‘Nigeria must educate her citizens on the consequences of their actions abroad’
Ambassador Joe Keshi is a retired Nigerian diplomat who served in many countries of the world including Togo, Ethiopia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Namibia, Sierra Leone (where he participated as a facilitator in the negotiations that ended the 10 years of civil war in the country) and the United States of America, where he served as the Consul-General of Nigeria based in Atlanta, covering the South East of the USA. In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO and LAOLU ADEYEMI, Keshi who has a remarkable track both in the public and private sectors in Nigeria, speaks on the alleged decrepit state of Nigerian foreign missions arising from poor funding by the Federal Government. He attributes the development to political interference, especially in postings of officers abroad and general mismanagement in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He warns against the closure of existing foreign missions, saying Nigeria’s “major competitors in Africa have a few numbers more.”
What is your take on the reported poor state of Nigerian foreign missions?
The issue is a bit complex and you can trace the whole problem to the low priority we now accord to foreign policy and to lack of understanding, especially on the part of those who control the purse. Let me try to explain. We have just finished a presidential election with about 50 candidates that campaigned for over one year. How many of the candidates did you hear address any issue on foreign policy? None; not even the two leading candidates. In one of the debates, only one general question was asked on foreign policy and that was the last question and the candidates were asked to minimise their answers because the debate time was up.
Consequently, because the leadership does not attach much priority to foreign policy, the Ministry of Finance also does not see why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be properly funded. Some in that ministry think the amount the nation spends funding its missions is a waste. One Director General of Budget that rides a Prado jeep as his official car once questioned why Nigerian ambassadors should be riding Mercedes Benz cars as their official cars. Even the media too is an accomplice in this matter, and that’s why l was pleasantly surprised to see the headlines of all the newspapers the morning after the Senate hearings, highlighting the underfunding of the ministry and it’s missions. Perhaps l should not have been, after all, good news does not sell newspapers.
Foreign policy and its implementation is an expensive venture. I should also be honest and fair and say this a perennial problem that is exacerbated by political interference, especially in postings of officers abroad (which leads to over bloating of missions) and general mismanagement including poor resources allocation within the ministry itself.
What do you make of the reduction in the capital votes of the embassies from N11.3 billion in 2018 to N4.1 billion in 2019?
Perhaps this goes to the heart of what l said earlier. How do you explain the rational of allocating N11.3 billion in 2018 and even with that, the ministry protested that it was inadequate for its needs, then in 2019 you allocated N4.1 billion. This is how the problems are allowed to grow or fester, becoming a monster. I can imagine that the Ministries of Finance or Budget and Planning would justify this by arguing that they tried to spread available resources to meet all needs especially priority areas like infrastructure and agriculture. But the same ministry would give its support for an agency in petroleum to spend N1.78 billion for the design of its office building, bear in mind, not the building but the design and the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in all conscience approved it. It’s difficult to understand our mindset sometimes.
The current size of our foreign missions stands at 110. It is a well-known fact that some of the foreign missions were created in order to reward political loyalists with ambassadorial appointments. With the reality on ground, what would you recommend as the appropriate size of foreign missions for the country?
Yes, l think, it is a reasonable number to have for a country with global ambition like ours. Our major competitors in Africa have a few numbers more. Egypt for example has 126 embassies abroad as well as 29 consulates while South Africa has a total of 157 embassies and consulates, which is why l think any thought of closing missions should be discarded. We have tried it not once nor twice before and it has not solved the problems. To close a mission or missions is equally costly. This is because you will have to meet all your financial obligations before you leave.
I should let you know that the ministry has tried in the past to address its financial challenges but somehow, the absence of discipline, consistence and pressure on the ministry continue to hinder any permanent solution. The presidency, on a number of occasions, had bailed out the ministry.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hinted during the budget defence session with the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs recently that no fewer than 80 embassies might be closed this year over lack of funds. Do you think this is the right thing to do given the rate at which Nigerians migrate abroad?
I think the media got it all wrong and am surprised nobody has tried to correct it. What the Permanent Secretary said was that the money being allocated for capital budget in 2019 would only be enough for 30 missions, meaning that 80 missions will not have any money for any capital projects this year. Again as l said earlier, by doing this we simply amplify the problems making them more challenging to resolving in the next budget.
A lot of Nigerians feel that the alleged underfunding of the foreign missions is a case of the ambassadors living large at the expense of the public and siphoning funds and then turning round to blame the government. What is your take based on what you know about the operations of these missions?
I had early spoken of mismanagement and any efforts to address the underfunding of the ministry must also focus on addressing this and the issues of accountability and transparency. The foreign ministry should give reasoned consideration, as l once suggested, to using technology to improve its administration and services.
Aside from the issue of the state of the embassies, there are allegations by Nigerians abroad that they don’t appropriately get the services of the embassies with regards to renewal of visas and responding to those in distress. What is the right procedure for handling these issues and how long does it normally take?
There are two major reoccurring issues with Nigerians living abroad. One is the issuance of passports and visas, especially renewal of passports, which are the responsibilities of immigration officers posted abroad from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Sometimes, the complaint is that the passport booklets are not available at most missions. Honestly, l have no idea why this is so nor can it be justified. Equally, l also hear the complaint that in some countries, the process has become very frustrating.
