Nigeria over the years has enjoyed a robust relationship with United States of America. With the series of challenges confronting Nigeria today, especially insecurity, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Terence McCulley, in an exclusive interview with RALIAT AHMED-YUSUF, expresses US' worry and assured of his country's assistance in helping Nigeria to solve the problem. The ambassador wants Nigerian businesses to take advantage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to increase its exports. He also speaks on the vexatious visa issue, the upcoming US presidential election and the enormous business opportunities in the country among other matters.
You have been in Nigeria for sometime now, what is your view of the country and its people?
It is almost two years that I arrived in this great and important country. I have to say that my initial impressions have been confirmed as I travelled throughout Nigeria and met people of different social classes. I am terribly impressed with the potentialities and the energy of Nigeria.
One of Nigeria's most important resources outside its oil and gas is its people - energetic, dynamic and diverse; people who have remained together. Despite the over 250 languages and different ethnic groups, they still hold together as proud Nigerians notwithstanding the multiple challenges in the power sector and insecurity in the economy. I'm impressed today with Nigeria than I was when I arrived in October 2010.
What was your impression about Nigeria before now?
I always knew of Nigeria as important. I have served in this region for nearly 27 years. I have always known of the strength of Nigeria. When I served in Senegal, we and the Military worked together on operational matters for Nigerian peace keepers to resolve crises in Liberia and Sierra Leone. One, of course, has the impression from outside as a place that is too complicated to understand - a place that has serious challenges of corruption and insecurity. That is the impression most people have, but as soon as you get here there is an inherent dynamism that gives one cause for great hope.
You mentioned insecurity as a challenge in Nigeria; is your country worried about the deteriorating security in Nigeria?
We are quite worried. The insecurity in the North in particular is of great concern to us because we are friends and partners of the government and people of Nigeria, and we want Nigeria to overcome that challenge. I am convinced that it can be managed. We believe that the insurgency which Nigeria faces in the North is evidently a problem that can be addressed by the security forces. We believe that it requires a larger, more holistic government approach. The security forces, in targeting those who are involved in perpetrating this violence, need to ensure that human rights of the civilians are respected. They must also ensure that collateral damage is not inflicted on any civilian. As part of a comprehensive whole government approach, we are convinced that the government needs to communicate to the Northern population of how much the transformation agenda is going to affect their lives, and how that is going to deliver power, infrastructure, education and clean water, because one of the impressions is that there is a broken social contract - that government is not relevant in people's lives in certain parts of Nigeria. Government is supposed to repair that social contract because the local populations have been victimised by these attacks. They are the ones that can be the allies of the security forces in identifying people who are out of place; they provide the best intelligence for a calibrated approach to the problem of insecurity. Additionally, we have remarked that we learnt a lot from the 9/11 attacks in 2001.We learnt that our security services were not collaborating in sharing information effectively, and I think it is part of the comprehensive whole government approach. It is important for Nigerian agencies to coordinate and collaborate effectively.
What is the US doing to assist Nigeria in solving this problem?
We have a very important vehicle for a bilateral dialogue. It is called Bi-national Commission. We established it with Nigeria in April 2010 and we have held several meetings. Since the establishment of the commission, it has several working groups on agriculture and food security, governance transparency and integrity, energy and investment, regional security and the Niger Delta. As part of our regional security working group, we engage at a very high level with the government of Nigeria, to talk about the problems and see where the US can be helpful and, in fact, we have a number of programmes. Meanwhile, we are providing assistance to fill gaps which will enable Nigeria to identify where the problem is coming from. We have another programme with a budget of about a $1 million a year to help train police and other security officials. We have a very active engagement with the Nigerian armed forces. We are also looking at how we can build capacity with the Nigerian Navy through a range of security programmes of our regional security office.
Has the current wave of insecurity affected the relationship between Nigeria and the United States?
As a matter of fact, it has brought us closer to dialogue on how best we can implement the discussion of our two presidents back in June 2011 on security cooperation. The insecurity and violence doesn't help Nigeria's image internationally. We, here, understand the reality but outsiders and potential investors must factor the report of insecurity into their calculation in taking decision about where to invest. If Nigeria can contain the insurgency and begin to address the underlying grievances, the international brand name of Nigeria, which may have been compromised, can be regained.
One worrisome situation is that the US has not been able to eliminate middlemen in the management of its visa system in Nigeria; why is this so?
We recognise that the visa is an important part of our relationship and we have every interest in facilitating legitimate travel visas of students, people and tourists who want to travel to the US as part of a dynamic series of exchanges between both countries. I am very proud of the work that our cultural office is doing here in Abuja and in Lagos, in managing what is a very significant increase in work load without a concomitant increase in human or physical resources to manage the interviews that are being undertaken. Unfortunately, because of the huge increase in demand, over the past two years we have seen a significant wait time to secure a visa interview, which has unfortunately permitted middlemen/touts to grab appointments and then resell them. We advise Nigerians all the time to ignore touts because they don't need them and, at the same, time we are making a concerted effort, both in Abuja and Lagos, to reduce that wait time. Two years ago it was 150 days in Abuja, but it is now 20 days and in Lagos it is less than a month. So by reducing the time the Nigerians have to wait to secure a visa, we hope to eliminate these people who are profiting on the gullibility of visa applicants and we hope to be able to offer better services.
