and to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Nigeria.
It is not possible to assess the degree to which these objectives have been attained by simply going into state visits, statements, conferences and communiqués. This can only be done by going into the way the position of the country in the structure of the international system has changed and into whether this process of change has been toward or away from the stated objectives as many analysts attest.
With the successful conclusion of African political liberation, the economic liberation of the continent ought to have been the next natural thing to pursue. When we examine the economic aspect of Nigeria's Africa policy, we see a gross contradiction between declared intention and practical achievements.
For, while the signing of trade agreements, air service agreements and the establishment of regional commissions create the form in which integration can take place, the basic prerequisite for genuine integration is intra-African trade, free movements of goods and people across Africa, patronising African companies and training of skilled African manpower so that Africans can truly be in charge of African resources and ultimate destiny of the continent. There is also the need to systematically eliminate foreign control of the commanding heights of the economy such as oil and gas, shipping, insurance, aviation and needed technology, among others.
A policy aimed at achieving some measure of economic integration in Africa must have as its primary goal the transformation (real transformation, not slogan) of the economies of the various countries. In Nigeria, this would involve giving priority to agriculture for food security and employment generation. It entails real agricultural revolution, not the ridiculous policy of buying handsets for rural farmers or giving undue priority to only one crop - cassava -- as if it is the only crop growing in Nigeria.
It involves practical experience of farming and animal husbandry and not the current textbook approach of Brettonwoods-trained "technocrats". This can only be possible if an industrial policy aimed at creating light and heavy industries complementary to a self-reliant agricultural base is pursued, and not just announced.
About 38 years ago, Ambassador Charles Martin Le Quesnes, the then British high commissioner to Nigeria, in an interview with Times International of April 21, 1975, had this to say: "It is difficult to think of any field in which we are not connected with Nigerian affairs. We are connected with your churches, universities, legal system, education and the armed forces. With regard to the armed forces, we supply you with basic military equipment and help in training your personnel in British institutions..." Almost four decades later, what has really changed with regards to what he said, particularly the armed forces?
Nigeria is the largest producer of oil in Africa. Nigeria is also the largest country in the Gulf of Guinea. But even to patrol Nigeria's and the Gulf of Guinea's maritime waters, it is the French that does that for us. In neighboring Mali, it is the French that came in and asked us to join, even though this is within our immediate sub-region of ECOWAS.
Where is the independence if we do not have the capacity to even defend our immediate territories? Compare that with what South Africa is doing: it is effectively defending its large maritime zone and recently sent 400 troops to join an all-Africa force to bring stability in the Central Africa Republic.
Let us be very honest with ourselves: Nigeria's status even in West Africa has really diminished. A strong domestic foundation is required for a dynamic foreign policy. An efficient domestic environment with a new coherent foreign policy should be established and effectively executed. This current "no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent master's" syndrome should stop.
If we accept the fact that no one can live in isolation, then, there is need to be not only good neighbors but good hosts too, so that both ECOWAS and AU should no more be forums for empty speeches and ineffective resolutions but concrete African platforms for realistically confronting African challenges. May God forgive Gen. Murtala his mistakes and grant his soul eternal rest. Amen.