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‘We need a leadership that has vision to make Nigeria global player’



Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi is a Professor of Political Science and former Minister of Foreign Affairs. The elder statesman has also served as the Director-General at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, he shares his thoughts on Nigeria’s place in the international scene and how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping economies of the world.

How would you comment on the present state of affairs in the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
THE COVID-19 pandemic is not the first we have had in the world. We have had the Spanish flu in 1989 that killed millions; we had what is called the swine flu that also killed billions. Of course, we have had Ebola. We have Camel flu, which was in the Middle East, and then bird flu, which affected chickens and birds.

But this one belongs in the first league of pandemics for several reasons. However, since this is not a medical interview, we wouldn’t go into that.


We don’t understand the nature of COVID-19, but the world is racing towards the development of a vaccine that would help us cope with it, not to cure it. We should be aware that every year, we have a flu epidemic or influenza. We get it in Africa and Europe; it kills millions. Maybe that is an indication of where we will be going. In other words, we may find no cure for COVID-19, but a vaccine that will allow us to cope with it.

The second factor I identified was the relationship between what I call the global powers; it has never been this bad before. The United States is not getting along with China; Britain is also not getting along with China; threats are issued right, left and centre. The Russians are accused of breaking into laboratories that are doing tests on the vaccine. My fear is that this is the most dangerous time for the world. When an up going power meets a down going power, both of them may not be able to make the right judgment as to when is the right time to challenge each other.

China is moving up, literally and economically; the United States and the Western countries that have been the dominant powers are coming down. Most groups are going to meet somewhere along the line. I hope nobody is going to make the mistake of saying this is the time to challenge each other. The cold world war was caused by a mistake by Germany that thought it could take on the rest of the world and defeat them. So, I hope that we are not going to get that kind of miscalculation. People are jittery now simply because the economy of the world is getting destroyed; there is a tendency to behave irrationally. So, I am sorry if I don’t sound optimistic because there is nothing to be optimistic about.


What is the likely implication of the picture you have just painted?
If I thought I knew, I would be lying and nobody knows. Institutions that were set up to help moderate conflict are themselves floundering. The United Nations (UN) that you would have thought will step up to mediate a conflict; they have not acted in ways and means that we expect. Let’s not blame the United Nations. We have the White House, the No. 10 Downing street, people who are against globalisation and who basically in their bones are anti-international institutions whether it is the World Health Organisation (WHO) or UN. They still believe they can do it on their own. So, I don’t know where we are headed. You know, this is an election year in the U.S. and American politicians don’t behave rationally during their election year.

There have been some conspiracy theories on the COVID-19 pandemic with many world leaders pointing accusing fingers on China. What is your take?
I am not a scientist and listening to serious scientists, there is no evidence that the Chinese deliberately created in the laboratory COVID-19. This is just fake news, propaganda. That is why our leaders should realise that this is not the first pandemic the world has experienced unless we want to say every pandemic was created in the laboratory. But in an environment where there is an already hostile relationship, countries will look for whatever it is they can use to demonise each other. I think we should simply concentrate on how we can bring COVID-19 under control then go on a wild goose chase.

Since this is not the first pandemic the world has experienced, does it mean the world didn’t learn anything from the past pandemics?
I think the problem is, we don’t really know enough about the nature of this virus; we are all speculating. I have listened to some credible scientists, who have said that pandemics would be recurring because of the way in which we have treated the world, that the world has heated up and with the rise in temperature, an environment will be created where these viruses will be released. Some have said that the population explosion has led to a situation where we have encroached in the habitat of animals and have now exposed ourselves to the virus. Some have also said that the way we have dealt with cows and cattle, whether in the United States or Western Europe, has allowed viruses in these animals to be released into the world. So, you have that environmental sector to it and that is in addition to the rising temperature in the world, which normally has remained dormant, has now been released. I am also not ruling out that accidents do happen in the laboratories because all the super powers are engaged in bacteriological warfare; they are busy creating bacteria and virus all over the world that they hope they won’t have to use but if they are attacked, they may prepare to use for war. This is not a pleasant time to be alive.


China recently announced a return to economic prosperity while many countries are still battling coronavirus, do you smell a rat in the development?
First, I don’t believe about the Chinese economic prosperity because globalisation or industrialisation means that even goods developed and produced in China need a global market for people to buy. Where is the market when other people’s economies are in depression?

Secondly, even Chinese factories need supply of spare parts from other countries in the world. These countries have economic problems – factories shut down, flights and cargoes suspended. Where will China get the goods and spare parts needed to run its factories?
So, I don’t believe anything about the Chinese conspiracy. They may have gone a head on because they were the first to deal with the virus. But now, they have also just discovered that there are spikes of COVID-19 in some of their cities and they now have to lockdown and that disrupts economic activities. We are not getting enough verifiable data on the state of the Chinese economy to conclude that they are in any economic prosperity.

