Foreign Affairs Minister Olugbenga Ashiru is an extraordinary diplomat. He lives and breathes diplomacy. He is finicky about what he says and how he says it. When THISDAY on Sunday approached the minister for an interview, perhaps afraid he might be misquoted or that his views might not be properly represented, he demanded for areas to be covered by the interview and the questions too. He was obliged. But when THISDAY team of Ike Abonyi, Damilola Oyedele and Sunday Aghaeze arrived at his office in Abuja on Tuesday, Ashiru threw his initial caution to the wind as the team launched into a no-holds-barred interview during which the minister forgot about the questions he got ahead and his prepared answers. He speaks on Nigeria's involvement in Mali and Guinea Bissau as well as the country's relations with the rest of Africa and the world. Excerpts:
Initially, Nigeria was committed to sending 650 troops to Mali, and at a time, the number was reduced to 450 because of homeland security. Why did the federal government suddenly decide on 1,200 troops?
It is very simple. Nigeria must take the leadership role in this campaign, which is very unique because, unlike the previous ones in ECOWAS, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where we were trying to enthrone democracy, rule of law and orderliness in those countries, this one that involves Mali is to ensure Nigeria's survival. So we must pay due attention to it. Considering the map of Mali, you ask yourself what impact 600 troops would make when lesser endowed countries were already pledging the same number. Should Nigeria also be pledging the same number of troops when we know that in the ECOWAS, we have the largest armed forces and our contribution must reflect our strength and size? Also we are in command of AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission to Mali), so we must have enough troops to back up the command position. Mali is vast, so there must be enough troops on ground for effective operations and to achieve the desired objective.
The situation in Guinea Bissau has been completely overshadowed by Mali. Why is that so?
That is to be expected; the situation in Mali is more serious than the situation in Guinea Bissau. Also in Guinea Bissau, there is an ECOWAS force in place already maintaining peace and security. The challenge in Mali is so serious that even countries outside ECOWAS today are now pledging troops to join AFISMA. Countries as far away as Australia, New Zealand are pledging funds for AFISMA because they know that if terrorism is allowed to grow in that part of Africa, it will not be in the interest of anybody. It would destabilise not just the sub-region, but the whole of the continent, which is why everybody is joining hands to fight this menace and we have to do it together.
Also, the media needs to take this as its own fight and not leave it to diplomats; educate the people on the dangers involved. I have read some people questioning why we are in Mali when we have our own challenges at home. I feel sad that it means some people cannot see beyond their noses, they cannot see the wider picture, that there is a connection between the insurgency in Mali and the terrorists' activities we have in Nigeria. Already, we can see how the whole thing would play out; now some people have been arrested in Mali fighting with the terrorists and some Nigerians were part of them. Are you sure they are not those that are being trained to come and act under Boko Haram and kill our people in places of worship and market places? That is the linkage.
What was responsible for the rather slow response of Africa and, indeed, Nigeria to the Mali crisis?
First, it is wrong to suggest that there was a slow response to the situation in Mali. Perhaps, you mean deployment of troops. If there was tardiness in the deployment of troops, it was because the UN Security Council hesitated in authorising such deployment under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Much as the role of France is appreciated by all, I am satisfied with the role of Nigeria in this matter.
How are Nigerian troops performing in Mali?
They are settling down, our troops are well trained and we have that dignity and reputation that in terms of peace-keeping, our troops perform well and are a pride to the nation. They are already in place, not only the Army, even the Air Force that are based in Niamey are also already in place. We are doing very well; the truth is that we have to take the lead. France has come in to help us, to soften the ground. All countries at the AU Summit have individually congratulated France on the action they took because it was timely. They have the technology and they have used it to our advantage. Now, we as ECOWAS and African Union must take the lead to make sure we operate on the ground. France cannot be there forever, it is our campaign and we must take the lead.
An issue that has bothered many Nigerians is that in these countries, like Liberia and Sierra Leone, where Nigeria has spearheaded peace-keeping operations, the level of appreciation is usually low at the end of the day.
That has changed now. I give you an example, we were involved in Cote d'Ivoire, where President Goodluck Jonathan took that stance that "since an election has been conducted and a winner has emerged, the winner must be sworn in as president." We stood our ground, the US, France, EU came around to support Nigeria's position. Even the AU that was initially not sure where they will be, they came round to support Nigeria's position. That is why when President Outtara came, he told me he had made a promise to himself that Nigeria must be the first country he would visit after his inauguration, to come and thank the Nigerian people and government for the support they gave his country. He said if not for Nigeria's stance, the bloodbath in Cote d'Ivoire would have been unimaginable if the crises were allowed to linger. Since that decision, Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire have been working together on the same side of the coin on all issues to be resolved in West Africa and in Africa. That never happened before since independence of both countries. We now have a close rapport and they have been very supportive of Nigeria.
