INTERVIEW WITH A NIGERIAN STATESMAN – AMBASSADOR GEORGE OBIOZOR
In this issue, Ayaka visits one of Nigeria’s elder statesmen, diplomat, academician, and author in his Lagos residence where he gave us insight into his world of politics, diplomacy and public service.
Ambassador George Obiozor, 68, a former Ambassador of Nigeria to the United States of America, Israel and Cyprus, sat for an in depth interview on his experience, views and hopes for Nigeria.
Your Excellency, you have had a front row seat in Nigeria for over 30 years, what would you say is the root cause of Nigeria’s inability to overcome its challenges as a nation?
Leadership! Leadership is everything. Every country that has developed anywhere in the world, leadership, vision and mission were responsible. The two countries I want to mention now are Singapore and Malaysia. These two countries, a few years ago, were taken to the greatest height of development by leadership. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore eventually wrote a book “From third world to first world – the Singapore story.” Malaysia’s Mahathir bin Mohamad, I’d say solved his countries greatest problem – pluralism and the conflict between the Malays and the rest of the people. And then took his country’s economy to the highest ground. As for Nigeria, we haven’t gotten it right. The greatest crisis in Nigeria is the crisis of leadership.
Many dispirited Nigerians often lament about our only hope being a “benevolent” dictator. What do you think of a “Rawlings-type” leader to get Nigeria back on track?
It can’t work here. Ghana is a very small country. Ghana is less than the population of South-East & South-South Nigeria combined. Even territorially Ghana is small. So, don’t compare countries like that. You can’t compare apples and bananas. Nigeria is a complex country. The leadership that will emerge here will be the one that suits the political culture and environment, not a copy-cat. So, the idea of a ‘Rawlings’ type of leadership won’t work here, because Nigeria is irreplaceably pluralistic. For something to succeed in Nigeria it must have some level of concession or acceptability with a purposeful leadership that is feasible and is perceived to be doing well for everybody. Not for one section, group, region or religion.
Which President do you feel made the most progress in our country?
If I have to say that Nigeria has produced a few heroes, one of them would be General Yakubu Gowon. The number one Nigerian political hero who really fought the war, healed the country, and tried to reconcile the irreconcilable groups – that was Gowon. There’s no doubt about him being Nigeria’s authentic hero. Other people have tried, there’s no doubt that Ibrahim Babangida in his time tried to accommodate everybody, in fact, he moved well. Or Obasanjo, with all due respect to those who criticize him, he was a strong man at the time when the country needed a strong man. So, I can mention these three people by name without fear or favour. They had contributed to the dynamism of Nigeria.
What role should religion (if any) play in government and how we move our nation forward? Should there be a distinct separation from church and state like in the United States?
There must be distinction between religion and state. Religion should be relegated to being a private affair or group affair. But don’t inject it into politics. It is the greatest poison. If you combine religion and politics, you divide the country. It divided India and Pakistan. Even being members of one religion can’t save you. It divided Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh. It divided Sudan into pieces because even among Sudanese, ethnicity has shown that it is stronger than religion. Don’t inject religion in Nigerian politics; it surely will kill the country. One of the greatest tragedies of Nigeria today came from those sporadic, religious crisis taking place in different parts of Nigeria, particularly in the north. It has created a state of uncertainty, it must be contained. If it is not contained, reduced or eliminated, it will eventually be the reason for Nigeria’s dis-integration.
In December 2009, Nigeria was placed on the FBI Terror Watch list as a result of the failed terror attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. What was your initial reaction to it and how has it affected our diplomatic relations with the United States?
As a matter of fact, my reaction was what a tragedy. A nation that does not produce terrorists or condone terrorism. A nation that is fighting terrorism eventually becomes a victim to be listed there. But then, you have to look at the circumstances. Because in diplomatic issues you look at the causes and effects. The evidence was that Farouk Abdul Mutallab was a Nigerian. However, under that circumstance Americans will do what is in their own national interest and that’s why they put us on the watch list. Thank God they also understand Nigerians, because we have very good relations with the United States dating back since 1960 formally, but 1957 informally. So, they recognize and know the nature of people that Nigerians are. Nigerians are not terrorists. I’m sure they’ll remove Nigeria officially and eventually from the list. Knowing fully well the efforts all Nigerian governments have made to fight terrorism, both internally and externally. So, it was a circumstantial thing and in their interest, in the height of what happened, we got on the list.
Can you take us through what would have happened at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC on December 25th when the world heard about the “Nigerian” terror attempt? What steps would have been taken to manage the crisis and potential diplomatic fracas? What would have been happening behind the scenes between Abuja and Washington DC?
It must have been a terrible nightmare for any Ambassador to watch this kind of thing. Because once it is your national, you’re in trouble. You have a double role. If it’s your national, your national interest requires that you go for his protection; accused or not accused, sinner or saint. You have to do everything to make sure that your national is not maltreated. That is the first thing you’d do. The next thing is that you’ll keep your government constantly informed about both the condition of the accused and the reactions of the host government. So, it’s a real nightmare for any Ambassador. Anybody in charge of that embassy will have the biggest problem at that period, because it’s an international crisis, you don’t know when it’s going to end. So, obviously it was so well managed by the embassy and like I earlier said, the fundamental good relations between Nigeria and the United States mediated the whole situation. It was very important that the two countries were in such good relations.
In 1992, you published a book called “Uneasy Friendships: Nigeria-United States Relations.” What was it like being the Nigerian Ambassador to an “unpopular” American Administration? George Bush’s Presidency was not considered “Africa focused or friendly.” Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced in this regard?
