Karlsen: Nigeria proved the world wrong over break-up in 2015

Ketil Karlsen


Head of Delegation, European Union in Nigeria, and the Economic Community of West African States, Ambassador Ketil Karlsen, in this first major interview since arriving the country three months ago, speaks on a number of issues, including why the country is on Europe’s political agenda,elections, global economic competitiveness and the EU’s support in the war against Boko Haram.IGHO AKEREGHA, Abuja Bureau Chief reports. 

What is your impression of Nigeria so far?
I must say I have been overwhelmed by the quality and capacity of Nigerians that I have met in government offices, and my visits around the country, especially within the EU, where we have most Nigerians working. There is so much human capital available. I hope to be able to travel around a lot more, but I have been overwhelmed by the richness of history and culture in this country. There is the reason why Nigerians are as proud as they are. With this very significant heritage, there is something to be proud of.

What does your mandate as EU’s Head of Delegation in Nigeria and ECOWAS entail?
My mandate is to facilitate all our engagements in the country. My main challenge is to make the most out of combining tasks in running an EU delegation in a big country like Nigeria. It is challenging because we have many avenues of engagement in Nigeria, as we work across development corporations, and have a big development portfolio. We have so much to do in terms of humanitarian aids, especially under the current crisis. We have facilitations on trade, as well as do economic diplomacy. Overall, I think being a diplomat for the EU is also being an ambassador for Nigeria, because that is how best I can serve and there is no doubt about the very immense and strategic partnership between Nigeria and the European Union.
 
Looking at our agenda, there are lots of opportunities, and I hope in our working together in years to come. When you interview me in five years time towards the end of my tenure, I would want to talk on this promises and how we would build bridges between our nations and find solutions to key challenges.

You arrived the West African sub-region at a time of crisis, especially Boko Haram insurgency in the North East that has spread to Cameroun, Chad and Niger. In what ways will EU mitigate the impact of this conflict in the sub-region?
Nigeria is such a remarkable country in the sense that in spite of facing human conflict and challenges around security, the country has demonstrated its capacity and has resolved on the way to manage it.
  
As EU, we support unity. In terms of our support for stability and peace, we support Nigeria’s effort always. We are strategically in support of creating a sustainable path for development. We believe that military response to some of these issues is necessary, and we commend Nigeria on its stand on terrorism. Looking beyond that, we need to create sustainable and viable opportunities for the increase in population, including in the North East. That is why we launched humanitarian assistance in the region.   
  
We have also increased our support for long-term development. Our support would also create job opportunities for Nigerians so that they can choose to have something to do instead of joining terrorist groupss. The best fight against insurgency is the long-term effort to create real opportunities for our population. We are also supporting the Multi-national Joint Taskforce established by affected West African countries, and we work very close with national and international NGOs to help in the ongoing fight. 
  
I must say one of the good things that have happened as a result of the crisis is increased collaboration in the region. We have seen that a lot of the challenges we face in today’s world don’t respect international borders, and if we want to contain the crisis, we need to tackle it regionally. That is why the EU is a main supporter of ECOWAS. Between 2014 and 2040, more than €1bn will go into ECOWAS activities. Though a complex situation, but we try to engage in a number of ways that will encourage national and regional development.

Is EU concerned about growing agitation for independence in the South East and a similar agitation in Southern Cameroon?
We support continuous call for unity. But the call for separation is a cause for concern. We need to stay together rather than separate. In Biafra’s case and IPOB movement, our aim is to find a peaceful avenue for a sustainable solution, so that Nigeria can remain united. It is fundamental for Nigeria to decide on its own path in that sense. What we want is unity and we will continuously call for unity through dialogue. I must stress the importance of providing opportunities for all Nigerians, especially the youths. When you look at demographic of growth in Nigeria, there is need for the creation of millions of jobs in order to care for the growing population. If we don’t have a clear long-term strategy, based on inclusive growth, identifying necessary value chain, where there is a market and opportunity, then this kind of agitation will continue. 
  
