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Published On: Tue, Jan 6th, 2015

Oops, president misses the Murtala Ramat moment!

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General Murtala MohammedWednesday Column by Garba Shehu

The shocking abstention by Nigeria at the United Nations Security Council, on the question of whether Palestine should be free within a timeline of three years marks a major, major reversal in our foreign policy tradition. For the President, Dr Jonathan Goodluck, it was far more disastrous, leading to the loss of a once-in-lifetime opportunity to write his name in the annals of global diplomacy as a problem solver.

Reports said it was Nigeria which made the difference in the resolution failing to pass, as it had been expected. Our country had resolved to vote in favour but then decided a few hours to the vote to abstain.

I chose to call it the “Murtala  Ramat moment” because the late Nigerian and African legendary hero, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed found himself at the same historical moment as did Dr Jonathan last week. What did they both do with it?

In the case of Murtala’s, it was Angola’s independence that was at a stake.

When they took power in 1975 in a bloodless coup against the wobbly Gowon administration, they reappraised the foreign policy and they didn’t like what it looked like.  The notion of “Nigeria first” orientation, which ironically characterizes this country’s foreign policy disposition at present didn’t suit what Murtala wanted because it “was to the disadvantage of other African countries.”

The Nigerian government led by that progressive administration resolved to discard “neutrality” as the country’s posture want. They chose an activist posture in international affairs. The shift in orientation became apparent with respect to Angola. This country had previously worked with the Organization of African Unity, OAU to bring about a negotiated reconciliation of the warring factions in the former Portuguese colony, the same way Americans are doing to no avail with the Palestinian question. Out of this frustration, late in 1975 Murtala Muhammad announced Nigeria’s support for the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, PMLA, in direct reaction the then South Africa’s racist regime’s support for the reactionary National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). As a consequence, this realignment strained relations with the United States and Britain but it was a timely move that decisively shifted the tide in favour of the patriotic MPLA and a resounding defeat for the collaborationist UNITA who would have perpetuated imperialist rule by other means. His speech at the OAU left a daunting legacy on the continent and for which Murtala became an aspirational figure for generations that have followed. Nigeria gained an instant recognition as a Frontline State leading the charge for the decolonization of Southern African countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and other territories.

Flowing from these achievements, Nigeria took responsibility for the resolution of the crises in West Africa notably, Sierra-Leone and Liberia. To achieve the independence of some, and impose peace and stability in the countries cited, resources were expended and blood of Nigerians was shed.

This is why the world was so shocked to receive the news of this country’s sabotage of the Palestinian independence. The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) representative to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) heavily criticized Nigeria, saying that the move was a “big disappointment”, adding that voting against “Palestine” despite being a member of the OIC was a “clear contradiction.”

In a similar reaction, the Secretary General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, NSCIA, Professor Ishaq Oloyede described the action of the federal government  “as a step against freedom.”

As reported by newspapers, Oloyede said “ the council was amazed that Nigeria would abstain from a move to end a 66-year-old crisis.”

He said that the NSCIA was sad at the turn of events and accused the federal government of betraying the people of Nigeria.

“What Nigeria has done is not only a summersault on its foreign policy but also a slap on the lovers of freedom all over the world and such action is condemnable,” a newspaper quoted him as saying.

In the abstention by Nigeria which in reality amounted to support of the continued colonization of Palestine, there is a clear negation of the age-old principles underlying the country’s foreign policy. Until now, Nigeria had joined a majority of the countries at the United Nations General Assembly, the Non-Aligned Movement and several other fora  to oppose the several manifestations of colonialism wherever it existed.

Why will Nigeria like to start chewing rotten carrots at this time?

Looking around for the reasons for this show of shame, there is nothing to find  other than our domestic politics as it is currently played.

The President, who was prevailed upon at the last minute by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and John Kerry, the U.S Secretary of State clearly did this change of the mind for two apparent reasons.

One, he was making a personal choice as to who to support between Palestine and Israel, the latter enjoying the unconditional backing of the United States. He needs the support of Europe and America going into an election he is not favoured to win. In this election, there are fears that his party is unlikely to accept defeat and when that happens, they cannot unleash the promised crackdown without foreign backing.

Two, even before the creation of the  unnecessary divisions among this county’s peaceful and loving people, the government itself knows that there is an open, even though sentimental support for Palestine and open dissent for Israel in the North. It is not a hidden fact that the government of the day is increasingly  anxious to show where it stands in relation to (or against the) North for not giving it enough support.

Having laid this background, it is also essential to say that Nigeria on the one hand and the US and the UK on the other have little or nothing in common in their historical antecedents dealing with issues of annexation or seizure of territory. Our country is a liberator of the colonized and those ardent supporters of Israel are by themselves, usurpers of land belonging to others. The technique is the same whether in the West Bank or Jerusalem, or about the indigenous peoples inside the United States; Tasmania and New Zealand as scuppered by the UK or South Africa where Belgium and the UK gave up land belonging to others only after sweat and blood had been spilled. Those countries will do Netanyahu’s bidding all the time because they themselves saw no wrong and still see little as being untoward in appropriating land belonging to others.

Israel will continue its role as the hunting dog for the US and Europe serving as the bulwark against communism in the past and new threats from perceived other sources including Islamic extremism in the Middle-East. In return, the Jewish state will continue to receive the west’s backing despite their acts of impunity and brigandage. As victims of colonial oppression ourselves, we have nothing in common with countries sharing the common antecedents of oppression.

Any government of Nigeria that ties our foreign relations to the small and aggressive state of Israel is doing injustice to our glorious past and the promise of our future greatness. The falsehood dished out by officials that this faux pas was to gain Israeli support against Boko Haram is neither here nor there. We didn’t need foreign support to put Sierra Leone and Liberia right and with a government determined to do the right thing, ending the insurgency in the country should not, and  will not last a lifetime.

As I end this piece, I think of this hiccup as a great embarrassment to Alhaji Aminu Wali, the sitting Minister of Foreign Affairs and cousins with General Murtala Mohammed- and a witness to those lofty achievements-who must seriously be feeling “uncool” by the policy somersault about which he possibly could do nothing. I don’t know. This President being a good student of Obasanjo’s is most unlikely to let foreign affairs and oil slip out of his firm grip.

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