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Dec 6th 2020, 6:42 pm
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Former Nigerian Ambassador to France and Monaco, Akin Fayomi, who is also a former Undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shares with TUNDE AJAJA his thoughts on Nigeria’s foreign policy, the impact of Joe Biden’s victory in the United States election and other issues
Many Nigerians celebrated the emergence of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States, do you think Nigeria has anything special to gain from Biden’s victory over Donald Trump?

We can look at it in two ways; when a new President is elected in a country, people tend to look at the tendency of seeing changes that would be of benefit to them, so I can understand the jubilation that Mr Trump lost. So, it’s not more of Biden winning but more of Mr Trump losing power. We all know how Trump has dealt with many countries, not in Africa alone. Of course, you would remember the ‘Shithole country’ appellation that he gave us; the immigration policy of driving people away, whereby our non-immigrant visas were stopped. Therefore, people would say whatever comes out of Biden will not be worse than what Trump has done. The second way to look at it is that Mr Biden spent eight years as the vice-president in the Barrack Obama administration. I won’t categorise the Obama administration as Afrocentric even though we expected a lot from him, since his father came from Kenya. However, I know that during his time, they had quite a lot of innovations that focused on Africa and he consolidated on the relationship built by the Republicans before him. We also know Biden has appointed a lot of Obama’s advisers to serve in his government. So, many of them that are African-Americans or have sympathy for Africa or Nigeria would be the shapers of his policies when he takes office on January 20, 2021. If that calls for jubilation by some people, so be it. I’m more optimistic that there might be some positive changes for Africa. We can only wait and see but it doesn’t stop us from having expectations.

Can we really say Trump’s administration was not beneficial to Nigerians in any way?

Trump administration was not beneficial to Nigeria or to Africa. The issue of arms sale is more or less the only thing we can talk about. They removed us from the immigrant visa and diversity visa that many people have enjoyed, and not only Nigeria but also Islamic countries because of the fanaticism. Nigeria was counted alongside Pakistan, Syria, etc. He did not step foot in Africa throughout his four years. It has always been standard practice for US presidents to visit Africa. They are invited by the African Union or the Economic Community of West African States for their summit. Emmanuel Macron has been to ECOWAS Summit a number of times. Obama came to Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, even if he didn’t come to Nigeria. As far as I’m concerned, he (Trump) has not benefitted Africa in any form. That’s part of the reasons people were more jubilant that he didn’t win because we expect a better relationship with Mr Biden in view of so many things, and we have started seeing the effect. The South Korean woman competing with Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala for the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (Yoo Myung-hee) has withdrawn her candidature. She was there up till the election time because Trump was supporting South Korea, being one of his best allies, but immediately they knew Biden won, they knew he would withdraw US’ support when he gets into office, so she withdrew.

From what you said, the comment ‘shithole country’ was one of Trump’s sins, but some people would argue that to an extent Nigeria deserves the description it gets from foreign countries, just like when former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described Nigeria as a fantastically corrupt country; should we really be angry when outsiders remind us who we are?

Everybody has their opinion but there are some uncouth statements, if I may use that, that shouldn’t be made by presidents and prime ministers towards another country or leader. There are diplomatic ways I can abuse you and you would still be smiling with me not knowing that I’m abusing you. We know we have problems but as the president of a country, you don’t have to call us names. Meanwhile, you still trade with us, because in this era of globalisation, no country is an island. Also, Cameron wasn’t lying when he said we are corrupt but it wasn’t for him to say that openly. That was why people like the Archbishop of Canterbury defended us. There are hardworking Nigerians trying to put food on the table for their families, so you don’t describe everyone as the same.

Akin Fayomi
The Obama administration which Joe Biden served as the vice-president placed an embargo on arms sale to Nigeria because of reported human rights violation by the armed forces. Nigeria has been buying arms from the United States under Trump, is there a possibility we may be facing a reversal under Biden?

