Buhari’s govt has no foreign policy —Dubem Onyia, ex-minister

Looking back in your time at the Foreign Affairs, how will you describe the handling of the killings of Nigerians in South Africa by the Federal Government of Nigeria, especially against the background of the controversial death of Elizabeth Chukwu on the line of duty?

Unfortunately, since the inception of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government in 2015, we have not had any clear cut or robust foreign policy. It has gone a long way to hurt not only the country Nigeria. Also, not only has it hurt our relationship with the countries in the West African region and the African continent but the international community. The foundational gains we had made from 1999 to 2007 have been eroded by the lack of clear cut foreign policy. Let us face it, when we came in 1999, Nigeria was a pariah state, no country was willing to have business with Nigeria because of military rule. Our passport was unacceptable. Most Nigerians were not allowed into most of the European countries not talk of the United States. Most countries removed their visa section from Nigeria to other countries. For example Canada took their visa section from Nigeria to Ghana. Nigerians seeking to go to Canada would have to travel to Ghana to seek visa. You can imagine that a country with over 150 million people going to a country with less than 50 million people to seek for visa. They did it because they wanted democracy to be enthroned in Nigeria. They helped us to fight for the enthronement of democracy where rule of law will prevail. All these were eroded since 2015.

Let me tell you of the gins we had. We removed the bad impression of the international community on Nigerians. We cleaned up our image. For example, we were able to bring back most of the visa sections to Nigeria. Not only did we do that, we asked most of the foreign missions situated in Nigeria to move back to Abuja, the capital of the country. I give you one single example. Canada had took out its visa section to Ghana, we had to plead with them to come back but every efforts made to bring them back fell on deaf ears. I remember when I received the Prime Minister right from the airport to the city, I thanked him for what they did for us as it regards that enthronement of democracy, you see we lost a lot of Nigerians travelling to secure visa from Ghana, I told him and it is about time they return the business section to Nigeria. They kept promising. I met my colleague, the foreign minister when he came visiting, they all kept promising.

Eventually, I found out that they were not prepared to bring back the visa section to Nigeria because it was cost effective for them to run it from one place than from two places. When they gave me a dinner after the joint commission meeting in Canada, I threw away the speech written for me by the ambassador and I made my speech extemporarily, I thanked them for the dinner and hospitality extended to us. Then I told them that we have learnt something from the Canadian foreign affairs policy on the way of running a viable and cost effective ministry. I told them that what we have learnt from them we will put into practice. I told them that by the time we get to Abuja, our visa section will be moved to New York or Washington, so that Canadians seeking Nigerian Visa will go there for visa.

You will not believe this, before I got to Abuja, they brought back the visa section to Nigeria. So the principle of reciprocity took place. And Nigerians were issued visa in Nigeria as against going to Canada. It is not our business to interfere with the consular policy of any country but you can deny us visa for good reasons as a sovereign nation. Any Nigerian denied Visa was with cogent reason not because you are a Nigerian or a black man or because they suspect you are not going to comeback but cogent reason(s). Now all these have been eroded. You can imagine South Africa undermining Nigeria and assaulting Nigerians for no just cause? Do you know the role Nigeria and Nigerians played in the struggle for her independence? Did you know that every Nigerian civil servant contributed to South African freedom? Did you know that most of their leaders were in exile in Nigeria? Did you know a lot of Nigerians paid the supreme price to make sure not only South Africa but Zimbabwe got their independence? Not to talk of our role in Sierra-Leone and Liberia, besides the supreme price that we lost there, in terms of soldiers we lost 12 billion dollars but you see at every point in time Nigeria is the target of these countries.

 

Why do you think this target is directed at us?

During our own time, it never happened; we set up a bi-national joint commission between Nigeria and South Africa. That was the relationship between then President Jacob Zuma and our President Olusegun Obasanjo. We had communication all the time. Any slightest attack on any Nigeria, you get a reprisal from Nigeria. It is not a matter of talking or phone calls; we must walk our talk. We must reciprocate. The duty of any responsible government is to protect her citizens both internally and externally. That is why you were elected. That is what democracy is all about. When we had that, I did not see any Nigerian government spokesperson saying, look, for every Nigerian that you kill, we are going to shut down our diplomatic relationship between Nigeria and South Africa. And it is a very serious statement. If Nigeria makes that statement, it shows that we do not have any good relationship. It is not sufficient to just make noise in the air. You must react. I have not heard that the South African ambassador has been summoned and warned, with the riot act read out clearly for him him to pass to his home country. That was never done. Nigerians, anywhere they go, feel unprotected. The reason we have embassies and consulates in all parts of the world is to protect Nigerians. We advised Nigerians that when you travel out, please go and register in the embassies and consulates. But the reason they do not go there is because they feel unprotected. Even when they go there, it will worsen their situation because the officers there behave as if they are lords.

