Home POLITICS Prof Bolaji Akinyemi : Nigerian Foreign Politics

Prof Bolaji Akinyemi : Nigerian Foreign Politics

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ormer Minister of External Affairs, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, discusses the re-election of the President of African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adesina; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination as head of the World Trade Organisation; and Nigeria’s acceptance of Chinese loans, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE

 What is your view on Nigeria’s foreign policy?

But you know I had stated this before that, since I left the ministry (of foreign affairs), I have refrained from commenting on activities of the ministry. My principle is, once you’ve been an office holder and you’ve gone into retirement, whether normal or forced, you don’t peep over the shoulders of your successors. Let them have their successes and make their mistakes. So, really, I still want to keep that principle.

Can you speak about the role of ex-ambassadors in shaping the policy of a nation?

Let us start by talking about the impact of the death of George Floyd on the world. That’s really what is agitating the minds of everybody in the world. It’s a global event. I’m sure the policeman who killed Mr Floyd could not, in his wildest imagination, (envisage) that a death on a local street in an American city that is not even one of the largest or (most) developed would now be talked about in every corner of the world. When we are talking about a new world order, this is the takeaway we must keep in mind from this event: one, that the new order may come from unplanned events that have unforeseen consequences. And maybe that’s how the new world order will be built up. It’s not going to come from a blueprint by a think-tank. It will be as a result of issues in different parts of the world and that is what we have seen from this.

The unfortunate death of Mr Floyd has been an event for good. This may be oxymoronic: ‘how could the murder of a person be regarded as having a good effect?’ But, often, it happens, and I welcome its effect on the world because it has energised the younger generation, whose future depends on the outcome of all these demonstrations on the streets of several cities in the world.

Number two, I welcome the fact that it has been multiracial because nothing defeats a movement (more) than it being localised. It would have been easy to tackle this movement if the demonstrations had been by black people alone, but it has been multiracial. It has been between young boys and girls demonstrating, and you must not forget that they poured into the streets in the middle of a pandemic. It’s not that they didn’t care for their lives, but that they regard the fight for social justice and equity to be more important than whatever risk they may run from this pandemic. So, I think we should pay a lot of attention to what is going on the streets of the world.

In a way, I am unhappy that our non-governmental organisations, trade union movements (and) churches have been inactive — I won’t say, silent. I’m sure condemnations had come up in sermons but churches have been inactive. I’m aware of the demonstrations that have been going on over the rape issue. So, that means there are also issues (for which) the young people of Nigeria can feel aggrieved enough to pour into the street. Why not the fight for racial equality? Why not the struggle for ethnic equality? I have felt rather bad that our streets have been rather quiet on this issue.

People have made the argument that Nigerians have not done enough to protest police brutality in Nigeria, where it is perhaps even worse than in the United States. What do you say about that?

Maybe they have a point. However, I would then retort that, even if they are afraid to demonstrate against police brutality in Nigeria, by demonstrating against the murder of George Floyd, they could have linked the two together. After all, the people demonstrating on the streets of London, Bristol, Glasgow and Edinburg were saying the murder of Floyd is not a local issue that is now replicated even in Britain. So, in demonstrating against the murder of Floyd, (they showed) that they were also demonstrating against police brutality in Britain. So, the two could have been linked in Nigeria as well. Probably, by linking the two, it would have protected the demonstrators from any police reaction.

Are you advising that Nigerians protest police brutality at home as fiercely as was done in the case of Floyd?

I believe it’s too late now. The murder happened two weeks ago and the demonstrations have been going on for two weeks. It’s too late to become a Johnny-come-lately. The steam has been taken out of the issue, frankly. But one matter, which we have ignored in this country, flashed into my mind as I watched the statue of that slave dealer being pulled down in Bristol. And I thought: Port Harcourt was named after a British paedophile who finally killed himself after he had been exposed and that name has never been changed. I’m surprised about that.

Number two, there are several streets all over this country that are named after slave dealers and colonial officers and agents with very unsavoury characters, and yet, the names have been kept. I know Lagos has tried in the sense that there are several names (of places) I grew up knowing and they have new names now. But there are several others still there. I really believe we ought to make a conscious effort to really revisit the issue of colonial names in our political system.

