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Nigeria’s BRICS dance

Over the last two decades, the Eastern front has continuously appealed to the Global South and offered an alternative to Western-led solutions for their development…

Over the last two decades, the Eastern front has continuously appealed to the Global South and offered an alternative to Western-led solutions for their development dilemmas. From providing sanctuary to developing countries at odds with the West to establishing development partnerships, the trajectory leading to the establishment of BRICS, particularly for China and Russia, has been guided by the aspiration to erode and counterbalance the overwhelming dominance that the United States exerts over the global economic and political landscape. 

The bloc initially began as BRIC, a coalition of four nations—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—in 2009. South Africa was invited to join the party a year later, resulting in its transformation into BRICS. The invitation of six new members to the bloc at the group’s 15th annual summit last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, is not as surprising as the fact that some of the invitees thrive under the protection of the United States to survive and assert geopolitical might in a volatile region. 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have heavily relied on the United States for security guarantees to counter geopolitical threats in the Middle East. Their attempt to align with Iran, from which they had previously sought such protection, must have left Washington DC bewildered and prompted a reassessment of their future relationship. However, the United States is a victim of its own excessive power, and perceptions of its utilization of such a dominating hold on the world play a role in the growing quest for an alternative. 

Beyond the dominance of the US dollar in global trade, whose scarcity has triggered economic troubles in other countries, Washington’s imposition of unilateral sanctions to penalise and weaken the economies of other nations serves as a shared interest binding the members of the expanding bloc—BRICS+. Consequently, this emerging alliance has become a counterweight to G7 countries, an economy that BRICS reportedly surpassed last April. 

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Including Iran as a suitable geopolitical partner meriting a position within the BRICS+ alliance is far from a miracle. Notably, despite its historical alignment with the United States, Saudi Arabia conceded to China’s mediation in re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran. Similarly, even before the UAE’s interest in the BRICS coalition, India had engaged in an agreement with the oil-rich Middle Eastern state, facilitating trade in Indian rupees and Emirati dirhams, thus moving away from dependence on the US dollar. Paradoxically, both these nations still rely on the United States to safeguard their distinct security interests—one against China and the other against Iran. This landscape was once firmly entrenched within the domain of America’s sphere of influence. 

The most alarming aspect of the 15th BRICS summit in South Africa this week wasn’t that six geopolitically-advantaged and energy-rich countries were invited to join BRICS. Instead, according to reports, more than 40 countries had expressed interest in joining BRICS, with 23 formally applying to join but failing to meet the membership criteria. For the G7 countries, this development is concerning as it poses the possibility of their global influence being counterbalanced. 

However, despite the emotional investment in and romanticisation of BRICS or the proposed BRICS+, as the long-awaited counterweight to the West or the G7, the bloc is not a fairytale. It doesn’t come with ready solutions for members’ local economic crises or politically orchestrated dysfunctions. The dominant factor in the international system has consistently been self-interest, and no state should lose sight of its objectives and interests on the international stage due to the excitement of opposing the Anglo-American economic and political structure. 

India and China have been members of BRICS for nearly 15 years, and that hasn’t put an end to their border disputes. In June 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, around 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash with Chinese forces in a disputed Himalayan border area. This clash was described as the first deadly encounter in the border area in at least 45 years. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, accused India of crossing the border twice, provoking and attacking Chinese personnel, resulting in a serious physical confrontation. 

The dynamism and unpredictability of the international system, where even regional neighbours can escalate into a state of war or hostility, highlight the necessity of strategic thinking and analysis before entering alliances. This contrasts with embarking on misguided acts of activism just because other states are doing so. Even currency swap deals come with conditions that all participating states must understand. In 2017, China and South Korea had to end their $56 billion currency swap deal due to diplomatic tension triggered by Seoul’s deployment of a US missile shield. This led to mutually beneficial economic arrangements being revisited due to one country’s military activity. 

Perhaps that’s why the response of Saudi Arabia to its invitation to join BRICS amused me. Speaking at the summit in Johannesburg, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, stated that his country and the BRICS members shared a strong belief in “respecting the independence and sovereignty of states, and not interfering in their affairs.” He then revealed that his country had not yet decided whether to join BRICS. He appreciated the invitation but awaited more details from the group regarding the nature of membership before making a decision. 

This echoes Nigeria’s address at the summit, which was delivered by Vice President Kashim Shettima on behalf of President Bola Tinubu. Nigeria participated in the summit not to hastily pursue membership without consultation, he said at the BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue. Instead, the purpose was to assure the group that “the new government, which began less than three months ago, is examining the variables and evaluating the scope and level of regional and global cooperation needed to establish Nigeria as the desired friend and partner.” 

He also put forth an argument that aligns with the objectives of the group and favours curbing the Anglo-American domination of the world’s economic and political system: “The international global governance structure to which we currently adhere was established before the independence of the African continent and many countries in the global south. Therefore, it is imperative to reform global governance to align with the realities of today’s world and to acknowledge the necessity for partnerships that ensure shared prosperity, inclusivity and sustainable development.” 

Whether it’s the East or the West, the partnership Nigeria seeks must be grounded in the understanding that the world cannot be decoupled or deglobalised. It’s essential to recognise that both Washington, DC and Beijing are driven by the same self-interests as other states.

BRICS isn’t a place for a free lunch, and Nigeria’s decision-makers must approach the table with an awareness of this fact, understanding the conditions, and recognising the strengths and weaknesses of each member. Most of the BRICS+ states, if actualised, are commodity-dependent states and lack similar economic interests, or they have more interests with other non-member states like the United States. 

BRICS+ membership should be pursued without engaging in acts of rebellion against development partners with whom a state shares objectives, or as an avenue to spite other alliances in which a state still operates and derives benefits. The state must not yield to the desires of emotionally-charged bystanders with zero understanding of foreign policy, who disapprove of the country’s decision to consult before joining the group. There’s no free lunch anywhere. 

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