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Nigeria, China relationship: We sign deals with our eyes open, says Onyeama

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Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama PHOTO:Twitter

The relationship between Nigeria and China has spanned five decades. In spite of numerous benefits Nigeria seemed to have enjoyed, many Nigerians are not comfortable, especially with the huge loan burden. But the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, in an exclusive interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, tries to assuage the fears on the ground that Nigeria is neither gullible nor blind to the terms of agreements. He said the country plans to review its foreign policy in line with current realities and explained why Nigeria could not ban flights from the UK and South Africa after the second wave of COVID-19.

The relationship between China and Nigeria is 50 years. How would you assess this friendship in terms of benefits and challenges?
The relationship has been very good and friendly since the last 50 years that we had diplomatic relations. First, in the early days of the relationship, we had a cold war in the world and we had the developing countries that were non-aligned. Nigeria was a non-aligned country and we always had the support of China and worked together at the multi-lateral level – United Nations and other multi-lateral organisations. We worked with them at the anti-colonial level and in the struggle against Apartheid. China was always supportive of Africa and as you know, Nigeria was considered the frontline state in the struggle to dismantle Apartheid and colonialism in Africa. We have built-up relationships with them overtime, believing that as developing countries, we had shared interest. This relationship also occurred in the multi-lateral organisations, such as the UN and it was very instrumental in making developing countries have a Secretary Generalship of the United Nations. Of course, Nigeria and Africa also played an important role in getting China to be admitted as a member of the United Nations because before then, it was Taiwan that was considered and had a seat at the Security Council of UN. So, China has always been very grateful to Africa and Nigeria for the role they played in making it to become a UN member and a member of Security Council.

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China developed rapidly economically and technologically, faster than any country has done historically and became a superpower. During that period, the nature of relationship also changed, especially as Africa has been growing. At least, Apartheid regime in South Africa was overthrown and China, having become a superpower, became one of the biggest clients for Nigeria’s crude oil. So, the trade relations grew, as China became one of the main buyers of our oil. China also became the biggest manufacturer in the world, manufacturing most of the finished products. Nigeria, like other countries, started importing huge amounts of manufactured goods from China.

China also developed a huge capacity for big building projects such as dams, roads, airports and rails, and is able to deliver them at very competitive rates. Of course, Nigeria has infrastructural deficits in such areas that require huge financing and China has helped to finance these projects in addition to building them. These are absolutely key infrastructure to have in place to help us develop, create wealth and employment for our people. However, it is not a charity; we have to pay for all that. So, it is a win-win for us. The relationship has transformed into a business relationship.

Also, at the international level, we cooperate with China and also have their support. As we seek, for instance, to reform the United Nations and the Security Council, China has been very supportive of that endeavour for Africa to be better represented on the Security Council. A lot of our business people also go to China now to source their products. So, it is a people-to-people relationship that keeps growing considering that a large number of Nigerians and Chinese are symbiotically involved in business.

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In dealing with China, is Nigeria conscious of likely danger in a situation it breaches any part of the agreements?
First, every country is out to protect its own interest and promote its own development. No country or government is there only for the benefit of other countries. The primary concern and responsibility is for the wellbeing of the country and its citizens. So, when we go into these agreements and cooperation with other countries, China inclusive, it is incumbent on us. Nothing is forced on us.  We sign agreements that we can live with and that are beneficial to us. China will also do the same on their side. That is the reason it is called an agreement. So, it is either you both agree or you don’t because it is not by force. Thus, if it has to do with borrowing money, the terms would be outlined and you negotiate before signing. You also have conditions for dispute settlements and resolutions; and what happens if people don’t keep to their bargains.

So, nobody forces anybody and the Nigerian government does not intend to go into an agreement it feels it cannot fulfill. Recall that we had a huge amount of debt written off in the past. These are debts we incurred on terms and conditions we subscribed to and we couldn’t keep, but we were able to negotiate our way out of the whole thing.  It is not totally accurate to make it sound as if we go into these relationships blind and gullible. We go with our eyes open and I don’t think a situation will arise when we will suddenly find ourselves in a situation we did not envisage or plan for.

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On the disparity between careers and non-career ambassadors, what actually determines who goes where?
There are lots of things to be considered. We look at each country, our objective in each country and the candidates or nominees. The political (non-career) nominees, by and large, are not part of the system; they are appointed at the pleasure of Mr. President based on their credentials where they will best serve what the government wants. They are not going there on their own account or for their own pleasure. So, nobody should be in a position of being happy with where he is going or where he is not going. Such should not arise because the person who is sending them is responding to his own plans and interest. So, Mr. President in assigning diplomats to wherever they should go, and he is not doing that to please the diplomats but for the benefit of the country; he determines what the interest of the country is.

Many countries are banning flights from the U.K. in view of the deadly strain of the second wave of COVID-19 found there. Why is Nigeria not thinking in that direction considering that many Nigerians reside there and visit Nigeria at will?
There are two variants of COVID-19 that have been identified, one in the U.K. and one in South Africa. Some countries have reacted to that. We have also reacted by enhancing the measures and requirements for those coming from the U.K. or South Africa into Nigeria – the time within which they have to test negative before going into the flight and the various measures they need to take. We have heightened that for people coming from the U.K. and South Africa. You look at all the elements and there is no sentimentality about it. You put it on the scales, the potential benefits and the potential risks and you try to balance them. In doing that, it will be that an outright ban will not decrease the risk much more than these strengthened and heightened conditions that have been put in place for people coming from those two countries.

