Recently the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama briefed the media on issues of national interest ranging from the repatriation of looted fund, Nigeria’s foreign policy, bilateral economic agreements and Nigeria joining the Suadi-Arabia Islamic coalition forces against ISIS, among other issues . JOHN OKEKE, our foreign affairs correspondent was there and captured the issues:
The President has been engaged in a number of shuttled diplomacy to get some of the countries where our moneys have been laundered to be repatriated, but we are surprised that the money have not been full returned. What is happening?
The first one was about the pre-condition in our fight against corruption. And in some certain occasions some countries helped us to recover the loots and then they gave us pre-conditions about how to spend the money. There are two things there. The first is that Nigerian loot was identified in a foreign country and this took place some years back. So, it wasn’t this government that was in power at the time and there was an agreement that they reached with the country at the time, was it Switzerland, it was over 700 million dollars, it was the Abacha loot. And so the government at that time made that agreement with World Bank serving as oversight. Obviously one of the reasons they clearly did what they did was maybe that, that particular government might have been in doubt as to the application of those funds and whether they will just go back into people’s pockets and out again into private pockets.
As I said, it is a good point because we took it up and in this occasion with the Swiss authorities with respect to the 321 million dollars. They claim and this is with Switzerland, that it was part of their law, that they have to havee this mechanism put in place in respect of any fund of any country that is found in their country. And that it is not a government policy but it was something written into the laws of that country. Of course, we naturally have problems with that, but they pointed out that if we do not comply with that or that we object it, to that procedure, then it could be a long run of things and it would not be certain that we would be able get the money back.
Of course, it is not only in Switzerland that Nigeria’s resources have been lodged. So, we are in discussion with other countries about restitution. It would be interesting to see if any other country other than Switzerland comes up with such pre-conditions. But we are mindful of that and as far as possible, we are trying to ensure that we have a say in how the money is spent.
Having said that, that even with Switzerland, the impression is not that they are telling us what to spend the money on, but I think it is just to help to place a mechanism to monitor that even what we say the money should be spent on, that it is spent on that and if Nigerians are the beneficiaries, we can probably live with that.
We are almost at the one year mark. Looking ahead, what should Nigerian expect from the ministry in terms of Nigeria’s foreign policy?
We have had in the past, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs talked about foreign policy direction in Nigeria. We have had concentric circles; we have had economic diplomacy; we have had citizen diplomacy and so on and so forth. I think we are keen not to get bogged down in an intellectual and academic exercise. We feel that we have to look at concrete, measurable and time bound deliverable that this ministry can make to really make the difference.
We are faced with severe economic challenges. What can we as a ministry do forgetting the slogans and the tags that you can give to whatever you are doing. So we decided on economic diplomacy as a framework in which we want to operate. But economic diplomacy in and of itself, does not necessary give you much, what would be the deliverables for Nigerians.
So, we have identified two areas that we feel the ministry have a comparative advantage and we can leverage that advantage for the concrete measurable benefit of Nigerians. So we started with the two initiatives that we have in mind to start with.
First as I mentioned earlier, the level of trade within Africa is extremely low and we know that we have to be looking at diversification of our economy. We have to expand our trade relations to promote economic development in our country. We are looking at the strategy with targeting a number of countries in Africa to have with those countries an agreement, maybe collectively among those countries and other African countries could join, for the free movement of business people around those countries from Nigeria and that will enlarge the economic space for Africa, for Nigerian business people to be able to go to those countries. And we feel that the deliverable is clear that greater business opportunities for our business people within Africa already, that is one.
The other one is to say look, we have representation in a hundred and nineteen or so countries around the world; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a presence through an Embassy, through the Consulate, through the Mission. How can we use that to leverage on that to deliver concrete economic benefits for the country. So, we say we are proposing to develop a match-making arrangement database where any Nigerian business person can upload on to the database the information about themselves, their businesses and what they want to sell to the world and we would have that uploaded on the database.
This will be filled in and accessible in all those 119 countries. We will have an officer in each country whose task it would be to get into the database, see which of those products or services would succeed or could have a market access in that particular country and now develop a programme project to push that in that country. It could be through business forum in that country; it could be through going to the chambers of commerce in that country to push those goods and products.
What we are trying to do is a one-stop shop for all Nigerian business people to have market access into up to 119 countries and that is without going through all those bottlenecks and paying all kinds of fees, direct real time free market access and that is the dream of every business person and that is what we feel we can deliver concretely as a ministry.
Your Excellency, Nigerians would definitely want to know when the economic bilateral agreements the country signed will come into?