Your question is extremely insightful and you have already mentioned part of the reasons Mr Obama did not sell arms to us, because apart from buying and selling, they look at other issues like human rights and how the military would use the arms. These things are put into consideration before you say you want to sell arms to a country. Even though their economy needs the money, the way their democracy is practised is that they take other factors into consideration and not just the money. True, Trump allowed the sale of arms to us, like the Tucano jets we are expecting. Sometimes, the human rights record might have been exaggerated and Boko Haram was devastating Nigeria, causing problem in Western Sahel like Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Mali and other countries. Trump would have seen the sale of arms as a business for the US and that Nigeria’s stability is crucial to West Africa and without arms and the right equipment we will not defeat terrorism. Don’t forget that war against terrorism is a priority for the US. That was why under Obama, US forces went all the way to Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden and right now you can’t really hear about Al-Qaeda even though they would be there underground. So, I don’t see Mr Biden going backwards to say since his former boss did not sell arms to Nigeria he also would not. Things have changed. That is why he has advisers.

What if he reverses it?

That’s okay also. Don’t forget that when Obama did not sell to us, we didn’t collapse. We have other friends we can buy from. That’s why sometimes we have to call the bluff of some of these so-called superpowers. I’m of the view that most of the things America does are in their national interest. We can make friends with China, Turkey, India, Jordan, Russia, Serbia, Hungary and Czech Republic. We also get from Israel, which makes the Uzi machine gun, the most popular machine gun the whole world uses. So, we get arms from different parts of the world. If you check with the armed forces, you would realise we buy from all over, just that some of these things are confidential so that the enemy does not know the kind of weapon they use. So, we cannot dwell so much on Americans selling us arms or not. We have no permanent friends or enemies; we only have permanent interest, which we need to survive.

But the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said on Monday that Nigeria is largely at the mercy of terrorists because countries have refused to sell arms to us, how do we juxtapose these?

I would not want to contradict or collaborate what the minister said. He might have his own source of information, after all, he is the minister of information. However, the President (Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)) said about a month or two ago that we get arms from those countries I mentioned earlier. I don’t know which country the minister is referring to, but he would have more information than I do. However, I guess he was trying to lay emphasis on the point that we would have had more platforms open to us to get arms, not that we are not getting at all from other countries.

Nigeria imports ammunition from Serbia, a country of about seven million people. Is it not shameful that despite our population and 60 years of independence, Nigeria still relies on importation of arms and ammunition?

It’s a very valid question. There was a time in this country that we had Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria. They were supposed to be producing Small Arms and Light Weapons, which includes pistols, rifles, grenades, bullets and light-armoured vehicles, but DICON went into oblivion, though a company is now producing Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicles for the army. There was a time it was doing all these things. Buba Marwa was even the chairman of the company at a time, but like in many things in Nigeria, it collapsed. We have to tell ourselves the truth. Everything has collapsed. That is why we are importing toothpicks when in Ondo State we have forests that have resources that can be used. It’s truly disappointing and frustrating that after 60 years of independence, we cannot even produce small arms and light weapons, rather we import.

The support Nigeria was getting from other foreign countries outside Africa in the fight against Boko Haram seems to have waned, what changed?

I would say the robust partnership is still there in many cases, but these days, no country wants its soldiers to be brought back from foreign lands in body bags. So, that changed the boots-on-the-ground approach and it was substituted with intelligence gathering, which is also crucial in modern-day warfare. They could sit down somewhere in Atlanta and kill terorrists in Iraq with drones. For example, I was an ambassador in France when some of these things were happening seven to eight years ago and I knew how our National Security Adviser and his French counterpart were very much involved on it. I was a part of some meetings because I got invited to the Foreign Ministry. At a time, they saw the mass movement of our Chibok girls that were kidnapped in Sambisa Forest through their drone planes that you can’t see from here, but the collateral damage of killing them was going to be so much that the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, wasn’t ready to be held to account that all those people were killed because they wanted to kill terrorists. Some of the girls, if not all of them, would have perished. Some people were blaming us that why didn’t we just wipe off the whole of Sambisa Forest at that time, but as a father or mother, how do you make that kind of decision. So, we are still getting support. Don’t forget that we still get military support from the Multinational Joint Task Force and those other countries are getting their arms from the French, Chinese and Americans. That shows that the partnership is still there, maybe not as robust as before.