During our own time, if any foreign officer or any diplomat mistreated a Nigerian in any embassy or consulate, that officer would be recalled. So, the reason these killings and the suppression of Nigerians is still going on in South Africa is because Nigeria has not taken the measure it ought to have taken. That is why I said I do not understand the principle  that guides the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s foreign policy. We brought out all the protocols signed and made sure they were executed. We set up instruments in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to fast-track and activate the relationship between us in the West African sub-region and Africa as a whole. A separate ministry was created then although it has been merged with the ministry now. But at that point in time it was necessary. That was how we were able to set up the West African ECOWAS Parliament, and brought it to Nigeria.

That move completed the circle because we have the ECOWAS Commission here and the ECOWAS Court of Justice too. The only thing we had in Ghana was the Monitoring Unit and we got it back at that time. It was a struggle at that time between Nigeria and Ghana. But since the inception of the Buhari administration, Nigerians have been made underdogs at ECOWAS parliament.

 

What exactly do you mean by Nigerians becoming underdogs?

In spite of the fact that Nigeria pays 60 per cent of the contribution that makes for the running of the ECOWAS Parliament and the commission, the commission still employs junior staffers from other countries, whereas it is supposed to employ junior staff only from this country. At the AU in Addis Ababa, they applied the rule. No African country brings in junior staff: messengers, drivers, clerk; they are Ethiopians who occupy such positions. But in the ECOWAS Parliament, Nigerians are relegated to the background. They bring junior officers form the other countries and Nigerians are not protected. Even the government cannot even protect Nigerians. Some of the staff who were employed when the Parliament started are still on that salary grade, whereas their colleagues from other countries are lording over them. I am giving you examples of the kind of foreign policy that this administration is running. The issue now is that the Chief Foreign Minister is Mr President. It is the way he leads that you follow as a foreign minister. Since the beginning of the Buhari administration, I repeat, there is no clear cut foreign policy.

 

But what made you conclude the government has no clear-cut foreign policy?

Why did we lose the seat in an election we had at the AU? It was because we put together a team that threw up one person to contest the election on behalf of Nigeria in Addis Ababa. We got somebody who was very junior, someone who could not even get appointment in ECOWAS parliament and we lost. I remember asking a protocol officer what kind of embarrassment is this and he told me the people they brought up were not allowed to contest. So they threw up somebody else who was not competent and another smaller country took the position. Let me tell you something. Nigerians depend on Nigeria to protect them wherever they are. Your passport, which states that the passport belongs to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and can be taken away from you anytime, implies that when you are leaving the country, you are an ambassador of Nigeria in any country you are visiting. If anything happens to you, Nigerian government must rush to protect you first. I will give you an example of what we did during our time. There was a time in Thailand, some Nigerians were to be executed on either allegation of drugs trafficking or whatever it was. We got the information three days before the execution. I summoned the ambassador of Thailand and I said, we know these Nigerians have committed a crime. Our ambassador is there. Please, release them to us in Nigeria; they will serve sentence in Nigeria. Do not execute them. If you do, we will sever diplomatic relations with your country. Do you know what happened next? 24 hours to the execution, they were released the convict to us. We brought them back and had them imprisoned here. Another case was in Trinidad and Tobago. Some Nigerians went on holiday with tourist visa and were still there when their visa expired, The normal thing is that when your visa expires, you are deported to your country. But what they did was to detain them in prison. Every effort by our ambassador to release them fell on deaf ears. I was meant to go on a joint commission to Trinidad and Tobago I called the ambassador and said I will not leave Nigeria to that country until the detained Nigerians are released. Not only did it cause problem in Trinidad and Tobago, they also started apologising. They released them almost immediately. I said they should be handed over to me when I arrived. The day I was landing, they were on another plane to Nigeria with apology. The president apologised; the Prime Minister apologised and the speaker of parliament apologised. That is what responsible government does for her citizens, You protect your citizens.

