Dolapo Aina’s interview series with Ambassador Geoffrey Onyeama

Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ambassador Geoffrey Onyeama

Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ambassador Geoffrey Onyeama

According to his Wikipedia profile, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ambassador Geoffrey Onyeama holds Bachelor of Arts (B.A) degree in Political Science from Columbia University, New York in 1977 and a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) degree in Law from Cambridge University in 1980. He holds a Masters of Law (LL.M) from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1982 and a Masters of Arts (M.A) in Law from Cambridge University in 1984. Onyeama was admitted as a Barrister-at-Law of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1983 and was also called to the English Bar of the Grey’s Inn in 1981. In 1985, he joined World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) as an Assistant Programme Officer for Development Cooperation and External Relations, Bureau for Africa and Western Asia. He rose through the ranks at the WIPO to become Deputy Director General for the Development Sector in 2009. In November 2015 he was appointed Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Dolapo Aina sat down with Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister and had an in-depth interview; discussing issues like Nigeria’s current foreign policy, economic diplomacy, the President’s trip to China amongst other pertinent issues. Do read some excerpts of the interview. The full interview can be accessed here.

Good day Sir. Kindly introduce yourself
I am Geoffrey Onyeama. I am the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nigeria.

Sir, you would agree that Nigeria is the most populous African nation. What has been the role of Nigeria in the international community and arena?
The role has been quite multi-faceted within Africa. For instance, Nigeria has been very prominent in peace keeping. Within the United Nations, she is one of the major contributors for peace-keeping Forces and also, within the African Union. Nigeria has made a big contribution in that. It is obviously one of the biggest oil producers in the world. It is also very dynamic in a lot of multi-lateral foray; a lot of international organisations. So, you have had Nigerians working in those organisations. Nigeria is very prominent and influential in the African Union, ECOWAS-(Nigeria is one of the founding members of Economic Community of West African States). We have a strong presence in the world from that point of view.

What Nigeria’s current foreign policy is all about? And how has it been implemented and any recent successes?
The foreign policy is anchored on the priorities of government and on the vision of the President. He has identified three priorities for this government. That is security, governance (anti-corruption) and the economy. The foreign policy thrust at the moment; is really focusing and engaging with those three priorities. Regarding security, we were facing major insurgency in the country. The first foreign policy outreach was really with the neighbouring countries. Mr President visited those neighbouring countries and galvanised them into re-activating multi-national joint task force. And this proved to be extremely successful. And an immediate deliverable of that was that you had four countries fighting alongside Nigeria to essentially encircle the Boko Haram (the word we use is degraded their military capacity) to a very large extent. That was an immediate success from that foreign policy outreach of the neighbourhood.

The further afield; we were able to re-engage with major international countries which had not been the case for a certain period of time (in the area of security). The United States and several European countries now became much more supportive and willing to provide intelligence and military hardware. Again, that has helped with the ongoing battle with the insurgents in Nigeria and other African countries. That has been an immediate deliverable and a foreign policy thrust for security.

In the area of anti-corruption and governance; the government has understood that if we want to be a successful country; we would need to change the perception that people and other countries have of us. We need to change the brand of the country. And also, for us to develop, we need to have good governance. We know also, that a lot of public officials have siphoned off a large amount of our financial resources and stashed them abroad (outside the country). There has been a major effort to recover the loot and bring those people to justice.

Another part of our foreign policy outreach has been to engage with a number of foreign countries to get them on our side to convince them that this is a serious government; to help in tracking down the loot that has been stashed away and provide evidence that might also help to bring the looters to justice. And we have been very successful in that. And Mr President has visited a number of countries. And the respect in the high regard in which he is held by a lot of these leaders has facilitated their coming onboard and supporting that process. That is another aspect of the foreign policy outreach.

The third anchor or pillar is the economy. The approach has been to promote foreign direct investment and Nigerian exports. And there has been a very deliberate outreach and within the framework of what we call “economic diplomacy approach”. We have identified that Africa is an area where we need to trade more with African countries; that is greater intra-African trade. So, we are in putting in place certain outreach programmes to identify with certain countries and create another economic space through free movement of the business people within Africa and a certain number of countries.

We feel there is great opportunity for much larger trade in that direction. And we are also putting in place a mechanism to promote foreign direct investment. The President has led demarche in that direction; visiting certain key countries and signing agreements that would facilitate greater inflow into the country from these countries. And we have been successful in that; we have signed some very important agreements with a number of countries. It is a work in progress and we are putting in place other mechanisms to help in doing that.

