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Nigeria’s peaceful elections have set a new chapter for trade and cooperation, says Hoy

By Oghogho Obayuwana and Abosede Musari
04 May 2015   |   4:00 am
Sean Hoy assumed duties as the Ambassador of Ireland to Nigeria in September 2014. He has since travelled to seven states of the federation across the regions. In this interview with Foreign Affairs Editor, OGHOGHO OBAYUWANA and ABOSEDE MUSARI, he speaks on the potential of agriculture, food production, health service delivery of West Africa and…


Sean Hoy assumed duties as the Ambassador of Ireland to Nigeria in September 2014. He has since travelled to seven states of the federation across the regions. In this interview with Foreign Affairs Editor, OGHOGHO OBAYUWANA and ABOSEDE MUSARI, he speaks on the potential of agriculture, food production, health service delivery of West Africa and how his country will further engage with Nigeria in view of its recently held peaceful elections.

Being new in Nigeria, what will be the focus of your engagement here?

My history is in development cooperation. I have come here for a voluntary job but development is part of all of Africa’s story. In Nigeria, so many of the challenges are rooted in under development, even the insecurity in the northeast. If everybody has a good living, the crisis in the northeast wont be much and people won’t get involved in terrorism if they have decent jobs and responsibility. We know that from northern Ireland.

We don’t have any development cooperation with Nigeria at all, that is talking about development financing. If you look at the contribution of the Irish people as a country to the development of your country, the Irish missionaries, especially the teachers, sisters; what they gave as individuals to the development of Nigeria is huge. It’s also very important to look at development much more than development financing. It’s about partnership and certainly my agenda is to deepen the bilateral ties with our two countries country and to look at opportunities, political and economic.

The situation on the humanitarian impact of Boko Haram has been something that I’ve been compelled with since I arrived Nigeria. I have spoken to other European ambassadors about something we can do over the plight of the internally displaced persons. They were all sympathetic but nobody is engaged directly with this. We tend to think of insecurity as a first concern and what we can do but I think we need to think about people who are suffering in Nigeria. I went to Yola, I spoke to different people from the state government, the private sector, NGOs to the displaced people.

We set our own vehicles in advance and we had support from the security services. It was not conditional. We get support from government whenever we travel. My minister and the President of Island are very taken with the situation in Nigeria. When Ambassador Ketebi presented his credential to my minister in Ireland, he spoke about the north east and boko haram. We sympathize with people in Nigeria on behalf of people in Ireland. Our relationship is not too much about interest in economic areas. It’s a real partnership whip include humanitarian, economic assistance. And what we can do in development area. Relating to that one, I spoke to my colleagues after my trip to Adamawa, about providing some financial assistance for the displaced people because one thing that goes unnoticed in your country is the huge generosity of the individual people.

When I went to Adamawa, I noticed that 90 per cent of the displaced people are living in the homes of other Nigerians. I really don’t think you’ll find that anywhere else in the world. Nobody asked for thanks. The generosity here and the human spirit of people helping one another in Nigeria is not properly recognized. Certainly what I took away from that trip to Yola was the fact that it is the citizens in the surrounding states of the northeast that are carrying the real burden of the humanitarian crisis. They are finding shelter in other people’s houses. In churches, yes you’ll expect that. In universities in Yola, they are making a difference but it’s individuals, and this is remarkable.

I brought that back to my headquarters and I asked them when they will be allocating funding. Traditionally we donate money to the countries that we know in East Africa, to help cope with the crisis in Somalia, we give a lot of support to Sudan. We have not really given much to West Africa but two things happened in West Africa last year; Ebola, and the way that Nigeria handled it. A lot of potential is here. Then your response in the elections. It’s a country that will not let worse things happen to its people.

I was in Vietnam when we had avian influenza. And people were saying, we can control this is Vietnam because it’s organized, if we had this outbreak in West Africa, it would be crisis. Now I think we had Ebola in Nigeria and it was against all expectations and you not only saved Nigeria. There was a little bit of fortune there  though, because if Ebola had entered through the north east, it would have been an impossible situation. It was recognized immediately and seven of your citizens died. They should be recognized.

