Eliminating Nigerian corruption: ‘a work in progress’

| September 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

Ojo Uma Maduekwe came to diplomacy from politics. He was a member of the national assembly of Nigeria in the 1980s and was part of a constituent assembly that wrote a constitution for Nigeria following a military coup. He spent two years as an adviser to the chairman of the Social Democratic Party and was adviser to the minister of foreign affairs before becoming Nigeria’s minister of culture and tourism and then minister of transport. Prior to coming to Canada, he spent three years as Nigeria’s foreign minister. A lawyer by profession, he was also deputy director-general of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential campaign before being posted to Canada in September 2012.

Diplomat magazine: What are your priorities for your time in Canada?
Ojo Uma Maduekwe: My priorities are many — to build on the traditional foundations between the two countries and expand trade and investment exponentially. Then, there’s what I have come to call the Canadian brand, which I define as the Canadian capacity to get stuff done, something that has been globally acknowledged and resulted in the very impressive organization of Canadian society in terms of economics, politics and rule-of-law, human rights, multiculturalism. I want to see, as a fellow Commonwealth country, how we can interact with that Canadian brand and fast-track Nigerian capacity in fields of human endeavour. Thirdly, there’s the enormous goodwill which Canada enjoys in my country. When I was foreign minister, I met (then-foreign minister) Lawrence Cannon on the margins of the UN and I told him, ‘Our citizens are ahead of our government’ in terms of people-to-people diplomacy. There’s been a substantial presence of Canadian doctors, Canadian teachers, Canadian business — men and women. One of the places of choice for Nigerians who wish to study abroad is Canada. Canada’s been very welcoming. So there’s a need for government to protect these close ties.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has more women in his cabinet than any Nigerian president in history.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has more women in his cabinet than any Nigerian president in history.

DM: Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and one that’s had some recent successes in terms of economics, including a recent trade mission from Canada. Where do you see the economy going?
OUM: The economy is inherently strong. Sixty percent of the population of Nigeria is young people below the age of 20, so you have a huge demographic dividend there, which we believe can translate into real potential for creating wealth. I’m looking beyond the huge resource endowment in terms of natural resources. We have virtually every metal in the world, and also oil, but we’re looking beyond oil to see where the young people can create non-oil wealth, which is far less finite. For instance, Nollywood employs far more people than Hollywood. The Toronto International Film Festival was a big event to display the possibilities for the Nigerian film industry. We work closely with Canada to see how this diamond called Nollywood can now become the No. 1 film industry globally.
The economy is also strong because of good governance. We are lucky to have the former president of the World Bank — she is now our minister of finance for a second term. She comes to her office with global best practices in accountability, resource management, responsibility. All of that helps our economy to remain strong.

Protesters demonstrate during the gay pride parade in Paris against penalties for gays in several countries, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen.

Protesters demonstrate during the gay pride parade in Paris against penalties for gays in several countries, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen.

DM: Can you talk about the country’s burgeoning democracy? Do you aspire to become a model for the region?
OUM: It can be a model, but I’ll be honest, we’re not yet there because we need to move away from political debates that focus narrowly on ethnicity. I often say, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, what is the colour of his cap? The colour of your cap is a geographic indicator. The red cap [the one the high commissioner wears] is from the eastern part of Nigeria. These are beautiful caps, lovely cultural statements, but they should not be political statements. We are moving away from geography determining who occupies what positions in Nigeria.
Our differences and challenges and difficulties are best addressed through the open space of democracy. If we have challenges arising from democracy, the solution is to have more democracy. We are moving away from democracy interpreted solely in terms of elections, but also in terms of rule-of-law — to truly be a nation with rule-of-law and where transparency and accountability will be second nature for all who are in public life — to be a nation where you live and work and pay your taxes. That’s what determines your status, not what language you speak or where you came from.
Recently, there was a huge event honouring President Goodluck Jonathan for what he has done for women. He has the highest number of women in the cabinet, in the history of Nigeria and we’re not talking about just membership in cabinet but critical portfolios such as finance, petroleum resources. The director-general of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the ambassador to the UN, the chief justice and minister of education (who has the biggest budget) are all women. We are becoming more inclusive and we consider democracy a rising tide that can lift everybody.

