Tinubu’s Foreign Policy Scorecard

Nigeria’s prominence in Africa and her hegemonic ambitions require a strategic and efficient foreign policy within the region, across the continent, and on the global stage. Cognizant of this necessity, Bola Tinubu’s foreign policy approach, referred to as Tinubu Doctrine, has identified key elements codenamed the "4Ds" – Democracy, Development, Demography, and Diaspora – considered necessary to Nigeria maximising its potential and maintaining its influence in the international political sphere.

Tinubu followed an administration that was more insular and domestic-focused than his other predecessors and striking a balance, between centring resources on domestic issues and international standing, was necessary. Yet, Tinubu has embraced a trait that Buhari was often criticised for: travelling abroad a lot. Between taking office in May 2023 and April 2024, Tinubu embarked on 17 foreign trips, for official and unofficial purposes. Data from Statisense reported in The Guardian revealed that Tinubu spent one in every four days outside the country during his first year in office, compared to Buhari spending one in every eight days during his first year. While this data excluded any travels that lasted less than 24 hours, it shows that Tinubu’s foreign trips surpassed his predecessor’s. But as Nigerians reflect on a year in post, it is clear that the impact of these foreign trips has not met the longing expectations of Nigerians amidst a gruelling economic reality. 


The Tinubu Doctrine

Foreign Minister Yusuf Maitama Tuggar disclosed that the 4Ds, which form the Tinubu Doctrine, sought to address Nigeria's internal dynamics and her external relations in the international political landscape. While there are criticisms that the beneficiary of a controversial election cannot rightly enforce democracy, Nigeria has remained vocal amid the recent spate of unconstitutional changes in government across African states. Within weeks of assuming office, Tinubu was named chair of ECOWAS, the regional bloc, and has since had to engage with a coup in Niger and the formation of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) by Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. All AES member states are led by military governments and, while a Tinubu-led ECOWAS was uncompromising in pushing for a return to democracy, the reality is that the region remains divided and in need of an introspective look at what democracy means in an African context.   

The Tinubu administration’s approach in addressing the Niger crisis did not reflect the historical ties and the proximity between the two countries. This was the reason for the outrage that trailed the impression that his leadership was considering military invasion as the way to achieve a return to democracy, which many believed would affect Nigeria.Tinubu faced an ongoing court case challenging his victory at the polls, warranting him to assert his authority and legitimacy both in the country and in the region. As the new ECOWAS chair, Tinubu needed to demonstrate his commitment to democracy – not just for the entire West African bloc but, above all, for Nigeria. This context likely influenced his strong stance against coups and his vocal support for democratic governance. Had Tinubu not been dealing with post-election challenges at home, his declarations on democracy and anti-coups at ECOWAS might have been less forceful and his subsequent dealing with the Nigerien military regime would have been a bit different. This shows that his domestic political situation significantly shaped his approach to leadership within ECOWAS, highlighting the interplay between national and regional roles.

The first year of Tinubu's administration also saw increased awareness to engage the diaspora in the area of development, and  investment initiatives such as the Diaspora Mortgage Scheme and the $10 billion Diaspora Fund showed commitments to that effect. A key area for improvement is increased synergy between the different elements in the government in managing Nigeria’s soft power and ensuring proper harnessing of the country’s cultural output to boost the domestic economy. Similarly, while development has seen some commissioned funds, such as the N75 billion and N125 billion intervention Funds and the Renewed Hope Infrastructure Development Fund, these are opportunities that will still require time and dedicated management. Finally, in engaging with a youthful demography, Nigeria’s foreign policy structure is yet to roll out a considered plan for the many students and professionals living and working abroad that will still require a firm Nigerian representation in their host countries to protect their rights.

This is why despite the extensive diplomatic engagements that marked Tinubu’s inaugural year, and his leadership of ECOWAS, this government is yet to fully reflect Nigeria’s regional influence and global aspirations. Attending regional and continental meetings, and the occasional G20 or COP summit, cannot be enough for a country with a history of extensive foreign policy achievements. Nigeria would expectedly have received invitations to those meetings, which is why a clear strategy needs to be communicated to showcase where the Tinubu government intends to be different. Moreso, Nigeria’s bid, and failure, to join BRICS underscores the gaps that years of disjointed foreign policy have caused on its international posturing.

The challenges of foreign engagement

The contentious 2023 general elections had a legacy of increased partisanship, which has played in how the administration has been received by critics. Yet, the government has not helped its case with frequent travels, often costly in a time of economic challenges. The COP28 delegation sparked controversy over its size, while a lack of proactive information management has meant it has helped to generate fake news  that nurtured that controversy.

On the regional front,  the response of Tinubu’s administration  to the political crisis in Niger and other neighbouring countries was criticised over initial forcefulness giving way to diplomacy, almost too late. These have led to concerns about Nigeria's leadership role in the region and the need for a more cohesive strategy that is not as personality-driven at the risk of weakening institutions.

This leads to a necessary review surrounding a country’s foreign policy and domestic considerations. The previous government identified a stronger need to focus on domestic economic and security concerns, to varying levels of success, but a clear lesson is the increasing synergy between external and internal policies. Considerable investment negotiations will only yield fruit if investors feel confident in the country’s security and infrastructural areas.

On the other hand, poor implementation of foreign policy and unresolved diplomatic issues can harm a nation’s economy. This can degenerate into diplomatic tensions, reduced foreign investments, and increased economic barriers. For instance, the visa ban issue with UAE indicates how diplomatic challenges can affect economic opportunities and the livelihood of citizens. In essence, both sides are equally as important to effectively develop a country. 

Much effort has not been made by the Tinubu administration to leverage Nigeria's potential to the full extent in regional and international diplomacy. Similarly, the administration is still struggling to effectively address contemporary issues like climate change, economic inequality, and geopolitical rivalries to Nigeria's advantage. This challenge, in striking the right balance, will make or mar the Tinubu administration’s efforts in seeking high-level diplomatic engagements and tangible outcomes for robust domestic growth. As the country navigates the global landscape with increasing complexities, the government should focus more on sustainable partnerships and ensure the durability of its foreign policy achievements in the nation’s interests. 


Raji Olatunji is a fact-checker at the Centre for Democracy and Development


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