Foreign affairs experts, including a former ambassador, academic and lawyers have called on the national assembly and even countries where they will be posted to reject President Muhammadu Buhari’s nomination of the immediate past service chiefs as ambassadors.
Others, who seemed confused by their appointment, have requested further details on the development, saying there may be more to the nomination than meets the eye.
Some of these experts include a professor of History and former ambassador to Germany, Akinjide Osuntokun; a former director general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Bola Akinterinwa; a senior lawyer Tayo Oyetibo, and a professor of History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), David Aworawo.
The experts’ positions are hinged on the allegations of rights abuses and crimes against humanity levelled against the former service chiefs while they held sway as commanders of the country’s military.
They also hold the view that the administration of Mr Buhari has flagrantly flouted the recommendation of the erstwhile Presidential Advisory Council on International Relations (PACIR) which pegged the percentage of non-career ambassadors to 25 as against career ambassadors of 75.
Barely a week after they resigned from service and their replacements announced, a statement by the president’s media aide, Femi Adesina, said the President Buhari had forwarded the ex-service chiefs’ names to the Senate for confirmation as non-career ambassadors.
They are the former Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin; former Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai; former Chief of Air Staff, Ibok Ibas; and former Chief of Naval Staff, Abubakar Sadique.
The development has been trailed by condemnation, with many Nigerians suggesting that the President’s decision was aimed at shielding the former military officials from possible prosecution especially by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The allegations against the military chiefs include the 2015 massacre of more than 350 members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shiites sect, violent attacks on members of the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), last October’s shooting and of innocent Nigerians who took part in the #EndSARS protest at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, and the extrajudicial killings in Oyigbo, an Igbo settlement in Rivers State, among others.
Some commentators relied on Article 29 of the Vienna Convention which protects diplomats from arrest and grants them immunity against civil and criminal prosecution, to conclude that the President’s decision was to guarantee immunity for the ex-service chiefs.
But others argued that the appointment of the former service chiefs cannot shield them from facing prosecutions over criminal conducts.
Meanwhile, towards avoiding such controversies their possible appointment may ignite, other concerned Nigerians have called for the rejection of their nominations. They added that should they eventually scale through the hurdles of the country’s upper legislative chamber, the countries where they will be posted should reject them.
Why appointment should be rejected
Mr Osuntokun, who was a member of the advisory committee on international relations, said Mr Buhari’s decision dumbfounded him.
Speaking on the phone with our reporter, the ex-diplomat said that depending on where they may be posted to, he was sure some of them could be rejected by the foreign nations.
“This is a very strange development as far as I am concerned. First, the number of non-career ambassadors has now exceeded that of the career ambassadors. I remember that when we set up as a committee to make recommendations on this kind of things, I was a member of that committee and our report said on no account must non-career ambassadors exceed 25 per cent, but as it is now, they are almost 60 per cent while the career is 40 per cent.
“I’m sure some of them may be rejected if they are posted to Western countries. But if they are sent to China or Russia, those ones will probably agree to host them. But if they are sent to places like Washington or Western Europe, they’ll probably be rejected,” he said.
In a similar vein, Mr Aworawo, a foreign relations teacher of many years, said the Senate had a huge responsibility to thoroughly weigh the options before allowing the nominees to be posted so that “Nigeria is not further embarrassed on the global stage.”
He said: “When a foreign country takes a position against Nigeria, it’s not against the government, it is not against an individual, it is against Nigeria. For instance, when Tunde Adeniran was rejected by the United States as an ambassador, it was Nigeria that was rejected. So instead of waiting until they are posted out, I think our advocacy should be that the Senate should let us know why they want to be posted out. Why is it that despite the fact that we have a large number of non-career diplomats already designated to be posted out, additional names are to be added to that list?
“If there is a thorough screening, a whole lot of things will come to light that will help us to take informed positions regarding this nomination. It is the Senate now that we should be querying. They should not allow the culture of “take a bow and go” on this matter. Such will be counterproductive because if they take a bow and go and they are sent out and then they are rejected, it will not be in the interest of anybody.
“My suggestion is that we should not wait for them to be posted out before we begin to cry. Our advocacy should be that they should be rejected by the Senate. Our advocacy should begin here that the senate should do a thorough job such that if there is no real cogent reason, they should not be confirmed.”
On his part, the secretary of the Joint Action Front, a coalition of labour unions in the country, Abiodun Aremu, said the issue of the nomination of the ex-service chiefs was a diversionary tactic by the government to take the people’s minds away from discussing key issues of poor governance in the country.
“At a time our health and education sectors have completely collapsed and the insecurity issue is festering every second, the President threw up a non-issue to divert our attention. This is unfortunate,” Mr Aremu said.
The labour activist queried Nigeria’s foreign policy, saying the country’s leadership on the African continent has been lost to bad governance at home.
He said: “What interests are the existing ambassadors representing? What is the country’s foreign policy? What role is Nigeria playing on the subject of the liberation of Western Sahara? If you have much of leadership that Nigeria provides, these are the challenges that the people eventually face, and I think it is important to address that now, more importantly.
