A former Nigerian Ambassador to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Amb. Godknows Igali, tells ADELANI ADEPEGBA how Nigeria can get the best of the Joe Biden Presidency and reset bilateral relations with the United States
Do you think the Joe Biden Presidency is the beginning of better US-Nigeria relations?
Obviously, Joe Biden administration portends brighter days for the US-Nigeria relations and that is because Biden is an internationalist; he is a man who believes the strength of America cannot be derived by being insular, closed or standing alone or being isolationist. He has promised to lead “as America led in the First World War and Second World War not only to bring back global peace but to define what happened in the world after the two major wars.” So, if that is the global worldview in terms of how America relates with the rest of the world, we can extrapolate and say that as the most populous country in Africa, the biggest country, he would take our relationship very seriously and he has already given some indications to that. Imagine, a 38-year-old Nigerian has been appointed, the first time a black has been appointed as the Deputy Secretary of Treasury; and the Treasury is the backbone of the American economy, the world’s largest economy. That position is equivalent to a minister of state. It shows the confidence he has in our country and our people, and that would also portend he may be more inclined to be more open to Nigeria. Added to that is the fact that two other Nigerians have been named to key appointments in his government. This is a situation that when our brother of Kenyan descent, Barrack Obama, was in power, never happened. So, I think Joe Biden’s coming portend a happier time for Nigeria-US relations.
Specifically, what should Nigeria be looking forward to in this relations reset?
Specifically, Nigeria should be looking forward to increased economic relations. America is the world’s largest economy. Remember that at the tail end of Obama’s government, the volume of trade with Nigeria in terms of hydrocarbons started to go down and economic relations between Nigeria and the US started to dwindle. So, the first is the economy which would be in the interest of the two countries, for us to go into other new areas. America and Europe are getting very uneasy that Nigeria and other African countries are beginning to look in the direction of China. The Chinese relationship with our country has been expanding and China is going into non-traditional areas and bilateral relations. The United States and Europe have been uncomfortable that our relation with China is expanding. So, we have to reset new openness to be able to trade more, get into non-traditional areas like agriculture and increase cooperation; America is very strong in agriculture. We also need to go into areas like manufacturing and services. The extractive industry has been taking predominance, that is, oil and gas; we now have to go into new areas and that is what the Chinese are doing with us. The Indians are coming to build factories in our country. There was nothing like the India-Africa summit, now we have started having it. We now also have a Russia-Africa summit; Japan has come with TICAD-Japan and Africa summit. The US has isolated itself and the one major area we have to look at is the economy which would be to the mutual benefit of both countries. And even in the area of hydrocarbons, if you look at the monthly crude purchase of America from Nigeria in 2019, it was 11.78 million barrels per month. Now, it came down to 2.12 million barrels which was a significant plunge. Even in the oil and gas sector where crude oil is becoming unpopular, gas remains strong and the cheapest energy source in the world, so we can develop more in the gas sector.
How do we strengthen our consular relations given the number of Nigerians travelling to the US for education, tourism and medical treatment?
If you look at consular relations, the Nigerian diaspora is considered the most resourceful immigrant population in the US. There is almost no American university where you don’t have a Nigerian that is on the cutting edge, that has carved out a niche for himself and is a critical sector expert. Even with the coronavirus disease, some of the major researches were undertaken by Nigerian scientists in the US. Everywhere you go, Nigerians are able to set out a new narrative. So Nigerians lead, we even lead above other European immigrants in the US. We must incorporate together, knowing we are not lazy people; we are a variable set of people that go out to contribute to nation-building. The US should realise in their immigration policy that Nigerians who want to emigrate to the US should be given preferential treatment as they do to countries like India, South-Asia. Nigerians have proved that we are very smart people; we don’t go to be a drag or liability to the system, we add critical value. They have to relate with us and the army of people that troop to the US Embassy (for visas). The majority of those applicants are turned down. There must be some appreciation of the value which our people add to the economy of that country’s social life as well as the scientific and technological growth of that country. That is not to say that we are happy with the labour migration which is not in our favour. I wish everyone would stay here, slug it out and build this country but, of course, some people will have to emigrate. But they have to treat our people well and let our relations be better. Let me not gloss over the fact that there may be some mischievous Nigerians in the US who are giving us bad names but that number can be described as a negligible fraction of Nigerians.
