Nigeria in a Changing Global Order

What will the new global order look like? What implications will it have for Nigeria’s foreign policy options? How should Nigeria orient itself in this emerging world order?

President Goodluck Jonathan at the Presidential Office. Whoever emerges as Nigeria’s President after the 2015 elections should set as one of his priorities the formulation of a new conceptual doctrine to guide Nigeria’s relations with the global powers of a multipolar world.

Historic changes are taking place in the international system that should command our attention. Shifts in the global balance of power, barely perceptible 10 years ago, have gathered pace. The unipolar era, characterised by America’s unrivalled primacy in global affairs, is drawing to a close. The contours of an emerging multipolar world, with its multiple competing sources of global power, are becoming more clearly visible. How Nigeria apprehends and responds to this emerging multipolar world, and the shifts in global power which birthed it, will have far reaching consequences for our country’s prosperity and role in the 21st century.

The Face of a Changing World

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left the US as the sole Superpower in world politics, and gave the international system its unipolar structure (a system with a single power centre). In the years following this, the US enjoyed unparalleled freedom – unique for any Great Power in the modern era – to shape global order according to its values and interests. By most accounts, this era of unipolarity is fading. Several powerful trends are eroding its foundations and heralding the onset of a multipolar world. I will focus my remarks on what I believe to be the three most important.

The Rise of New Powers

The leaders of the 5-member BRICS pose for a photo-op for the 2014 summit in Fortaleza in Brazil. (Wikipedia)

The first major trend is the rise of new economic and geopolitical centres of power; the most consequential of which are the so-called BRIC group of countries, Brazil, Russia, India, and China - South Africa was invited to join in 2010 to give the forum a more representative membership. 

Brazil, India and China especially, having posted impressive growth rates for the past few decades, have leapt from the margins of the international system to become significant actors in both the global economy, and in global governance institutions such as the G-20. Russia similarly, coasting on the oil boom of the 2000s and determined to restore its status as a world power, has become increasingly assertive on the diplomatic stage.

In 2003 only China (then 6th), of the four BRIC countries, ranked amongst the 10 largest economies in the world. 10 years later, from World Bank’s estimates for 2013, not only has China moved up to 2nd place; Brazil now sits in 7th, Russia in 8th, and India in 10th. From most forecasts, by 2050 India will have broken into the top three largest economies, Brazil into the top five, whilst China will have occupied the summit for about a decade. The Economist Intelligence Unit and Goldman Sachs estimate that China could actually equal the US in nominal GDP sometime in the 2020s, and thereafter pull ahead. Whereas IMF GDP estimates based on Purchasing Power Parity (a method now increasingly used by economic analysts because it factors in differences in cost of living between countries) suggest China surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy in October 2014.

Though frequently categorised as a rising power, China however is undeniably a rising Great Power. The National Intelligence Council (NIC), the premier institution for strategic thinking within the US’ intelligence community, reflecting on the remarkable speed of China’s climb up the ladder of world power, commented that: “China’s power has consistently increased faster than expected”. 

Indicative of the quickening pace of change, by 2025 the World Bank expects the Dollar to lose its solitary dominance of international trade, and for a transition to a three currency world to commence – with the Euro and China’s Renminbi joining the Dollar as the world’s principal reserve currencies. China’s growing economic size and the “rapid globalization of its corporations and banks” constitute the main factors driving the internationalization of the Renminbi, notes the World Bank.

The processes of change are similarly at work transforming the geopolitical landscape of our continent. The NIC report suggests, “Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nigeria have the potential to approach or surpass South Africa in overall national power”.

Egypt, despite its potential for growth, remains mired in the tumult shaking its domestic and regional environment. Ethiopia on the other hand has made giant strides in unchaining itself from underdevelopment and economic dependence, and aspires to become a middle-income country by 2025. It is now not uncommon to hear Ethiopia referred to as a “developmental state” in the same mould as the “Tigers” of East Asia. Nothing reflects Ethiopia’s progress and ambition to become an African Power than the ongoing construction of its controversial “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” – expected to be completed in 2017, at a of cost $4.1 billion, and wholly financed internally (through the sale of treasury bonds to its citizens). When completed the GERD will be the largest hydroelectric station in Africa; and is expected to generate sufficient energy to transform Ethiopia to a regional energy hub. The deputy head of the GERD project defended the government’s decision to shun international funding thus: “We have finished with the syndrome of dependence”.

