From Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, is the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Since his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari in late November, 2015, he has championed the restoration of Nigeria’s image in the comity of nations, protection of Nigerians abroad and favourable trade diplomacy.
So far, would you say as Minister of Foreign Affairs, you have achieved what you set out to do at the beginning of this administration?
Yes, I will say so. There are different layers that one has to deal with in this job. When we first came in, Mr. President identified three core priority areas. The challenge for me as minister was to try and deliver those three core areas through foreign policies. Beneath those layers, there are other aspects that impinge on the success of the administration. These things also impact on the success of the administration and they are objective. They are almost like subheadings. The main objectives were security, good governance and anti-corruption, and economic growth. These were the three core areas. When you ask a question whether we have been successful in the last two years, I will say, regarding the three core objectives of the President, that we have been successful. In other areas, it is a still a work in progress. It will take longer time to achieve. In terms of setting the direction, we have done that.
Many Nigerians will contest the claim about the protection of citizens abroad. We have seen cases of Nigerians who have been killed in South Africa. We have seen protests as a result of this. How would you argue in this direction?
The xenophobic attacks in South Africa were not exclusively targeted at Nigerians. Since the end of the apartheid regime, South Africa has been struggling with the issue of violence. There has been violence against itself and against African migrants. That has been a real challenge for the South African society and the South African Government. What we have done is to directly engage the South African Government at the highest level. We identified that the best way to go about it would be to engage all the parties involved. We were able to bring the South African Government face-to-face with Nigerian representatives in the country. We agreed to form a permanent mechanism to address this situation. We feel that was a major step in this process, by setting up an early warning mechanism. This mechanism is designed to bring together South African police and Nigerian unions. Nigerians in South Africa felt that police officers there were not providing adequate protection. We felt this was a major breakthrough.
The thing with violence of this nature in any country is that, nations are sovereign. No nation has direct influence over events taking place in other countries. When you talk of protecting Nigerians in other countries, there is a limit to what you can do. We cannot send our policemen or military there to secure our people. We completely depend on the agencies of the various countries. All we have to do is to prevail on the governments of the affected countries and in this case, the Government of South Africa.
We have also seen foreign missions and their staff threatening to go on strike over salaries and entitlements. What is the Ministry doing about this trend?
There was only one case and that happened in our Embassy in Washington DC. That was not the true reflection of what happened. The truth was that people were actually working. There are grievances in a lot of Nigerian embassies across the world. To a large extent, that was created by the sudden drop in the foreign exchange of the naira. It took everybody by surprise. What this meant was that, the funds that were allocated to these embassies became half. The embassies found themselves struggling to get the needed funds. It has been resolved through an intervention fund approved by the National Assembly. We even had challenges when the funds were approved, they were not cash backed. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) could not pay the money to the embassies. That created a lot of crises. We have been able to manage the situation.
The monies have been transferred to the embassies.
There have been claims and suggestions that the ill health of Mr. President is affecting operations of most ministries and agencies. What impact is it having on your ministry?
It has no bearing at all. That is, the ill-health of Mr. President and the funding of the Ministry. I don’t know where those who make such claims get their information but in the case of Ministry of Health, we are having no problem. Every Nigerian has a duty to pray for Mr. President and some people are trying to play politics with everything.
In the last two years, we have had situations where you have not worked cordially with some appointees of the President on few foreign issues. What is the crux of the matter?
I assume that you are referring to the issue with the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Diaspora. There was nothing discordant. She essentially was advising Nigerians to be careful whenever they were traveling to the United States of America. There were Nigerians who were reporting that they were being turned back at the borders. They made contacts with her, she advised them to be careful. Some Nigerians took it as the official government advisory on traveling to the States.
We consulted with our embassies and put the records straight. We consulted with the United States Government and our embassy officials. They assured that it was not the case. There was no United States position to limit the access of Nigerians into the country. We needed to make that known to Nigerians that there was no such directive. It was not anything personal. It was a clarification. She also clarified that her warning was not a directive, that it was an advice that Nigerians should be careful.
You came in at a time the country was facing tough times on all fronts. How has that affected your work as a Minister?
As we have seen, funding has been a real problem. That is, funding of our embassies, ministry and all that. This is a tough time. This comes back to your question about South Africa. In Foreign Affairs, we are dealing with other countries. What is important is the perception. We want Nigerians to be perceived as people who are led by rational people. They need to know that their government is very lucid and not under pressure. I think this is the image the outside world has about President Muhammadu Buhari. He is calm and clear minded. He thinks through a problem and addresses it.
This is reassuring to the outside world. It might appear attractive and dramatic to go to the media to shout or abuse other countries. But the impression it will give to other countries will not be positive. That will affect the country in so many areas. If you look around the world, you can identify some countries where the leaders are portraying an image of thoughtfulness. That is very important. Small things can have huge consequences in foreign policies. Small words can have huge consequences and cause major conflicts with other countries.
You are right that we came in at a difficult time. We are trying to stabilize the polity. Like you said, we came in at a difficult period when we had alienated so many countries around the world. Nigeria was not taken seriously around the world for a number of things. We saw the corruption, the management of the economy and other things. What this government is trying to do is to restore that reputation we have as a country and as a government. This came out during The Gambia incidence. Mr. President was very deliberate and thoughtful. There was no public show of power or shouting. There were discreet measures and we were objective. We could have flexed our muscles. We are trying to take cue from Mr. President on that in dealing with the South African incidence. We keep our eyes on the ball. The challenges we face are enormous, but we will not run to the media. We try to address them quietly.
This impression other countries have about Nigeria, does it not run contrary to what we have here, where people abuse the government over its handling of things?
If you look at other countries, you will find the same thing. If you look at the West, the media criticizes the government. That is the prerogative the electorate has. Every government is elected by the people and the people have the right to ask questions concerning issues that affect them. But there are huge challenges in the government that we inherited. Our approach is to put in place a building block. There are so many short term measures we can take to make the electorate happy. We can devalue the naira or borrow anyhow. But the government is keen to keep in place an enduring framework. The problem we have had over the years has been the short term plans. But this government is thinking beyond today. Sometimes, you need to tighten your belt today for the sake of tomorrow. Diversification of the economy is not something that will be done overnight. It takes time. You cannot have fifty years of dependence on one commodity and just diversify overnight. We must have the infrastructure for a prosperous and sustainable economy. That is what we are trying to do. It costs money. We have to prioritize. We are poor as a country, oil prices have fallen and we do not have the resources. The people are feeling the pain. But it is a question of believing that what you are doing is for a long term.
Many Nigerians do not know the foreign policy thrust of this administration. What is your vision for the ministry?
My vision is to turn the Ministry into an economic hub for the country. We want to go out there and facilitate open doors for Nigerians. We want to promote foreign direct investment. We are building a portal for that. Through that portal, every Nigerian can see what we are doing.
We want Nigerians to have seamless access to businesses in over 190 countries where we have embassies and foreign missions. We want to do a comprehensive gap analysis of the Ministry that will enable us chart a way forward to make the Ministry fit for the 21st century.