This is an irony of history. Permit me to say, first George Bush’s Administration was probably the second most favourable to Africa since John F. Kennedy. Many people do not understand this. It is an amazing thing that Africans misunderstood Bush. He was probably one of the most dynamic American leaders. This is the George Bush irony that many people didn’t know or understand him, thinking he was not in favour of Africa or Africa focused. The initiative that opened the African market for America came from George Bush. He did a lot of positive things for Africa. Another example, the Millennium Development Projects…let me tell you, it’s the first time an American administration devoted billions of dollars for African assistance in the area of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases. Believe it, the George Bush administration assisted African countries in poverty reduction programs and for us in Nigeria, the assistance of his administration helped us in our debt relief and other African countries. So one day history will be written right and George Bush will be vindicated. It was a very unique period for many of us who served as Ambassadors there. You ask the African Ambassadors during the George Bush Administration, we will come to the same conclusion. The African Ambassadors Forum felt so proud of what we were doing in America under his administration.
The Nigerian government embarked on the “Good People, Great Nation” re-branding campaign last year. What steps need to be taken to ensure it is successful and how do we improve our image in the diplomatic community?
First improve yourself at home. No slogan works if it is on false grounds. You cannot call yourselves good people; it is people who will call you good. So, the truth of the matter is perception matters. We must work first and foremost on our internal problems and project ourselves. So, slogans are wonderful, but we must do very well to make our economy strong, viable and competitive. We must also do something about our diplomatic relations. Do what I call ‘selective engagement’- be clearly and overtly friendly to real powerful countries, countries that matter. That’s the diplomatic aspect. Now the military, make sure that your national security, internal or external are solid. People will begin to respect you. Nobody respects a weak country. If you’re strong and respectable, you’ll be respected. It’s reciprocal.
For several months while late President Musa Yar’Adua was incapacitated, Nigeria didn’t have a ‘visible’ President. Many in the international community raised concern about the power vacuum that existed. How was Nigeria’s position in the diplomatic circles and world stage adversely affected during this period?
Terrible! It must have been the most disastrous period of Nigeria’s political history. Whether people are praising, speaking or not speaking about the dead, that administration was a problem for Nigeria; not just for the health of the man. It was a very embarrassing period, because we couldn’t do anything. In fact, I’ll consider it terrible in the sense that how do you participate at the international level? People visit you and you visit them. You attend international conferences; you attend the UN General Assembly. You go to African Union, ECOWAS, etc. Bilateral and multilateral diplomacy – that’s what I’m talking about. You have to be seen, presence is important. During that period, it was absence all the way. He didn’t address the UN; you can’t blame him, because he wasn’t well. So it was, in general, a bad period for Nigeria.
Due to his untimely demise, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was unable to accomplish a lot of what he set out to do, how do you think Nigerians and the world will remember him? What legacy did he left behind?
He left a legacy. There’s no way anyone would say he didn’t leave any legacy. His initiative in the Niger Delta was extraordinarily bold. Bold in the sense that it was part of the Nigerian problem of denial that a problem existed. He accepted it as a problem and proffered a solution. Because in our society denial, lying to ourselves has been the greatest problem. It has led to self delusion and, of course, some national disasters. But he boldly accepted that as a problem and that it must be resolved. Another important legacy, I’m sure nobody would go back solving – the Niger Delta crisis, because it is no longer a national crisis, but an international crisis. And when conflicts become internationalized, they become difficult to hide. That’s the truth. So, it was he who highlighted it as a problem first, internal and then external.
The 2011 Presidential elections are already showing potential controversy regarding candidate eligibility, electoral reforms and presidential zoning. In your viewpoint, do you anticipate any foul play or possible political chaos?
Believe me, I don’t! The reason is that, who said politics doesn’t have controversies? Politics has endemic controversy in it. When you talk about politics you talk about controversy. Politics and power are not about having a picnic with your girlfriend or peaceful co-existence (laughing). Politics in power involves controversy, dispute, etc. Some play it right while some play it wrongly. The thing is in 2011, I don’t anticipate anything unusual. I expect what happens in politics all over the world. There’s no politics without dispute, even in America, Russia, etc. So I don’t expect anything unusual in 2011. By 2011, some Nigerians who are ambitious and courageous will come out and run for office, anybody, as many political parties as possible, even independent candidates. Politics is not for the faint-hearted, if you’re courageous enough to come out and want power, which is exactly what it is. So the controversy will be there, but no chaos.
Some younger civil servants have demonstrated notable achievements in public service in recent years, Babatunde Fashola, Donald Duke, Nuhu Ribadu, Nasir El Rufai, Farida Waziri, etc. What is your opinion about this younger generation of Nigerians as stakeholders in the administration of Nigeria as opposed to the “old guard”?
Believe me, a few years ago I came from Washington for a send off party being organized for El-Rufia by his staff when he was leaving office after the Obasanjo administration. All the people you’ve mentioned belong to his age group. And as I said there, that we’re looking at a governmental change in Nigeria and that I appreciate and welcome it. A generation of professionals, dedicated and patriotic young men and women. Some people accused me of class suicide that day. But believe me; history will vindicate what I’ve said. Look we’re in Lagos, God knows that the combination of Tinubu and Fashola changed Lagos. That is a wonderful combination. I must congratulate the two and thank God many Nigerians have seen what they’ve done in Lagos. Whether you liked El-Rufai or not, he transformed Abuja and easily removed beggars, built parks, beautified the place. It is their generation that is also in power all over the world. That is why we welcomed Goodluck Jonathan’s presence as the President of Nigeria. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan is the next generation; let them show a difference in dedication and service to the country as a whole. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Professor Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, Farida Waziri, Professor Dora Akuyili, amongst other women, they’ve shown up. That’s how leaders emerge. Those of them who are playing these positive roles should be supported.