Nigeria similarly, despite the growing intensity of the insurgency in its northeast, has continued to enjoy reasonably robust macroeconomic growth (though this may now be threatened by plummeting oil prices). The country’s revised GDP estimate released early 2014 merely confirmed what had been the case since 2010: Nigeria ($520 billion) has eclipsed South Africa ($350 billion) to become the continent’s largest economy. An historic development as this will be the first time in the post-colonial era that South Africa has lost its economic lead on the continent. By World Bank figures Nigeria actually briefly climbed to the top in 1976, only for South Africa to swiftly reclaim its mantle the following year. The gap between the two economies is now sufficiently large enough for Nigeria’s stay at the summit this time around to be more durable. Furthermore, the IMF forecasts that by 2017 South Africa may slip further down the African rankings; with Egypt replacing it as the continent’s second largest economy.

Economic size however, though vitally important, is not the only determinant of national power. Other constitutive elements include such factors as economic competitiveness, productivity, industrial capacity, military strength, political stability, quality of leadership and governance effectiveness, quality of institutions and infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and technological innovativeness. These are areas in which Nigeria continues to perform poorly. Improving on these factors will be the key to Nigeria actualizing its growing economic potential. 

Our internal weaknesses will always be a barrier to us wielding the diplomatic influence we feel our growing economic importance entitles us to. As Adebayo Adedeji, the country’s Minister of Economic Development and Reconstruction in the 1970s said: “No country that is confronted with a long period of political instability, economic stagnation, and regression, and is reputed to be one of the most corrupt societies in the world, has a moral basis to lead others. If it tries to, it will be resisted”.

Hence in 2010 when it became desirable that an African country join BRIC to make the forum more reflective of the diverse emerging world it aspires to represent, South Africa was chosen – thereby transforming the name to BRICS. South Africa is also the sole African representative in G-20 - one of the most important global governance institutions. 

Empty boasts of being the “Giant of Africa” are no substitute for real power and influence in international politics. In terms of the quality of national power indices (as opposed to the quantitative indices upon which Nigeria's claims often rests - e.g. largest this, largest that etc.), geopolitical analysts and foreign powers still see South Africa as the leading Sub-Saharan African power. 

Geopolitical Competition and Parallel Institutions

Russian and Chinese Armoured Personnel Carriers prepare for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s 2014 annual Peace Mission military exercises. 2014’s was the largest so far in the organization’s history and involved 7000 troops from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. (Eurasianet)  

The second major trend is the increased intensity of geopolitical competition amongst the major powers and the growth of parallel global institutions. The four most consequential rising powers – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – have each expressed their preference for a multipolar world order; and are actively taking steps to accelerate its emergence.

Russia, most dramatically, by opting for direct confrontation with the US and its western allies over the fate of the belt of countries along its western border. In the mid-2000s, Russia feeling disappointed and threatened by the continued eastward expansion of NATO, despite what it felt had been assurances no such thing would happen, abandoned its western leaning foreign policy and instead has worked since then to re-establish itself as an independent Great Power. It has stepped up its use of the hard and soft power mechanisms at its disposal – coercive diplomacy, economic incentives, energy restrictions, and military force in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine – in a bid to assert its primacy in its “near abroad”; the first step, it believes, in regaining full-fledged Great Power status. 

Another feature of Russia’s attempts to “organize” its neighbourhood is through the construction of the Eurasian Economic Union, a parallel to the EU, to integrate the economy of its neighbours into its own – and thereby lessen the economic and geopolitical pull of the EU. 

However, the country whose efforts are likely to pose the most comprehensive challenge to global order is China.

The “Parallel Structures” promoted by China. Source: Mercator Institute for China Studies

China has similarly become more assertive in enforcing its claims in its region. It is also using its growing economic and diplomatic clout to construct alternative china-centred international institutions through which it hopes to reposition global order onto a foundation more reflective of the multipolarity it desires. These so called “parallel structures” – such as the Chiang Mai initiative, to parallel the IMF in Southeast Asia; China UnionPay, which aims to rival Visa and MasterCard’s global footprint; or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a NATO-like China and Russia co-led regional security institution for Central Asia – whilst intended to complement rather than overturn current institutions, nevertheless underscores the realignment of global order now underway.

The most significant development in this parallel institution building, particularly from the view of Nigeria’s foreign and development policy, is the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) in July 2014. The NDB – a BRICS initiative – aims to complement, and eventually counterbalance, the World Bank in development finance. It also aims to serve as an alternative source of credit for member states’ facing short-term balance of payment deficits – a role that parallels the IMF. With a starting capital of $50 billion (to eventually rise to $100 billion), and an aim to lend up to $34 billion per year, primarily to finance long-term infrastructure projects in developing countries, the bank is set to begin lending in 2016.

