Why is the United States interested in Nigeria and why is it opposed to the same-sex bill before the National Assembly? In this interview with Sulaiman Uba Gaya and Ezra Ijioma, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Terrence McCulley, answers the questions and also explains US perception of Boko Haram and Nigeria's counter-terrorism measures.
Briefly tell us about yourself?
I am a native of the great state of Oregon. I went to University of Oregon. I have worked for the US State Department for 27 years. I have served mainly in Africa. I started my career in Niger Republic in 1985 and I have served in Chad, Togo, South Africa, Senegal, Tunisia and I was ambassador to Mali. I am proud to have worked for the United States government overseas for the last 27 years.
What were your expectations on coming to Nigeria?
I expected to be leading a very dynamic mission in one of the most important countries on the African continent. America considers Nigeria to be one of its most important strategic partners in the continent, so I expected to lead a complex, busy mission, promoting American policies and deepening relations between United States government and Nigerian government and the American people and the Nigerian people.
Have these expectations been met?
Absolutely. I would say that given the complexities of the issues and challenges that we face together that it's been extraordinarily busy time. I think it's been extraordinarily rich and productive time in bilateral relations but because of events in the region, within Nigeria and globally, particularly given Nigeria's presence on the (United Nations) Security Council over the last two years. It's been a very, very busy time in the bilateral relationship.
Can you specify some of those issues that have met your expectations so far in Nigeria?
Like I said, the American/Nigerian relationship is very important and we have our Bi-National Commission (BNC) which we established in April 2010 as a vehicle to advance our dialogue on a number of issues.
It is divided into four separate working groups where we meet to try to address challenges and questions to see areas of mutual support and cooperation. We have transparency and good governance working group, and so for the first six months (of signing the BNC); we were intensely focused on how we could work together; how we could provide support to the Nigerian electoral process that evolved within April of 2010.
I was very pleased with the exchanges we had, not only at the Bi-National Commission but in the assistance that we were able to provide to INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission), to Nigerian civil societies, to political parties, to really support the Nigerian people and government efforts to make April 2011 elections arguably the most credible and transparent that Nigeria has ever seen.
We have another working group which is related to security and the Niger Delta, to look at the Amnesty Programme which is critically important given the importance of security issues in the Gulf of Guinea having impact upon the oil and gas sectors. We are also looking at security as a whole and see how we can work with Nigerian government to promote peace and security in the north.
So that's been our intense focus since October 2010, but, since last year, we have seen an increase in violent attacks in the north. We have another working group on agriculture and food security.
Agriculture is 40 per cent of Nigeria's GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and yet it is pretty subsistence. We are looking at ways we can support the government's efforts, as part of the Transformation Agenda, to revive commercial agriculture sector, how we can help Nigeria become food sufficient.
Can you specify what you have done to help Nigeria become food sufficient?
Absolutely. We have a very active USAID (United States Agency for International Development) programme here. We have an agric sector programme called MARKETS which is intended to support farmers who are looking for technical assistance to help improve crop yield - to help them understand better how they can get their crops to the markets and sell at a good price. There is a commercial sector that looks at improvement in yield of rice production, for instance. We are working in Kano to support a state-of-the-art rice mill which is producing rice for the local market. We are working in Benue State on some other projects. I recently visited Oyo State and had occasion to visit two fish ponds in Ibadan which have benefited from MARKETS technical assistance.
During a recent visit to Oyo State, you said that the US did not predict that Nigeria will break up by 2015, rather it was a prediction by a private company based in the US. Why did it take the US government that long to state its position given that the prediction has been around for years and the strategic US/Nigeria relations? Also, many in the north said that the sophistication of the attacks in the north point to foreign forces and that the US may even be encouraging these attacks. How do you respond to this?
Let me respond to the second question first. I think that it is absolutely absurd to suggest that, somehow, the United States is interested in destabilising or contributing to groups which are up against the democratic constituted government of Nigeria. United States is a friend and partner of Nigeria. We have vested interest in the long-term stability and consolidation of democratic institutions in this country. We believe that Nigeria has a big role to play in the sub region and in the world, and so we value the peace and stability of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
With regard to Boko Haram, I think it is unquestionable that we have seen, particularly in the past year, an increase in the mortality and sophistication of groups calling themselves Boko Haram. I think it is important to note that the group is not a unitary phenomenon but a fractured group, with some elements of the groups more extreme than others. It is hard to say at this stage what kind of support that they may or may not be getting from beyond Nigeria's borders. I was Ambassador to Mali from 2005 to 2008 and I read reports in Malian press of supposedly Nigerian Talibans or Nigerian extremists travelling to northern Mali for training with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Maghreb). I think it is likely that that has continued, and in terms of operational links between Boko Harma and external groups, we don't see significant evidence of that yet. But it is clear that these extremist groups present a growing danger to northern Nigeria population and it is incumbent upon government to react with a broad-based strategy by addressing security as well as the questions of development and poverty which produce the underlining grievances that feed the violence.
