The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM): An example of digital diplomacy in practice
This article is part of the African Digital Diplomacy series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University.
iplomacy plays an important role in the implementation of foreign policies of countries in the international community. According to the realist theory of international relations, states seek security and power within the international system. In order to acquire these, they build strategic relationships with one another, constructing alliances in the pursuit of their own national interests. Their vulnerability, desire for power, common interests with other states, and their realisation of the benefits of trade motivate states to partake in diplomacy. Countries conduct relations through bilateral and multilateral channels, which, traditionally, are by person-to-person, face-to-face or by non-technological means.
Diplomacy is, however, undergoing fundamental changes. Countries across the globe are increasingly embracing the use of digital technologies in diplomacy and to efficiently carry out the functions of diplomats: a practice often referred to as digital diplomacy.
In general terms, digital diplomacy refers to the broad use of technology, particularly the internet and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) based innovations, in the conduct of diplomacy, but in specific terms, scholars have continued to grapple with a universally accepted definition of the concept. While various scholars have offered different definitions, those like Ilan Manor have argued for the adoption of the term “the digitalisation of diplomacy” instead of digital diplomacy, which according to him, “more fully captures the temporal and normative influences of digital technologies”.
For this article, digital diplomacy is conceived as the continuation of foreign policy by technological means. It is “seen as an important tool in furthering a nation’s foreign policy as it enables direct interaction and engagement with foreign publics”. Digital technologies, including social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, facilitate communication, accelerate decision-making, multiply the quantity of rapidly available information and provide platforms for communication with the public.
Digital diplomacy thus denotes, among other things, taking advantage of digital technologies by incorporating social media platforms in the activities of heads of states, ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, agencies of governments etc. Social media is providing a new diplomatic space for public participation and expression, as it involves dialogue and engagement with information as opposed to the one-way flows of information that characterised traditional forms of diplomacy. Due to the acceleration of communication, decision-taking becomes more urgent, which imposes considerable pressure on decision-makers in engaging stakeholders concerning local and national positions.
Thus, it can be argued that, from the perspective of soft power, social media platforms can provide the opportunity for countries to build positive image through engagement and dialogue as they provide new tools for facilitating engagement with audiences in an evolving information environment. Thus, decision makers are increasingly under pressure to use social media and are open to public criticism through digital platforms. Through social media exchanges, government officials and the interested publics, both domestic and international, are able to create collaborations and relationships.
The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM)
Digital diplomacy became more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic, as countries increasingly utilise technology to provide services and communicate with the international community. Meetings, summits and events are virtually convened, reducing travel times and risks.
Like other countries in the world, Nigeria has had to adapt to the use of technology in the wake of the pandemic. The country’s leaders, ministries and agencies are increasing utilising ICT and social media tools to deliver government services. For instance, President Muhammadu Buhari and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are both extremely active on Twitter. The president has 3.4 million followers on his @MBuhari account.
Nigeria also deploys technology in the pursuance of its foreign policy objectives by providing diplomatic functions, including representation and promotion of the home nation, establishing both bilateral and multilateral relations, consular services and social engagements via digital tools.
The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) was established by the Nigerian Government in 2019 to mediate relations with Nigerians in the diaspora for mutual developmental benefits of diasporans and the Nigerian homeland.
Professor Bola Akinterinwa has referred to it as Nigeria’s “newest foreign policy instrument”. The commission utilises digital technologies and social media platforms for the actualisation of its goals. It has a functional website, a Facebook page, an active Twitter presence and uses several other social media platforms by which it constantly engages with different audiences. The commission uses feedback from these platforms to carry out its activities and provides necessary information to its digital followers.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, with the disruption of travel and physical meetings, NIDCOM organised, among others, webinar meetings with international agencies like the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Bank and the AU at various levels.
The commission also hosted several online programmes including interactive sessions with Nigerians abroad via Zoom, virtual townhall meetings, and 2020 National Diaspora Day on Zoom.
During this uncertain period, the commission offered advice and information on evacuation flights and evacuation processes. The agency also facilitated the evacuation of stranded Nigerians from various countries and the rescue and safe return of Nigerians trafficked to some destination countries for oppressive and heinous activities like slavery and sexual abuse. The evacuation processes were broadcast on social media platforms, which help stranded Nigerians to stay informed and their arrivals were also promptly broadcast on the social media, especially on Twitter.
Harnessing the benefits of digital diplomacy
The internet and social media has become part of our daily lives. According to data from Statista.com, in 2019, the number of internet users worldwide was 4.13 billion, up from 3.92 billion in 2018. Statista records the current (2020) number of internet users in Nigeria at 99.05 million and projects it will grow to 131.7 million in 2023.
An estimated 3.6 billion people are using social media worldwide, a number projected to increase to almost 4.41 billion in 2025. There were approximately 24.59 million social network users in Nigeria in 2019, and this figure is expected to grow to 44.63 million users in 2025. From these statistics, it is clear that countries need to use the opportunities provided by the internet and social media platforms to make themselves visible to the international community.
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, NIDCOM has been able to continue with its activities using digital tools to facilitates its goals, chief of which is to project a positive image of Nigeria to the international community. Through its activities and visibility on social media platforms, the commission has continued to facilitate and sustain communication with Nigerians home and abroad, as well as international audiences.
The activities of NIDCOM on social media platforms typify efforts by African countries in embracing digital diplomacy. For instance, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo utilises two official Twitter handles, @GhanaPresidency and @NAkufoAddo. These accounts are used to communicate, provide information to Ghanaians and other interested audiences, as well as share updates on the coronavirus pandemic.
However, more can be done by NIDCOM and by extension, African countries, in order to harness the opportunities of digital technologies in diplomacy. The commission should innovative and explore best practices, new products and platforms and better ways to embrace technology. It needs to create more engaging social media content that will entice and sustain the attention of its audience. It could engage social media influencers to promote its activities and create contests for more audience engagement.
Dedicated staff must constantly monitor the platforms for real time engagements in order to ensure that queries are attended to at all times and real time information are constantly provided. There is a need to encourage questions, as well as address criticisms promptly.
In conclusion, digital technologies and virtual interactions do not replace or negate physical, non-technological means of practising diplomacy. Rather they complement traditional diplomacy. Diplomats ought to move with the times by harnessing the potential of technology and social media to advance their national interests and to facilitate international cooperation.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.