There is also the issue of poor customer service. The simple solution is for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to engage the Ministry of Internal Affairs, especially the immigration department with the purpose of resolving how to make the process more efficient, transparent and less frustrating for our citizens abroad.
The second issue is the provision of consular services to needy Nigerians. I am aware of the efforts of Nigerian diplomats abroad to assist Nigerians in need, including pleading for those arrested and offering them consular services. But frankly, this is becoming overwhelming for our officers who now have to plead all the time and for more Nigerians who have broken the laws of their hosts by engaging in all sorts of nefarious activities, including drug trafficking, armed roberies and prostitutions. This week, it was reported that about 400 Nigerians are in jail or in detention in United Arab Emirates not to mention those in prison in a number of countries, especially in Asia. In some countries, drug trafficking and armed robbery carry death sentences with no appeal. Rather than wasting precious time blaming our diplomats, we should do some domestic soul searching and resolve to address the problems from Nigeria. We should let our people know the consequences of their actions if they travel out and break the laws of their hosts. There is also the need to investigate how some of these criminals get visas from embassies in Nigeria as well as question how drug traffickers beat our system at the airports.
Several weeks of street demonstration has brought down two long serving presidents in North Africa. Is this a new Arab spring or what exactly is happening in that part of the world?
We can describe the situations in Algeria and Sudan as a new wave of Arab spring. But in reality, it is far from it; in the sense that both leaders were brought down by true demonstrations mostly led by the collective will of the young masses who put themselves together using social media; demanding an end to a government that has kept them down perpetually without improving their lives. It is not so much of an Arab thing but a general revolution.
When you further interrogate what is happening in those regions, you could easily come to a conclusion that it is something that can happen anywhere democracy is threatened and the standard of living of people is also going down.An example of this is what happened in Zimbabwe some years ago when people revolted against Mugabe because their economy was sliding backward continuously and they said no to the continuity of Mugabe. Victims of those slides are the young ones who see their economy sliding in an opposite direction while their leaders live in comfort.
This is a typical situation of what we have in Nigeria where people graduate yearly without getting jobs while the leaders live in comfort. One day, this might get to the climax when people would say no to their reign in government. People stood up against oppression in Sudan and they said no to the involvement of military personnel in their government because they perceived those military officers as those who kept the so-called government in power for 29 years.
So what is your opinion on the military trying to take hold of government for another two years in Sudan?
It is morally wrong for the military to want to be part of the government. They have been part of the same government for decades. The military want to benefit from what they did not fight for and they were also part of the people who kept Ommar Bashir in power for 30 years. On what basis will they stay in power for another two years? They will only stay to prevent or suppress the revolution by the masses. Nothing demonstrates this more than the way they are requesting for another two years of military governance in Sudan. The question is what for and to what end?
All they need to do is to stabilise the situation and organise the citizens to elect a leader of their choice. The military General that announced the take over also has a case to answer with the International Court. If they had said they would stay in power for two months to stabilise the government, it would have been better.
Can we say the situation in Sudan is an end to dictatorship in Africa and what are the implications on the continent?
No, there are still dictators in Uganda, Cameroun and others. We should look at the causative factors of this revolution, which is majorly economic instability. It is also a case of character of the political leadership because the masses no longer believe in the political leadership. We can’t really look at the matter as the repositioning of Arab spring but rather as a revolution against oppression and economic instability. African leaders need to realise that African youths are fed up with mismanagement of resources and poor governance.
This why so many Africans are trying to migrate from Africa to Europe and America. Unfortunately, the Europeans frown at allowing any African cross their borders from Libya now. Even Donald Trump is not taking things easy in America. What we are going to be seeing in Africa is pockets of protest and revolution against bad governance and corruption.
So, you perturbed about the increasing number of people leaving the country in search of greener pastures, especially the professionals?
A couple of things would happen because many professionals and non-professionals are leaving the country in droves for greener pastures. I don’t think we can stop them from going and there is no danger in allowing them to leave. As long as the economy is nose-diving and they are not getting jobs, there are bound to be increase in the number of people leaving the shores of this country. People are leaving because of joblessness, political instability, poor health system and the security threat. The moment people are not allowed to migrate to other countries, what happens is protest against any government that keeps them in suffering.
What are the effects of this development on the country?
For Nigeria to stabilize as a country, more professionals must be produced and the economy must be well managed. We can’t really stop them from leaving the country when jobs are not there for them. We can only make our country better for the young and experienced professionals to stay back and promote the country. The other end is that some of the jobless youths channel their energy into kidnapping, armed robbery, terrorism band and other social vices that we are experiencing at the moment in Nigeria.
What should be the Federal Government’s response to these challenges?
In the last elections, our leaders promised to take Nigerians to the next level but there are basically no serious changes yet. They thought they could keep using primordial sentiment to keep people down but some day, this would no longer work. It will come to a point when Nigerians will also say no to poor governance and chart a way forward. We should borrow a leaf from what is happening around Africa. Government cannot continue to do the same thing and expect a different result. Things must be done differently in a progressive manner to move the nation forward.
A couple of years ago, some people who are now in government complained about subsidy and today the subsidy still stays. Why must NNPC alone be giving license to import? Why don’t you open it up for other investors to import and make the price more competitive to force it down?
We can’t really look at the matter as the repositioning of Arab spring but rather as a revolution against oppression and economic instability. African leaders need to realise that African youths are fed up with mismanagement of resources and poor governance.
No comments yet