Also, linked to that, is the promotion of our economy and export promotion. We are trying to diversify our economy from oil and exploiting other areas like solid minerals. And we understand that we have to have the infrastructure in place to be able to diversify our economy (i.e. agriculture and also manufacturing). Then, we also need to have appropriate infrastructure in place. We must have power in place; a good transport network. We are also reaching out in our foreign policy thrust with a number of countries to sign agreements with them. And encourage them to invest in those capital intensive areas and sectors of our economy that would give us the base from which to really diversify our economy. And again, we have been very successful in that area having tied up some very prominent agreements and secured agreements for foreign direct investments in those key sectors.

It would appear Nigeria is losing steam/influence and her dominance in Africa and on the international stage. Why so?

Some of it is a function of “diminution of your strength”. In the past, you would look at what has been the traditional strength of Nigeria. Robust economy at one time; we were able to reach out and have programmes with other countries. We saw Nigeria at one time; that was amongst the top 20-25 economies in the world. Of course, the financial down turn of our economy and probably the mismanagement of our economy has seen us sliding down. And your influence of course reduces; just as your wealth decreases. Our military capacity decreased tremendously.

Although, if you remember, we played a very important role in Liberia and Sierra Leone with our Forces. But then, we have seen Nigeria struggle against Boko Haram (when our military was incapable of getting on top of the situation.) Militarily and economically, the perception of the country at one time by some people, was the country was a failed state. We had serious governance issues. All this creates a perception of a country that is no longer punching up to its weight. So, your influence to a certain extent also decreases.

Sometimes, Nigerians tend to read stories via dailies and on social media; of Nigerian embassies not having basic amenities. What seems to be going on?
There are probably two things. Maybe not enough funding. But also, mismanagement of resources. I think, those are probably, the two reasons. And employing more people than they needed.

Nigerians tend to read sordid tales of Nigerians in Diaspora been maltreated. And most times, the responses from the Nigerian government are usually less than convincing. Why so and what is beeb done about it?
Generally, the position of government is, you have to take each case on its merit. No two cases are alike. So, the general position is that our embassies and representations abroad are there to promote Nigerian interests and protect Nigerians. That is the reason why you have your embassies and consulates and so forth. And then, of course, if any Nigerian has any problems outside the country, it is the responsibility of the embassy or representation abroad to assist Nigerians, whatever the situation is. And I would say, in the vast majority of cases, that is what happens. Nigerian missions abroad help and assist Nigerians. Of course, there may be cases where that might not happen. But certainly, this government is determined to address those issues. And to really be quite aggressive in ensuring that people working in this missions get proper training and that there are proper people there and held to account for any wrong doing they might be engage in.

Let’s talk about the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. If I am right, Nigeria signed on Friday, the 22nd of April, 2016. How would we implement the agreement?
Nigeria has not signed yet. But we still plan to sign.

When we do sign; how do we implement the Paris agreements?
It is about climate change and the environment. What we propose is to take certain measures to reduce our fossil fuel burning. For instance, gas flaring, which would be reduced drastically. We are going to obviously look at the cars on the road and what we can do to remove the gas emissions. We are going to look at things like burning of trees, fire wood etc; and also, alternatives to that. We are going to look at other kinds of power (for instance solar and wind power). Moving in the direction of clean energy to implement the agreement.

The President has been on several foreign trips. But the last trip to China garnered a lot of opinions. What was the China trip all about?
I would not say it is only the China trip that was successful. I would say the entire President’s trips have been successful. You have to look at them in the context of the objectives. And they are the three priorities I outlined to you earlier on. There were clear deliverables on all these trips.

Regarding the China trip; all the three deliverables (priorities) were discussed and we looked to leverage on his engagement with his counterpart (Chinese President Xi Jingping) to get some deliverables with respect to those three priorities. Again, if we look at security, there was an agreement from China to provide assistance in the security-military field. And that is a clear deliverable benefit.

When you look at anti-corruption and governance; there was an agreement to help us in areas of theft of our oil and also of looted funds. Because the Chinese President is also known as someone who is also trying to crack down on corruption in China, he identifies with our problem and they are ready to help us in that area too. Those are very useful and clear agreements for the benefit of Nigeria.

And also in the economy, China is the second largest economy in the world today and has huge foreign exchange reserves. They have vast amount of resources to invest outside and their rapid development was propelled by the large number of investments they got into the country. But now, they are moving towards investing more outside their country than the investments coming in.