The establishment of the NDB is a positive development for Nigeria, and other developing states. The proliferation of regional (Africa Development Bank, Asia Development Bank, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank etc.) and global development finance institutions (World Bank and NDB) obviously means an enlarged and diverse resource pool from which developing states can draw on to fund their developmental projects. 

Similarly, the World Bank and the NDB, though eventual competitors, need not necessarily be seen as direct rivals for Nigeria's developmental needs as both institutions have a different emphasis: NDB aims to focus on financing infrastructural projects, whereas the World Bank has traditionally focused on financing social projects such as health, education etc. Both institutions, from the point of view of Nigeria’s foreign and economic policy, should therefore be seen as complementary avenues for acquiring development finance.

The Return of Asia

For much of the past 2 thousand years, China and India had, by some distance, the largest share of global GDP. The balance turned in the 1800s as the western countries underwent their industrial revolution. Source: CIA World Fact Book, based on data from Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: Historical Statistics. 

The third major trend foreshadowing the coming multipolar world is the return of Asia to the centre stage of the world economy. Angus Maddison’s monumental study of world economic growth over the past 2000 years tells us that for the first one thousand eight hundred years of the last 2 millenia, China and India were the largest economies. In the 1800s however, the west – broadly speaking Europe and the US – achieved industrial take-off and vaulted ahead; subsequently spreading its political power and cultural influence to encompass the globe.

In the 18th century, during its period of industrialization, the west’s share of world manufacturing output witnessed a meteoric rise. Source: Author's chart based on figures from Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p. 149.

In 1800 for example, Europe and the US constituted 29% of world manufacturing output; whilst China, India and Japan alone constituted 56.5%. A 100 years later, in 1900, Europe and the US, now fully in the grip of their industrial revolutions, had grown to 85.6%; whilst that of the three Asian nations, stuck in agrarian backwardness, had drastically shrunk to 10.3%.

In 1960, the year of Nigeria’s birth, the world looked unmistakably western. The dominant currents in world politics – economic dynamism and innovation, military and technological pre-eminence, political and cultural influence – all radiated from the west. Two European offshoots, the US and the USSR, stood atop the summit of world power – their globe-girdling rivalry giving the international system its then bipolar structure.

This trend is now being reversed. The rise of new powers is taking place amidst the backdrop of an historic shift of the world’s economic and geopolitical centre of gravity back to Asia. Hence some now speak of a “coming global turn” to describe the eastward shift in wealth and power. 

The National Intelligence Council report referenced earlier suggests that by 2030 Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of GDP, technological investment and military spending. By 2050, the only western country expected to still enjoy a place in the ranks of the five largest economies will be the US.

The west’s two centuries long material and cultural primacy is irreversibly on the wane. This should not be mistaken for precipitous decline however, as the west will remain a dynamic force in world politics in the 21st century. On the other hand Asia is unquestionably in the ascendance. The region will likely remain the main locomotive of global growth in the 21st century, but this should however not be mistaken for a coming era of unchallenged Asian predominance. Instead what we are witnessing is a diffusion of power to areas much broader than one region alone. 

The emerging world order now taking shape will be one where the dynamic centres of growth and power will be dispersed across the industrialized world and the newly industrializing one. We stand on the cusp of a multipolar world. 

What are the implications of a multipolar world order for Nigeria’s foreign policy?

The Case for a “Multivector” Foreign Policy

An Enlarged Diplomatic Space

Scholars of International Relations tell us that system structure (whether the International System is unipolar, bipolar, multipolar etc.) shapes the foreign policy options of states. During the Cold War (1945-1989) the international system was bipolar as there were only two Great Powers – the US and the USSR – contending for global influence. Their globe-wide rivalry narrowed the diplomatic space and forced states into aligning with one or the other polar power. Even India, a foundational architect of the “non-aligned” concept, tilted towards one pole as confirmed by its 1971 treaty on strategic cooperation with the Soviet Union.

After the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the fall of the USSR in 1991, the international system became unipolar – with the US as the sole Great Power. During this period the diplomatic space narrowed further as states faced a stark option: bandwagon with the US (which most countries, including Russia, chose to do in the 1990s and the early 2000s) or lay low and shun an assertive global role (which China and India chose to do during the same period). Those that chose otherwise – e.g. Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – brought disaster upon themselves.

Despite the rhetoric of being “non-aligned”, Nigeria’s foreign policy thrust during these two periods (Cold War and Post-Cold War) was similarly very much aligned, and largely pro-western; at times unabashedly so, such as during the First and Second Republics (1960-1966 and 1979-1983). Whilst there have been periodic tensions over the decades between Nigeria and its western partners (primarily the US and the UK), the reality of economic and technological dependence on the west and the system’s structure meant Nigeria was firmly lodged in the western orbit. The fact of the country’s chronic economic underdevelopment, poor leadership and internal instability has also ensured that Nigeria’s role in the global system has always been highly circumscribed, and has never risen above being an oil terminal for the industrialized economies of the West.