 

Do you see these acts of aggression against Nigerians by citizens of other countries in their country like South Africa as offshoot of the way government treats Nigerian lives at home?

Recall I have earlier mentioned to you that it is the responsibility of the government to protect the lives of citizens internally and externally. That is why you have the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of External Affairs. The security of lives and properties in any country is sine qua non to the economic development of that country. It was Abacha who said that “If there is a crisis or insecurity in any part of the country and the government allows it to continue for a week or two, it means that the government has a hand in that crisis”. If government cannot protect Nigerians in whatever part of Nigeria in the local government or in the city, that government has failed! Nobody, no entrepreneur from any country will bring his or her money to that country to invest because you must make sure that your finances or investments are secure, not just your life and property but your investment as well. That is why it is very essential that we have security of life and property. But today, Nigerians are living in fear.

 

What do you think is responsible for that?

This is because the level of youth unemployment is unbelievably high. Every year we churn out graduates and youth corps members. Do you know how many universities we have in Nigeria? We graduate students into the labour market. What percentage of these graduates do we employ every year? Those who graduated five and some ten years ago are still looking for jobs and new ones are coming in. What kind of policy does the government have to create employment? It is the duty of citizens to pay tax and the duty of government to create employment. Not provide employment directly, because the government does not have the capacity to employ all but they need to design and provide the enabling environment through the right policies that will enable the private sector to grow, thereby create employment. Look at the Nigerian private sector, it is dwindling. Now look at the reality of our economy. It is now N360 to $1 almost N500 to the pound sterling. If you start a toothpick production firm in Nigeria, you cannot compete with the ones coming in from China or any other country because your cost of production is high. You have not stabilised power, so you will still depend on diesel and fuel to power our factory. That adds to your cost of production, not to talk of the cost of raw materials and transportation. I remember in those days when we go to Kano, The city was replete with various active industries. They are no longer there.

The only employment organisation that we have today is 419 business, robbery or kidnapping. This is where most Nigerian youths have been forced to channel their energy and intellect because the jobs are no longer there. If your parents borrowed money to sponsor you in the university, are they still going to borrow money to sustain you? And you see your colleague who left school going into politics, whether he is a counsellor, a member of the House of Representatives riding big vehicles and collecting jumbo pay packs. You are going to say common this guy is not more intelligent than myself; what the hell does that mean? It is the frustration that leads young people into devious trades.

Well for the elite who steal government money and send their children abroad to study, abandoning the children of the poor who should enjoy social welfare in education and health services and failing to create an enabling environment for them to get jobs, I say to them, pray that your children do not come back to Nigeria. When they come back, they will become victim of the robbery operation of that child from whom you stole part of the money to train your kids abroad. It is high time Nigerian politician learnt that the greatest legacy they should leave behind is to use their position to create employment and make a mark and leave a good legacy. If you think you are going to steal public money to become the richest man and buy houses all over the world, you are making your family miserable. When the day of death comes, you will die and leave without one naira, or one dollar or one pound. Beside our embassy in Belgium is a very big mansion owned by Late Mobutu Sessekou, that place is like a forest now. The Belgian government has taken it over. That is African money. That is how he has investments all over the world that both French and other governments have taken over. And we keep making the same mistake. I know one or two Nigerians, some of them have been appointed. One is a ministerial nominee who has estates in Seychelles while people are suffering in the country.

 

But what role can the National Assembly play in all these issues?

I have no confidence whatsoever in the Ninth Senate or Assembly. They have placed themselves as an extension of the Presidency, The day I saw the deputy president of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege, going to kneel down before the president, that was the day I lost hope. The principle of separation of power was gone.

 

Did that singular action portend that much?

I watched the screening of the ministerial nominees. I think it was Dino Melaye who said that [Festus] Keyamo should recite the National Anthem. The Seanete president said no, no, ignore that question and answer the other question. Why would the Senate president say that? I remember one of my staff members, a career diplomat who went for screening in the eighth Assembly was asked to recite the National Anthem, she did and made mistake and it was in the news. How can you, who want to be minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, be asked to  recite the National Anthem and  the President of the Senate said he should not recite it? In your bid to protect the man who may not know how to recite the National Anthem and many other things, you introduced ‘take a bow and go…’

 

 So in your estimation, the screening was faulty?

