The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, has said the evacuation of British citizens from the country as a result of the 2019 novel coronavirus, was not peculiar to Nigeria.
In this exclusive interview with Saturday Sun, Laing said the move was a global travel advice issued by the British Foreign Secretary, recommending all British citizens return to the United Kingdom.
Laing said: “We absolutely do not see our citizens returning as a sign of displeasure towards the Nigerian government. The British Foreign Secretary issued global travel advice recommending all British citizens return to the United Kingdom, which applied to all countries and territories across the world.”
The British High Commissioner also said: “The decision to advise our citizens to return to the United Kingdom was part of a global announcement, not specific to Nigeria. We are immensely proud of our National Health Service, and recognise that many individuals will feel most comfortable engaging with a health system they know and are familiar with.”
Amongst other issues, Laing spoke on the bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Nigeria, the trade volume, the United Kingdom’s assistance in the fight against corruption and insurgency in the country, bridging the gap between the haves and the have nots.
How far with efforts being galvanised by the Government of the United Kingdom to have its citizens evacuated from Nigeria as a result of the spread of COVID-19?
The British High Commission to Nigeria is working around the clock to secure return flights to the United Kingdom, and we are making significant progress. We are engaging closely with the Nigerian authorities and airlines, and we hope to announce updates in the coming days.
How many registered British nationals in Nigeria?
We do not routinely comment on the number of British nationals or passport holders in any country.
How many have signified interest to be evacuated so far?
Over 4,000 individuals have expressed an interest in return flights.
Considering the number of coronavirus cases recorded in the United Kingdom, why is the UK Government insisting on evacuating its nationals from Nigeria, a country with fewer cases?
The return flights to the United Kingdom are intended for short-term travellers to Nigeria, rather than long-term residents of Nigeria. As the Nigerian Minister for Foreign Affairs said in his recent remarks (5 April 2020), many individuals will draw comfort in being able to access a health system they are familiar with and engage with doctors they know. Equally, many short-term travellers will rightly want to return home rather than stay overseas.
Don’t you think the plan by the United Kingdom and other countries to evacuate their nationals is a way of expressing displeasure over the Nigerian Government’s handling of the situation?
We absolutely do not see our citizens returning as a sign of displeasure towards the Nigerian government. The British Foreign Secretary issued global travel advice recommending all British citizens return to the United Kingdom, which applied to all countries and territories across the world. This approach was echoed by many other countries, including the United States and European nations. We have engaged closely with the Nigerian authorities and we continue to take pride in our support to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control through Public Health England, which we hope will support the authorities save lives and protect the vulnerable.
Some have also argued that your decision is as a result of lack of confidence in the nation’s health system. Is it true?
The decision to advise our citizens to return to the United Kingdom was part of a global announcement, not specific to Nigeria. We are immensely proud of our National Health Service, and recognise that many individuals will feel most comfortable engaging with a health system they know and are familiar with.
What is the general overview of the United Kingdom-Nigeria Bilateral Relations? How has it been so far?
The United Kingdom is Nigeria’s oldest and closest friend. We are proud of that strong and lasting partnership. The bilateral trade relationship between the United Kingdom and Nigeria consistently reaches into the billions of pounds each year. That is good for the United Kingdom, and good for Nigeria. The recent high-profile visits to Nigeria, such as His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales in 2018, and His Royal Highness, Prince Edward earlier this year, are a testament to the important position Nigeria maintains in our esteem. The unique relationship between our two nations also means we are able to support Nigeria in innovative and sustainable ways such as our health, education and infrastructure support packages, through UK Aid. The British High Commission to Nigeria enjoys strong relations with the Government of Nigeria and meetings are held regularly.
Going forward, what new areas are both countries looking at?
The United Kingdom has been bold in our determination to support Nigeria to realise its full potential. That has not changed. We have a broad range of ambitions, including supporting and increasing bilateral trade, unlocking barriers to development in health, education and infrastructure and supporting the stabilisation of the North East of Nigeria. The recent Africa Investment Summit, held in London, was an excellent example of how, by bringing leaders together, we can promote business, increase jobs and improve livelihoods for all. As we look to the coming years, we will encourage bold steps on tackling climate change, championing human rights and supporting sustainable development, among many other areas.
Can you give an appraisal of efforts by the United Kingdom and the Nigerian Government in tackling corruption in Nigeria?
We have been uncompromising in our determination to stamp out corruption in Nigeria. UK Aid, through the Department for International Development, has introduced a series of programmes and projects aimed at strengthening critical Nigerian institutions to become more resilient against corruption, including supporting the introduction of a Treasury Single Account, which ensured more robust checks were in place and money could go where it was intended. We continue to work closely with the Nigerian authorities and partners to further this ambition.
Is the United Kingdom’s assistance in the fight against insurgency in the country yeilding the desired results?
The United Kingdom has made a very clear commitment to the North East of Nigeria. It is a humanitarian crisis leaving millions displaced and many in need of urgent, life-saving humanitarian assistance. That is why the United Kingdom was one of the first partners on the ground and remains one of the largest donors. Our humanitarian programme for North East Nigeria, through UK Aid, is our largest package in the country and aims to provide lifesaving assistance to over 1.5 million people, and treat up to 120,000 children under five for malnutrition. Our work also includes and is providing hundreds of thousands of individuals with sustainable access to clean water, providing education to women and girls and supporting those in urgent need. We are immensely proud of the lives we have saved and the vulnerable individuals we have helped so far.
What is the trade volume between both countries?
In 2016, bilateral trade between the United Kingdom and Nigeria was in excess of £3.4bn, and we have seen this figure increase in recent years.
What is the level of the United Kingdom’s assistance to Nigeria in terms of bridging the inequality gap in the country?
We want to see the inequality gap reduced in Nigeria. We know that far too many Nigerians live at or below the poverty line. The United Kingdom has supported bold economic development programmes aimed at supporting job creation and increasing incomes such as our links programme. We have also made our ambition to unlock the barriers to trade and improve business relationships clear, as we have seen at the Africa Investment Summit in London, which we hope will support businesses grow and thrive in Nigeria. That is better for the United Kingdom, and better for Nigeria.
What is responsible for high rate of visa refusal by the Government of the United Kingdom to Nigerians?
The worldwide response to COVID-19 continues to affect the UK’s Visa and Immigration Service. All UK Visa Application Centres are closed at this time – in Nigeria and across the whole global network. We will, of course, provide updates as soon as this changes.