With regard to your first question, America is a free country and American citizens can comment as they wish on topics that are of interest to them, and a lot of people follow Nigeria with interest and some of them have made comments or predictions about Nigeria. I don't think that the US government needs to comment on every statement that private American citizens, for whatever reason, choose to make. I responded to the question in Oyo State during a press briefing. If someone predicted tomorrow that the state of Oregon was going to fall off the edge of the continental shelf, I wouldn't feel obliged to comment on that either. But I will underline that I am very optimistic about the future of Nigeria. Clearly, this country faces significant challenges in terms of security, in terms of power, of infrastructure and diversification of economy, but this country has gone through prolonged periods of military rule, and a divisive civil war. It is a country that is composed of 250 ethnic groups and 500 languages and dialects. I think it is a country that should profit from its diversity. I expect that Nigeria will play the role that we and other friends hope and expect Nigeria to play in the international stage.
What do you like most about Nigeria?
I like the openness, the frankness. I like the way that Nigerians at all levels are curious about engaging with you. I think that Nigerians share that kind of openness and warmth that we Americans like in other peoples. When I go around Nigeria, even before people know that I'm the American Ambassador, they will greet me with warmth and hospitality and make me feel welcome. It is a very encouraging and inspiring attitude, and I think that's why Americans connect easily because we share certain characteristics. We are both citizens of great nations and have certain humbleness and affectability which really make it easy to connect.
What is the thrust of US-Nigeria relations?
It is multi-faceted. I would say United States consider Nigeria an important partner in helping international community resolve threats to peace and security.
A couple of examples is that during the Cote d'Ivoire crisis, Nigeria leadership as the chair of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) in helping to forge a difficult consensus within ECOWAS to state categorically that Laurent Gbagbo had to leave and that Alassane Quattara was the legitimately elected president of Cote d'Ivoire.
Without Nigeria's voice in that matter, I don't think that the crisis would have been resolved as quickly and as peacefully as it might have been.
Nigeria deployed similar effective diplomacy in the crisis in Guinea (Conakry). Nigeria was one of the first powerful African countries to recognise the transitional government in Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime.
So, on an African level and on a global level, Nigeria has played a very constructive role as a member of the international community. Historically, Nigeria has always played that role.
Look back at the deployment of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigeria at present remains the largest African contributor to peacekeeping operations.
Well, that is an important role and is an important reason why United States values the relationship. And after the April 2011 elections, Nigeria stands as, I think, a symbol of hope to other African nations as a nation faced with many challenges but, nonetheless, is able to move forward in an important step to achieve credible and transparent elections.
That sends a powerful signal to those who oppose this kind of democratic progress. Nigeria is also an important trading partner. Nigeria exports $30.5billion worth of crude oil to the United States. You are the fifth largest supplier and you are a potential market of 160million people for US exports.
We also have an important people to people relationship. There are, I think, more than 7,000 Nigerian students in the US and is the largest single group of foreign students in the United States. And this kind of exchange allows us to understand each other as people and for governments to work together.
Now back to Boko Haram, while condemning the 2011 Christmas Day bombing in Madalla, Niger State, and the recent terrorist attacks in Kano and Bauchi States that killed over 200 persons, the US did not name the Boko Haram as responsible for the attacks even though the group has claimed responsibility.
The question is why the US' reluctance to name and hold Boko Haram responsible for these attacks?
Well, I don't think there is any reluctance on our part. Like I mentioned earlier, I think we have to be careful and recognise that what is Boko Haram appears to be many things.
It appears to be many different groups and so I think it is probably more correct to talk about extremism or extremist groups in the north. Even if we don't single out a group, it is important to recognise that we condemn acts of extremism. We believe that these acts are unconscionable and must be condemned.
How do you assess Nigeria's anti-terrorism measures in the face of almost daily terrorist attacks?
I think that Nigerian government faces significant challenges and that requires a multi-faceted response. We have an ongoing dialogue with the Nigerian government on this matter. Clearly, there is a significant security threat that prevails across the north. It was previously confined to Borno but we have seen that in Bauchi, Kano and Kaduna.
