It has been nearly three years since Malta, one of the world's smallest countries in Europe with a population of about 475,000 lining 80 km south of Italy, 284 km east of Tunisia, and 333km north of Libya, appointed a Honorary Consul designate for its home mission in Nigeria, which has been rebuffed by the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA), a development Maltese authorities consider a slight on its sovereignty. Like Nigeria, it is a former British colony, member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, with a GDP estimated at $19.721 billion and a per capita of $45,127. In this interview with Features Editor, TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA, the Honorary Consul-designate of the Republic of Malta in Nigeria, Prof. Chris Onalo, bares all on why cordial bilateral relations existing between the two countries may be under severe strain due to the unresolved crisis.
What is the genesis of this stalemate with the appointment of a Honorary Consul?
I indicated interest for the appointment of the Honorary Consul in Nigeria in the first quarter of 2016, to look after the affairs of Maltese trade and investment interests as well as tourism of their nationals coming here or Nigerians looking to invest in their country and those traveling for holiday. This was after Nigeria had in 2015 gained a diplomatic triumph when President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on a one-week trip in November 2015 to Valletta, the capital of Malta for the biennial meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM). The Commonwealth is an association of former British colonies of which Nigeria is one alongside 52 other countries.
At the end of the Malta meeting, Buhari was selected to speak on behalf of the African countries present. This important development and recognition of the growing clout of Buhari and Nigeria's rising diplomatic profile, led to the opening of talks with the Maltese government to utilize the several foreign direct investment that would be flowing into Nigeria.
So, I considered it a good offer given my versatility in business and personal characteristics that bothers on integrity, and I indicated interest. On enquiries, I was told they have had an honorary consul in Nigeria who had served for two consecutive tenures of five years each and his tenure had elapsed. They sent me all the forms to fill and demanded all information about myself, a total disclosure, including academic and professional qualifications, Nigerian police character report on myself. I produced volumes of them and sent it to the Maltese government.
They took their time to verify all the documents and after about four months, I received a mail that they will like to receive me and my wife in their country on my own bill, as a way to keep you on notice that the Honorary Consul is just a status symbol. I responded to their invitation and we travelled to Malta to attend meeting from one agency and parastatal to the other, eight of them everyday for eight consecutive days. The essence of the meeting was to determine my suitability against the backdrop of my details I had earlier sent to them.
About four weeks after our return, a letter came from the Maltese government that considering reports submitted by all the meetings we had, the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, was pleased to appoint me as Honorary Consul in Nigeria, however the appointment is subject to the approval of the Nigerian government. I said wonderful. I took a cup of tea and bless God for it. Meanwhile, I began to study the role of Honorary Consul alongside the document sent to me about what is expected of me. There is no budget for the office either from Malta or from my own country because I am not an ambassador. Nobody is giving you money to rent office or pay staff. You are to do that on your own. The gain is very small as it gives you access to the government of the two countries and also access to business opportunities in the two countries.
Since 2016, why has the appointment not been finalized and approved by the Federal Government?
Their letter appointing me was sent directly to the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Nigerian High Commission in Tripoli. When the letter came, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called me and I went to Abuja, some officers began to brief me on my roles. I then learnt fully that the person who was Honorary Consul before me had his appointment terminated by the Maltese government. The ministry officials were congratulating and trying to know me more. They said however the appointment is going to be approved by the president and for the president to approve the Maltese appointment; there will be a routine security clearance. I didn't expect any logjam because this was not a political appointment but rather a foreign appointment of a Nigerian.
The ministry then wrote a formal letter requesting the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) to begin clearance process on me in the first week of December 2016. After waiting for more than four months, I got in touch with the ministry, they advised I should be patient that the NSA has a lot of similar issues. Some time around April 2017, the ministry of Foreign Affairs called me that I have a letter to collect, I was elated, and I thought it was a fallout of the NSA clearance.
When I got to Abuja, they handed me a letter, which requested me to furnish them with all my business, academic and professional resume, the same thing that the Maltese government sent to them with the letter of my appointment. I flew back to Lagos and took all my credentials to the ministry of Foreign Affairs for onward transmission to NSA office. That again marked another beginning of delay. The delay continued until friends begin to advise me to follow up at with the ministry and the NSA. I thought the process should have been hastened, as they cannot keep another country waiting forever. When I began to follow up with my clearance, some things started coming up. Some people very close to the NSA, Mohammed Babagana Monguno, placed a red flag on me. They said someone wrote a petition against me that I masterminded the Maltese government termination of his tenure in 2014. I was shocked. I found this out through one of my contacts at the NSA. Where was I in 2014, just minding my private businesses as a private sector individual. I don't swim in such ocean; I have so much on my hands to do.