What sort of reliefs do you give? Goodwill or material?

Two things were done. We have depots of emergency materials all over the world. This is emergency items for deployment so we don’t have to start buying everything when there is an emergency. We have purchased in advance, emergency material supplies. One of them is in Accra. We released 87 tonnes of emergency supplies. From Accra to one of our partner organizations- PLAN. That was meant for Nigerian people that are refugees in Cameroon. The monetary value of that is about one million Euro. That’s one of the largest deployments we’ve made anywhere.

Is this part of your traditional ways of showing your golden heart?

Ireland is consistently one of the highest contributors in the world when there is emergency situation anywhere. When they had Tsunami in Asia, or crisis in Africa. We have been one of the highest contributors. And people will say to me in Nigeria, why is a country of 4.5 million people helping a country of 167 million people? But it’s something that is ingrained in Irish people. In the 60s and 70s, everybody in Ireland knew somebody that was working in Nigeria. Most of them are missionaries, mainly preachers. Now that we have 40,000 Nigerians in Ireland, maybe everybody in Nigeria will know someone in Ireland.

That is part of the maturing of the relationship. We had a famine in 1845. I still live in the house in Ireland that my great great grand parents lived then. So, we lived in that house during the famine and we lost half of our population either through immigration or through death. That left something with Irish people. We have survived from a disaster when we got very little help from outside. We were not able to help ourselves and a lot of people died because there was nobody outside to help us.

During the tsunami, we had bowls in the pubs in Ireland where people dropped money, no lid on it and nobody was afraid of anybody collecting from it. Millions were collected. People saved their drink money to contribute to the course voluntarily. That makes me proud to be Irish. I’ve also lived and served in Vietnam and Mozambique. The biggest challenge in those countries is nobody knew where Ireland was. But in Nigeria, everybody knows Ireland. This country is twice as big as Vietnam. And I don’t know how many times it’s bigger than Mozambique in terms of population. That’s a big advantage t

In the Ireland-Africa strategy, where does Nigeria stand?

Three of us officials in Ireland drafted the Ireland-Africa strategy and I think we started with places where we had development assistance. In Nigeria we think about black gold, we buy the oil from here and you buy milk from Ireland. That’s trade on both sides and it’s partnership. But if you  want to think of an Africa strategy, then Nigeria has to be part of it. It’s the biggest economy, it’s the biggest country, it’s the biggest democracy. It certainly has huge potentials. After working on the Ireland-Africa strategy in Dublin, I really wanted to come here because I saw the potential that is here. The relationship is multi-dimensional. Trade is part of it but business is coming here and it’s not just exporting milk, we are also selling financial services to your financial sector, the ICT, telecommunication. People tend to think business with Africa as being with South Africa but our business with Nigeria is much bigger and our future potential is much bigger.

I have met with many of the commercial banks in Lagos and your banking sector is changing so dramatically. It’s becoming professionalized, meeting global standards and there’s need for buying the best software and technology. Five years ago, nobody was thinking of using credit card in Nigeria, even Nigerians. That is changing now and it’s because of all these securities; and Ireland has played a part in that.

That brings business because business people look at the country, and the different factors involved. The size of the population and the number of young people have to be a long term market that you invest in but you have to look at the risks. But it’s all positive. Somebody said to me, you’d meet some of the most impressive people in the world in Nigeria, and in the financial sector. Since I’ve come here, a number of people from the banking sector have gone to Ireland to speak to Irish business. Anytime somebody meets people from Nigeria, the relationship deepens.

Everybody comes here, there’s an image of Lagos being the most crazy place in the world. But Lagos is manageable. Of course, you really got the traffic wrong. I have spent longer time in the traffic in Nairobi, the infrastructure on their roads is not that well developed. They are investing also. It’s built on hills and its more difficult. And when it rains in Kenya, the traffic stops. In Lagos, the problem is bridges. Every time I go to Lagos I come back energized.