What is your take on the upcoming United States elections?
The upcoming election is a glorious one and a celebration of democratic experience. It is a highly contested election between President Barack Obama and his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney. I think we have seen that from all the polls it is a close race, and I think the candidates are campaigning vigorously to present their two different visions of America. On November 6, 2012, the American people will exercise this opportunity to confirm the majesty of our democracy by going to the polls peacefully in electing the next president of the United States. I don't know who that will be, but at the end of the day, whether it is Governor Romney or President Barack Obama that is re-elected, the US' commitment to the partnership with Nigeria will remain strong.
What are the Americans looking out for in their candidates? Is it the economy, foreign policy or healthcare?
Traditionally, foreign policy is important, but not the most important component of the American presidential campaign. The United States has not been spared from the great global recession - the worst economic downturn since the great depression in the 1930s. Americans are concerned about jobs, how to get pay for their children's college tuition. They are concerned about the price of gasoline. Up until now, I think the centrepiece of the debate has been on the management of the economy, and the question is whether the people feel the economy is moving in the right direction or whether we need a change. Healthcare is also an important issue. The passage of the Healthcare Bill last year was historic. The Supreme Court recently affirmed its constitutionality. I expect that as we get closer to the election, there will be foreign policy questions that are going to be debated in their coming debates. But I think the Americans and people around the world are focused on the economy and how it is going to affect their lives.
Do you see Obama making history again?
The president is leading in many of the polls. From the last poll, the gap has narrowed a bit, and because of the peculiarity of the American electoral system, it will come down to probably nine or 10 key battle ground states.The president of the United States is elected by the electoral college, and whoever wins those states will get the highest number of the electoral votes that each state has. So you need about 320 votes to win. It would come down to races in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. It is going to be close because it is a hard fight campaign.
Why has the United States not intervened in the crisis in Syria as it did in Iraq and Libya?
For Libya, it was a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) operation. It was an international operation sanctioned by the United Nations with the participation of the European Union and the Arab countries in an effort to remove a dictator who was attacking his own people. The situation in Syria is clearly of great concern to the United States. We have called on many occasions on President Assad to step aside. The Assad regime has perpetrated horrific acts of violence against civilians but it is a very complicated situation. It is not clear that the Syrian opposition is completely united. We are very much in support of the success of envoys of the UN Secretary General in mediating a solution to the situation in Syria .The balance of forces in Syria is very problematic and so, at this stage, the US authorities have not responded as it did in the Libya crisis. There is an expectation that pressure and calls for Assad to step aside will result in the end of the regime and an emergence of a government that is more representative of the Syrian people.
Why is the US opposed to Nigeria appealing the judgment of the International Court of Justice over the disputed Bakassi peninsula?
The United States was one of the guarantors of the Green Tree Agreement which resulted in the transfer of Bakassi to Cameroun in 2008. Our position is that a country should respect the international engagements.The reaction of the Nigerian government to the issue was expected because it is a country that respects international engagement. The attorney General, Barrister Mohammed Adoke was clear about appealing the judgement. He clearly understands the law and he has stated it all. The US' position is that Nigeria should respect the international engagement.
The United States seems to be very interested in developments in Nigeria .Why this special interest?
Nigeria is United State's most important strategy partner in sub-Saharan Africa. We work together on a variety of regional, continental and international issues. Looking at Nigeria and its potential, I see enormous opportunities for investment, growth and diversification of the economy outside oil and gas. Nigeria is the giant of Africa. I am very optimistic that Nigeria can be a more important commercial partner because we have a very good relationship, and Nigeria is our fifth largest supplier of crude oil. If the Nigerian government can make the investment climate more propitious, if the sanctity of contracts can be respected I am convinced that a lot of foreign investors are going to come to Nigeria.
Are you happy with the volume of trade between Nigeria and US?
I am impressed and I think that there is always room for improvement but I am disappointed that more Nigerian businesses have not taken advantage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA. It is the most favourable trading regime that I have ever seen in the absence of free trade agreement. 99.65% of Nigeria's export to the US is crude oil and .35% of everything else. I believe there are a lot of opportunities.CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido has remarked a couple of times and I agree with him that Nigeria has enormous internal and huge regional market .While I welcome additional Nigerian export to the United States. There is also this domestic market which I think Nigeria has enormous opportunities to export to other countries.
What do you like and don't like about Nigeria?
I like the hospitality and the warm reception of the people. As a foreigner I have been made to feel very much at home and the expression on everyone's lips is 'you are welcome' from morning to night. It is heart warming. The landscape of the country is astounding and somehow if the tourist infrastructure can be developed, it will be attractive destination for tourists. I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians who regardless of their income level or social class seem to possess dynamism which inspires success. I also love the commitment of the Nigerian youths. When I met some youth corps members, I was very impressed with their commitment to nation building. I also love the food, though not all, because it is spicy and better. I would like to see that those who wish to do Nigeria harm be contained because I do not believe that extremist groups who propagate extremist ideologies would have anything to do with the spirit of this great country.