The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic, Research, and International Partnerships) at Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, and Global Vice Chair of the International Law Association, Professor Damilola Olawuyi (SAN), in this interview with Onozure Dania, says Nigeria’s foreign policy needs an urgent reset in 2024
International law and diplomacy, especially securing a significant inflow of foreign direct investment, has been identified as a key policy priority by the current administration. What is your assessment of the progress made so far?
Indeed, the Bola Tinubu administration took office with a vow to put international diplomacy at the centre of our development strategy. Most especially securing foreign deals and investments that will deliver rapid economic development, employment, and infrastructure financing needed to lift our people out of poverty. There have indeed been positive signs of such increased global engagements, with Nigeria playing key roles in landmark international summits such as the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and the most recent COP-28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
However, 2023 was generally a slow and underwhelming start in terms of a clear and discernible foreign policy agenda. Early blunders such as the outrage and backlash that trailed the rushed recall of Nigerian Ambassadors were a preventable embarrassment for a country of Nigeria’s stature. Furthermore, more than six months after taking office, many of our diplomatic missions have no clear leadership structure in place, while uncertainties also surround our representation in the UN bodies.
This means that no matter the excellent progress the President makes when he embarks on foreign missions, there is little or no structure in place for clear and actionable follow-up. No country will feel confident to engage with an ambassador whose future is hanging in the balance. There is therefore an urgent need to resolve the appointment of new and returning ambassadors as soon as possible, including Nigeria’s representation at UN bodies such as WTO, WIPO, UNESCO amongst others.
Furthermore, the government’s responses to the different coups d’etat in neighboring African countries were mostly rushed and inconsistent.
There is a clear and urgent need to reset our foreign diplomacy and move away from what I call ‘ knee-jerk diplomacy’ in which actions are announced without a clear implementation framework.
We need to articulate a clear and investment-friendly foreign diplomacy framework that will bring about international development financing needed to grow our domestic economy. Nigeria has a huge financing gap. We have a lot of projects that need to be completed, good roads, education, and health care but we simply don’t have the money. In this situation, what do other countries do? They try to secure the best deals that will deliver win-win outcomes in terms of international financing and development. Like I said earlier, in international law, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So, it is imperative for us to send the best minds that can negotiate the best deals for us. Mobilizing adequate international and domestic finance should therefore be the urgent focal point of our international diplomacy.
Speaking of win-win outcomes, one of the key issues for Nigeria is how to remain competitive in an era of reduced demand for oil and gas. What should be the focus of our foreign diplomacy in this area?
I am a strong advocate of a just, inclusive, and orderly energy transition that leaves no country, no person, or no sector behind. At the last UN General Assembly in New York, I delivered a report of our working group titled “Extractive Sector, Just Transition, and Human Rights” in which I called for international solidarity to ensure that global efforts to transition to low-carbon energy sources do not constrain progress on human rights and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially in developing countries such as Nigeria.
The energy transition cannot replicate or create new forms of human rights abuses, including unemployment, social exclusions, land grabs, poverty, energy insecurity, and conflict risks. Without adequate safeguards, developing countries may become the sacrificial lambs for net zero and decarbonization.
Our foreign diplomacy framework in this area must therefore emphasize the need for a just and inclusive global decarbonization agenda that balances the interests, priorities, and needs of developing countries in accordance with international law. For example, this is 2024, and currently, more than 1 billion people (13% of the world’s total population) still lack access to electricity, with about 600 million of those in Africa.
Even in Nigeria, constant supply of electricity, reliability, and affordability remain key issues. We need a fair and inclusive transition that does not compromise our ability to tackle the current energy poverty challenges facing the country. This will include significant financing, technology, and development assistance that will enable us to deploy lower carbon economic models over the next years.
In this regard, our report recommends that “developed countries should mobilize financial and technical resources to assist resource-dependent countries as part of a common global effort and international solidarity to keep the energy transition ambition on track.” There is also a need to harness lower carbon and environmentally preferable transition fuels, such as natural gas, that will help combat the current energy poverty emergency facing our world.
How can you assess Nigeria’s readiness to achieve the SDGs?
In 2015, Nigeria joined other countries of the world to commit to the attainment of the UNSDGs by the year 2030. The 17 SDGs reflect global aspirations to end hunger and poverty and accelerate progress on energy security, health, education, gender equality, economic growth, conservation of water, biodiversity, natural resources, and tackling climate change amongst others.
This is 2024, so we have exactly six years left to achieve all of these important targets and goals. While it may be difficult to make the same level of progress across all the SDGs, we need to focus on our core strengths and advance them well to globally competitive standards. The SDG framework is about delivering economic growth that is both environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive.
