• My regret as foreign minister  –Onyeama

    My regret as foreign minister onyeama - nigeria newspapers online
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    From Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja


    As he quits office today after serving the Buhari administration for almost eight years, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, has said his main regret is that the Ministry of Foreign  Affairs hasn’t been able to solve the issue of funding of the ministry and funding of Nigerian embassies and missions around the world.

     In this interview with Daily Sun, the former Deputy Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), also said the situation has affected the morale of those working in the ministry and Nigerian embassies, even as he said the situation compromises the capacity for optimal service delivery and performance.

     Amongst other issues, Onyeama reeled out the achievements recorded on the foreign scene by the Buhari administration under his watch.


    As the Buhari administration is winding up, what would you say was your major achievement in the past eight years?


    I would say that maintaining very good and cordial relations with every country around the world because this enabled us to promote trade relations with those countries; this enabled us to get military support from those countries when we needed it; and this enabled us to get the vote of countries when we put forward, Nigerian candidates for international positions. So, I think this I would say has been the number one achievement.

     The second, I think, is a business matching platform that we developed which is a one-stop shop for every Nigerian business person to be able to meet and match with interested foreign businesses and thereby giving them market access around the world and also, to promote export, Nigerian export. We have done this by leveraging on our presence in about hundred countries; physical presence of the ministry in about a hundred countries and we have trained staff who will be officers in those missions and who will promote that portal and direct traffic of business people in the various countries around the world to that market place and which will be a portal that has credibility because of the stringent measures required to get on it as a business.

     Thirdly also, a help desk that we have created, 24 hours, seven days a week help desk for Nigerians all around the world which will now be a mechanism for Nigerians to be able to get information or to be able to get across their concerns. And we have seen the need for this through the various crises that have taken place around the world where we needed to evacuate Nigerians. So, these are really the three areas that I think we managed to succeed.


    During your tenure, there were xenophobic attacks in South Africa and Nigerians faced various issues in other countries. How were you able to manage them?


    In South Africa, for instance, we have been able to manage it through very focussed diplomacy. So, what we did in South Africa was that we negotiated with the South Africans, an early warning agreement was put in place, mechanisms to alert authorities if there are any brewing issues coming up, targeting Nigerians. So, we have that MoU in place and we are confident that that mechanism will enable South African authorities, in collaboration with the Nigerian Mission in South Africa, to be able to take preventive measures in case of anybody wanting to start up trouble in the future.


    In the case of Nigerian traders in Ghana who were denied access to markets, again we negotiated with the Ghanaian authorities and the Ministry of Trade, together with the traders are setting up a Naijatown the same way you have Chinatowns where they will be able to trade. The need for them to fight for space in Ghanaian markets would therefore no longer arise. So, these are the sort of steps, measures that we have taken to address those kinds of issues.


    But the current Sudanese crisis, people are of the opinion that the Nigerian Government was sloppy about it. What actually happened?


    No, no, no, not at all! In fact, nothing sloppy happened. I thought those were very unfair of some people. In fact, we got our people out when a lot of countries were still struggling to get their people out. I was reading recently on the BBC website of British nationals still stuck in Sudan. It was not easy, we had to negotiate with transporters with transport facilities and we had a larger number of our nationals to evacuate than other countries too. I think it is unfair to say that we were slow or we were sloppy.


    The influence of Nigeria, people believe, has gone down on the international scene under President Buhari. What accounted for that?


    Again, I don’t think it is true that it has in any way gone down. I would say the opposite is actually true. Nigeria is very highly respected within the African Union and also within ECOWAS. And the proof of that is that within the African Union, they unanimously voted to have him as the anti corruption champion for Africa because of his prestige and unimpeachable personal integrity and the respect for Nigeria, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the heads of states of ECOWAS also agreed that he should be the COVID-19 champion because of the influence of Nigeria and his charisma. So, clearly, you can see that the influence in Africa is very strong. Nigeria also played the decisive role in shepherding Guinea Bissau through to a democratic change of Government.