It is very important that Nigeria takes seriously, opportunity of economic partnership with the EU. The economic partnership agreement presents opportunities for diversification, for more inclusive growth and increased access to European markets. There is a very attractive market of millions of consumers, which is unexplored by relation between Europe and Nigeria, even though EU is a leading trading partner for Nigeria, with transaction amounting to about €20bn last year. We could do more through conducive framework and we believe that it could be done through economic partnership agreement.
  
Back to the question, we believe there is a need to react to the agitation in the short-term, but there is very important need to ensure there is a long-term economic growth plan to address the challenges.

Prior to 2015, global powers predicted that Nigeria was going to break up. You are here in Nigeria, do you see signs of fragility in the system?
I think democracy is something we need to treasure and nourish everyday. And if you don’t do that, then there are voices ready to question the fundamentals of the system, and we see that everywhere in the world.My recommendation to Nigeria is to treasure democracy. I saw in 2015 how Nigeria proved those wrong that could lead to some kind of breakup. I must say I am confident that Nigeria will again show that stamina and capacity to solve its disputes and problems in 2019. We would continue to support those that wish for democratic power and a united Nigeria.
 
The EU is a regional bloc like the ECOWAS, but it is pumping so much aid to the West African sub-region and elsewhere. What is EU’s interest in the region? What are you hoping to get back?
We believe in Africa as a true partner. We have to initiate a relationship with Africa on equal terms. We benefit from trading and things that happen in Africa affect Europe. If Europe is not doing well, it also affects Africa. We are sure that if Africa is doing well, then Europe will be happy, which is why we are investing so much.

Also, we do what we do because we fundamentally believe in human rights and the importance of development, especially creating opportunities for all. This is the very foundation of our organisation. We are not only promoting equality and human rights, as a matter of self-interest, we also generally want to assist human beings. This is a huge prospect for continuous collaboration between West Africa and Europe. 
  
Our partnership will grow in the years to come and it is evident in the agenda on migration. People in Europe are preoccupied with migration, as we are descendants of Africa. We all migrated from Africa, myself included. So, making sure we manage our challenges is a compelling factor for us to do things together for growth. We all have a responsibility in that sense, and certainly, I think West Africa in general and Nigeria specifically is on Europe’s political agenda.

There have been serious migration challenges resulting in deaths, which have forced EU members to tighten their borders. What is the way out of the migration debacle?
There is a number of potentially common ground between EU and Nigeria. Every year, we have Nigerian students coming to Europe to study; some of them stay and some of them return. Many Nigerians contribute significantly in all their host countries, but unfortunately, we also see more problematic situations, including human trafficking. Personally, it is very distressful to see Nigerian daughters trafficked for sex industry. For instance, the news of female Nigerians found dead in the sea is something that really worries us.

  
We should never forget the human side of our relationship. There is need for continuous collaboration and active engagement with Nigeria through our migration agenda. How do we come up with the best possible solutions to these issues, so that we make use of people’s mobility in more constructive ways to ensure that our people learn from each other; and at the same time, restricting illegal practices, especially trafficking of human beings? 
  
I think a lot needs to be done on campaigning against this. There is a lot of misunderstanding of what is actually waiting on the other side. The grass is not always green on the other side. I am not sure there is a better perspective. Making your own country work should be a very good option, but we need to provide a conducive environment; we need to provide jobs; we need to have education, put policies in place to have a conducive environment. Everything is intertwined. Migration is a very important discussion.

How successful would you say EU has been in trying to stop human trafficking?
We have done a lot, and this is one of the examples why it is important to have regional integration. If we must confront this kind of challenges, then we need to work together. It is like water, if you put pressure on one place, it flows to the other side. If we don’t put pressure on the issue collectively; if we don’t do the awareness campaigns and investigations to overcome this; if we don’t strengthen institutions collectively, then it will be very difficult to counter this issue. On if the agenda has been successful, I would say partially.There is a lot more to do. The statistics are showing that there are a lot of human stories and as these are still there, then the task is not complete. It is merely the beginning and we have to continue.

International agencies have been very active in Nigeria and West African, yet development still eludes it. What do you think is the problem?
If we believe we can create development cooperation, then we can. Development cooperation is about non-regional initiative to create its own development in that sense. I think cooperation can play quite an instrumental role in catalysing development. What are the policy frameworks? What is the conducive environment? We should no longer see cooperation in isolation like we did in the past. We need to focus more collectively on development cooperation, to teach it as a part of policy, trade facilitation, opening up our market and identifying value change experts, as well as, ensure we empower our youth with some skills. This is what is needed at this time in our history.

