The diplomat also speaks on Nigeria's financial relations with China, the Boko Haram insurgency and the country's dovetailing leadership role on the continent.
Aminu Wali, 79, was Nigeria's ambassador to China (2009 - 2014) before he was appointed foreign affairs minister by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014. Mr Wali had earlier served as Nigeria's permanent representative to the United Nations. In this interview, he speaks on challenges of managing foreign relations especially in times of crises and the politics of foreign aids and loans.
PREMIUM TIMES: As a retired diplomat and former foreign minister, how do you assess Nigeria's current foreign policy thrust especially in the light of recent happening; xenophobic attacks in South Africa and recent altercation with Ghana?
Aminu Wali: Nigeria's diplomatic relations concerning global approach has been fairly consistent over a long period. But the cardinal principle of our foreign policy is, what is best for our country and also for Africa. That is the centrepiece of our foreign policy. But of course with a lot of happenings today, we have lost a lot of grounds as far as our impact internationally or even in Africa.
I know some years back, Nigeria was the country that was always reckoned with. Any action by any country, particularly in Africa, they always look towards Nigeria to see where it is heading. I think we have lost a lot of grounds in that respect. Maybe because of internal problems that we have, maybe we have not been able to give the importance that international relations require, as far as the current administration is concerned. I don't blame them because the problems are multiple. As a former foreign minister, I understand the principles that we always operate on. The type of foreign policy that we always want to pursue is to make sure that we drive maximum benefits out of our relationship with any country in the world.
As for problems you have mentioned in South Africa, these have always been there. It's been perennial in South Africa and China and some other Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia [and] Thailand. We have always had problems as far as relationship is concerned, not on normal day to day relationship with those countries but it's more consular issues relating to our nationals in those countries.
I am being brutally honest about it; wherever you hear of problems with our nationals in any of those countries that I have mentioned, you find out that the host authorities mainly are not to be blamed, because the kind of situation faced internally here is what is translated into those countries, particularly disregard for law and order.
A lot Nigerians do not understand these situations, they cover their acts [by saying] Nigerians are being messed up. First of all, you have to dig and find out why these things are happening. Some of us that are exposed in our missions have first-hand experience and understanding of the situation. For example, I was in China for four and a half years. I handled a lot of consular issues, 90 per cent of the problems were caused by our nationals. I'm being blunt.
I've tried to make lots of efforts to create some awareness on the traditional leadership of our people to understand and how to relate with their subjects to ensure they don't get involved in what they get involved in. that they should know how to treat their subjects and not start dishing out chieftaincy titles to people simply because they have money. First of all, you have to try to find out how they made the money.
A lot of our problems particularly in Asia is drug trading by our nationals. A lot of them in Asian prisons are still there. The same kind of problem is what is happening in South Africa.
PT: A lot of people believe all these are happening because Nigeria has lost the leadership that we used to exercise. Would you say we have lost that leadership?
Wali: That is very true, one would need to be honest in this respect. We used to lead the whole of Africa in terms of foreign policy, in pursuing the best interest of Africa. We used to be the 'spokesperson' of Africa, but we have lost that ground. Maybe because some of those countries have come up and they can stand on their own and fight for themselves. But the leader of the vanguard had always been Nigeria.
PT: China's increasing incursion into Africa, especially in terms of loans and development aids. Generally speaking, what is your take on China-Africa relationship?
Wali: There are lots of misunderstandings in terms of Chinese interests. When we talk about international relations, the benefits are two-way: the benefits of the receiver and the benefits of the donor. Nobody gives you anything for nothing. The only thing is that you have to be in a very strong position to be able to negotiate well so that we get the best out of the situation because they will also be negotiating for the best. This is what we call diplomacy.
China is about the only power today with the resources to spare for our needs. Therefore, we cannot sit down and say because there is a problem between the East and West we should not get involved. Take from whichever side so that it benefits you. We have to be aware that the Chinese also, whatever they are doing there are certain benefits that they want to reap out of the relationship, which is becoming more apparent now.
As far as Nigeria is concerned, we are not selling out to the Chinese, neither is China trying to take over our resources. They would want to get involved in some of the activities that we do in this country for the resources that we have. At the same time, they are prepared also to give us the kind of support that we need also, particularly in infrastructural development. What is happening to Nigeria is also happening even in Europe and some other parts of the world.
PT: There are concerns that the level at which we run to China for loans, some believe we are mortgaging the future of the country to China.