A street in downtown Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria. The country has oil wealth but still has a very low GDP per capita.

A street in downtown Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria. The country has oil wealth but still has a very low GDP per capita.

DM: What kinds of policies should your government develop around oil wealth?
OUM: We have to keep doing what we’re doing, but create more transparency, more openness. And, of course, the great work that has been done already — the extractive industry’s transparency initiative — is a big thing that opened up the oil sector. The petroleum industry bill formalizes the achievements and will make it more globally competitive and more attractive to investors. So we want to look at the oil sector, not just in terms of the big oil companies that can extract and just sell raw material. There are a huge number of things that come from oil — pharmaceuticals, plastic. We need to include the value chain rather than just exporting it and being subject to the volatility of the market. We’re looking at how we can derive more value.
But it’s not all about oil. We can also be a major service provider for the continent.

DM: So we could be calling Bell Canada and reach someone in Lagos?
OUM: Yes [smiles].

DM: When many Canadians hear Nigeria, they think corruption. Maybe those impressions are exaggerated, but there’s no question it’s a problem. Can you tell me what the government’s doing to combat it?
OUM: A lot. When I was minister of transport, I told the president we had to tackle this. I started the first anti-corruption unit in Nigeria and we had a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and heads rolled all over the place. That was applauded and he took the example and made it mandatory for every other ministry. There were about 20 at last count. I created it, I started it and it’s now official.
Have we done enough? Definitely not. Are we making considerable progress? I would say yes. It’s a national consensus that we lose our capacity as a nation to play at our full weight. The EFCC [Economic and Financial Crimes Commission] and the ICPC [Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission] have also been established. So we have an impressive, if mixed, resource.
The arrow has left the bow and it cannot be returned; nobody can stop it. Government will be held more and more accountable. This issue may not have been taken seriously 50 years ago, but it is now part of mainstream discourse in Nigeria. It’s progress. It could be faster and it’s something we have to look at all the time, but the corrupt Nigerian now knows that the era of impunity is over, that there’s a price to be paid.

DM: On the human rights front there are extrajudiciary killings, arbitrary arrests, torture of prisoners, human trafficking for prostitution, female genital mutilation. Can you tell me what your government is doing about this list?
OUM: Work in progress. Yep. That’s my answer.

DM: What is the work that’s in progress?
OUM: First, we already have a human rights commission and it is indicative of the president’s political will in dealing with the issue that he appointed a very fine gentleman who was known for being one of the strongest critics of government on human rights issues. Dr. Ben Angwe  is highly regarded. He worked with George Soros. He’s not the kind of guy the government can tell what to do.
The issue here — and I’m making excuses for where there will be lapses — the issue is to go through the cultural process of protecting human rights. Even the judicial system needs that process. And we need to let the enforcement agents [police] know that there will be consequences if they don’t follow them.

DM: What happens to same-sex couples who marry?
OUM: The Nigerian position on that has been clearly stated and that is that we have a law, and a law is a law is a law. It was passed by the National Assembly. It does not recognize same-sex marriage, but there’s not been any witch-hunting of people who are gay. There have been no efforts to prosecute or put people behind bars.

DM: But the law says they could be jailed.
OUM: They have not yet been put behind bars. That law is new. It was written to give a signal to other jurisdictions. You need to respect the culture of each country. At the end of the day, any law that is not culturally best, that doesn’t have the nurturing environment of the culture of that place, will suffer from rejection. We are a religious people. Mainstream Christianity and mainstream Islam in Nigeria are of the opinion that same-sex couples are not recognized by any churches in Nigeria. That’s where they are today. I don’t know where they will be tomorrow. Remember that it hasn’t been that long since Canada has recognized [same-sex relationships.]

DM: But there’s no law in Canada to send same-sex lovers to prison.
OUM: No one has gone to prison. This should not mark the relationship between Canada and Nigeria.

DM: Does it? Do you hear about it?
OUM: There are bigger issues and ties that bind us. There are bigger commonalities. Where there could be problems, I would prefer dialogue. Let’s enrich the understanding. This whole thing should be dialogue-driven and not banality-driven.