Since the support is not as robust as before, should we continue to lament about what we are not getting instead of realising the war is for us to win?

You have a point; we tend to rely on support more than what we should be doing by ourselves. Don’t forget that very recently, a major General (Olusegun Adeniyi) who complained in a video that they don’t have enough equipment to fight with has been court-martialled and demoted. But he was saying the truth, which the military authorities also know. The President in his condolence message to the families of the 43 farmers killed by the terrorists said he would give more support to the armed forces. That phrase is an acceptance that he hadn’t done enough. However, I must say that we have intelligence support from some foreign countries but sometimes, like the military spokesperson also said, the bulk of the intelligence is needed from the local communities themselves because they know them. The terrorists go into the town with guns on their shoulders, forcing the villagers to give them yam, maize before they retreat. But like you said, we have to realise the fact that this is our war and we have to attack it in whatever form we can.

The Governor of Borno State, Prof Babagana Zulum, suggested that we should hire mercenaries to fight the terrorists, what do you make of that?

I don’t support that suggestion by the governor and I can imagine that he said it out of grief. The days of mercenaries fighting all over the world has passed. There are still some but they won’t know the terrain. You use mercenaries when you want to execute a coup, not to help you fight local people that are living in your villages.

The administration of former President Jonathan tried it prior to the 2015 elections and it worked, why can’t we try it again?

They were not there for long and they were not doing land patrol because people would identify them immediately. The governor’s recommendation that I agreed with is that since there are so many youths that are unemployed, we should train them and put them in the military or ‘vigilante’ or even the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. Today, we can get 50,000 persons that have no job that we can put in the army after training them accordingly, maybe do a three-month crash course for them. The job will be done. We hope the government would listen and take action, instead of people hanging around looking for what to do. But I feel the political will is sometimes not there. All these things are not rocket science and they know these things better than we do. If we laymen could know it, I don’t think it should be difficult for them to if they have the political will.

From Ghana to South Africa and even Cyprus, Nigerians are not well treated, why are Nigerians poorly treated in these countries?

I would agree and disagree with you. You cannot really say we are poorly treated. For example, a Nigerian carries their passport, gets a visa and travels to South Africa. Nobody asks their means of income where they are going. That means they could go there and start trading in drugs or even prostitution and when the is caught and jailed, we lament that Nigerians are being persecuted. For example, when this person gets there, he would not go to the embassy to introduce himself, tell them what he does, his address and next of kin. That is how it is done in foreign missions. You must first report to the embassy so you can be registered but they don’t do that. If anything bad happens, they rush to the embassy to say people at the embassy don’t do their jobs, whereas the embassy might not know they were there.

What if they are not aware they should go to the embassy?

They have to be aware, and they are supposed to be law-abiding. Look at Italy, there are Nigerians who are pimps, some are into Internet fraud and card fraud. However, we have thousands of people doing well in these countries, but the majority of the people who get into trouble are people who have no jobs. In the case of South Africa, yes it is a possibility that when people come into your country and they start doing better than you, envy sets in. But those are in few instances. Majority of people who get into trouble are into drugs. We did a study on it. We had what we call Nigeria-South Africa Binational Commission where all these issues were tabled and we found that 90 per cent of Nigerians there were totally jobless and they were into drugs, armed robbery and prostitution. That is one part of the story people don’t see in Nigeria.

What about Ghana?