With growing suspicion among world leaders, are we entering a new phase of the Cold War?
Most certainly we are. Russia has been accused of breaking into the data of research for COVID-19. They have also been accused of providing money for the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. China itself has been accused that it hacked into the Vatican communications centre in Hongkong sometimes last year; not forgetting the situation between Britain and Hongkong on the extradition of millions of Hongkong citizens becoming British citizens. Both America and China are busy shutting down each other’s consulate. So really, what more evidence is there to let us know that the antagonistic relationship among global powers is evidence of cold war? I pray and hope it does not spill into a military confrontation.


Which of these countries would you blame for the impending Cold War?
All of them! Unfortunately, the Chinese are being badly advised by their diplomats; a hostile and antagonistic foreign policy is putting China in a very bad light. A good diplomat like a good soldier does not fight several battles on different fronts at the same time; Napoleon and Hitler did it and they lost the war. Even in Africa, the Chinese are getting a bad image for themselves with the type of economic policies they are pursuing, their racial policies in terms of how they are treating blacks in China.

Secondly, the world is going through a crisis and America has a deficit of leaders. In Russia, you have a young man, who is determined to promote and advance the Russian economy; that is one out of the numerous.

Unfortunately, we don’t have leaders in the world right now such that I can go to sleep and close my two eyes.
You earlier made reference to the allegation that Russia attempted to steal the recipe for COVID-19 vaccine from the U.S. How did you receive the news?

There is competition. In diplomacy, everything is fair; it is either you develop, borrow or you steal. They all play the game. Why do you think every country has an intelligence agency? That is because they all steal, borrow and copy anything to give them a lead. All of them want to be the first to produce this vaccine, not just because of national pride, but it involves a lot of money to be gained. Imagine how many billions of people in the world that has to pay to get this vaccine. So, in a way, it is economic warfare at its best that we are going to witness.

What do you think should be Nigeria’s role in this present situation?
The state of the world is creating an opportunity for medium power like Nigeria to grow. This is an opportunity for Nigeria to boost its industrial capability and produce goods that we used to import; we became a dumping ground for things like toothpicks and textiles. We used to produce our textiles here; it was destroyed through the importation of cheap Asian textiles. We can seize this opportunity, when everybody is running helter-skelter in the world, to build up our textile industrial production. We should also look at what economists call import substitution strategy – the things that we used to import, that we now produce, let the government subsidise them.


Thirdly, let us stop exporting just raw materials and start adding value to what we produce and export; stop exporting crude oil in exchange for petroleum, stop exporting raw cocoa in exchange from chocolates and cottons for textile yarns. Let us add value by exporting properly refined products. This can be achieved if we get the private sector to drive these initiatives, but our government must regulate them. Our private sector has not served this country well and when you listen to the facts coming out of the National Assembly, all of us have fallen short of our responsibility as citizens.

I will like to meet a Nigerian billionaire, who will put his hand on the Bible or the Quran or a cutlass and swear that he became a billionaire in Nigeria legitimately and honestly and I will bow if I find such a man. If government is going to allow you to rip off the economy by claiming you are an industrialist and collecting vast amounts of subsidies, then the government is to blame. It should play its role of honest regulation and the private sector will have to play its role of being honest industrialists so that by the time everything gets back to normal, we would have moved on.

So, how do you think this pandemic has impacted on international diplomacy and trade?
We now conduct diplomacy by zoom; going for conferences have been cut down. Globally, most of the issues now are how do we cope with the pandemic? I will like to say that the government pumps in more money to research. In the health and infrastructural sectors, one of the lessons this COVID-19 has taught us and I hope our leaders can learn from it, is that when the world gets shut down, all us, both the poor and the rich, have to face the same health facilities available.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to upgrade our health facilities so that they don’t need to go out again – civil servants, National Assembly members, ministers, governors and commissioners all see going abroad as part of their allowances for being in office. The consequence of this is that our health facilities suffer; let them face that sector.


Our health personnel must be given priority. I shake my head when I see governors addressing medical personnel who go on strike saying, ‘we only owe them just two-month salaries and I have directed that they should be paid’. Do you have to wait two months before paying medical personnel, who confront getting infected every day, putting their lives at risk? Are the civil servants owed two months?

