President Mohammadu Buhari and members of his team are no doubt on their best efforts to address the prevailing economic challenge in the country and position Nigeria back on the path of growth and development.
The once booming and fast growing Nigerian economy is today being faced with recession, which is considered the worst in 3 decades, predominantly occasioned by the slump in the price of crude oil. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has recently said that that Nigeria’s economy shrank by 0.36 percent in the first quarter of 2016, hitting its lowest point in 25 years, and the second quarter by 2.06 percent, recording the country’s lowest growth rate in three decades.
In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine, Nigeria’s Honourable Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is adopting an “Economic Diplomacy” trajectory as a tool to foster economic growth and development in Nigeria. He also discusses how the President’s Buhari’s posturing for zero-tolerance for corruption is opening doors of economic opportunities for Nigeria. Excerpt:
Findings have shown that there are over 300 Nigerians on Death Row in some Asian countries alone; and only recently 3 Nigerians were executed in Indonesia for drug related offences, which was condemned by Amnesty International. What is your Ministry doing to find a diplomatic resolution to some of these cases?
We ask for clemency in all cases that death penalty is involved. We conduct regular visits and a follow up of the cases of each individual to provide legal services and other kind of support. We do this institutionally as part of the work of embassies around the world. The fact is that every country is sovereign; and every country has their laws. There is an obligation of any Nigerian going to any country to obey and respect the laws of the countries. In all of these cases, these country make it clear that the penalty for drug trafficking or possession is death. They have it in their laws. A lot of Nigerians going to these countries know these. The countries tell you when they give you visas and when you arrive the country. But there are obviously some Nigerians who are ready to run the risk. When they do, and they are caught, they are all of a sudden over the media. The burden shifts to the government: What are you doing to save these people? We really have to look at this holistically and be truthful to our citizens. We have to take responsibility for our actions and be careful what we do.
The President, during his inaugural address, stated that Nigeria would play the leadership role the continent expects of it. One year on, would you say, the administration have kept to this promise?
I will say in assuming leadership in the continent in a number of areas. For instance, this administration drove the reform process in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West Africa States). We held our contributions to ECOWAS. And we insisted on the important reforms that needed to be made. We rallied ECOWAS member states to take more seriously about the leadership of the African Union and developing a strategy that led to the reopening of the elections for the leadership positions in the African Union. We really feel we need strong caliber of people there and we need to drive for a stronger AU. Nigeria is very much in a leadership position, and other countries rally behind Nigeria. We are also pushing the issue of the peace and security architecture for the AU, to have rapid deployment force or standby force. There are a number of countries looking for other mechanism. And we are taking leadership position in pushing for this.
The Buhari-led administration has maintained a zero-tolerance for corruption; would you say this posture have contributed in any way towards strengthening Nigeria’s foreign relations?
It has won us respect with a number of partners. It has opened up doors to a number of our partners who felt we did not have the enabling environment for serous business engagement in the country. The posture of the President has given them that confidence to engage with the country economically. It also sends a message to our missions around the world. Because of the zero tolerance for corruption, their practices have to be a lot more transparent and ethical.
As part of its cost-cutting measures, the Nigerian government recently approved the closure of nine foreign missions and their conversion to non-residency representation or concurrent accreditation. Some experts have argued that this action is capable of harming Nigeria’s standing in the International community and affecting the diplomatic and bilateral relations between Nigeria these countries agencies; how would you react to this?
We look at the issues that they are being closed. There are reasons. We look at the costs and the benefits. The cost benefit analysis was done in respect to the missions was that it the cost outweigh the benefits. Our argument is the disadvantages. We have about 119 missions around the world which is enough to maintain our influence around the world.
Mixed feelings have continued to trial the recent Launch of the AU Passport during the Summit meeting in Kigali, without any legal framework or treaties ratified by member’s states. What is your country’s position on the acceptability of this passport?