Look at India. They had ‘Mumbai’ before the British came. The British came and changed the name of the city to ‘Bombay’. After the British left, the Indians changed the name back to ‘Mumbai’. It’s the Portuguese who gave the name ‘Lagos’ to Lagos. But before the Portuguese came, it was called ‘Eko’. So, why not revert the name? I don’t mind you calling it ‘Lagos State’, but, the city itself, why not call it ‘Eko’, which was the pre-colonial name? I’ve mentioned Port Harcourt, which is even a disgraceful example. And I’m sure, if we go round the country, we will come across names that deserve to be changed.

Would you say this makes hypocrites of Nigerians in the sense that they are sensitive to racial and colonial issues abroad, while many of such examples at home are somewhat ignored?

We were able to build a consensus around external issues like anti-apartheid (and) anti-colonialism in southern Africa….

Do you mean a consensus within or outside Nigeria?

No, this is a consensus within Nigeria. But you are right that we could be accused of hypocrisy in the sense that we forgot the beam in our own eyes, while fighting to remove the specks that were in the eyes of the other people because, don’t forget, there are parts of Nigeria where the colonial officers are still regarded with a lot of favourable disposition, while in the South, our body language towards colonial officers are very negative. However, even with the one under our control (nothing has been done) — that’s why they’ve left things alone.

Even the name of Nigeria itself, have you considered that? The name of Nigeria, apart from the fact that it was given to us by the mistress, girlfriend or wife — whatever it is — of Mr (Frederick) Lugard, there is a dispute over its meaning. Some say ‘Nigeria’ means ‘area of niggers’. While some say ‘Niger’ was the Latin name for blacks. Why did we keep that name? Ghana was Gold Coast. At independence, it changed its name to ‘Ghana’. Mali was (French Sudan) not ‘Mali’. It was at independence it changed its name to ‘Mali’. The Songhai Empire actually extended to parts of northern Nigeria, so we could have used that to change our name at independence. But we never did because that was not the focus of the leadership we inherited at independence.

We tried, at the 2014 National Conference, but, again, there was no consensus — I mean, there was a consensus that the name of Nigeria continues to be ‘shame’ but there was no consensus on what the new name should be. And so, the matter was left alone. It’s the kind of thing that Murtala Muhammed would have done if he had lived long enough. The issue was never raised during the six months or so that he was in office. If he had stayed long enough, probably, from the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, I could have summoned a conference for a new name for Nigeria. It’s the kind of thing that would have appealed to him.

Do you think the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), is capable of changing the name of Nigeria to a less offensive one?

No, the President doesn’t seem to be — although, he’s shown that he’s capable of surprises. This he’s done on June 12 (in the) honouring of (Chief MKO) Abiola. He’s shown, at times, the capability to shock in a positive way. So, who knows? But, generally, I don’t see him being inclined to toy with that kind of thing.

There is also the popular argument that the President’s recognition of June 12 benefited him politically….

He did the right thing. I don’t know whether it benefited him politically or whether that was his objective. Abiola won that election and he deserved that recognition.

The maltreatment and racist attacks against Nigerians in China have angered a lot of Nigerians. Were you also angered by the way Nigerians were treated in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in China?

Yes, I felt angered by it and, at the time, I think I issued a press statement making my views known. But it’s not just China. (I) look at the way we were and are still treated in South Africa and I ask myself, ‘Why do Nigerians, wherever they are, attract negative treatments from their host countries?’ And I believe that, while we are blaming the hawk, we should also blame the chicken for straying out into where the hawks can catch it, if I can use that local illustration.

I believe that we need to let Nigerians know that there is a limit to which Nigeria itself can protect them externally. If you’re in a country, obey the laws of that country. If, even after obeying the laws of that country, you are then maltreated, then Nigeria could step in diplomatically, threatening retaliation (and) all kinds of things that are still within the diplomatic discourse. But if you go to foreign countries and you behave as if the laws of those countries don’t apply to you, it makes protection difficult, and it also makes governmental intervention, in terms of protests, difficult. Just as we expect foreigners who come into Nigeria to obey our laws, I think Nigerians who go to foreign countries should behave themselves. Nevertheless, ‘anti-Nigerianism’ has reached such a horrendous proportion that, frankly, Nigeria should regard it as a major foreign policy issue to be tackled.