Another of my contact at the NSA office worked it out for me to meet with the NSA to explain why the clearance was been withheld. Unfortunately, I couldn't meet with the NSA, as he is an extremely busy person. His Special Assistant received me warmly; he said 'oh is that Prof. Onalo?' I said yes. He said 'oh my God, what a gentle-looking man.' I said thank you sir. He now said 'actually the first investigation they did on me was not too good.' I was shocked and asked him how do you mean, but the man quickly added that 'don't worry Prof. things will be okay.' We left their office, which was on the 5th of May 2017. On the 23rd of the same month, a letter from NSA got to the ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that they have investigated me and that Prof. Chris Onalo is not worthy to be the Honorary Consul of Malta in Nigeria and that the Maltese government may wish to nominate another person. When I got that letter it dawned on me that truly, there is a force that is fighting Maltese government not me but I am now the victim because I don't know the former Honorary Consul from Adam. So the lies that I masterminded are now beginning to make sense to me.
What steps did you take to resolve this issue?
I wrote to the Maltese government just to inform them, you know they will not reply you as the issue is government to government. Thereafter they spoke to me on phone and said yes the person that was there had his appointment terminated for certain breaches. I decided to make an appeal, I wrote to the president, Buhari in August 2017, there was no response. I wrote to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, making an appeal that they should prevail in this matter, the ministry invited me and granted me audience to brief them on the issue. They then wrote a letter to the office of the NSA requesting for a meeting with them. Till today, there was no response from NSA to the Ministry of Justice.
After so much waiting, I stopped pressuring the Ministry of Justice. I wrote to National Leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu, I am not sure that one moved anywhere. I visited him in his house in Ikoyi to plead my case. He requested for the documents and promised to intervene. Up till now, I am tired of calling. I met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, briefly at the presidency. He took my card and said he was going to intervene. Up till now, nothing has been done.
After all these, I became helpless. My helplessness was as a result of the realization that of all the documents pertaining to me, no security investigation about me got to the institutions whose qualifications I am holding. All the business establishments whose details were in my profile, none of them were contacted. Then I begin to wonder, what is the essence of security clearance, is it not to determine if I had criminal records or tendencies for fraudulent activities, but none of these were done.
One thing I was told at the Ministry of foreign Affairs, which I consider a helpless situation they face was that any letter from the NSA office is not subject to any scrutiny or further opinion, it is absolutely final. I wept right there and then. So somebody can just pick up a pen and put a stain on my name and nothing can be done to delete it.
To be honest, this was what took me to the Ministry of Justice and I was not able to get justice. The ministry did all they could do before handing off. The Maltese government reading my situation report when the delay was becoming quite unbearable said to me that is it because we are a small country, we have our sovereignty and we sit in the comity of nations, Nigeria should not reduce us to this level of embarrassment after we as a government have done our due diligence on you and invited you to meet various institutions among them security agencies. If the Nigerian government says they cant clear you, it is a serious indictment on them, however there is nothing they can do.
The ministry advised I step up my efforts to locate people who can prevail on the NSA on my case, that there is no doubt that there are certain characters that may have ganged up to truncate the process, that if the NSA himself knows about my case, he would call the process to question and where he is not convinced, they know how to do a reversal to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is correct because if I have a skeleton in my cupboard, I will not come to the public place to dance. On December 11, 2018, Maltese government wrote me that they have got a letter from Nigerian government and that letter is saying I am not worthy so they withdrew the appointment.
What effect does this stalemate has on the bilateral relations of the two countries?
With this stalemate, the perception of the Maltese government concerning the reputation of Nigeria is in serious question. This development is not healthy for Nigerians. The GDP alone of Malta is 100 times bigger than Nigeria. Nigeria is going to lose a lot. Maltese are loaded with investments. For instance, the maritime sector where they are big players, the naval community here goes regularly to Malta to strengthen their maritime operations. They are expert in ship building, in petroleum engineering. They are desirous of moving out to expanding markets to create jobs and Nigeria is everyone's destination. It is a beautiful country good for holiday.
I am very certain that the NSA is unaware of this development. There is a cabal that is behind this. I am appealing to those who gathered against me to have a change of mind. I am also appealing to the NSA whom I have found difficult for these past two years to access. I have been subjected to serious psychological trauma everyday of my life not because of money; I am comfortable but because someone could write a thing against my name and that paper is in certain offices of this country. I should have cause to feel concerned or defend myself.
I got this on personal merit but my country could do this to me.