Talking about Ghana, we have closed our land borders for over a year, many Ghanaians goods were stuck at our borders. We closed the borders without a notice. I did some research into that and I went to Accra. You would find that the whole of ECOWAS are not happy with Nigeria, because the closed borders affect Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire. Ghanaians come to Nigeria because we are the powerhouse of this sub-region. The border closure caught everybody unawares and so the Ghanaian traders had their millions of naira or cedis worth of goods that have perished. So, they are taking out their anger on Nigerians who are still selling goods from here. Some of them told us on condition of anonymity that Nigerians were still smuggling through Idiroko and the bushes to Benin and Ghana, but the Ghanaians can’t do that; they don’t have the effrontery and they don’t even know those bushes. These are the issues. I blame the Ghanaians also for raising the price for a licence that many Nigerian traders can’t meet up with. You also mentioned Cyprus, some of these schools don’t even have a curriculum. Imagine going to Cyprus to study. Some people are desperate but I’m happy that the Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, has warned parents against sending their children just anywhere perhaps because they want to be able to say their children are studying abroad. There are schools Nigerians go to and when they go to the Federal Ministry of Education to authenticate their certificates, they are not accepted. So, our people have to be more careful. We are a developing country but we are doing our best and our neighbours respect us. If we stop paying our assessed contribution to ECOWAS, it will collapse. Also, if we don’t pay our assessed contribution to AU; only five countries are paying 15 per cent each while the rest are paying peanuts, it could collapse too. So, we still have our dignity but in some places, people paint us bad because of the attitude of some of our own people. However, anywhere we go, I believe we can still hold our head up high. We who earn a decent living are more than those that are into drugs and stealing money.

While our people suffer abroad, is it excusable for foreigners like some Chinese, Indians and Lebanese to maltreat our people right here and we do nothing about it?

You are very correct. The Nigeria Immigration Service gives them work permit to come into this country and the NIS and the Ministry of Labour and Employment are supposed to monitor them. The Nigeria Police is also expected to be involved, but I get your point. Some of them give money to our police and immigration officials to cover up some of their atrocities and that is where the problem is.

Following the outcome of the #EndSARS protests, the UK parliament mulled the idea of Nigeria being sanctioned for the way it treated the protesters, what do you make of that?

I don’t despise the move because the world is a global village. Some Nigerians abroad, more than 220,000 of them, said they wrote a petition. That’s the style there; when a petition garners a certain number of signatures, they are meant to debate it at the parliament. The members of parliament debated the issue and made recommendations. The UK parliamentarians don’t speak for the government and they can’t sanction, but they can recommend and that was what they did. But the UK government has a better knowledge of what is going on in Nigeria than the parliamentarians, who were only working on petitions sent to them. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs (Geoffrey Onyeama) has spoken on the issue and an envoy on humanitarian affairs from the UK met with our vice-president. So, we should not panic over what the parliamentarians did. The UK government will not just listen to them without asking for our side of the story. However, it shows that people are concerned about what is happening in Nigeria. If I had the opportunity to advise the minister, I’m of the view that sometimes we are on the defensive; we allow issues to fester before looking for ways to mitigate the damage that had been done. For something like this, I would have suggested a form of rapprochement in a way that maybe every month you have a briefing with the heads of different missions in Nigeria or an emergency meeting in a situation like the #EndSARS protest knowing it would go all over the world with the use of the social media. Tell them what happened and what the government is doing or has done to address the concerns. I mean an approach that is proactive. As a former head of mission myself, when something happened where I was an ambassador, I had to report it and relay my recommendations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within 24 hours. We don’t propagate ourselves enough. Instead of running helter-skelter trying to do damage control, most of those things could have been done if we were more proactive in our foreign policy.

A member of the UK parliament alleged without evidence that a former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, went away with half of the money in the Central Bank of Nigeria, what do you make of that allegation?