In tackling the racism in China, do you think Nigeria should demand compensation in the light of the maltreatment Nigerians suffered?

If Nigerian properties have been vandalised or destroyed in the process, yes. However, if you’re talking about compensation as a result of ill treatment of Nigerians, why just from China? Have we got compensation from South Africa? Have we got compensation from Western countries where Nigerians have been brutalised? No. So, it’s like compensation for slavery; it’s one of those issues that are neither here nor there.

Speaking of slavery, many Nigerians are not happy with the Federal Government’s numerous loans from China and they worry about the implications. Do those loans bother you?

Yes, foreign loans bother me. Number one, what are those loans going to be used for? If it’s to develop infrastructure; if it is to engineer industrial growth that will add to our Gross Domestic Product, so that it will facilitate the repayment of those loans, then fine. We’re a potentially rich country, if management of the economy is top class. But, if we are collecting all these loans so that we can pump up our budget that will then be spent on rehabilitating the National Assembly building (and) be used in increasing the allowances of members of the National Assembly, then we’re heading for trouble. In fact, given what we have seen about COVID-19, part of the loans should be devoted to building up our health sector. It is in the interest of everybody. From the President all the way down to the local government chairman, you’ve been faced with a pandemic when you cannot even travel out if you have a headache. You can’t travel out if you have a problem with your toe, so, you better, in anticipation of another pandemic — whether it is 10 years’ time or whatever — start investing in your health sector.

A situation where the salary of a medical doctor (is nothing) compared to the salary of a local government chairman is disgraceful, not to talk about salaries or allowances of members of the National Assembly or permanent secretaries. Yet, when you are ill and a pandemic like this comes, it is the doctor you need, not the local government chairman, National Assembly member or permanent secretary, whether federal or state. It is the doctor you need, and yet, you treat them so shabbily.

The same thing goes for the education sector. I ask you: just because a governor, minister or senator is so rich, he knows how much a teacher in a private school is earning and you ignore teachers in the public sector — in government-owned schools? At times, for six months, they are not paid, and when they are paid, it’s a pittance. Do you know that, in Finland, actually, the most people with first-class degrees are the ones employed in the primary schools and their salaries are among the highest in the country because that’s the future of your country? You’re entrusting the development of your children to them, and so, they know that this is part of human development. You build it up from that base.

What do we do here? There are teachers in primary schools who have no qualification, and yet, we entrust our children to them. Does that make sense to you?

There are critical and strategic sectors like that that, as we pursue this dream of a post-COVID-19 development plan, those are the kinds of things we should be focused upon, and I don’t see us being focused upon them. To go back to your question, in Nigeria, we really cannot run out of funds, let us face it. So, the quantum of the loan we are raising is still no threat to Nigerian development. We’re not a banana republic. As the contribution of oil is going down, we’ve ignored mineral resources. The contribution that that can make to our economy — we’ve abandoned it to the mineral resources being looted by the Chinese, Lebanese (and) Arabs, all over the country. I don’t know where you come from, but, in my village, now, you’ll find Chinese digging for gold, diamonds and digging in a way that is destroying the environment. And are they paying tax on what they are digging up? No. Nigeria, if problem comes, can now go to that sector, reorganise it, manage it properly, and they will get funds into the national economy.

Some have argued that the Chinese loans have developed into a form of modern-day slavery where China allegedly exploits Nigeria and other African countries for its gain. Do you feel the same way?

My reaction is as follows: number one, we, Africans, are to blame. Look at what Rwanda has done. It has sent the Chinese packing that it’s not going to sign itself back into colonialism. So, no African head of (government) is forced to sign for these loans. Number two, look at the conditions under which those loans are being given. Are these what you want for your country? We’ve never had a thorough debate, whether in our National Assembly, or in any of our institutes, as regards the conditions of the loans. And it goes back to the old system where these loans allow the Chinese to bring in Chinese workers, and yet, you are going to repay these loans, which, in effect, means double jeopardy for you.

If, for the development, they are going to use Nigerian workers or African workers, one can even justify that. But a situation where you borrow to pay salaries of Chinese that are brought in, who also insist on bringing in Chinese manufactured goods to be used in whatever sector that you’ve borrowed the money from and then you have to pay all of that to China, then what’s your benefit? So, while we’re blaming China for its appalling racist and short-sighted behaviour in Africa, we should also blame ourselves because we are the ones allowing them to do that.