Even in Libya, it's the same story. The Libyan government is now very friendly with Nigeria. We are working together; they have supported us in many of the elections we had Nigerian candidates vying for positions. So they have come around to appreciate us. By the time peace is fully restored in a place like Libya, our private sector would now be able to take full advantage of the opportunities and go in there.
Already our private sector is very active in Cote d'Ivoire. Some have been given oil licences to go and start exploring. So we are getting benefits from our interventions, and that is how it should be.
I believe that in the past what happened was that our private sector did not seize the opportunity to come in. They are trying now. If you look at those countries where we have intervened, a number of Nigerian companies have opened offices there; our banks are there and are doing good business.
How successful are Nigeria's mediation efforts between Sudan and South Sudan?
President Goodluck Jonathan seized the initiative to assist in the mediation efforts between Sudan and South Sudan. We have a close affinity to Sudan because we have well over five millions citizens of Nigerian origin in Sudan so we must maintain that affinity. During the last AU summit, President Goodluck Jonathan initiated a meeting on the sidelines of the summit in which the Presidents of South Africa, Cote d'Ivoire and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia was represented by his foreign Minister. The presidents of Sudan and South Sudan were in attendance and President Jonathan made the point that the issues between the two countries must be resolved. He cited the example of Nigeria and the Cameroons that the problems between South Sudan and Sudan are not even as much as the problems we had, but there is now an agreement that is in place and is working. We are now trying to have another meeting to consider how we can establish the same framework, which has been used by Nigeria and Cameroon, that is the joint commission through which we resolve all our differences. They have signed all agreements, but there is no mechanism to ensure proper implementation.
But Nigerians in Bakassi are complaining about harassment by Cameroonians and recently some of them were at the National Assembly to register their protest.
This government would not tolerate the harassment of Nigerians anywhere and in recent times we have stood up to any country that wants to harass Nigerians. Nigerians in Bakassi are protected under the existing framework, their human rights must be respected and the mechanism of the Joint Commission has provisions to ensure these. We would continue to press on that. It is also in the interest of Cameroon to ensure that this is done, if not they would be accused of violating the rights of those living in Bakassi.
President Jonathan's recent appeal to the Indonesian authorities to spare the Nigerians on death row can also be interpreted as a message to other nations that have Nigerians on death row. Are you considering the possibility of repatriation?
Yes, we have repatriation agreements with a number of countries and we are considering establishing such agreements with some others so that we can bring back our citizens who are in prisons in various countries. But for those on death row, the best any government can do is to appeal for clemency bearing in mind that they have already been convicted. We would continue to appeal to those governments to stay execution.
But we need to send the message out to Nigerians that there is a big danger. I consider it an attempt to commit suicide because if you know that the penalty of carrying drugs to these countries is death, why carry drugs there? Why do you have to carry drugs in the first place? So we need that public enlightenment to be amplified so that people can behave properly so that they do not mess up the name and image of Nigerians abroad. As much as we would defend Nigerians, Nigerians should not wilfully go and break the law of other countries. I remember the Senate President was saying rightly that we must separate the two issues, that if a person goes to wilfully commit crimes and break laws, he would be punished. We would be there to give whatever support we can, but then do not do it. I hope our people would listen so that we can have Nigerians off that trade, because that is one trade that causes real damage to our image abroad; drug trafficking. Why must you do it, when you can go into farming, plant crops for sale? It is this get-rich-quick-syndrome; we should campaign against it. The technology they have abroad is too sophisticated, even when it is swallowed, it would be detected.
Just last week, Russia's Foreign minister accused Nigeria of endangering ties between the two countries because of the continued detention of 15 sailors arrested by the Nigerian Navy in October last year. What is your take on this claim?
That matter is in court, so I will really not want to comment on a matter that is in court. All I will say is that no country should put pressure on Nigeria, but I believe at the end of the day, this matter would be resolved, that is all I can say.
Some Nigerian citizens have complained they do not receive good treatment in the hands of Nigerian diplomats. Are you satisfied with the conduct of staff of Nigeria's missions abroad?
I have received reports from people who have travelled on their interactions with our embassies abroad. I have received letter of commendation, I have reports of people writing on the new image of our missions abroad.
Our embassies today are alive to their responsibilities because of the various trainings we have given the staff even before they left for them to know that their first primary responsibility as diplomats abroad is to Nigerians who are living in these countries or are in transit. We let them know that they must show empathy for Nigerians who happen to run into distress when they are abroad.
When I travel, the Nigerian associations come and they let us know that they have good working relationship with our embassies. So I believe those stories are in the past, things are improving and it will continue to improve until we have it that Nigerians can feel free to drop by at any embassy and get the utmost attention and respect. Where we find that any mission has not lived up to those expectations, there are sanctions that would be applied.
Is the government living up to its responsibility of properly funding the missions?