What are some sour actions taken against Nigeria by the Trump administration which you would want Biden to reverse?
Under President Trump, there were sour moments where things pertaining to Nigeria were treated with negativity, and sometimes with hostility. Take the case of Nigeria’s own Akinwunmi Adesina, who was to be returned as the African Development Bank President, but the US said ‘no’ due to allegations of corruption. We all know that Dr Akinwunmi worked very hard, debonair, a highly focused person. At the end of the day, he was vindicated but that was after he had gone through psychological torment. Even our national psyche was affected to the extent that one of our very best was now going to go down because the most powerful country in the world has filibustered his nomination for a second term to which he was entitled after performing very well. Friendly countries don’t do that to each other. Look at the case of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: the whole world accepted her to become the first woman Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. She is outstandingly the pride of Africa. America under Trump initially said no. Towards the end of Trump’s stay in power, he placed a ban on 13 Muslim countries and then added eight others including Nigeria. These are things that Biden has put behind him.
Why do you think Trump was anti-Africa or anti-black?
Trump came and said America first. The Trump government carried out a lot of policies that would take students of political science, contemporary history and social thoughts a long time to understand why he did some of the things he did. We can only make conjectures into his mind. I belong to several American think-tanks and nobody could pinpoint why he had such an attitude towards the African continent. We have to take more time to understand. Even for a president to cast a slur on a fellow president. Presidents hardly speak against each other, they are very discreet. Presidents and former Presidents belong to the most exclusive club in the world. For Nigeria in particular, I think it was a wrong policy to have taken a stand against Nigeria, especially on immigration when countries like Canada and even Europe in their selective immigration, Nigerians are number one on their scale of preference and he (Trump) knows. All studies show that Nigerians add value to state-building and for him to have such a stand against Nigeria was quite unfortunate.
What can we say Nigeria and Africa gained under the Trump presidency?
Well, trade went down, assistance from USAID went down. In terms of the fight against terror, Trump did not put so much efforts into tackling the Islamic State in West Africa and Boko Haram. He gave some assistance no doubt but it was not proportionate to the magnitude of the problem we had. One has to scratch his head very hard to be able to write what has been achieved in Africa under Trump. He did not have a coherent policy on Africa; Trump was more concerned about China, his fight with Mexico, immigration and fight with Canada. He was more concerned with Europe and slammed some restrictions on Europe; he was also more concerned with the young North Korean leader. He did not pay much attention to Africa.
But Trump administration was initially warm towards Buhari’s presidency. At what point did they differ?
When President Buhari came in, I was part of the delegation to Obama and we had very good discussions but Obama was in the twilight of his administration and Trump inherited that cosy relationship which Obama had laid the foundation. I do not think it was out of anything President Buhari did. Increasingly, Trump became sunk into his idealism of American grand status, the reverse of pan Americana; the fact that America rules the world. That was his kind of idealism and he became more concerned about America because if you look at it, there was no major shift in policy that made Trump to develop such an attitude towards the Buhari government. Some have suggested that as the security situation deteriorated, particularly the killings in Southern Kaduna and the Middle Belt, there was an upsurge of views that these were targeted killings against Christians. That could have in some ways influenced Trump because of his support base which is mainly evangelical Christian groups. But this was not expressly stated.
The Obama Presidency had a problem with the Goodluck Jonathan-led Federal Government because Nigeria refused to endorse gay issues. Don’t you think these issues may cause another strain in Nigeria-US relations given the liberal policies of Democrat presidents?
That remains to be seen. Biden’s approach does not seem to be overbearing, it doesn’t seem to indicate that he has a whip in hand to whip everybody into line. I would not want us to prejudge him. Looking at America as a microcosm of the world, he has urged that we should understand each other. I don’t think he would do what Obama did in trying to foist his idiosyncrasies on a fellow president and a whole nation.