This kind of insurgency requires a response by the security forces but it also requires a lot more, and I think the Nigerian government does understand that. Here are some things that we have talked about.
One is that you have to recognise that it is the northern population that has been victimised by this violence.
In 2011, there were 200-plus members of security forces who were killed by these acts of senseless violence and there were more than 500 civilians killed.
So, clearly, the Nigerian government needs to have a strategy which addresses these acts of violence which reassures the northern population that there is a plan to ensure their security.
Our hope is that the actions by the security forces will target extremists and perpetrators of violence in a way that does inflict civilian casualties or damage properties and violate human rights. But it is clearly broader than a security issue.
It is an area (north) that people feel that the government has not met their needs and I think it is also incumbent on government to explain its plan to the northern population, to give them hope that government will carry through on its Transformation Agenda, because groups like Boko Haram benefit from a vast group of unemployed youths who have no hope.
They may not share the extremists' ideology but they have no hope and they don't see government in their lives.
Do you think that Nigerian government recognises this challenge and is doing something about it?
I believe there are a number of reports and actions ongoing. Recall there was a group of elder statesmen that met to look at the situation in the north of Nigeria and make recommendations to government.
I understand that there is a White Paper that is being developed that will probably form the basis in strategy. I believe there is also a kind of terrorism strategy which government is developing.
It is important as government develops these strategies that it communicates them effectively to Nigerians, particularly the citizens in the north who are affected by this violence.
How would you assess Nigeria's anti-corruption crusade?
Again, it is a significant challenge. Corruption saps people's confidence in government institutions. You have instruments in place to combat corruption.
We were encouraged by the recent nomination of Mr. (Ibrahim) Lamorde as the head of EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and we are looking forward to renewing our relationship with the EFCC.
Clearly, I think what Nigerians tell me that their expectations of EFCC and other anti -graft institutions are not only to indentify but pursue prosecution of offenders to demonstrate to the people that this culture of impunity is no longer tolerable.
You said you have renewed your relationship with EFCC; was that relationship dead before?
We've always had ongoing dialogue with EFCC and we have not had an active programme of training with EFCC in the last few years, and we are anxious to resume it.
Did the US ever stop cooperating with Nigeria's anti-corruption agency, EFCC?
No. We have always had an ongoing programme with Nigeria's law enforcement entities, whether it is the NDLEA (National Drug Law Enforcement Agency), EFCC or the police. So, we never stopped cooperation on anti-corruption. We have no programme specifically with EFCC since, I believe, around the time of late President (Umaru) Yar'Adua. And we want to resume with EFCC specifically.
But there were reports that the US government refused to cooperate with EFCC as long as Mrs. Farida Waziri, its immediate past head, was in office?
We have great confidence in acting chairman Larmode and we look forward to working with him.
What would you contribute in strengthening US-Nigeria relations?
It is impossible personally for me to contribute to Nigeria-US relations without the work of a great team that I have the privilege of leading.
This is a large and complex mission with Nigerians and Americans working here and in Lagos, and I don't think, individually, I can achieve anything without their support.
What I hope that we can achieve together is a deepening of the friendship between the two countries and a deepening of the strategic partnership that we enjoy. And I would like to see a more dynamic commercial relationship.
At the present time, most of Nigeria's export to America is crude oil. I would like to see more American investors present in Nigeria.
Can you clarify US concerns with the Nigerian National Assembly bill on same sex marriage?
With regard to same sex marriage, this is clearly a controversial issue in the United States and even in Europe. What the federal government in the United States is saying is that it is a matter for the states. In some states like California, New York, legislations have been passed to promote same sex marriage.
In other states, there have been bills that have prohibited same sex marriage. The issue for us really with the bill before the National Assembly is about freedom of association. It is the right of consenting adults to do what they want in the privacy of their own homes. It is about fundamental respect for human rights.
It is about what we perceive to be Nigeria's commitment in associating itself with various international human rights conventions, and that is the discussions we've had with Nigerian government on this issue. That is what it is really about.
It is not about whether same-sex marriage should or should not be legalised. It is about a fundamental issue of whether people can come together as either as couples or as groups and advocate for their rights as members of an LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transsexual) community.
That is what it is all about, and that's the discussions we have had with members of the National Assembly and executive.
How would you want to be remembered?
As a friend of Nigeria and as someone who helped Nigerians better understand America and Americans better understand Nigerians.