Can you address the issue of xenophobia in South Africa against Nigerians and other Africans? What is the solution?

The xenophobia that South Africa shows is disheartening. As you rightly said in your question, it’s not just to us, Nigerians, alone — Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and all these people who fought with South Africa for the emergence of black South Africans from apartheid. Some people have even suggested that some elements of the former South African security forces are behind promoting the xenophobic attacks against Africans in South Africa. I’m not really surprised at the reaction of the working class in South Africa. But I’m surprised at their leadership who know better the contributions of fellow Africans to their struggle, and they’re not telling their people.

South Africans are very arrogant people. They just believe that, because of (Nelson) Mandela, they’re now the world moral leader; that other African countries should go and sit down, and that they are now entitled to leadership of Africa because of Mandela. They are not telling their people what they owe fellow Africans, and there’s nothing you can do about that. There are countries like Nigeria and a few other African countries, which have sufficiently robust economies (that) can block South Africa from enjoying the benefits of their economies. Nigeria is filled with South African companies now. I don’t know why they continue to allow them to function. But until they let South Africa know that it can expose itself to retaliation by other African countries, they are not going to learn.

A few months ago, the US placed a visa ban on Nigeria and some other countries, while some Democrats condemned the move. Do you see any benefit to this ban on Nigeria?

Stay at home! I know things are hard here, but it’s all part of it because, in a way, we must know what we’re talking about. The US will continue to allow medical doctors, qualified engineers and architects to come into the US. It is people who have no specialised qualification that they’re targeting. And I say to myself, apart from what the Americans are doing, all the people who are migrating, crossing the desert, dying in the process, being subjected to inhumane treatment all the way to Libya, dying in the ocean — and then, when they get to Europe, they are cleaning toilets or operating as prostitutes on the streets of Europe and America.

If the money that is borrowed here to pay the agents is used to set up an eatery or a hair-dressing salon, are you telling me the returns will not be higher than what they would get cleaning toilets in Europe? And in any case, you won’t have to go through all these inhumane treatments and run the risk of death. So, in a way, we need to ask ourselves, is this going into exile the only alternative to unemployment in Nigeria? And yet, have you found Chinese selling toothpicks in Nigeria? You want to tell me these same Chinese selling toothpicks in Nigeria — Nigeria cannot manufacture toothpicks and sell?

You want to tell me that the Ghanaian and Togolese artisans who come here (are) laying tiles, painting houses, being plumbers, and yet, Nigerians, themselves, will not do this, but others will come here, do so and make a living. There was a time I went to Cotonou (Republic of Benin); a friend drove me around and showed me houses that had been built by Beninese working in Nigeria who had repatriated money to build those houses. And yet, you’re not talking about their engineers or their doctors; you’re talking about their artisans: bricklayers (and) tilers. So, why can’t Nigerians find a niche here but think that paying an agent to smuggle them abroad is the answer to their confronting unemployment in Nigeria? It doesn’t make sense to me.

But then, this is a phenomenon that you get all over the world. While you will get Englanders complaining bitterly about people from Poland, Bulgaria and Germany coming to take their jobs in England, yet (when you) advertise, these same British people will not apply for those jobs. Others will not come in if they don’t think there are opportunities for them. They come in, do jobs as bus drivers and what have you, and make enough money to repatriate. But the same British people will sit there; they won’t apply for those jobs. It’s the same thing we have in Nigeria. We are dying to be smuggled into Britain, while there are opportunities here. I’m not saying Nigeria has provided the kind of opportunities for its people that, given its wealth, it can. But there are still enough opportunities here that other people come here (for).

There is another category of people that the US targeted, which is people from Nigeria and other African countries who travel to give birth so their children can obtain US passports. Do you think the travel ban was the right decision?