Do you think the US will work well with a Buhari-led FG considering the fact that America has accused FG under Buhari of persecuting and killing Christians?https://frontend.1worldonline.com/widget/smart3-9724ff1e.html#!/widget/5bea8d6f-81b8-46a6-9f18-96d18d0f3517&type=widget&code=5bea8d6f-81b8-46a6-9f18-96d18d0f3517&mode=smart3&token=5bea8d6f-81b8-46a6-9f18-96d18d0f3517-1&location=https%3A%2F%2Fpunchng.com%2Fbiden-should-increase-trumps-restrictions-on-nigerian-election-riggers-ambassador-igali%2Fabout:blank
The Biden government is going to depart fundamentally in a lot of ways from the Trump administration. You have already made the point yourself: why did Trump do some of the things he did to Nigeria? For goodness sake, the majority of Nigerians are good people, they are law-abiding. They just want to go there, get a good job and take care of their people at home. He (Trump) knows, he was just an eccentric person. He has his attitude towards Nigeria. I think the Biden government would not follow everything the Trump government did. If there are certain things, of course, they would not gloss over them. They have their intelligence report from their officials and missions; they would follow those things and know what is right. It behoves us as a country to do what is right and improve on things. I think Biden would give Nigeria the benefit of the doubt and it’s coming to play if he can appoint Nigerians into his government. I have the feeling that the Biden government would listen and engage more. You know that Trump did not even appoint any senior member of his cabinet as an under-secretary or deputy secretary for Africa which is a very important position.
Biden has signed an executive order reversing 15 of Trump’s policies. What kind of foreign and immigration-related policies should Africans, especially Nigerians expect from Biden?
He has made it very clear: Number one, the policy on barring Muslim nations. We are not a Muslim nation but some of our brothers are Muslims and by implication may have been profiled. The most offensive was barring Nigerians from emigrating to America, specifically to close the window of emigration for those with special skills. So, it was difficult for a woman to join her husband because you are emigrating or for parents to join their children. Biden reversed it which is very important. The other one is the issue of 11 million undocumented people who have lived in the US for over 20 years. What Biden wants to do is to open a window for these people to regularise their stay under certain conditions. A lot of Nigerians are affected by this policy and they cannot come back. What Biden wants to do is to regularise their stay. Many Hispanics, Asians would also benefit from this policy as well as Nigerians. We expect a warmer bilateral talk as it pertains to consular matters where Nigerians can be better treated in terms of visas. I used to be a diplomat in South America and do you know the US gives people in these countries 20-year visas or for life and these are normal people? You can go and come back. These are the kind of things we can develop further. But we have to learn to strategise and engage them.
How do you think we can do this?
It is diplomacy. First, we have to get our acts together in Nigeria. We should not be in the news for the negative things; we have to be in the news for positive things. The influence of a country depends on its domestic circumstances. For instance, foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. So, how is your country organised? Is it a country where elections are rigged and you go to the Supreme Court, accuse and abuse one another? Is it a country where foreign observers come to read the riot act to us because they see our proclivity for doing the wrong things and they ask you to come and sign a peace treaty? The point is that we have to give a good account of ourselves. There must be a national consensus on certain issues. Look at the kind of people Trump pardoned? Criminals jailed for fraud and others who stole money belonging to NGOs. It means that these things also happen in other countries. Consider what happened on January 6 when some people attacked the US Capitol. For all our rascality as they termed us, this has never happened in Nigeria but yet, a lot of Republicans jumped ship and said no, we must save the republic. We have to give a good account of ourselves to the world because that speaks volumes. The other thing is hard-nosed diplomacy. Our ambassador to the US died and a new one has been appointed with a deputy, so, it is time to put our best foot forward, have a strategy and again, the foreign affairs ministry has to rise and begin to permutate. What are we offering? What are we bringing to the table to engage the Biden government? Arrange visits so that we can explain what they don’t understand about us. That’s the way forward.