In what areas do we have trade between Nigeria and Ireland; and what’s the trade volume at the moment?

The trade volume continues to rise. The main trade is still in food and beverages. And that includes Guinness, because a lot of their products are coming from Dublin to the factory in Lagos. That’s a unique factor I think. Milk powder is another because we produce in Ireland enough food for 10 times our population. So we export a lot of food. We are only small Island and the quality of the products from Ireland is mostly organic and locals produce from small family farms.

We have also been trading in the area of milk production. People here like fresh milk and good quality milk. That’s an areas we can grow our trade this year. The telecommunication and banking sector, medical supplies is the second biggest. Nigeria and Ireland have been having exchanges in the form of medical supplies, pharmaceutical industries. Companies are always interested in this because when you look at your population, it’s still a huge amount of Nigerian money going outside for healthcare. And if the money stays in the country, you should have the best healthcare in West Africa. So many people in the other countries should be coming to Nigeria for surgeries and treatments as they do in South Africa from the region.

You can get that. You have the skills here. With your population you don’t even have to look at the regional market. But I think the opportunity to support the medical industry and pharmaceuticals here and medical equipment is huge. We’ve spoken to some people in Lagos who said the outflow they believe is about $2 billion a year that Nigerians spend for health services outside the country. If you invest that every year in your country, you should have world-class medical facilities and if you get the best doctors working even in private care, it raises the standard of the whole services. I think there’s something you obviously need to do because your population will continue to grow, the people are young and going overseas for healthcare is not sustainable and not desirable. Everybody that has children here want to know that if they get sick they get the best treatment.

Which country is your biggest trading partner in Africa?

Our trade with Nigeria is much bigger than South Africa. South Africa got more companies there because it’s an easy place to go. Nigeria is our biggest trade partner in Africa and our objective is to grow this for both sides. Last year our export to Nigeria was 339,000,100 Euro. We work on hunger because of our own history with famine. Nobody should be hungry in this world. No parent should fail to feed his or her children. These are very fundamental issues no Irish person disagrees with. On agriculture, I’m very much interested in pushing that agenda forward.

We just have a change of government. How is Ireland looking at its relationship with Nigeria in the days ahead?

I think the first thing to say is when I arrived last September, every discussion was placed around the election and it created a future uncertainty in the country. We found ourselves and other people asking if they could come for trade missions and we spoke to Nigerians and they said it was best to leave it until after elections. In a sense, things were on ice until after election. Second, people anticipated real trouble with the elections and a step backwards. But I think the way the elections went, you have the largest democracy in Africa handing over peacefully from incumbent government to the opposition. It’s a fantastic result for Nigeria. Every single Nigerian will gain from this and I think over time, Africa will gain from it.

It sets a new standard. And even when I met with my diplomatic colleagues after the elections, we all shared this as if we have been part of a winning team. But of course we were only observers. It was beyond anybody’s expectation. So I think we have a new chapter. The new government has to set its agenda. But the fact that Nigeria has shown competence with Ebola, secondly, you can have peaceful democratic change of government. These greatly change the perception. They are all very positive changes. We saw the international report immediately; it was a real bet that Nigeria is a place to be in the future. We have an agency called Enterprise Ireland, was established in Lagos.  Priority areas are telecommunications, and medical areas and ICT.

Our interest is the broader opportunities to market us here for quality Irish exports. Food area. This is something we can work out. One of our companies is 50 per cent owner of Nutricima, producing dairy products. When I read your daily press, I see improvement in lifestyle. Because as you become urbanized with rapid lifestyle changes, as it happens in every country, you get an increase in lifestyle diseases. For people living in the village, they eat but they also work everyday.

When you move to the city, you eat the same amount of food but you are not doing physical work anymore. And we start to get increase in health and heart problems. And the diet has to change to reflect that. I know one of our dairy companies is now in discussion with Thailand. We are bringing in low fat dairy products. I think there are new challenges coming because of urbanization. But they are things we can work together on.