    Also, globally, he was instrumental in getting a Nigerian to be appointed as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN; getting a Nigerian elected as the Director-General of the Wold Trade Organisation, getting a Nigerian reappointed as President of the African Development Bank, getting a Nigerian elected as Commissioner of Political Affairs, Peace and Security of the African Union. These positions require the global community to have confidence in a country and its leadership as well as, of course, in that individual.

     You can see from the return of artefacts to Nigeria, cultural artefacts; the return of large sums of  monies that had been looted and stashed outside Nigerian shores, that those countries have respect for Nigeria, respect for this government for  them to be willing to make those returns which they had not been willing to do before the Buhari regime came on board. So, I would say on the contrary that the image of Nigeria and the stature and the respect which countries have for Nigeria has actually gone up.

     Also, we have seen the exchange of visits with countries. That is always an indicator of the respect in which a country is held. You saw that Mr President was invited to the United States; invited to the United Kingdom and the Turkish President has come here, he has also gone to Turkey; he undertook a state visit to China; the French President came here on a state visit and he also went there on a state visit; the German Chancellor came here on a state visit and he also went to Germany on a state visit. These are among the major countries of the world. Their leaders coming here on state visits and our President being invited to those countries on state visits shows that they obviously feel that Nigeria is still a very important and influential country.


    The  Diaspora Commission, people believed, is playing the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Does it mean that there are no clearly defined role pertaining to the Commission?

     To me, I don’t see how that is possible because they don’t have the structures and mechanisms to play the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We engage with foreign governments. The Diaspora Commission does not. It does not have access to engage with foreign governments. So, they don’t have the possibility of playing the role of the ministry and they only interface with Nigerians  in the diaspora who have institutions representing them, the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organizations (NIDO). Those are who they engage with. But they don’t have any entry point to engage with foreign governments such as through embassies within the framework of the Vienna Convention which sets out the framework for intergovernmental cooperation.


    In Enugu State, you grappled with power play with party leaders. Did that in any way affect your concentration on your job as Minister of Foreign Affairs?

     No, no, no. In fact, I would even say that if anything, I have not been as engaged at the local level, at the state level, in Enugu politics precisely because all of my attention has been devoted to my federal government duties. So, the two have not in any way competed for my time.


    How would you rate the performance of your office and Nigeria in the past eight years, taking into consideration, the focus of the Buhari administration which are curbing insecurity, corruption and growing the economy?


    I think the Ministry, in that context, has done extremely well. In the context of fighting insecurity, what the ministry has been able to do as I alluded to earlier, was to facilitate for countries that had initially actually placed embargoes on export of weapons to Nigeria to start exporting weapons to Nigeria, the United States in particular. That was a big gain and also, to be able to keep on side and to get other countries to buy into our fight against terrorism. And we have had the total support of foreign countries in that fight. So, on the security front, we have been successful from that point of view.

     Regarding the fight against corruption again, we have also as a ministry, been successful in helping in negotiating together with the Ministry of Justice, to get the repatriation and restitution of funds and cultural assets that have been illegally taken out of the country. And this has required engagement and negotiations with foreign countries to be able to achieve that. And we had also been very active with many countries and ultimately successful in the UN, to get the UN to pass the resolution on International Cooperation to Combat Illicit Financial Flows and Strengthen Good Practices on Asset Returns.

     In terms of job creation, I think that we have been able to promote a lot of trade promotion events with other countries. We also signed a number of MoUs with countries in the field of trade, which of course, is the foundation to greater trade and investment and export which ultimately lead to job creation. And as I mentioned to you, we have also created this portal that will act as a one-stop shop for Nigerian businesses to access foreign markets and also, to promote their exports and all these will contribute to job creation


    As you leave office, any regrets?

     Well, my main regret has been that we haven’t been able to solve the issue of funding of the Ministry and funding of our embassies and missions around the world. And that has, I believe affected the morale of those working in the Ministry and our embassies and also, I believe that it compromises the capacity for optimal service delivery and performance.


    Where are you retiring to? Will you remain in politics?

     I will remain in Nigeria, but that is about all I can say. I will remain in Nigeria and enjoy, I pray, a peaceful retirement. 


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