“And why will those nations not reject them? What’s our understanding of the security concern? You see a country whose leader is ethnically bias and self-opinionated. This is someone who cannot address global concerns of the country but promoting economic arrangements in which you’re dependent as a nation. What you would have expected is that the government would appoint responsible men and women into positions and not people with blood on their hands.”
But to Mr Oyetibo, the call for the rejection of the would-be appointees could only be based on moralism but that “such is neither here nor there.”
He said foreign relations were not based on moralism but much deeper diplomatic issues and facts.
Buhari flouting recommendation on ambassadorial nominations
According to Mr Osuntokun, the Presidential Advisory Council on International Relations which was chaired by a former Commonwealth secretary-general, Emeka Anyaokwu, had offered non-stipendiary service to the country between 1999 and 2015, and it was when the Buhari-led administration came on board in 2015 that the council ceased to exist.
Mr Osuntokun did not elaborate on why the council went aground but said there were many key decisions that were taken by the team which he noted gave policy direction to the past administrations on foreign relations since the return to democracy in 1999.
The former ambassador said: “Chief Emeka Anyaokwu was the chairman and the members included myself, late Alhaji Hamza Ahmadu, Professor Joy Ogwu, Ambassador Akporode Clark, and I think one other member.
“We realised that because there is a career line for professional diplomats, those people who have spent all their lives learning the trade and who are more qualified to handle foreign relations matters. So it is not good to replace them with non-career ambassadors who know next to nothing about protocols. It is not a good thing for the country to have too many non-career ambassadors. But since this administration came into being I have been watching and I have realised that the number of non-career ambassadors now stands at about 60 per cent to 40 per cent career diplomats. That has clearly exceeded the 75 per cent career ambassadors to 25 per cent non-career ambassadors that we recommended.”
He said the consequence of the new trend is that the political appointees would focus more on attracting materialism and may end up getting involved in deals that could embarrass the country.
“Unfortunately, many of these non-career ambassadors think that there is money in diplomacy but there is none. They’ll be disappointed. Some of them, for six months after being sent to post, there will be no money to support them. They will be totally embarrassed and some of them will now go into deals that will embarrass the country because they have to survive and they are used to large spending.
“We are just cutting noses because we’re going to be disappointed thoroughly and humiliated as a country. I sincerely hope that some of them will be rejected by the countries that they are sent to unless of course, it is China or Russia or such other countries.”
Mr Aworawo also said the country’s non-career ambassadors have now outnumbered their career counterparts, and that such is not good for the country. “So we need to know why we still want to add these four to the number of non-career diplomats when there are protests that there are too many political appointees that are posted out as ambassadors as against the preference for career ambassadors.”
When asked what he thought of the appointment of the former service chiefs as ambassadors, Mr Anyaokwu said he was not ready to share his opinion on the matter.
Will ambassadorial position shield ex-service chiefs from prosecution?
While some experts rely on Article 29 of the Vienna Convention to suggest their appointment would shield the ex-service chiefs from prosecution especially on the international scene, others have faulted such claim, saying their possible appointment is no guarantee for their immunity.
A Washington-based Nigerian lawyer and special counsel to Justice for Jos Project of the US Nigeria Law Group, Emmanuel Ogebe, said under international criminal law, diplomatic immunity does not grant immunity from prosecution over international crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In his position on the matter, which was mailed to PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Ogebe said; “The rule is supported by international customary law as well as The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court codified in its Article 27.
“If Omar Bashir as then President of Sudan was indicted and a warrant issued for his arrest, it is unclear why Buhari’s advisers gave him faulty information that these ambassadorships grant immunity for war crimes.”
He accused Mr Buhari-led administration of “corruption and abuse of power for personal politics of self-preservation.”
Similarly, Mr Akinterinwa, a former director general of NIIA, said crimes committed before being appointed as ambassadors are not covered by the immunity guaranteed in the Vienna Convention.
He said; “The point is that diplomatic immunity only applies to offences committed by public officials when they are in office. It does not include offences that are committed before anyone is appointed.
So if you’re talking about 2015 for instance, the charges are still there, the only thing is just that while they are in office, they could not arrest them, they could not prosecute them. But when they leave office they can be arrested. The example of Charles Taylor is enough as evidence. He was no longer the president of Liberia, so he was arrested and taken to jail.”
Also, the former chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Chidi Odinkalu, has shared his view on the matter, insisting that the appointment of former service chiefs as Nigerian ambassadors does not grant them immunity from criminal charges.
In a series of tweets shared on Thursday, Mr Odinkalu said to enjoy the immunity that came with ambassadorship, another sovereign country had to accredit them.
He said; “Briefly, this isn’t exactly good news for the former service chiefs. To begin with, to enjoy Sovereign Immunity (that’s what it’s called) in international law, they have to be accredited to another sovereign as Nigeria’s ambassadors. Carrying a diplomatic passport isn’t enough.”
He noted that based on the gravity of the allegations levelled against the former service chiefs, credible countries would not accept them.
“In any Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) country, for instance, any effort to deploy them as ambassadors would almost be guaranteed to end up in a raucous domestic and diplomatic mess and will be resisted seriously. In all likelihood, they will not pass muster with those countries,” he added.
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