Economic and bilateral agreements that are designed to boost our industry and our economy. It is true we have been signing a number of these agreements with a number of countries; bilateral agreements. But very often, these are really trade promotion agreements; the agreements in themselves will not increase trade; will not make any deliverables. But what they are doing is putting in place the framework. In a lot of these countries, their business people don’t want to come to Nigeria unless there are subsisting businesses: government-to-government bilateral agreements.
So, in signing this bilateral government it is also the two governments saying to their business people go ahead, we have given you the conducive environment in which you can operate. And so, I think with time, we will certainly see that it would make a difference.
And there are some countries that have told us that they would like to sign certain bilateral agreements with us because some of their businesses are not keen on coming to Nigeria without the umbrella of this bilateral agreements. So, they are extremely important and we can see that all the other industralised countries are into these multilateral, bilateral, trilateral trade agreements. They are really the framework in which international trade is conducted today.
In January the federal government signed a mutual legal assistance with the UAE and few days ago, we read that the AGF and the executive chairman went to UAE in pursuit of looted funds. How much are we expecting to be repatriated?
Yes, there is a mutual legal assistance agreement that was signed by UAE and a number of other countries to facilitate dealing with stolen loot wherever they are found. And the UAE is one of the areas that we are clearly looking at in terms of spotting Nigeria’s financial resources and loot, but how much is something that we don’t know. We don’t have any figure yet in respect of that but hopefully, it will be a significant amount that we can recover because we really need with the oil price where they are and the economic problems we are all facing, we really need to get as much of our stolen funds back as possible.
Looking forward to also inform you that Mr President is about to undertake a trip to Washington DC and this is for a nuclear security summit. Essentially, what this is all about, it is the fourth one and it will actually be the last one. It is just the whole issue of the possibility of these weapons of radioactive materials falling into the hands of terrorist. You can imagine how cataclysmic that could be.
So this summit is essentially to look at the work that has been done in the first summit which was held in Washington and the second summit which was held in Seoul and the third summit and this is the fourth summit. So, Mr President would be going.
Nigeria has been complying in working hard in adhering to all the relevant treaties and having all the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency come into Nigeria to inspect and to make sure that we are compliant with all the various agreements that we have signed up to.
We are also having a bi-national commission with the United States of America, a number of our ministers are going. This is a framework for looking at our cooperation with the US and it is going to focus on three main priority areas of: security, governance and corruption. And looking together with our US partners, at the step which we are making, we will need assistance and cooperation and how we can push the agenda forward.
At your maiden meeting with the members of the Diplomatic corps, you mentioned your plans to reinvigorate the economy through economic diplomacy and you are planning of hiring an experts to impact in international trade. How far you have gone on this?
We have not fully got the full compliment of experts we need to hire. But we were able to hire one and working on what I just told you about, those two projects initiative I just mentioned on the match-making database and also on the free movement of business people within Africa. We are hoping to launch that and once we get the green light, we will also probably have a briefing to enlighten our people on what the deliverables of those two initiatives will be.
We have had cases of maltreatment of Nigerians abroad. What aree you and the President putting together to boost the morale of Nigerians outside the country?
I said that no news is good news. So of course, often the news that you will hear will be bad news, if it is good news, sometimes the media, might not necessarily be too interested. While there are cases of maltreatments of Nigerians, we must not also forget the wonderful treatment that Nigerians who are doing fantastically well all around the world and our missions and our embassy are supporting in those countries.
But on the very rare cases of maltreatment of Nigerians, we have representations in those countries and we do not take it lightly and we engage with that government. And of course, you know in diplomacy, it doesn’t always help your case to be standing at the roof top and shouting out what you will do or what you want done or criticizing other governments. You will find out that the most effective things that you achieve are through quiet, silent diplomacy.
So, I can assure you and I can assure Nigerians that the well being of each individual Nigerian is of utmost importance to this ministry and we will go to any length whatsoever to ensure the physical well-being and the general well-being of Nigerian in any country in which they find themselves in.
Those who are in prison, we are in prison visit, trying to facilitate their repatriation to Nigeria. Those who get into economic problems and it is interesting. This morning, I got a call from somebody telling me that in Togo, some Nigerians who were traversing there using the ECOWAS documents that they have been using for a long time, have just been detained, their documents were taken from them, can we help? And I got the call from somebody I know and we are making arrangements immediately to get our Ambassador in Togo. I have got the phone number to get in touch and to deal with the situation. These are the routine things we get from all over the world and we immediately get unto it.