The agreements we had were varied. Mr President went with over a 100 businessmen and a lot of agreements were signed by those in various fields (private sector). The government also signed businesses in the area of Trade. The Minister of Trade and Investment; Dr Okechukwu Enelamah signed a framework agreement. There were also agreements signed in aviation, agriculture, science and technology. The Central Bank of Nigeria also signed an agreement. They were very important for the country. There was a swap agreement looking at mechanisms to give us more options and flexibility with regards to foreign exchange in out trading especially, in our purchases. Those agreements were very important especially with the pressure we have with the dollar. With our dollar reserves going down. Another option, since most of our trade is actually with China at the moment; giving us that extra flexibility to be able to maybe use another currency other than the dollar in our imports.

What is your vision for the Foreign Affairs Ministry?
My vision for the Foreign Affairs Ministry is this; to really look on leveraging on where we have a comparative advantage and delivering that for the benefit of the country. They are a lot of things that I would say we do that are routine. Like routine engagement with other countries of the world in promoting peace and promoting economic development which would continue. Also, promoting greater African integration (sub-regional ECOWAS and African Union). Africa as a sort of centre-piece of our foreign policy; this would continue. And also, promoting cultural ties with countries.

So that, Nigeria is a country that is getting on very well and has good relations with countries all over the world. And is engaged in multilateralism with international organisations and really taking advantage of that. But I think that there are areas the Ministry can develop new initiatives and one of the initiatives I am keen and enthusiastic about is this economic diplomacy. But more concrete and not the theoretic idea of economic diplomacy. How we can leverage on our presence in 119 countries around the world to deliver concrete economic benefits for our country?

What I am proposing is that we develop database; an architecture; a one-stop shop where any Nigerian business that wants market access in any country in the world can upload details about what they want (either partnerships or buyers in those countries). And in all the 119 countries in which we have Nigerian representation; there would be an official and focal point to deliver that; within the country they are represented in, to promote that market access. Conversely, for foreign direct investments, that same match-making database can and should be used for any Nigerian or business looking for partners or any foreign business entity that would like to invest in Nigeria. We would be able to see from the database, possible partners and possible areas of investments. And as I said, there would be a focal point in each of the 119 countries, whose job it would be to make that match. And that can have a transformative effect on our business. And we would want to expand that to use the same database for also the Nigerians in the Diaspora, who want to contribute within the country, could also upload details about themselves, the areas in which they think they can best contribute and we would look for matches within Nigeria to engage them here. It is really a question of leveraging on a comparative advantage that the Foreign Affairs Ministry has in 119 countries and translating that into economic gains for the country.

You’re the first Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister to ever be on digital communications and social media platforms. And you seem to be active on social media, especially twitter. Why so?

Because we are in the 21st century and the 21st century is social media.

What is your social media handle? Because there was a time a time, one handle with your name (but it was your surname first before your name). Later on, your authentic official handle came onboard.

As a minister, once you are named minister, the first thing was, a Facebook account (came up in my name) and a twitter account (came up in my name). But of course, we know that there are people out there playing these funny games. But now, we have genuine ones, up and running (twitter: @GeoffreyOnyeama) and I have someone who is handling all that.

What book would you recommend for international affairs and diplomacy enthusiasts?

I would recommend two books by Lee Kwan Yew (the former Prime Minister of Singapore). The first book is the Singapore Story and the second book is From Third World to First.

Why these books from Lee Kwan Yew?
Because he was an extremely bright person, very sharp (as you know, his academic career was phenomenal). The books are very well written, thoroughly researched and detailed and you get a very good picture of what drives relations between countries and the linkage between your national development and policies and how that extends into international relations and how important it is to really study and have good strategy for engaging with foreign countries because in the end; it would have a major impact.

I would give you a good example. Lee Kwan Yew was one of the first leaders that saw that there was an opportunity to get in; and to an opening China when China was closed to the world and considered to be hostile to the West. And it was fascinating reading how he used to visit China and he alerted certain world leaders that “there is an opportunity there and it is important to get in there early” and how to go about it. It was really fascinating to see because it was almost prophetic. And his reading and judgement of other countries was also really fascinating. He came to Nigeria, very early on before the first military coup. Some of his observations were just so to the point. It is a book I would highly recommend. I would have made it a required reading for every public servant in every developing country.

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