It was a preposterous and ridiculous statement by that member of the parliament. It was not in his place to even go into anything like that. They were debating the issue of #EndSARS, so why he decided to talk about corruption in Nigeria and pick on an individual was rather unfortunate. We are talking about a former Head of State who was sent packing in Kampala when he was attending the Organisation of African Unity (now AU) Summit. It is common knowledge that it was some of the delegations or embassy officials that gave him money to move to the United Kingdom and the UK government issued him a visa there out of sympathy. He was a student at Warrick University and we all saw him carrying a tray in the dining room. He became an embarrassment to the Muritala Mohammed regime that took over power that they had to reinstate his pension. How could a former Head of State be carrying trays at a cafeteria? If Muritala Mohammed that kicked him out had found him to be corrupt, he wouldn’t have bothered to reinstate his pension. So, it was such an unfortunate statement to be made by someone who called himself a member of the UK Parliament. Many people have come out to defend Gen Yakubu Gowon, so there is no need for me to say more than that. The Federal Government has demanded an apology from the British Government and I support that. I felt a bit sorry for the old man because he doesn’t deserve that kind of statement. Something like that (stealing half of the moneyin the CBN) couldn’t have happened at that time; there was more discipline then than what we have now.

A motion was raised by a member of the House of Representatives a few weeks ago demanding an investigation into an allegation that some diplomats on foreign assignments continue to collect allowances after they had been recalled, with the collusion of some ministry officials. As a former ambassador and a retired staff member of that ministry, how possible is that?

It’s strange and it came as a surprise. I’m not very sure that what the honourable member said was true because sometimes they don’t do their investigations before they rush to the media may be to score some cheap points. I don’t have so much regard for some of the people we call lawmakers, even though some of them are very brilliant. For some, you don’t even hear from them throughout their four years there. However, that allegation cannot be true and I doubt that it happened. The process of posting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t work like that. Let’s say you were posted to Ghana, your letter of posting already specifies that you would spend three or four years as the case may be, but you can be brought back before then for disciplinary procedure if you are found wanting. So, you already know when you would return even before you leave. About three months to the end of your term, a notice would have been sent to you that you should wind up your affairs. Meanwhile, your Foreign Service allowance stop immediately you enter the airplane to come back. The ministry pays all capital and recurrent expenditure into the account of the embassy in that country and the financial attaché at the embassy who is an accountant from Nigeria pays individuals their allowances. So you don’t collect money directly from Nigeria. Therefore, the alleged connivance with ministry officials cannot happen because the ministry does not pay individuals on Foreign Service. There can be instances where someone has been recalled but they have to wait for some time, maybe due to ill health, surgery or the female official was delivered of a baby. Their names would be among those that have been recalled but they might have to wait for the reasons I cited. In such cases, they apply to the headquarters and they get approval from the Ministry to stay for some time. That is a special case. Some people can be at the headquarters and say Mr A is supposed to have come back at a certain time but is still there receiving allowances, not knowing the reason. And as long as you are there, you would keep working and you would be paid. That’s why I said if the honourable member had done a proper investigation, he would know that the ministry does not work like that.

When China volunteered to build the headquarters of the African Union, it was later discovered that bugs were planted there, should the Africa Union have allowed a county like China to gift it such an important facility?

There is nothing wrong with somebody giving you a gift in appreciation of the excellent relations you accorded the person. Chinese are present virtually across Africa and that is why the Americans are jittery because China has taken the role that they and the United Kingdom used to play for Anglophone countries and the role France used to play for Francophone countries. We give them contracts to build railways and bridges. If you put all those contracts together it will be billions of dollars. So, when we wanted to build the headquarters of the African Union, we could do it. The last one that they used was designed by Chief Tom Ikimi. Africa had already put up a master plan and countries have proposed to pay out of their assessed contributions to build it. Along the line, the Chinese came and approached a few Heads of State and said they wanted to show that they were our friends and they were not just here to do business, having got several contracts to build infrastructure in African countries. That was how the concept of the gift came about and there is nothing wrong with that. But secondly, they went ahead to plant bugs there. We too have come of age to know that such is expected. For example, when Mr President is visiting any country abroad or even a state within the country, they send an advance team to check all the routes he would take and the room he would stay. They would have booked the room like five days earlier so that the first four days they would have combed the room totally so that any bug planted would have been detected. So, after the Chinese built the headquarters and gave us, obviously there would be bugs. In Nigerian embassies abroad, especially in the big countries, every six months, they send intelligence officers with their machines to clear the embassy and the residence of the ambassador. It is a routine and it is part of the budget. A technician that came to fix something could plant something there. Israelis, who are the master spies, the Chinese, Bulgarians, the East Germany in those days, the Russians, America’s CIA and the UK’s MI6 and the rest of them are spies. So, it’s a normal trademark for intelligence agencies to plant bugs.