Do you believe we are putting in place any strategies in line with your recommendations?
Of course! You know government business is not in the market. I was an ambassador to so many countries-Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. I was Nigeria’s consul in Cameroon and I worked in the foreign affairs ministry most of my life and rose to the top, so it is now that we are out of government we can talk. As we are talking, people are in the ministry brainstorming right now on what to do. Even, when we are doing things, we don’t talk until the results are out. Unlike the political class, as you are going on, you are telling people but diplomats are keeping things to themselves. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is brainstorming to see how we can engage the Biden government.
How can Biden collaborate with Nigeria in the anti-terrorism fight?
We need to work together to fight terrorism. We are victims and the US has to work more closely with Nigeria because the world has become a global village and we have been battling the scourge of Boko Haram terrorist activities in our territory. During the Obama administration, there was robust showing, suddenly, it started displaying lacklustre interest. We need to work together to consolidate democracy. The US has to see Nigeria as a strategic partner and work with us in some of these specific areas. How can we build peace in Africa? The US does not need to come here to tell us what to do. Nigeria alone solved the crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and the situation in Côte d’Ivoire working together with France. The same in Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau! These are areas we have played the leading roles in bringing peace. So, these are areas we can cooperate with the US and have a more robust military and diplomatic cooperation to be able to handle some of these issues that do not relate to reinventing the wheel, which is our sphere of influence.
Do we need US troops on the ground to battle insurgents in the North-East?
Putting American boots on the ground may not be better in terms of understanding the terrain, the psychology and the objective complexities of the Boko Haram and insurgency conundrum in Nigeria but there are other ways that cooperation can come about. It can be material, intelligence gathering and as a matter of fact, that is even more critical. Every day, hundreds of Nigerians are joining the army. The other day, I was watching on the T.V how the Chief of Army Staff was telling the young recruits that after their training, they would be going to Sambisa Forest and they were excited. It is not a matter of lack of men to fight but material, technical assistance and instructors. America is dealing with such matters all over the world. That is the level of support we need: sophisticated intelligence gathering. The people that stormed the US Capitol came from the end of the country but they have been able to use technology to fish them out. Intelligence gathering, technical support, that is what is more important. Engaging locals and giving them training and the wherewithal to go to Sambisa Forest to fight would be more important.
What aspect of Trump policy should Biden adopt for Africa?
You are still insisting that Trump had a coherent African policy. I have been scratching my head to bring out some of the things he (Biden) can adopt. In a general sense, Trump supported that democracy should thrive, that elections must be transparent. It is an area he insisted on and I think that is universal to some extent but being the leader of what is called the free world, he was able to espouse and insisted that elections must be free and fair. That is something Biden should continue. Another thing again is the shaming of those who rigged elections. Of course, the American embassy here cannot bar anybody (from visiting the US) because they don’t have that power; that would come from the US Department of Homeland Security and the US State Department. They can stop you from entering their country. The Trump government introduced it (visa ban on election riggers), it is something noble. If you rigged elections in your country, they would not allow you in; they would ban you and your family. That is something I think he did very well that Biden should continue and promote because the bedrock of peace, as well as social and economic development in any country, is to have peaceful elections and proper selection of leaders, to have the rule of law. That is something Trump upheld and in the few cases where it happened in Nigeria. I didn’t monitor much as to how it was applied in other African countries but we became a very notorious election rigger in Africa and that (visa ban) was applied and announced publicly. It is something Biden should be able to escalate to all of Africa. We just saw the travesty that happened in Uganda and I am sure many of the other dictators would continue with these things and all over Africa. Trump kept insisting on the rule of law. We saw in Cameroon where the Trump government took a stand that the rights of the Anglophone people must be respected. We also saw in Nigeria where some people cried out that insecurity was endemic in their area and the government told the Nigerian government to look inwards and solve the problem. Biden should be able to work with different countries, not like a colonial master but to enable them to ensure there is a rule of law. They should build institutions: a judge should be able to pass judgment without being afraid, an INEC official or lecturer should be able to announce election results without fear.