Nigeria’s vote against Jerusalem was not political, says Onyeama

Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama. PHOTO: TWITTER/ GEOFFREY ONYEAMA

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Jideofor Kwusike Onyeama, in this interview tells LEO SOBECHI the challenges, achievements and position of his ministry in managing Nigeria’s diplomacy.

Nigeria recently voted against the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, what motivated that stand?
There is a UN resolution on our foreign policy, which is hinged on international law. UN resolutions are the bases of international laws, that is why it was created to have an international framework recognised by all countries.

The UN resolution on Jerusalem states that the status of Jerusalem will be the last thing to be discussed after everything else has been settled. The last issue then should be about Jerusalem. It is not political; our vote is just about implementing and supporting the UN resolution.

Won’t that impede our relations with the US?
On our side it won’t because we don’t have control over what a country does. We are a sovereign state guided by principles, which is also part of obeying the international laws.
There was outcrage when the president announced Nigeria’s exit from 90 international organisations, what motivated that?
It was a case of rationalisation. We found ourselves in a situation where we were not paying our contributions. We owed huge debts to various international organisations, so we set up a committee to look at the justification for belonging to a lot of these organisations. There is a proliferation of organisations in the world, some of them do what others are already doing, some are not of tangible benefit to the country, so we want to make sure that the taxpayers money is well utilised. Those that we thought were not really adding value to the country we reasonably left them. There are so many organisations in the world; some are more political, some economical.

What is the ministry’s position on Cameroun, especially in the light of the recent large exodus of refugees to Nigeria?
We will do nothing in anyway to support the destabilisation, dismembering of Cameroun. The fact remains that we are neighbours and we have refugees coming into the country from Cameroun. We have to be vigilant in managing the crisis in the country, so it won’t be labeled as supporting secession. Addressing any humanitarian issue that arises from that interest according to the international laws is what we are after.

What will you pinpoint as the major successes of the ministry of foreign affairs in the last two and a half years?
There are a number of successes, if you look first at the framework of Mr. President’s priorities. For example, looking at the security aspect; the big successes have been to maintain the alliance against Boko Haram with the countries around us. We sometimes had thorny relationship with Cameroun. But it required great diplomatic skills to be able to keep them firmly on the side of the struggle against Boko Haram, same with Lake Chad and Niger and Ghana coming on board.

Also, our diplomatic outreach of course with the president in the lead with the western countries who had pulled out from their support of Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram due to the credibility issue. For instance, the USA now approved to supply Nigeria with the military planes needed which they refused to do in the last two years. Not only that, they even stopped their allies from supporting the country.

So, it really compromised our struggle. That also required the foreign ministry’s diplomatic skills and outreach to the US and other western countries. So, from the security point of view, I view that as an achievement of the ministry.

And if we look at governance issues, we have also signed the open government agreement, which has enhanced our credibility and commitment to open government and good governance. We have also reached out to other countries to assist in repatriating stolen funds from Nigeria. Again, that also required constant diplomatic engagement with the US, France, Switzerland, UK and so on. That is another area of success.

On the economy, we have been able to have very important commitments and trade agreements with a number of countries around the world. The foreign ministry has also been very much at the forefront of that. We had a visit to China, which resulted in very concrete gains for the country. That was again through our diplomatic engagements with China and also with the US. We have been at the forefront organising a number of business initiatives. So, in the priority areas of Mr. President, those have been very tangible achievements of the ministry of foreign affairs.

Also, we recorded success in the role played in ensuring stability in the Gambia. Nigeria was very present in getting the country to respect its own constitution and respect the will of its people. That was also a major achievement. Our engagement also with South Africa, we took a diplomatic approach that led to an early warning system that we agreed with the South Africans to have an institutional mechanism to keep the South African government on its toes, engaging constantly with Nigerians in South Africa to monitor the situation. Notwithstanding that since then, one or two Nigerians have been killed, but very often they have not really been xenophobic and planned, but just spontaneous criminality.

It is still a work in progress and we hope it’s holding and we would not like to touchwood, our prayer is that xenophobic attacks can be a thing of the past.

On the score of Nigeria’s relationship with South Africa, particularly the immediate past administration’s experience over the cash for arms purchase, how has the present government handled the situation?
There was a thorough investigation carried out by this administration, the money was recovered. There were allegations that there were other things on the plane, but investigations could not assert that.

Commentators say Nigeria did not engage properly with France in addressing insurgency in the attempts at synergy with neighbouring Francophone countries. How true is that?
On the contrary, in the fight against Boko Haram, France is actually one of our biggest supporters and allies. The multinational joint task force that was set up has reduced tension. The coalition fighting Boko Haram really required France’s tremendous support, bringing Cameroun on board. You would recall that one of Mr. President’s trips was to Paris to meet with President (Francois) Hollande, who also came here on a number of occasions. They were fully engaged. We had a security conference early last year and the French were very present and they have been very supportive. They have also given a lot of money for the multinational joint task force incidentally, because you know it was created through the AU.