Wali: I am not very sure that may be true. China gives the softest loans to Africa. There is what they call FOCAC. Through this, the Chinese government routinely put down money for soft loans to Africa. These are very soft loans. But like I said, whatever you do, you have to have representatives that can negotiate in such a way that the fear being expressed does not materialize. It all depends on the condition under which you take those loans. For example, if we had finished the Abuja light rail project long ago I am sure by now we would have paid back. But we have to be very careful to take loans for white elephant projects.
PT: What can be done to improve this relationship?
Wali: I know that any right-thinking person coming to power in Nigeria cannot ignore the importance of Chinese involvement in our economic development. I believe we will continue dealing with China. The only thing that I would have to repeat, is the quality of our negotiators that will be able to negotiate with the Chinese to be able to get the best deal for our country. They should be able to get the best deals for our country.
PT: How do you see the developing trade war between the U.S. and China as regards development in Africa?
Wali: I do not want us in Africa to get involved in that war. This is a war between elephants, we are the grass. We should maintain our relationship with China and with the U.S. We should not be caught in the middle trying to take aside. Of course, this is a war of supremacy, the world is being unipolar for some time, but with the emergence of China, it is gradually becoming bipolar. The U.S. is not comfortable with China encroaching into the areas of authority.
In terms of the economy, China has already made in-roads into the U.S. system. Go to any department in the U.S, 80 per cent of the things you see are likely to be from China.
PT: In case escalation of this dispute, what do you think best protects Nigeria's interest?
Wali: People are talking about loans. What matters is how we negotiate them. Yes, the U.S. do give us certain technical support and some financial, but in certain institutions like under the USAID, not in the way China does.
So, their war is their war, not ours. We should try as much as possible to maintain good relations with both sides. Even China and the U.S. that are involved in the war, they still have not given up in finding solutions and get a situation where they can be able to operate successfully for the benefits of each other.
PT: During your time as a minister, you had this lingering issue of the fight against Boko Haram, leading to some western countries blacklisting or not selling weapons to Nigeria. Why were you not able to resolve that problem?
Wali: You see, we discussed the problem of Boko Haram with various countries especially those who are in a position to give us some kind of support. But unfortunately, the approach in Nigeria now, which I believe it is still when it comes to insecurity in the country, the opposition (parties) wants to always be blasting the sitting government. They don't give the right support and advice. They portray the whole thing as the fault of the government such that the western countries fell for these kinds of propaganda, and we entered lots of problems.
For example, we (wanted) cobra helicopters from the U.S. they refused to sell it to us during my time. We headed elsewhere to get these helicopters. I visited Turkey. They said they are willing to sell to us those type of aircraft but, unfortunately, they cannot go ahead and sell to us because the engines are American, therefore, they have to have a license from the US. But the U.S. was not prepared to help.
PT: How was the engagement with the U.S. like?
Wali: My last engagement was very disappointing. I sat with the undersecretary of state at the States Department in Washington, their main concern was about the (then) coming election. They said is the election going to happen, I said yes. As far as they were concerned, they were not interested (in the request), all they were interested in was a change of government.
PT: Concerning this is the story of Chibok girls. A lot of stories came out that the Nigerian government refused offers for help. How true was this?
Wali: It's not true. There is no way a government would say we do not want assistance from any quarters. It was something that was being said to blackmail the sitting government at the time.
What happened in Chibok if you go deep you would not even blame the central authorities. This was something that happened in Borno State and most of the persons involved were persons that were in [the state] government and they knew when this started happening.
As far as Boko Haram is concerned, I can boldly say, by the time we left government we had brought down Boko Haram to a standstill.
If you recall, when the election was postponed for four weeks, it was because of insecurity. At that time, our operation in the North-east was succeeding. We brought Boko Haram where we want them that is why there was no single polling unit in the northeast where election did not take place.
It was after we had left that a lot of things started to get bad again. Goodluck Jonathan government did a lot to stop Boko Haram. Though, we had our misfortunes with Boko Haram; they attacked a motor park in Abuja, they had attacks in Kano but before we left all those types of attacks were eliminated.
PT: Would you attribute that to the support from the international communities because aside from the former ones, we learnt there were some informal arrangements like the mercenaries brought from South Africa?
Wali: I would not be in the position to tell you that, because I was not involved in any of those issues. But as a member of the national security council, I know that we had a lot of support from a lot of countries that were sympathetic to our cause. That is why we were able to stop Boko Haram in their tracks.