‘Lagos Has A Real Vibrancy Which Is Great’
The new British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr. Paul Arkwright, spoke to DEBO OLADIMEJI and some other selected journalists in Lagos penultimate Friday on the United Kingdom’s involvement in diversifying the Nigerian economy, curbing insurgency, corruption and helping to address the migrants crisis among other topical issues.
WHAT are the things you are bringing on board to improve the ties between Britain and Nigeria?
It is a very good question. I am very privileged and fortunate to be here. It is a wonderful honour to be the British High Commissioner here. Nigeria, United Kingdom (UK) have ties which go back a very long way. Historical, cultural, economic, business, name it.
I think I am fortunate because I am coming at a time when there is a new sense of optimism in the country. We have British military trainers in Jaji at the infantry training centre. So we are helping to prepare the Nigerian Army before they go in and deploy in the North East. We are providing help in the area of intelligence gathering. The British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton was in Nigeria recently. He met with the president. We are looking at other ways in which we can assist to improve that training package and looking into other areas.
That is just one example on the military front.
What is Britain doing to support the government in the aspect of economy recovery?
There is severe economic difficulty in Nigeria. The president has said it that with the relative low price of oil, the country is in need of assistance. On the economic front, we are doing a number of things. We are encouraging business to business contacts. We are encouraging British investors to come to Nigeria to look at how they can invest in the country.
We are providing some expertise in economic projects. We have our Department for International Development (DFID) that is funding some of the experts who are in site in some of the ministries to help provide very specific expertise. We are looking at how we can help to diversify the economy. The president talked of agriculture and we have British companies with experts in agricultural processes, machinery for example. You need finance, you need insurance, you need banking. All of those are areas where we have British expertise where we can help with the diversification of the economy.
On the power area, we recently had our minister, the UK’s Minister for Africa, Grant Shapps here. He talked for example about off-grade electricity solution, solar power. There is a lot of sun in Nigeria and in the North. What can we do with the solar revolution to help provide power in some of these areas in the North? Again, DFID is funding the programme on solar energy. We really want to help Nigeria overcome this crisis. And we really do want to help the president to deliver on his objectives.
Why did it take Britain so long to come to realization of the need to assist Nigeria?
I would challenge the view that Britain has been absent from Nigeria. I think Britain has not been absent from Nigeria. I think Britain has long been a friend of Nigeria. But it is sometimes difficult to operate in an environment, in a country where as you know corruption has been a really significant problem. We have the rules of law in the UK and we have legislation around dealing with corruption. And I think there has been a significant change with the election of President Buhari. I think the significant change has coincided with a renewed interest in Britain in Nigeria. The British are back, there is certainly a sense of British renewed interest for Nigeria, from the Prime minister down.
How do you think Nigeria can consolidate its democratic experience?
First of all, what happened after the election was very significant. You have a democratic election. You have a clear winner. Appreciably, you had an incumbent president who was prepared to stand down voluntarily. That I think sent a very strong signal about democracy in Nigeria. I think it sent a very strong signal about democracy in Africa. In a way, I would say what the UK can do is to talk about the rule of law, good governance, about how we can work together in the fight against corruption. Those are the things that will embed democracy, strengthening national institutions like the judiciary, the military, the police and so on. All of these are institutions which are, I will argue, we strengthened so that democracy can grow in this country.
Is it true that British aids to Nigeria are triggered by economic interests?
I don’t agree with what people say. I think that the British government assistance to Nigeria, including in economic areas, is basically to help Nigeria help itself. Not to profit from Nigerians or Nigeria in some kind of unseemly way. But I will say that a strong Nigeria and an economically prosperous Nigeria is very good for Britain. It is good for Britain because Britain is a trading nation. In order for us to emerge from our own economic difficulties, our government has said we need to export more, we need to trade more. We don’t have sufficient internal market to generate the kind of revenue and income that we need in the UK. So a lot of the UK’s effort is on trade. It is on export, economic relationship. I will say that is something which is a benefit to Nigeria and the UK. No developing country has emerged from poverty without trading with the outside world. That is just a sheer fact. So we are here to help the economy of Nigeria. It is not just UK that is going to benefit, everybody is going to benefit.
Do you agree with the speculation that the British government wants Nigerians out of Britain?
There are a number of Nigerians who have in some cases overstayed their visas. We have a visa regime whereby the visas are for a limited period. A number of Nigerians overstayed their visas. Those people should not be in United Kingdom because they have gone beyond the period in which they were granted the visa. In those cases, we say we do want those Nigerians to return to Nigeria. We do that with due process. Some of the stories about kicking them out or what have you, basically that is not going to happen without due process or legal procedures having been exhausted. We don’t deport people. If I stay longer than my visa allows me to stay in Nigeria, I suspect that the Nigerian government might say you have overstayed your visa. It is a legal issue.
How has the government’s policy in oil and gas affected the industry?
Oil and gas remain extremely important to Nigeria. It is still of course the main revenue earner for the government. It could stay that way for a long time to come. But because of the reduction in the oil price, it has a great impact on government revenue. That is why I think the policy of the government to diversify the economy, to look at other sectors beyond oil and gas that can be developed in Nigeria such agriculture, manufacturing and so on, is very important.
I think diversification beyond oil and gas is key. It may be that the oil price will remain low, I don’t know. I met the governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode at the European Union (EU) Nigerian Business Forum. That was very much the main theme : diversification of the economy. As I said earlier that is where UK can really help and add value to the economic growth, opportunities and challenges in Nigeria.
Do you subscribe to deregulation of the downstream sector?
If you are talking about the Petroleum and Industry Bill (PIB), it has been in the National Assembly for about seven years now. I think it is time that is passed. That needs to be done in cooperation with the international oil companies. They bring huge amount of wealth to the economy of this country. You are right without power there can not be strengthening of the economy. Power is an absolute requirement.
What is Britain doing to help the IT industry in Nigeria?
I think there are some IT involvement here. If you look at IT engineers in the UK, they are among the best in the world. Telecom is one sector which is thriving in Nigeria. There is renewed interest from the British companies in the telecom side. Only today there was a deal which was announced between Vodacom which is one of the biggest telecom companies in Britain and Glo from Nigeria. I think that is another good example where we can bring our expertise to them. I will also say that training, expertise, infrastructure all of those areas are areas where United Kingdom can actually provide assistance to Nigeria entrepreneurs.
What is your impression about Nigeria and Africa in general?
I am very enthusiastic about this country. I have been here for about eight weeks now. I am very new. I presented my credentials to the president four weeks ago now. So it is a new experience for me. It is a very positive experience for me. Both in Abuja which is where I spent most of my time and I also come down to Lagos quite often. This is my fourth visit to Lagos, it shows that I am interested in Lagos, interested in business. You know British Ambassadors, British High Commissioners, we have a very clear role now in promoting business. In promoting economic links between our country, UK and the countries in which we serve. I enjoy the business angle. I enjoy coming to Lagos and it is a very different city from Abuja. I like both places.