At what point did we lose our sanity and humanity as a nation?
When we started to focus on politics, rigged elections and lost track of governance. Nigeria is probably about the only country in the world that surrenders the mental development of its precious assets, which are the children, to teachers who are not well paid and not qualified. In Finland, only people who get first-class degrees are taken in the teaching sector. They don’t go to the civil service because they are developing the brain of future assets; this is where we got it all wrong.

In the 1970s when we had the Udoji awards by Jerome Udoji, what was wrong was the equalisation syndrome. Udoji and others submitted a report where they equated a major general to a professor, a permanent secretary, medical officer and that was how they graded salaries. So, you couldn’t prioritise any area if you wanted to develop.

This is not done anywhere in the world. How do we have engineers and scientists to develop an automobile factory or rockets if you are equating his salary with that of a permanent secretary in a ministry pushing files around? We must admit we got it all wrong. But who will do this for us? All of us are guilty.

In your view, how should the post-COVID-19 world be restructured to suit the emerging economic and geopolitical order?
The issues we should be expecting the world to face post-COVID-19 is, when you look at what scientists have told us about what might have led to the pandemic, I think we may need a new international organisation that would deal with world trafficking of wild animals, that would deal with environmental issues and the way we treat animals in general. That way, we show a recognition of the fact that virus from animals may be transferred to human beings and we must look for a way to maintain physical distance between humans and animals. There may have to be a world body to deal specifically with that issue.


Secondly, we may need to have a world organisation that will be empowered with sanctions to deal with climate control because if the speculation that rising world temperatures may be heating up the earth at such a rate that virus may be released to the atmosphere, then we need to take the issue of climate control more seriously.

Thirdly, we will have to recognise the fact that some developing countries will become economic powers and not just a dumping ground for all kinds of export from various countries because one of the things that we have seen is that pandemic on a global scale become transnational. They can move from one country to the other, and if you are not going to help developing countries build up their own base such that they can cope with medical bills, then you are going to expose even developed countries, just like Ebola that started in one or two countries and transferred to other countries. And so, we shouldn’t rule out the fact that there may be another COVID-21 or 22 if developing countries cannot deal with their medicals internally. These are some of the issues institutions should be set up to address in the post-COVID-19 economy.

United Arab Emirates sent a rocket to Mars recently. Do you expect Nigeria to join the race?
Nigeria has not shown any seriousness of purpose in this area. When I spoke in 1986 about Nigeria developing a black bomb, what I meant was that Nigeria should position itself in that sphere of rocket development in ecological areas. And the UAE has just shown us what a serious country can do. While I rejoice with our Arab brothers and congratulate the UAE with this significant progress, I got depressed that black Africa has not registered its presence in this area. If Rwanda had Nigeria’s resources, believe me, they would be at the moon by now. Rwanda is a serious country with a serious leadership that has a focus and a vision for their own country.


We need a leadership that has the vision to make Nigeria a global player even in this area. We have a Nigeria defence industry, what has it achieved? Ours was set up at the same time with the Brazilian defence industry, which has built armoured tanks, airplanes, naval ships. What has the Nigerian defence industry built?
The president of Turkey was boasting just two weeks ago that his country has built planes and the largest and best airports in the world. What can we boast of in this country? It cost the UAE 200 million dollars to send that rocket to Mars. The Economist, a magazine in London, reported that since independence, 586 billion dollars have been stolen from Nigeria. That would have sent 200 rockets and we will still have sufficient money left in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). But that money had taken wings and left Nigeria. That report was published in September 2019. So, between then and now, you can tell how much more monies have left Nigeria from the probes in the National Assembly.

So, we need leadership in Nigeria with a vision and focus to decide it will make Nigeria great. I hate to sound like Trump because he is not one of my favourite leaders. But at times, his phrase commands attention. We need a leader that will believe that Nigeria can be great and put his own mandate to make it happen. Once we get that leadership, he will know what to do.

We are busy fighting ourselves on what we get on the surface of our soil when God has blessed us abundantly with so many mineral resources. God has blessed us with brains in every nook and corner of the country, but these brains only function in the diaspora. That is where our achievements are registered. The moment they come back to Nigeria, the system deals with them.

A Nigerian born naval officer in America has been honoured for his honesty in utilising funds in his care. He was so transparent and honest that the American Navy honoured him with a medal. If that same officer was in Nigeria, it’s either he would have been compromised, killed or ‘find some way to get him out of the system if we will not co-operate’ because nobody believes in Nigeria. There is no leader that I have worked with who really believed in Nigeria except General Muritala Mohammed. He was not a perfect person, but if he had lived maybe we will get things right in this country. But then, I am tired of saying ‘if’. When are we going to get beyond Nigeria’s potentiality and start to talk about actual achievement?


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