What would be your advice on what can be done to make Nigeria globally competitive?
Nigeria will have to look at diversifying production. It will have to identify very closely sectors and segments, looking beyond export of market and at the same time, potentials for inclusive growths in terms of market opportunity, so you can actually engage in production.
  
Of course, there is need to continue to fight corruption. If there is more transparency, it will attract international investors and there is a need to look carefully at legal security to liberate the system in the country. Investors need to trust that the money they want to invest is well protected and that any dispute will be handled objectively. These are some of the key issues I think Nigeria will have to look into in terms of increasing competitiveness. 
  
Also of importance is the issue of energy. If the energy sector is not effective, it becomes very difficult to compete at international level. A much more stable, cheaper, and better supply of energy is key to global competitiveness. Above all, there is need to invest in young people’s skills. 

They have what it takes to create advantage. If you look at the digital sector, for instance, you see some amazing results in Nigeria. And if you also look at the oil sector, there is a huge potential for the country. It, however, takes courage to invest in this value chain. We have to recognise that these things take time, but the EU is there to support.Let emphasise that the economic partnership agreement facilitates opportunity to help diversify production, have access to technical assistance and creating new opportunities.

Let’s talk a bit of international politics. The agitation for state Catalonia recently saw the leaders winning a key legal victory after activating Article 115. How does this and Brexit threaten EU’s unity as a bloc?
History has demonstrated that any crisis within the EU has always made us stronger. Looking at the current situation, the EU has taken seriously what is happening in Catalonia. Spain is a member of EU. We can’t have a situation, where our countries start to break up. We want to create unity. Just like Nigeria, you can be from the South East or North East, but you are still a Nigerian despite cultural diversity. That is exactly the EU’s beauty. We are united in diversity. And that is the richness of EU, bringing together all of these different elements— cultural, linguistic diversity and different perspective of things make us different.   
  
There is, however, a very significant difference in Catalonia’s situation. It is such that the nation was not consulted for a fully democratic move. In the UK, there was referendum and there was an outcome. The Article 115 was activated by Spanish government to confront the situation, where there is democratic succession. In UK’s case, there was a referendum, where they were able to consult the population on the question of whether they should stay or leave the EU. The situations are fundamentally different. In one, democratic rule was not followed, while in the other, it was.

Since the people voted in UK, the negotiation has started on how things will work out. No matter what happens, the UK and other European countries are like-minds. We will continue to work together, no matter what the challenges are.

Some EU citizens who joined ISIS are returning to Europe. How are you dealing with this security threat?
It is a huge challenge. It is an extraordinary situation. They are attacks on our democratic belief, system and fundamental value. The attacks are coming from people that don’t believe in the same value system. This is something we must fight as much as possible. I would have hoped that we have seen the last of the attacks, but realistically, they are far from over. Because they are a spillover from the Middle East. I don’t think we have found the way to address it, but European collaboration will work closely together in policing, creating awareness, opportunities and better cultural understanding. When it comes to terrorist attack anywhere, it is a thing we need to face and fight.

Another round of general election holds in 2019. How will the EU promote more inclusiveness and transparency in the electoral process?
The EU has participated in election observation in Nigeria since 1999. It is my hope that we will be able to participate in 2019. The decision to fully participate is based on invitation from Nigeria, and I will assume that yes, we will participate. Beyond that, we don’t want to always wait until four years, when there is election. We follow and make recommendations like we did weeks ago. There is a proposed amendment to the constitution and there is a continuous capacity building. We believe there is a significant progress and we believe much progress will be achieved in due time. It is important not to do electoral reforms close to election.   
  
The necessary institutional strengthening needs to be in place. We are engaged directly with all the key stakeholders through our development cooperation programme, including INEC and strengthening the political parties. We must ensure the process is democratic and transparent.There should be less talk about power, but more on what we want to use the power for. These will also be my wish.

In this article:
Ketil Karlsen


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