One big advantage of multipolarity is that Nigeria now has the opportunity to free itself from dependence and diversify its strategic partners. The enlarged diplomatic space, which a multipolar distribution of power affords, means states can now manoeuvre between the multiple competing power centres to pursue their national interests. Given the fluidity of multipolarity, and the multiplicity of major geopolitical actors within it, diplomatic dexterity and flexibility will once more be a valued skill-set for states to possess. As Barry Posen, a scholar of International Relations, said when discussing the advantages of multipolarity: “Diplomacy becomes a respected career again under multipolarity”.

How should Nigeria orient itself in a multipolar world order? What foreign policy doctrine will enable it to harness the opportunities of multipolarity?

Away from Nonalignment and Towards a Multivector Foreign Policy

A Multivector foreign policy essentially means that Nigeria should seek to develop a pragmatic and balanced relationship with all the major geopolitical and economic powers – especially the US, China, EU, Russia, India, Japan and Brazil. The breadth and depth of the strategic relationship along a particular vector – i.e. with a particular power, or group of powers – should depend on at least three factors:

  • The national interest (i.e. broadly speaking the nation's security and developmental needs)

  • Developments in the international arena (i.e. An international crisis forcing Nigeria to lean towards or away from one vector. However, developments in the international arena should never be allowed to lead to a substantial deterioration in strategic cooperation with a major power except when the issue concerned is of fundamental importance to Nigeria’s national interest.)

  • Quality of the developmental resources and assistance to be gained from the strategic partnership (i.e. technical training, capacity building, favourable loan conditions and lines of credit, foreign direct investment, technology transfers in joint ventures etc.)

Multivectorism has at least two advantages for Nigeria: (1) Nigeria will gain some measure of strategic autonomy – i.e. it will free itself from undue dependence on a single external power and acquire greater space to forge its own developmental path and pursue its own interests. (2) By having multiple strategic or developmental partners, Nigeria will acquire the flexibility of choosing partners that best suit its developmental needs at any given time on any given issue.

Nonalignment has been, at least rhetorically, the basic principle guiding Nigeria’s relations with the major world powers. It essentially committed Nigeria to forswearing a comprehensive strategic relationship with any major power centre; and instead to maintain a position of neutrality whilst pursuing its national interests. 

Like nonalignment, multivectorism also eschews entering into alliances with a world power or a coalition of such powers. But there is an important difference between the two concepts. Multivectorism, unlike nonalignment, sees the goal of maintaining a neutral and equidistant position between the major powers at all times as unattainable. All the major third world countries that proclaimed nonalignment as the basis of their engagement with the two world powers during the Cold War fell way short of adhering strictly to its principles.

As international politics is fluid (especially under conditions of multipolarity), there will always be times when geopolitical necessity or a convergence of interests tilt states one way or another - towards this or that global power. Therefore Nigeria should jettison nonalignment as a relic of the Cold War and embrace a multivector foreign policy. The three factors outlined above should be the basis for assessing which world power, or group of powers, Nigeria tilts towards at any given time. Nonalignment, though conceptually attractive, is an unattainable goal.

A multivector foreign policy allows an aspiring regional power like Nigeria to be a dynamic force in global politics. It also affords Nigeria a measure of autonomy and flexibility to proactively seek out profitable relationships with a diverse range of consequential strategic partners, without being unduly dependent on any one of them. 

As the senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’ South Asia programme, Ashley Tellis, said when commenting on India’s gradual evolution away from nonalignment: “Nonalignment is an impossible dream … for states with big aspirations”.

Concluding Thoughts

The world around us is changing. Whilst we remain deeply consumed by our internal challenges there is the danger that by the time we lift our gaze to reflect upon the state of things in the world the geopolitical landscape spread out before us would have already changed in unrecognisable ways. The curtain has dropped on an era. The contours of a new one are still being formed. If Nigeria desires to shape and determine its destiny within the emerging multipolar world, these are the times in which to act: when the new world order is in its formative stages.

“The old road is rapidly aging … The order is rapidly fading ... For the times, they are a-changin’” 



  • Adebajo, A. and Mustapha, A. R. (eds) (2008), Gulliver’s Troubles: Nigeria’s Foreign Policy After the Cold War. KwaZulu-Natal: KwaZulu-Natal Press.

  • Kennedy, P. M. (1988), The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000. London: Unwin Hyman Limited.

  • Kupchan, C. A. (2012), No One’s World: The West, The Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Mankoff, J. (2009), Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.



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