I got a letter the other day of a hospital in the United Kingdom where they had paid the money for a wife and they came back and they had been asked to pay a large amount to cover the cost but the cost itself was much more less and now they are having problem in getting their money back. And of course the High Commission in London is now engaged in that, trying to get the money for these Nigerians. It is what we are here for and we don’t take it lightly and we do it as a routine.
Talking about the recent visit of President Buhari to Saudi Arabia, a lot of reactions have come out of that visit and Nigerians have been awash with the news that Nigeria have been signed into the Islamic state. Can you clarify that and also enlighten us more on some of those MoU that were signed in Saudi Arabia?
I am sure you meant the Islamic alliance that has been featured in the newspapers about whether Nigeria has joined or not joined. The first point I have made already to the media and I will make again is that we always have to be careful to give religious ties to things that are not religious and the first point is that Nigeria was facing an existential threat. Now, today we are much more relaxed than we were a year ago; I mean a year and a half ago we know what this country was going through and people were actually wondering where we would end up and we would have used any resources available to us whatsoever to address that existential threat. And at the time they were a number of countries that we went to for support that were not ready to give us the support and you know we heard stories; planes in South Africa with money and so and so forth.
We also have to situate a context of realy wanting a friend in need which is a friend indeed. You have had a crisis and it is now a global crisis. So it is not about one country or the other, the issue of terrorism is really all around and we all have to work together, it is an interdependent world with everybody to address this issue.
You heard what happened in Belgium in Brussels the other night, in Paris and almost everyday, but not really everyday we still have cases here in Nigeria and it is something that we have to look at as a threat to our civilization and with no religious colouration and we have to allign with all the countries of the world engage with that.
We support the objective of fighting terrorism, whoever is fighting terrorism. But we have not in this ministry, signed on to anything; we have not made it clear that we have fully supported the objective of the Islamic state, they have not asked us to sign anything in that context. So, it is normal that we should support anybody fighting terrorism.
The President recently spoke in one of the states that the federal government is going to end foreign exchange programmes. What is the fate of those students who are just going into that programme?
I am not sure that is what has been stated. Also at the end of the day, driving the monetary policy of the country, it is really the Central Bank which is independent of Mr President which you have to realise, and so it is not Mr President that can say foreign exchange is this way or the other, it is the independent Central Bank.
But I think that it is not only a question of priority, foreign exchange is available, we have to think globally, we have to think of the country as a whole and not in terms of individuals. But it will always be possible for people to still pay school fees because you will always get foreign exchange but the challenge might be at what cost you will get the foreign exchange but it will always be there.
Your Excellency, It is nearly a year that President Buhari came to power and he has been on shuttle diplomacy. We want to know specifically what are those gains from these travels?
There lots of gains because we have collaboration in trade especially. Wherever we go with Mr President, there are bilateral agreements that are signed for collaboration in trade. As you are aware, times without number Mr President has reiterated the fact that the price of oil has gone down. Therefore, we need to diversify. So it is of utmost importance that we do diversify and everywhere that we go, there are agreements that are signed on diversification in different sectors of the economy.
We are talking about security and Boko Haram is no longer the only threat in Africa and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb as well. How do we see Nigeria as one of the African powers working with other countries to end this?
In the area of security, without the collaboration of other African countries in security because terrorism is a global phenomenon, it is not just restricted to Nigeria, it is a global thing. Like some few days back, we saw what happened in Brussels in Belgium. So it is very important Nigeria being a country, that there is this insurgency problem, that it comes out and collaborate with other countries to ensure that they support total security on how to combat these security issues. Like he reiterated about the Islamic alliance, it is not religion, it is because we need to join because we are all fighting the same thing. If in Israel they said we should fight against so and so, then if we see that it is an important thing, of course, we will collaborate because it is fighting terrorism, so on and so forth.
Terrorism is a global phenomenon that requires global cooperation and we are indeed co-operating with so many countries and we have been really touched by much support we have received from other countries in our fight against terrorism, not only Boko Haram and of course as you see now, they are all inter-linked. All these terrorist movements: Boko Haram swearing alliance to ISIS and Al Qaeda, they are all inter-linked and we understand clearly that our responses have to also be coordinated.
And a lot of the weapons that are now needed in the fight against terrorism is no longer necessarily all these tanks and airplanes but it is through intelligence. You can see with what has just happened in Brussels there are a lot of questions that are being asked: what did they do with the intelligence they had, the intelligence about this individual who was known to have visited Syria or whatever?
So, sharing of intelligence and using that intelligence. And for that, you need other country’s cooperation and support. So we are very much working with other countries in the fight against terrorism.