No…No …This Senate of the Ninth Assembly missed it and some of them will tell you that they have become the extension of the executive arm of government. Nigeria should not expect anything from them. I just want to stop there.

 

Okay let us look at 2023, it seem the game has started already… But is the South-East not interested in the Presidency?

Before we get to the issue of Presidency in 2023, we need to settle the issue of true federalism, where there is true democracy and the rule of law. Look at Nigeria, we cannot continue this way. It is not about the Igbo saying that power must come to the South-East or the Yoruba man telling me I am going to take the presidency or the Northerner telling me it must remain in the North. We have gone past that. We must sit down and say are we going to operate true federalisms, where the rule of law prevails and where there is equity and justice. Are we going to continue where we are, where we will produce oil in Bayelsa and Bayelsa will come and collect eight shares of Federal revenue and someone who lives in Jigawa who has about 22 local governments will come and collect 22 shares? No! If there are three meats in a soup bowl and I take two while we are three and you are not allowed to take any, you will shout. You will say not this is not fair.

If I take one and you take one and the third person takes one, we all will be happy. That is what we are talking about with restructuring. The issue is, let us look at Nigeria, first, as we do in Mathematics, identify the problem and it leads you to the solution. The problem of Nigeria is that we are not operating a true federalism. The federating units are not equal.

 

How realisable is this call for restructuring?

It is realisable. It is just selfishness and lack of political will to do it. We know this problem and the solution, but we are not prepared to do the right thing.  If you are getting 44 shares of the national cake, for doing nothing, would you want to lose it? No! You will not want to lose it as you are aware that if we restructure you will no longer get 44 shares.

Let me tell you, Nigeria is a very rich country. Every part of the country has one form of mineral resources or the other. God blessed this country with not just human resources but human resources. Oil revenues have [blinded] us from looking inward to find out what God has given us in our own various states. In the South-East, Enugu and Anambra states, there is oil around Iguoba, gold, silicon, but the governors are used to their states’ accountants general going to Abuja to collect money from the accountant general of the federation who comes to share the money out of which 60 to 70 per cent is frittered away.

 

Is there any inhibition for any regional government to band together, meet, conceive and implement projects that will expand their respective needs demands to boost their economies?

It is possible if they muster the political will. Look let me ask you a question, what did [Chief Obafemi] Awolowo use in building the first television station not only in Africa but before France has television?  At that point did Awolowo have oil, was it not cocoa? That is a man of vision and political will. What did Okpara use to achieve all that he achieved in the South-East then, was it not palm produce?  Did Malaysia not come and take samples of your palm produce to plant? What did Ahmadu Bello use to develop the North then, were they not cotton and groundnut? Why have we suddenly abandoned all these things? These were men of vision and political will.

When I was in Britain as a student, all the Northerners had scholarship from the Northern region. I went to primary school in the South-West at Ikeja, [Lagos]. Free primary school was provided for us by Awolowo. They were serving us free meals. We would eat ewa and dodo in primary school. We were drinking milk in school and we were looking healthy. What has happened to all that? In Osun State when Aregbesola was governor, he said he was doing free feeding for the children and I laughed at the quality of the food they give to them. I saw [the food]; it was watery. Nothing to write home about. Why are we deceiving ourselves in the quest to make money? Look at the founding fathers, I travelled to Bauchi and I saw where Tafawa Balewa was buried: in a hut. He had nothing. In the case of Okpara, they had to build a house for him before he was buried.

 

Let me understand you, are you saying that a good sign of a good leader manifests in personal penury?

No. What am telling you is that we need to look at their lifestyles. Leadership is not about money; they were living on at their salaries then. Their salaries were not sufficient to put up the kind of building most of today’s mansion politicians are putting up.

Somebody said when Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was invited to see the house built by one of his ministers in Aro Ndiziogwu, he said this is a mansion; this is a palace. I wish you can have this palace in heaven, but unfortunately you are mortal. You will leave this palace behind. Eventually he did. If we do not know that all this mass acquisition we are involved in will not take us anywhere, we must realise that if God gives us opportunity out of two hundred million people to serve, you must serve your people with dedication.

It is my belief that the quest to be corrupt depends on the way one is brought up. If you are properly brought up, you will not cave in to any kind of pressure to do the wrong thing. When I was a minister, my aides came to me to say that government paid my estacode for a trip we undertook. I asked him what trip? He said it was for the trip we were supposed to have gone but which was cancelled. However, the estacode had been paid.