The first person, actually, who did this was (late UK Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher, who stopped what they called ‘the pregnant citizenship.’ If Nigeria was the target — people flying into Nigeria to have children and get Nigerian citizenship and passports and then going back to their countries, but can come into Nigeria any time they want to — would you, as a Nigerian, not resist this? It’s not only Nigerians that are being targeted. The Chinese also — there were agents who were operating a system of bringing pregnant Chinese women into the US around the seventh month (of pregnancy). And then, as soon as they’d had the children and (obtained) the birth certificates and passports, they would take them back to China. But it then means those children, when they grew up, could come into the US at any time with their parents, not having made any contribution to the American income. They would come in and would claim unemployment benefit, they could take jobs and what have you.

Anyway, human beings will exploit whatever system that is there. It’s no use preaching. Once it is of benefit to them, that is what they think about. I don’t see how Nigeria, as a country, should then make that an issue in its relationship with Britain or the US.

In the race for Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Nigeria nominated Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, but Egypt discounted her nomination, saying it came too late and put forward its nomination of Mr Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh. Do you think this sets Nigeria on a collision course with Egypt?

Nigeria has to pursue national interest on any particular issue. And if Nigerian policymakers feel that nominating Mrs Okonjo-Iweala for that job (is beneficial), then we should fight for her and ensure that she gets it or, at least, puts up a good fight. Whether Egypt decides to put in its own candidate for the positon should be of no concern to us, if we should fight for Mrs Okonjo-Iweala.

There are some who may argue that the tension between Egypt and Nigeria is a sign that Africans cannot get their act together. What do you say to that?

They may say that but we have a mechanism for deciding who represents Africa and this goes through the African Union. That is where candidates are then adopted to become African candidates for that particular post. I don’t know why that hasn’t been done now or it’s going to be done later because the nomination has not closed and the election hasn’t been held. So, it’s possible that the AU is waiting for the nomination to close and then decide who it will adopt as the African candidate. The candidate should have the backing of all African countries who will then be presented at the election. But we’ve had situations where African countries have gone ahead to disregard what the AU has done or the candidate the AU has endorsed and put up its own candidate. More often than not, they are being sponsored by foreign governments who simply want to stop this emergence of Nigeria as a global actor. That is what is happening in the African Development Bank with the crisis over Dr (Akinwumi) Adesina’s nomination (for re-election as President).

The US government demanded another investigation into allegations against Adesina after an internal probe that exonerated him. What are your thoughts on that?

What’s happening is very disgraceful and it’s like the US has declared war against Nigerian interests, and — I must say — against African interests as well because Adesina is not just a Nigerian candidate, he’s an African candidate. Nobody, not even the US, questions his achievements in turning the AfDB into a credible, powerful international bank, sufficiently robust for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to notice its activities. The US and — I must say — some European countries, don’t want an independent financial actor from Africa that can stop their own negative financial activities in Africa. They don’t want it and they know (it). Four more years of Adesina and that bank will be untouchable. That’s really why they’re trying to discredit him and prevent his re-election. It’s just the way it is. It’s racism. Let’s call a spade a spade.

And it’s not just the US — the US may be the arrowhead; France is so anti-Nigeria, it is incredible. France tried to sponsor a Senegalese to run against Adesina, but that one had no track record or supporter that he, in disgrace, had to withdraw from the race. All the non-African actors are involved in this issue to stop Adesina at all costs and — in stopping him — to stop the AfDB from realising its potential as a protector of African financial interests. I hope they don’t succeed. I’m quite happy at the public, robust endorsement by President Buhari and the foreign (affairs) minister of Nigeria (Geoffrey Onyeama) in fighting for Adesina, and I hope that they will not relent until the election has been held.

Can you speak on the motives that the US and others may have against Adesina or the bank?

I already made reference to it. The Western countries don’t want the emergence of an institution that will block their continuing dominance of Africa. It’s as simple as that. An African can never become President of the World Bank. That position is reserved for the Americans. An African cannot become Managing Director of the IMF; that is reserved for the French. You seem to have forgotten that it was the World Bank that was behind the Structural Adjustment Programme that ruined Africa. Four more years of Adesina and the AfDB will emerge as a global financial power, sufficient to block exploitation by either the World Bank, the IMF or individual Western countries, and that is what they don’t want.

There is the issue of the NIIA….

No, I’m not touching that at all.

The recently appointed Chief of Staff to the President, Prof Ibrahim Gambari, is a former foreign affairs minister….

I’m not touching that.

Can I ask about June 12 and the calls for restructuring?

No, no, no.

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