We are in the process of addressing this issue. You raised a correct point about the passport. What is a passport for? It is a form of identification, a travel document. And this would still serve this purpose. So, the issue is whether it serves to obviate the need for a visa in going to a particular country. This is where the issue of treaties comes in. If there is a treaty where each member state signs up and says that the bearer of this passport does not require a visa to enter the country, then it will be a passport that not only identifies as a travel document, but also a visa-free travel document to those countries. The Nigeria ECOWAS passport we have is underpinned with the treaty that allows you to travel to ECOWAS country without a requirement for a visa. At the moment, when the AU passport was launched the AU chairperson was appealing to Africa member states to put in place domestic laws recognizing that the bearer can come in without a visa. This is just an appeal. There are no legal bases. We (Nigeria) have every right to deny anybody who is only bearing that passport the right of entering Nigeria. We will be legally right to do that. But the country as a matter of practice could also say we have the legal right to allow the bearer of the passport enters the country. The passport has only been issued to heads of states. Your question is correct that there is no legal backing. Another step is required. Treaties may take time. I suspect that what they actually want is for countries to sign those domestic immigration approvals allowing those passports.
Some analysts have maintained that Citizens Diplomacy is as important as the Traditional approach to foreign relations. They have argued that selling a country’s positive image is often best accomplished by private citizens. How is the Ministry under your leadership engaging the Citizens towards promoting the country abroad?
My understanding of Citizenship Diplomacy as enunciated by late Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe is basically that your foreign policy should begin to priorities the interests and wellbeing of Nigerian citizens around the world. This is what the ministry does as its core function. What we are doing as Ministry is trying to be a lot more focused. We believe your foreign ministry should reflect should address and promote your national interest. Mr. President has defined the core national interest and objective (of Nigeria) as security, governance, fight against corruption, and job creation (Economy). We are trying to use foreign policy initiative as tool to address these issues; the security issue, anti-corruption issue and economic issue. So, we have an economic diplomacy to push the economic agenda. We have a security agenda to support our security interests and challenges. And, of course, we have the anti-corruption drive through which we are trying to get back looted funds and get foreign governments to engage with us in preventing further looting of our treasury and resources.
Is it deliberate and by design that the current administration’s foreign policy trajectory, has been devoid of any labeling and slogan. Like what was obtainable in the past: E.G. Afrocentric dynamism, the concentric circle approach, economic diplomacy, citizen’s diplomacy and the likes?
This is a good point. We have thought of this. There are two arguments here. The word you used is slogan. We actually want to deal with practical things. If you were to ask someone who had Citizens Diplomacy what concrete visible difference did it made to anything, I don’t think anybody can tell you that there was this situation before and this situation after. A slogan is a slogan. We just want to be practical and deliver concrete results. We also say in a sense that we don’t need to reinvent a will. If something is appropriate, you can take it and run with it if it best describes your situation. The term we have used is Economic Diplomacy. But I am not sure you can really define anything concrete in that sense. In this occasion, we have an economic deliverable that we are engaged in, that is going to be an important part of what we are doing with the Ministry of Trade, a concrete platform database to promote access to foreign market and promote influx of foreign direct investments. It is a tool which we are going to launch soon that will permit Nigerian businesses to be able to access all those 119 countries in which we have embassies and we very have concrete functions for ministries of foreign affairs in each country to allow Nigerians access its market and bring in foreign direct investments. There is going to be a concrete, measurable, quantifiable economic deliverable. So, when we talk about economic diplomacy, we will have something to show for it.
How soon can Nigeria in Diaspora vote?
It is all about technology. We saw how the voter registration machine was so problematic in the past. I think that the principle is acceptable to everybody. There is no problem with that. It is something for INEC to know when they are ready to deliver that. Nobody is against it.
(Interview by Kingsley Okeke, Chrys Anyanwu, Eruke Ojuederie and Ehis Ayere; Introduction by Ehis Ayere.)