So France in fact has probably been one of the biggest supporters of this country. We set up an intelligence fusion unit here in Abuja as the centre and France is one of the major participants. Although we now have the G5 Sahel around Mali with some Sahelian countries, but nevertheless for a very long time it was really about Boko Haram and the French have been very cooperative.

One other major issue about insurgency is intelligence sharing, how has the ministry fine-tuned the platform for that?
That is a very specialised area and we have agencies that deal with that. What we do is to provide the framework. There is the Acroba process being driven by the king of Jordan and gathering most of the main players in the fight against terrorism. A follow-up to it is a meeting in Abuja in ensuring intelligence. We have this intelligence fusion unit that arranges and coordinates how we share intelligence with these countries.

Former President Obasanjo observed that the administration has scored a bull’s eye in foreign policy; can you as the anchor of the ministry give a perspective to what underscores Nigerian foreign policy at present?
I think you have certain objectives, but first and foremost it is having good relations with the countries around Nigeria. It is on goodwill that you leverage to achieve other objectives. Our main objective as a country is to develop our country and improve the standard of living for our people.

We have a foreign policy approach of keeping good relations without compromising our principles. We then try to leverage on that to achieve our security objectives. Our fight against Boko Haram would have been made a lot more difficult, because they would have ready bases outside the country from where they launch attacks.

Then of course, one of the main drains on our economy is the siphoning of huge resources from the country. You also need good relations with these countries to be able to repatriate your money. We saw a classic example after the Iranian revolution.

All the Iranian assets in the US were frozen. They never touched those huge amounts of money for a very long time. And because we have good relations with those countries, they have been supportive in recovering our stolen funds. And there were also conferences held to that effect. The economy went into recession because of such a huge problem.

The president looked into the infrastructural deficit and transport problems to diversify the economy and attract foreign direct investment. To attract that, there is a certain level of credibility needed to achieve this. Our outreach has been able to allow investments from US and UK and other countries. Africa also has to be the centerpiece of our foreign policy. We engage with the African Union on different policies especially to ensure greater continent integration, which has led to measures like making visa free, or having visa on arrival among African countries.

We were pushing ahead for a continental filtered area for Nigeria. We are also bent on the promotion of human rights and good governance for the region. It’s also what you can call a concentric circle. You start from your neighborhood and take it farther to other countries.

A major first step the president took was to attend the G8 meeting where he presented a wish list, how much of the shopping list could be ticked as positive returns of that engagement?
I think what was very good and smart about the step is to focus on a few priorities. He clearly understood that there were three major fundamentals. When he went, he talked about those there. The security challenges we are facing and that has transformed everything. When he came into office, lest we forget, Boko Haram was holding territories in the country and there was the real fear that the insurgency could spread. Most countries did not support the government. That changed and he had a well-supported fight against terrorism. On the economy, the mismanagement of the economy prompted our efforts in diversifying the economy. He got what he wanted.

How does the ministry feel about the developments in Libya, particularly the death of 26 Nigerians, which some people think was as a result of a breakdown of communication between your ministry and the high commission over there?
First of all, the 26 girls who died have not been proven to be all Nigerians. We are still cooperating with the Italians to look into this. They have been buried and we have being contacted that if need be, they can be exhumed to have DNA tests and probably confirm their status as Nigerians.

But there are lots of steps to be taken about that. There is no communication gap between our ministries, we have complained to the Italian government that the Nigerian embassy over there was not fully informed about some developments and they have apologised for that.

On Libya, the country to an extent is a failed state already. So it will be difficult to engage the authorities, because you have different centres of power. You just have warlords. It makes it difficult because there is no actual government agency to hold the territory. We have moved our embassy in Libya, we have also engaged with them in repatriating as many Nigerians as possible.

What do you consider as major challenges of the ministry, the high and the low points ever since you came on board?
The real challenges are with the embassies around the world. We have been facing constant crisis in funding, that has really been demoralising and a huge crises for the country. It’s been a mix of mismanagement and underfunding.

The headquarters itself, we’re still not fully into the 21st century in terms of equipment, facilities, and work procedures in offices; huge debts too. It is difficult for the ministry to function at its optimum when you have these serious flaws and challenges.

The internal government should play a role in this. The code of ethics should rigorously be enforced, because a lot of the practices and customs really challenge good governance.
The high points; basically we have very good human resources working under very difficult conditions, administrative challenges but still delivering good result and keeping the leadership role of Nigeria among countries of the world. There are some projects also underway that we will introduce.

There is also an economic development initiative to promote foreign direct investment, to provide a platform for Nigeria to access foreign market and vice versa; to make it a platform for Nigerians in diaspora and to make it easy for foreigners to do business with ease in Nigeria.

Where do you want to see Nigerian’s foreign policy in the next 10 years, and on sustainability?
On foreign policy, Nigeria has had a very good track record to be fair. We are a big country. We have a lot of very good resources. The foreign policy is just translating the national interest to the countries in the world, and be strategic about those objectives.

The foreign policy is also defined by the state of the country. When we are very rich and strong, it reflects on the way other countries view us. The brand of the country is affected when the country is in crises. The success of the foreign policy depends on the success of the country.

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