Nigeria’s voice in Africa diplomacy very active, says Onyeama

Geoffrey Onyeama, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Geoffrey Onyeama, was recently at the Transform Africa Summit 2017 in Kigali, Rwanda, with about 54 African Foreign Affairs Ministers in attendance. In this interview with DOLAPO AINA, he provided insights on the reforms in African Union, funding and sundry issues.

The African Union reform meetings must have brought in about 54 Foreign Affairs ministers from the Continent. What is the AU reform all about?
The African reform is an initiative of the African Heads of States who feel that the organisation is not totally fit for purpose and requires restructuring and reforms. So, the President of Rwanda; was charged with spearheading that initiative and in January he presented the report. He had created a small group to help him and in fact Nigeria’s former minister of environment (now United Nations’ Deputy Secretary, Amina Mohammed) was a member of that group and they came up with this report that was presented to African Heads of State at the last summit in Addis Ababa in January 2017. So, what he was doing initially was to call together the Foreign Affairs Ministers; to look with them the implementation of his proposals, which have now been adopted by African Heads of State. So, it was really to the wish that it should not just remain a report or something that is adopted but how concretely the roadmap can be implemented.

The second meeting is on Transform Africa Summit, which is focusing on Smart Cities and the development of Smart Cities through Information Communication and Technology.

Are you saying that previous structure of the African Union was not fit for purpose; why?
Maybe not structure but certain aspects of the African Union. Now, the first and most glaring one is that 60 to 70 per cent of the African Union operational budget was funded by foreign partner, mainly European. And of course, due to their own economic challenges, their support is getting less and the African Union was really faced with real financial crisis and the realisation dawned that this was not a sustainable arrangement and that we needed to find a new mechanism for raising money for the organisation. So, the proposal they came up with is to have a 0.2 percent tax on certain identified imports of all member states, so each country would put a 0.2 percent tax (this is the same mechanism we have for ECOWAS and one or two other regional communities.) The calculation was done and we felt that if all the countries did that, they would have much more than they budget and they could use the surplus for other things.

How realistic are the reforms?
They are realistic because everything with regards reform really depends on the political will of those who have decided to introduce the reform. So, everything would depend on the Heads of States and governments of all the countries. This time, they are realistic because it is the Presidents themselves, who are driving this process. And you must remember that there is a 2063 agenda for the African Union, which is a roadmap for the economic, social, cultural development of Africa. it is a bit similar to the Social Development Goals of the United Nations and in fact there is going to be some synergy between the two. I believe it is clear that African Presidents now are really determined to ensure that these reforms would be implemented. One of the proposals in this reform is to set up a unit in the office of the Chair of the African Union Commission that would monitor implementation. This institutionalises the oversight mechanism for that implementation and that is very important. Also, the Heads of States have agreed that because President Kagame is the champion of this process, he would be part of that institutional mechanism for overseeing the mechanism for implementation and would be reporting annually on the steps made towards implementation. So, I think they are realistic.

How do you think Smart Cities can aid economic development on the African Continent and in particular Nigeria?
The two go hand in hand. You are going to be looking at the different aspects; safety of the city, sustainability of the city, the resilience, infrastructure, development of ICT, the human capital, education of the population. So you need to have a perfect synergy of the private sector, governance and the community that lives there. And it cuts across all aspects of living. And that would make your city attractive especially for investors, tourists and other wealth creating and generating agencies as well.

So, it is really a modern ideal city that makes living in the city easier, more comfortable and more advanced. It requires a lot of interventions, education, technology, social aspects, and governance structures. Innovation is going to be a critical part of that Smart City. So that, everything is smart, dynamic and progressive.

How do you react to the school of thought that Nigeria is not really pulling her weight diplomatically on the African Continent?
It is such a general kind of statement that lacks specifics and it is not always clear what people mean when they say that. But you see, each government would have its priorities and its priorities would extend to its foreign relations and foreign policy because what you want to do is to attain those goals and you leverage on your membership of international communities to achieve that. And when you look at it, this government had three specific goals; to achieve greater security in the country; to address the governance and challenges (anti-corruption) and to promote economic growth. So, our foreign policy drive in Africa (as around the world) has been structured to attain these objectives and this is what we have tried to do. If you look on the security side, we have engaged with Africa, our voice has been heard because African countries have come to support us in our security objectives. We have the multi-national joint taskforce, the African Union had keyed into that.

Then, you see Nigeria playing a role in Somalia, Liberia and our engagement in The Gambia; all this provide the security, architectural framework in Nigeria and on the African Continent. So, I believe our voice had been heard from that point of view (security wise). Nigeria is a permanent member of the African Union Security Council. So, any decision on security by the African Union, Nigeria is consulted and plays an important role. And in ECOWAS, Nigeria has the Commissioner for Peace and Security. So, I believe we are very present and our voice is very much heard. And we are driving a lot of the peace initiatives in South Sudan, Somalia and so forth.

Also, if you look at anti-corruption, that is a real challenge for us as a country and our foreign policy has been very dynamic. We have engaged with countries around the world and Mr President has put it on top of international agenda, which was no mean achievement. Because of Nigeria’s lead, we have a lot of countries that are pushing this agenda. And the most recent result is in the United Nations; where Nigeria was pushing that a resolution on the illicit flow of funds should be adopted by the United Nations as a resolution binding United Nations member states to take measures that Nigeria wants to see taken in the area of fighting the illicit transfer of loot and resources from developing countries. We have made our presence felt in that area. And on the economy, we have faced serious economic challenges. And the main challenge this government has faced is to bring back the confidence of foreign investors in Nigeria. But for that to happen, we needed to show that the government was really tackling security issues, tackling governance issues and we have been very aggressive in our foreign policy in that direction. And part of the work we have been doing in that area has been also the work the Vice President has been doing in chairing the committee on the Presidential Enabling Environment; to make and push the ease of doing business in Nigeria. And we are making real head way in making Nigeria more attractive for doing business.
And within the African Union, we are also supporting the initiative for a free Africa trade area because we feel that it would give us the opportunity to also penetrate other African countries and develop a bigger market in Africa. And the African Union has bought into the idea because there is now a free continental trade area that has been set up. So, when you say Nigeria’s voice is no longer been heard, you look at it in the context of primary and specific objectives. I believe we are doing very well indeed and very respected.

How was Nigeria able to pull off The Gambia political turmoil, knowing fully well that for sometime, Nigeria had not dabbled or intervened in neighbouring countries in sorting out their political quagmire?
A lot of that is a reflection of the personal prestige and esteem that African leaders have for President Buhari. Because when we were faced with that crisis, the West Africans leaders came to him and asked him to undertake a visit to The Gambia, he did agree (with three other Presidents at the time). It was a request and he did not impose himself or Nigeria on the crisis. Also, at the ECOWAS Summit they were looking to him for direction, the ECOWAS Summit of Presidents, then formally asked him to become the chief negotiator for the crisis, which he accepted. And he came out with a strategy that really proved to be decisive. The first one was to stay engaged diplomatically with the President of The Gambia. Secondly, not to allow judges to go and be used to prolong him. Thirdly, was to put in place a military option. These were things he also thought of and initiated. And the fourth one was to recognise the elected President Barrow; even if it is outside the country. The four-pronged strategy delivered the result.

What is the title of the book you are currently reading?
Honestly, I do not have time to read books at the moment and it is quite a long time since I had an opportunity to read because I am trying to get the Nigerian foreign policy situation right.

In this article:
Geoffrey Onyeama
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