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We have a new government in the U.S. The past regime was considered not very friendly to Nigeria. What are our expectations from the new government?
Well, in terms of relationship, we still had a good relationship with the previous government. They supplied us with weapons. They broke the embargo that was imposed on Nigeria and supplied us with very crucial military equipment to fight our war in the Northeast in particular. So, it will not be totally unfair to say that we didn’t have a good diplomatic relationship. Yes, there was a slight visa restriction for a certain class that came up as part of security measures but with this government, we hope to maintain and increase relationships in all areas. We hope to have their support for our candidate because European Union government does not support our candidate for the World Trade Organization  (WTO), notwithstanding the fact that the rest of the world has selected her for that position. We hope that would be lifted to enable her take the position. We understand the visa issue was being addressed and lifted.

So, we are happy about that and we hope that trade and investment will increase so we could have greater access to the U.S. market, agriculture in particular and also attract more U.S. investment. We would like to resolve certain areas of concern particularly the religious issue that made them put us on a watch list. We did not agree with that and we hope we would be able to find common ground on that with the U.S. We would like to see greater support from the U.S. on Africa’s aspiration towards the reform of the UN and greater support also on our security challenges.

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There was a report that many Nigerians in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were arrested and remanded in custody without any attempt by the Nigerian mission in that country to assist. What was the exact situation?
They did. On the contrary, they received a lot of assistance. As we understood, after the COVID-19 crisis, the UAE also suffered economically and a lot of people, not only Nigerians employed there, lost their jobs. So, UAE walked up to the Nigerian government on their plan to deport a lot of Nigerians that were there illegally and to pay their fares. But other Nigerians who were not being deported, on hearing that there was going to be free transportation back to Nigeria wanted to be included and UAE government was not going to accept that because they were not among the people who approached them for assistance to go home. That caused a lot of disturbance and the UAE government arrested some of them but our mission facilitated the release of most of them and there were lots of emergency flights from there during the lockdown. Nigerian mission was helping to coordinate all of that and help to see whether those who lost their jobs could find other options. But again, every country is suffering the consequence and could decide who can stay in their territory. So, we have to respect their decisions.

Any plan to review Nigeria’s foreign policy in view of incessant attacks on Nigerians residing in some African countries in spite of our Afrocentric foreign policy?
Yes. There is a plan in that line. In a month or two, there is going to be a comprehensive review of Nigeria’s foreign policy. All Nigerians want a review and stakeholders are making input. I hope we will come up with a revamped foreign policy that will respond to the current realities. The issue of Africa being the centerpiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy will also be looked at. But the fact is that you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your neighbours.

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We are in the African neighbourhood and we cannot leave. That is the reality that we are faced with and you have to secure your neighbourhood because your wellbeing and security is affected by the conditions of your neighbours. If your neighbour’s house is burning, the fire might reach your house and you cannot wait for the fire to get to your house before you start acting. If you are in good terms with your neighbour, there is also a good chance that you live in relative peace and security. So, Africa being the centerpiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy is not just out of choice but also out of necessity.

Culture enthusiasts are afraid that withdrawal of Ministry of Information and Culture officials from Nigerian Missions is affecting Nigeria’s image abroad. How would you restore this old practice to enhance our cultural diplomacy?
These things have costs. But first, I will say that Nigerian culture is penetrating the global community. We have seen Nollywood and how it is becoming a global phenomenon. So, our culture is dynamic and also moving out beyond our shores. As an instrument of foreign policy, I agree with you fully that culture is very important and there was an article that talked about funding, and what the U.K. provides for BBC Africa. So, you are right, but the ministry is not opposed to having a culture officer from the Ministry of Information and Culture in its missions abroad. It is something that can be looked at. However, I don’t know if the funds are there to maintain them in so many countries as officers of culture. There is a Permanent Representative of Nigeria to UNESCO, who also deals with culture and is supplied by the Ministry of Information and Culture. In fact, the current Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment has served the last 10 years as the Permanent Representative to UNESCO. You are right because cultural diplomacy is very important, but I don’t agree with you fully that because there is no cultural person in the mission, it cannot succeed. It actually can, working through the Ministry of Information and Culture. We have a lot of cultural activities and engagements facilitated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and supported by the Ministry of Information and Culture.

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The recent distribution of wheelbarrows to people in your constituency attracted criticisms. How did your people view that kind of empowerment? Did they appreciate it?
Actually, they were. It was a special public works programme that the Ministry of Labour and Productivity was driving for three months, giving all kinds of financial and material support to the youths. Hopefully, it was a kind of seed support that would enable them to utilize the three months of support and develop their skills or business. To raise awareness, ministers were asked to go to their own states to flag off the programme. So, I went to Enugu, my state, to support the flag off of that Federal Government initiative. It was not an initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; it was the initiative of the Federal Government through the Ministry of Labour and Productivity.

There have been many allegations of scandals rocking Nigerian missions abroad. Is there no mechanism to checkmate representatives abroad?
We do have challenges with our various missions, but we have a mechanism for oversight. We have a department of investigation and a mechanism for regular oversight visits on the various missions.

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