DM: How is the government dealing with organized crime and drug trafficking?
OUM: We’ve made a lot of progress in the area of human trafficking. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons is making progress.

DM: What about drug trafficking?
OUM: The numbers have been reduced. There’s more thorough training of drug-enforcement officers, better scrutiny for drugs and we’ve had excellent co-operation with Canada that has also resulted in better intelligence. Also, our own passport regime has improved.

DM: What about the notorious 419 scams? [so named because the fraudster’s lure of sharing wealth illegally spirited out of the country violates Section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code.]
OUM: Again, that is reducing considerably. Those gullible victims are also Nigerian. I’m in sympathy with them, but some must also take responsibility for believing that someone writing from Nigeria about 10 million Canadian dollars available to be shared, if they receive a card number… C’mon. Why should people in Canada, who know that in their own country that would be criminal, believe that in Nigeria it’s possible? It takes two to tango. One is not blaming the victim, but it’s to say that the environment for 419 would have been far more hostile for the criminals if there weren’t some corroborating greed. That greed has lessened because people are now sharing experiences. That is helping.

DM: For all its oil wealth, Nigeria still has one of the lowest life expectancies at 52 years. What can be done about that?
OUM: It’s a question of development catching up with growth. The economy is doing quite well. The GDP growth is about 6.5 percent and projected to be higher next year.

DM: But the GDP per capita isn’t great.
OUM: The population is big. We have not been able to get policies in place that would make growth normal and that’s being done now. We also need to address the brain drain. I met a doctor in Calgary a month ago and he was educated in medical school in Nigeria. He said half of the people in his class left Nigeria.

DM: What is the government doing about Boko Haram, the Islamic jihadist militant terrorist organization based in Nigeria’s northeast, and the cause of much of the religious unrest in the country?
OUM: It’s doing well. The use of carrot and stick has worked. The government has offered amnesty to members of Boko Haram who are ready to lay down their arms. The government has promised to deal with it. There are elements of the terror infrastructure — we have splinter groups — who were not interested in discussion and they continue to inflict a fair amount of suffering on innocent civilians, so the government declared a civil emergency on the three northeastern states and it moved in troops [in May 2013]. They’re doing a good job to bring peace.
The good thing about what’s going on in those states is that the local people, Muslims, are working with the joint task force because they’ve had enough of the violence, which they say is not part of Islam. They’re risking their lives to flush out the terrorists so there’s ownership of the effort to remove the terror infrastructure.

DM: What effect do travel advisories such as the one Canada has issued [which advises avoiding all non-essential travel to Nigeria] have on tourism?
OUM: We are of the opinion that allies like Canada can find the right balance between the responsibilities of government and citizens to keep themselves secure as they travel around the world. And we need not raise undue alarm that can be counterproductive to the growing trade and investment opportunities that exist, even in supposedly conflicted places like sections of Nigeria.
There must be a presumption that the Nigerian government is responsible enough to do everything it can to ensure that visitors to Nigeria do not come into harm’s way. So a travel advisory that is purely unilateral, that does not engage the Nigerian government, could be counter-productive because if we work on these things together, we can take responsibility to say: ‘We discourage you from going to A, B or C and we will inform you of when it’s safe to go there.’ The Nigerian government can provide some security corridors, but the way this has been handled, and I’m careful not to criticize, gives a confusing signal to punish our investors. Growing the economy and creating jobs will help solve the security problem in Nigeria. It’s a difficult balancing act, but I want to see greater creativity on both sides of the Atlantic.

DM: Are you dealing with Canadians on this matter?
OUM: We have met on this point and we’ve made our feelings known. My minister made this point to [Foreign] Minister [John] Baird. There has been some adjustment and they’re doing a better job than some countries.

DM: Has anything resulted from the recent Canadian trade mission that went to Nigeria?
DM: We are expecting a Nigerian delegation to come here soon, to meet with Bombardier about providing products to the airport in Uyo, in western Nigeria, so that is the low-hanging fruit.

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