I asked him again, did we go on this trip? He replied no. Then I told him to take the money back to the director of finance to pay it back into the treasury and bring me the receipt. He stood there transfixed, in disbelief, because if I as the minster did not take my own, they could not take their own as those supposedly on that trip. He left in shock. The permanent secretary and the director of finance came to me: “Honourable minister, this money has been written off.” I told them ‘if that is the way you people were doing it before, it will not happen under my watch. Please,  pay it back and give me my receipt’. They stood there in some sort of defiance, then I told them, ‘if you do not bring the receipt of this payment in the next 10 minutes, then you have no job’. They paid it and I still have the receipt till date.

 

You earlier expressed lack of confidence in the Ninth Assembly, should they for any reason inspire confidence in you as they progress with legislative duties what are the key areas of you would want them to focus on?

I pray that they wake up and say they will protect the integrity of the National Assembly by ensuring that the principle of separation of power is enthroned. I do not see that happening, but I pray they do. If that happens, they should drive the process for stabilisation of electricity. If they are able to do that, they would have done everything for Nigerians. The reason bank charges you more is because of power. They spend more money to power all their branches and the customer pays for it. Therefore, if you stabilise power, the entrepreneur can now come and start production in Nigeria and reduce the cost of production and reduce unemployment.

The way it is now, where power companies are given to friends of people in government who have no idea and experience on how to run power, I do not see how it will make the economy work, except you re-jig the entire process that was done before. Secondly, and closely tied to fixing power, is to look at the issue of youth unemployment and do their oversight function. They would have been doing Nigerians a great service. Lastly, the issue of security; why do we have insecurity? Are we seriously fighting Boko Haram? On the Fulani herdsmen, without saying, I am from the North or south, each member of the Senate and House of Representatives in the national assembly should dissect the issue as a Nigerian who needs peace for his country. Hunger does not know who is Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo, nor the bullets of the armed bandits on the highway, It does not know Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo man. Again, I must stress that in addressing the security issue they must remove the jacket of North, South East or West. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua said for me in Nigeria, there must be no North, No South, No East and no West, but Nigeria.

If they can sit down, they need to look how we can move this country forward. Going by the constitution we have now, Nigeria›s president is the most powerful president in the world. He can kill. He take life. He can give life. So they should look at all these things. We know the problems and have identified them, but who has the political will to enforce it? They need to muster the political will to sort it out. It is not about wearing agbada or going to the Senate to speak English. They must walk their talk. The must tell Nigerians that they have come here to protect democracy and defend the doctrine of separation of powers and ensure that the rule of law prevails.

There is an erosion of independence of the arms of government. It has eaten into the judiciary and the legislature. The only arm of government that is standing today is the executive arm of government. All the others have been tied to its apron string. We do not have democracy in Nigeria and it is very painful. It is affecting the unity of Nigeria.

 

You said we have no democracy… what then are we practising?

This is militocracy, or whatever else but not democracy. We have a civilian president operating a military principle. My brother, we have a man in civilian garment, but who operates by military principles. Remember it took someone who threatened to go to court before he could issue reappointment letters to his Secretary to the Government of the Federation and chief of staff. They were operating without appointment. Buhari, today, is the same as he was by modus operandi in 1984. There is no difference. That is why we said you do not learn to use your left hand at old age.

 

But Oshiomhole described him as a democrat to have considered Anambra State for two ministerial slots in spite of the fact that they did not support him.

What do you expect from Oshiomhole? I thought he was a comrade, with short khaki-knickers and short-sleeve khaki shirts, but go and see his house in Abuja. You see… he has to defend the government.

 

Do you think federal government is handling the Shiite’s crisis well?

Nigeria is a secular state according to our constitution. We must not interfere in the religion of any person or group. Nigerian government as a state does not belong to any religious organisation. So it must not support or suppress any other religion. We are secular state. If we are not careful, this intra-Muslim strife between the Shiites and the Sunni is capable of destroying this country called Nigeria. Intra-religious strife is more dangerous than inter-religious crisis. It is not like the crisis between Christians and Muslims. This is between Muslims and Muslims; Shiites and Sunni and other segments within the Islamic religion. The Federal government must be very careful in the way it handles it.

This people are determined to be killed than be suppressed. It is even more dangerous than the fight against Boko Haram, the government must be very careful. They must not be confrontational. It is a time bomb that can destroy this country.

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