Is it not criminal if discovered?

No, it’s not. For example, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency officials would sweep the residence of the US Ambassador in Abuja at intervals. It’s how it is; everybody wants to know what the other person is planning. Sometimes, you don’t have some discussions in your office as an ambassador because you assume that it is bugged. So, everybody does that to everybody.

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Yobe State Governor and APC caretaker committee chairman, Mai Mala Buni

FEATURED
Crisis: Tenure extension, party discipline top agenda as APC NEC meets Tuesday
Published December 6, 2020

Yobe State Governor and APC caretaker committee chairman, Mai Mala Buni

JOHN ALECHENU

The tenure extension of the Governor Mai Mala Buni-led Caretaker/Extraordinary National Convention Planning Committee, as well as party discipline, will take the front burner as the National Executive Committee of the All Progressives Congress holds its virtual meeting, in Abuja, on Tuesday, Sunday PUNCH has learnt.

It was gathered that after due consultations with relevant stakeholders, the leadership of the party working in concert with governors, state and zonal leaders, the party’s NEC will endorse an extension of time for the Buni-led committee to conclude its assignment.

A member of the party’s caucus who spoke to Sunday PUNCH on condition of anonymity said, “We are determined to reposition this party to strengthen it because a lot of damage has been done to our brand. Let’s not pretend about it.

“We have an opportunity to start the rebuilding process now and we are taking it seriously; the party is beyond any individual. We are aware of the desperate attempts to use the judiciary to scuttle our carefully laid-out reforms. But we will not be deterred.”

The source also said, “The party has been patient with a lot of members, but some of them mistake this for weakness. The party has a constitution which spells out penalties for certain infractions, it is very clear on the issue of litigations without exhausting internal mechanisms, it is expected that the NEC will receive a report on out last resolution asking people to withdraw cases from court after which certain decision will be taken.”

The party had at its last NEC meeting held on June 25, 2020 dissolved the Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee and empaneled the Buni-led caretaker committee.

The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), who chaired the committee, appealed to the aggrieved members of the party who had cases in court to withdraw them to allow for reconciliation.

However, many members have yet to comply. Only last week, a former national vice-chairman of the party, Hilliard Eta, sued the party and demanded the sack of the Buni committee.

Also, aggrieved members of the party under the aegis of the Concerned APC Members on Friday said they were aware of plans to not only extend the caretaker committee’s tenure but also dissolve the entire structure of the party from the ward level.

In a statement titled, ‘Why suspect this APC registration/revalidation exercise’ which was signed by the group’s spokesman, Abdullahi Dauda, in Abuja, the group cautioned the APC against falling into the same errors that the former ruling Peoples Democratic Party allegedly fell into.

The statement read in part, “We are aware of the plan to postpone our convention and do a fresh registration. The question we are asking is, what happened to the party register? Has the party been operating without one? How did we come about the 16 million members we told Nigerians in 2019? Is this registration not another plan to remove people who those controlling the party now don’t like? Does the caretaker committee need new members to have a convention?

“We have it on good authority that the caretaker committee will after the registration and regularisation exercise dissolve all the party structures across the states and conduct new party congresses irrespective of the fact that the tenures of those state structures from ward to state will not expire until 2022 in some states.

“The planned dissolution is to allow the ‘cabal’ from having control of the statutory delegates that will attend and vote at the convention. Why can’t the convention be done now and allow the new Party Exco to carry out all other activities from registration to regularisation?”

The aggrieved party members enjoined the party leadership to avoid the temptation of taking party members for granted because doing so would worsen an already bad situation.

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