This requires a conscious effort to integrate SDG analysis when measuring progress in all key sectors. It is about the proverbial ‘using one stone to aim for many birds.’ For example, rather than focusing on creating new jobs, we should instead aim to create more “green jobs.”
This includes jobs relating to waste recovery and recycling, water conservation, green transportation, biodiversity, eco-entrepreneurship, and environmental research and technology development, among others. For example, as far back as in 2007, the United States passed the Green Jobs Act which authorized up to US$125 million in funding to establish national and state job training programs to help accelerate green employment in key sectors and industries, such as energy-efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy-efficient vehicles, and biofuels development. To ensure effective implementation, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics actively collects information on the number of green jobs created across key sectors.
This idea of greening the economy is urgently required to accelerate progress on all the SDGs. We need to develop national strategies and legislative frameworks to advance the creation of green jobs and net-zero workforce, especially in energy-intensive industries. By devoting a significant chunk of economic recovery plans to finance green and climate resilient infrastructure development programs, Nigeria can record multisector progress in achieving net-zero emissions targets of the Paris Agreement, while also advancing the various SDG targets relating to job creation, poverty reduction, biodiversity, conservation, and low carbon transition in key sectors.
As the President of the International Law Association, what is ILA Nigeria doing to promote knowledge and awareness on the green economy, and just transition and investment-focused foreign diplomacy that you described?
Many times, African countries, including Nigeria, end up with lopsided international agreements and deals simply because go there not with the best minds that understand the intricacies of international dealmaking. For example, we were all alarmed by the P&ID contract scam that almost cost the country a whopping $11 billion.
In a country with several international law experts, this should never happen. We need people who understand the intricacies of international law to be able to go there and negotiate the best deals to bring home financing needed to eradicate poverty, address climate change, and provide our societies and people with the required modern energy sources and infrastructure to lead a decent life.
Our goal at the ILA is to prepare the next generation of international law experts and diplomats who can support Nigeria’s foreign diplomacy agenda.
The ILA was established in 1873 in Brussels, with the objective of promoting the study and clarification of international law, both public and private. At the Nigerian Branch, we are at the forefront of providing world-class capacity development programs, workshops, and public dialogue to bridge the current knowledge gaps on all aspects of international law, including commercial arbitration, contract negotiation, environment, and just energy transition. Just a few weeks ago, we had a much-publicized and highly successful end-of-year dinner on “Arbitration and Putting our House in Order” which provided insights on how to address fraud and corruption in the practice of arbitration.
We are also now preparing for our next Annual Conference scheduled for April 2024 which will address the role of international law in promoting public-private partnerships (PPPs) for infrastructure development financing. Amongst other important topics to be discussed, the conference will provide insights from leading international law experts on how we can leverage climate financing options such as concessional climate infrastructure loans, green bonds, climate guarantees, and debt for climate swaps from international sources to implement green development projects across different sectors in Nigeria.
These are all urgent foreign policy issues of our time which Nigeria cannot afford to take the back seat on. We will continue to provide best practices on how Nigeria can leverage its comparative advantage as Africa’s largest economy to secure high-impact investments and once again take the lead role in international diplomacy. We welcome all international law enthusiasts to join us at the ILA in promoting Nigeria’s brand of international law and diplomacy to the world.
You have practiced and taught international law in Africa, North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. You also received the coveted rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) rank in 2020 at the age of 37, becoming the youngest academic SAN in Nigeria, what are the challenges you faced in achieving these unprecedented feats?
Experiencing the practice of law in different jurisdictions has enabled me to gain a systemic understanding of deal-making in different world cultures and traditions and has enabled me to turn challenges into opportunities both in my practice and teaching of international law. International law is a melting pot of different world traditions and legal cultures including common law, civil law, and mixed jurisdictions.
As arbitrators and sovereign counsel, we are often called upon to advise on matters that cut across these different legal traditions. Having been educated in Nigeria, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom which are common law jurisdictions, I have had the privilege of teaching and providing legal counsel in Qatar and China which are civil law jurisdictions. For example, this makes it possible for me to teach international energy and environmental law from a global perspective which contextualizes the drafting, negotiation, and interpretation of contracts from the standpoint of how Nigerians see it, as well as how counterparts in China, Qatar, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, and other jurisdictions may view it.
Furthermore, studying and working in multiple jurisdictions means I have friends in almost every country that I go to, which has greatly enhanced global networking and business development.
Having received so much support and mentoring from institutions abroad, my ultimate aim as an international lawyer is to be at the forefront of leveraging my training and experience to attract the best international investment opportunities that can spur sustainable development in the country and motivate and inspire the next generation. I am glad that my efforts in this regard have been recognized by the profession and beyond, and I look forward to doing more.