Yes, there is improvement. Once we get our allocations on time, we have no problem because when you are abroad, the landlords do not wait, you must pay for services; electricity and other utilities. We are working with Ministry of Finance, and we are all committed to ensure that the missions get their remittances. The procedure is for Finance to prepare the figures and pass to CBN to remit. We have tried to see that any bureaucratic delay is eliminated so that missions can get their money. In terms of funding, it is what the missions send to government that are their requirements for payments of salaries, overhead and so on that is approved. We are lucky that they do not reduce as they used to do in the past but the delay has to do with remittance, but they have the funding they require to run their services in any given year.
What about the level of training?
Our diplomats compete with the best in various capital cities of the world and continental organisations, so they must be well trained. Now we have elaborate courses all over and we try to make sure we train all categories of staff. Some are sent to universities for post-graduate studies, some are sent for language courses, and we also have in-house training programmes one of which is the Senior Management Diplomatic Course, which all directorate officers must pass. We also make sure we expose them to contemporary challenges in the world of diplomacy so that they can always adapt to challenges that may come their way. We take training very seriously because that is the only way we can get the best. I am happy to report that when we compare, our diplomats are doing very well. Even in the UN and the Commonwealth, in most of the cases, by the time they are passing resolutions at the UN, Nigerian diplomats are being looked out for to co-sponsor or be part of the draft resolution because they know that they are very good.
So our diplomats are doing us proud and that is because of the commitment and the training we have been able to give them.
Would that assist in our bid to secure a permanent seat in the UN Security Council?
Already we are running for the non-permanent seat of the Security Council from 2014 to 2015 for the two-year term. The election would place in October and we are already a lot of campaign to make sure that we get the support, not just of ECOWAS, but also of the AU and other regional blocs because we must have two-thirds majority. We are working hard on that and I am hopeful that we would make it.
Most Nigerian missions don't have information or media officers, who should help to bring negative reports about Nigeria to the attention of the relevant authorities and liaise between the foreign media and the mission. What are you doing to address this issue?
First, the premise of your question betrays a lot that you do not appreciate in Nigeria's diplomacy. Every diplomat is trained in the art of public diplomacy, including press and information management. Much as there could be some role for media officers in our missions, experience has shown that funding has been the greatest challenge for their parent ministry in terms of sustainability. I would rather that we strengthen and empower existing information desks in our missions including those materials they need to discharge this function.
Diplomats are respected all over the world and their interventions in issues are respected. Therefore, diplomatic posting is a serious issue, because those posted abroad are saddled with the responsibility of representing us and doing so in an effective, efficient manner and in accordance with global best practices. But lately, we are beginning to see a different role for top Nigerian diplomats. In 2011, we saw the Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK in the presidential campaign train for months while still serving as our envoy to UK. Nigeria's Ambassador to Canada, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, is also seen often times at home for PDP matters. Don't you think it is high time government reconsidered the kind of role it allows top diplomats to play?
First, it has to be recognised that Heads of Mission are appointees of Mr President. He can therefore deploy them as he deems fit. It is also at his behest that they can be summoned home for consultations and other assignments, being the trusted representatives of Mr President. Second, the missions you mentioned have very senior and capable career diplomats serving as Deputy Heads of Missions in those missions to take full charge of affairs when the substantive heads have cause to answer the calls of national duty on the instructions of Mr President. I believe that was the case in the two missions you mentioned.
The contest for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is on. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa are interested in taking the African slot. As Nigeria's top diplomat, what are the country's chances of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council?
I believe that our chances are very bright indeed, though I acknowledge the relative strengths of the other countries you mentioned. The primary criteria for membership of the UN Security Council, according to the UN Charter, are the capacity to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the UN. In this regard, Nigeria has, more than any other country in Africa, demonstrated these attributes and is prepared to do more in future. This is why we have launched our bid for election into the UN Security Council in the non-permanent seat category for the period 2014-2015. We are confident of our success in this regard as we take concrete steps to address our domestic challenges and deepen our democracy.
Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron threw a challenge to Nigeria, asking the country's leadership to account for how oil receipts in 2012 were expended. How do you react to this challenge?
My reaction is simple. All Federal Government receipts are accounted for and can be verified. The record is there for all to see, including at the Central Bank of Nigeria and Federal Ministry of Finance.
What is Nigeria's foreign policy thrust and what are the policy objectives in Africa and beyond?
Our foreign policy can be situated within the framework of Section 19 of the 1999 Constitution as follows:
a. Promotion and protection of the national interest
b. Promotion of African integration and support for African unity
c. Promotion of international co-operation for the consolidation of universal peace and mutual respect among all nations and elimination of discrimination in all its manifestations.
d. Respect for international law and treaty obligations as well as the seeking of settlement of international disputes by negotiation, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and adjudication.
e. Promotion of a just world economic order.
However, in pursuit of these objectives, government has identified the following as the main thrust of our foreign policy in Africa and beyond:
a. Maintenance of unity, peace and security particularly in the wake of current security challenges;
b. Job and wealth creation for Nigerians;
c. Promotion of trade and investments;
d. Welfare of Nigerians both at home and abroad;
e. Implementation of the Transformation Agenda.