by ‘Tunji Ajibade
Nigeria recently relocated to the Middle East for seven days. Or, what else should anyone imagine when leading citizens moved their prayer altars to Israel the other week? No Nigerian should mention the nation’s number one citizen in connection with that though, otherwise the commissioner of police in your state will take it personal, charge you for insubordination to constituted authority and consequently withdraw patrol officers from your neighbourhood, much like what a certain Mr. Mbu reportedly does to a governor in one of the states in the South-South zone.
Alright. Citizens did express their different views about President Goodluck Jonathan’s visit to Israel, and to Palestine. Some had grumbled that the religious tour, a part of the visit, amounted to flaunting religion. The President’s aides wouldn’t even be bothered by that kind of talk. Instead, they lent their energy to making everyone know that the visit meant spiritual rejuvenation for Nigeria, the whole of Nigeria; after all the head of this House was involved. The aides reminded listeners that their principal took to the Middle East messages of peace, and he had also solicited diverse assistance for Nigeria. And the citizens were also informed that Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims, who were part of the visit, had patriotically queued up behind Mr. President to offer prayers in Israel, and that’s because Christians and Muslims share same holy sites. So, footages of the President’s visits to political leaders and holy sites were handsomely packaged for TV and delivered into the living rooms of Nigerians. Critics, who weren’t impressed, still wondered, however, if spiritual renewal is achievable only in countries with lands that are holy. The argument involved in all of that isn’t of interest to this writer. The diplomatic angle to the President’s visit is.
A visit by Nigeria’s leader to the Middle East can’t but be of interest to this writer whose M.Sc. Dissertation at the University of Ibadan in the 1990s had been titled: “Global Transformation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. The research process had proved an enjoyable endeavour, affording one deeper insight into how the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians had evolved. Of course, one couldn’t have had access to all those pieces of information and failed to have a moderate position concerning the two peoples involved in one of the most infectious disputes the world has ever witnessed. One had emerged from that research effort with the realisation that issues don’t always follow a straight course in history, that accidents do happen, and it’s a fact of history that ways of getting humans to move on in spite of the issues that divide them have to be constantly devised. The Israel-Palestine situation has happened; that’s a fact of history. So, finding ways of ensuring that everyone involved peacefully moves on remains the viable option. And there’s no need to emphasise that relations between the state of Israel and the people of Palestine is a classic study in conflict and conflict management both at international and local level, with lessons for Nigeria to learn.
For instance, aside from peace talks that take place between Israelis and Palestinians across world capitals, there are efforts made at the local level to foster good neighbourliness. Documentaries and news reports on such are a favourite lunch pack of this writer. Many of the efforts are touching, capable of making tears roll down cheeks and make one think: So, in spite of the conflict, ordinary folks still find a place in their hearts for one another. Diverse efforts continue to be made in this regard by spirited Israeli and Palestinian locals; they get young people on either side to talk to one another, visit one another on the two sides of the border –visible and invisible, and they organise football matches, even. If the reader gets the picture of a 10-year-old Israeli giving a 10-year-old Palestinian a hug after a game, he will understand the reason any reasonable person will not wish that one set of people dies while the other lives. For every dispute must ultimately come down to finding means of ensuring peaceful coexistence among humans, (since there must always be dispute to resolve among humans), a view that’s more than likely to resonate with any Nigerian because of the situation here at home.
Yet, the fact remains that issues between Israel and Palestine have all the ingredients that can promote unending enmity and cause trouble for all nations – race is involved, there is religious coloration, territory is at the heart of it, and no nation is spared if escalation of conflict in the region sends hip-hopping the price of one of the world’s most-traded commodities, the crude oil. Of course, if conflict in the region is not well-managed, it can spark a worldwide war. So, Nigeria firmly planting its feet in the region through the President’s visit is a move in the right direction, more so as the country is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The UN, of course, has over the years played vital roles in maintaining stability in the Middle-East; some of its earliest and more expensive peace-keeping operations had been in the region. And it’s a fact that the State of Israel literally and formally acquired life at the UN where it had secured the needed votes of member states to be recognised as a state on the international stage earlier on. The Palestinians have been using the UN platform too, one of their latest moves being the submission of a proposal not so dissimilar to the one that had formally given life to Israel.
This is a reason one thinks the message of the two-state solution that President Jonathan delivered to the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships was in order. His visit to the two feuding parties was such that it left one with scents of similar visits by a Barack Obama who often meets with the Israelis, and then the Palestinians. And what with Nigeria’s President mixing fine with his colleagues in those two places, he had carried himself well, too, walking in step and in tune with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as though they were twin brothers; never mind the obvious differences. And his postures beside Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas gave no less the same impression; Abbas had ended up seeing Nigeria’s leader all the way to the door of his car, the way one would a brother that one feels reluctant to see take his leave. Everything was perfect in the TV footages of that diplomatic shuttle except that it fleetingly struck the mind that the woman who was often a step behind, and sometimes beside President Jonathan might be mistaken by foreigners for a certain other female. Nigerians of course know that the woman in the footages was Prof. Viola Onwuliri, the minister who oversees the Foreign Affairs Ministry, although it may take a while for foreigners to get used to her.
1960 was the year Israel and Nigeria established diplomatic relations. Till the early 1970s, Israeli experts and volunteers were in Nigeria to help in the development and modernisation of agriculture, education, medicine and technology training, while hundreds of Nigerian farmers, experts, educators, academicians, students, doctors, community workers and engineers were trained in Israel. After the 1973 war, Nigeria severed diplomatic ties with Israel. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1992. Over 50 Israeli companies currently operate in Nigeria in the construction, infrastructure, hi-tech, communications and IT, agriculture and water management sectors. Solel Boneh, an Israeli construction company, is a household name in some parts of the country. In 2006, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which they agreed to consult on issues of bilateral relations and other regional and international issues of mutual interest.
Now, Israel is one nation that doesn’t give fish but teaches you how to fish. Friends of this writer who had attended one technical training or the other in that country attested to this, and incidentally the President had called on Israel to make more of its assistance available to Nigeria. Such is needed. More than this however is that this diplomatic endeavour that saw the President visiting those two feuding countries at the same time makes one remember troubled spots in Africa. Now that Nigeria returns as a member of the UN Security Council, could Jonathan utilise this for the benefit of the continent? And that means, with the Security Council’s backing, Nigeria should be more involved in setting up platforms to mediate an end to conflicts where they currently exist in Africa. It can only be one of the sensible steps to take where the nation now finds itself on the international stage. For if Nigeria wants to shake off all rivals as a candidate for a possible permanent seat in the Security Council, it might as well fully utilise whatever clouts it has at the moment.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by ‘Tunji Ajibade/Punch