By Victoria Ojeme and Faith Gora
Ambassador Dahiru Suleiman is a retired diplomat. In this interview, he takes us through the world of diplomacy as it applies to Nigeria, mentioning where the country is getting it wrong and how the lapses can be corrected.
What is Nigeria’s foreign policy currently like?
Nigerian foreign policy has seen some modifications here and there. During colonization and the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the foreign policy was based on the liberation of the continent of Africa from colonialism and the obnoxious apartheid policy, two, to defend the interest of the black race anywhere they are found in the world and, three, to protect and project a positive image of Nigeria and also to protect the interest of Nigerians wherever they may be in the world.
After the colonization era and the collapse of apartheid, the foreign policy focus shifted to economic diplomacy and the idea was to attract foreign direct investment into Nigeria. Up till now, the economic diplomacy has not subsided, but there was a time 22 years ago they were talking about citizen diplomacy.
When you talk about citizen diplomacy, you are still talking about the protection of the interest of Nigerians wherever they are, so you are not saying anything new.
Strictly speaking, the foreign policy goals of any country, once they are set, you may have variations depending on the government in power. For example, in the Unites States of America, the foreign policy goals hardly changes whether the Republican Party or the Democratic Party is in power.
There may be slight variations here and there. For instance, there may be more emphasis when the Democrats are in power on seeing to the establishment of democracy in all parts of the world and protection of human rights; then you have one of the cardinal principles of the United States foreign policy that has undiluted support for Israel; so whatever Israel does, America will not condemn.
The Emeka Anyaoku Committee raised to review Nigeria’s policy is yet to conclude its assignment. What do you feel should be its focus?
I know they submitted an interim report and i participated in the seminar that took place in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where suggestions were made and papers presented by stakeholders but we have to look inwards now and ask ourselves, what is it that Nigeria wants to achieve on its foreign policy?
One, we need to put our house in order. If our house is in order, then our foreign policy agenda will be better pursued. If you have a disorganized home, you cannot have an effective foreign policy because domestic issues affect foreign policy like the economic diplomacy we are talking about or attracting foreign direct investment.
If the house is not in order, nobody will come to invest; if we want to attract foreign direct investment, we have to put our house in order, and, if our house is in order, we are in a strong position to pursue our foreign policy goals like the defence of the interest of Nigerians, the protection of the interest of the black race and the rest of it.
So the Anyaoku Panel, I don’t expect them to make any recommendation outside putting our house in order first before embarking on the foreign policy of government. Of course we want to be friendly with all nations of the world; we want to be a major player in world affairs.
I expect that the Anyaoku Panel will make a strong recommendation to government to put its house in order and to also reinforce the foreign ministry; in a situation where the ministry is not properly funded, you cannot expect the officers to do their job the way it should.
I also expect the committee to make a strong recommendation for language training. It is not good to have a diplomat who can only communicate in English. Anywhere you go in the world, foreign diplomats speak foreign languages in addition to English; it may be French, it may be Arabic, it may be Portuguese, it may be Spanish.
In the years gone by, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs placed emphasis on language training. For example, I went to a university in Portugal where I studied Portuguese for one year; then i was posted to Brazil where I spent five years; from there, I was posted to Angola. The training allowed me to polish my Portuguese and now I can describe, I can write, I can translate in Portuguese language. Where you have a diplomat who doesn’t understand any other language apart from English, he is handicapped in the performance of his job. Sometimes you find that people are more comfortable with you when they know that they can discuss in their own language, but where they find that you speak only English, maybe certain things they may want to discuss with you, they will not because you don’t share much in common.
During your tour of duty as an ambassador, do you think Nigeria’s foreign policy focus is on that same pedestal today?
It is emphasis here and there, but the goal has not changed; it is just that government has not helped matters. They say we should defend the interest of Nigerians wherever they are, but government that said it did not fund the missions; so Nigerians that find themselves in trouble in foreign countries run to the various embassies for help, but the missions were in no financial position to help.
Where you needed to hire a lawyer, the money was not there. Where you needed to bail out the Nigerian, the money was not there. But these Nigerians will not understand, because they have been told that the embassy should take care of them. So the government says I should take care of you but I don’t have the resources to carry out the mandate. The same government that says I should take care of you has not empowered me to take care of you; so how do I go about it?
On economic diplomacy issue, it is good to attract foreign direct investment into Nigeria, but you need to re-orientate the officers in the diplomatic missions. If the officer is just trained in political issues and you now want to go into economic issues, you have to re-orientate him. Yes, they are educated, but they have not been given the type of re-orientation or the type of briefing to make them effective in what they are doing.
We have to make sure that when we say this is the policy, we need to summon the ambassadors and brief them properly and let them return to their missions and then properly address their own officers so that the officers know the exact thinking of the government. But if the government just makes an announcement without any briefing whatsoever, then it becomes difficult for the officers and missions abroad to effectively carry out the mission of the government. All this boils down to what I have been talking about putting our house in order.
Funding of missions abroad has always been an issue. How was the situation during your time?
The problem of funding has always been with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Missions will send their estimate or budget to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and these are collated and sent to the Ministry of Finance or to the Budget Office. Invariably, what missions abroad will get will be about half of what they requested. So where you have to pay for the houses that you rented for officers, how will the rent be paid? If you reduce the allocation for payment of utilities, electricity, water, garbage disposal, how will the mission take care of those expenses when you have children in school and you did not allocate the exact amount for the payment of school fees?
Under-funding has been going on for long and unless it is taken care of, the Foreign Affairs Ministry will be handicapped in discharging its obligations. I remember when I was in Abidjan, between1990-1992, there was a time we spent six months without being paid our allowances because there was no money. So this kind of thing will result in an untoward situation; when you have an officer who has a family and you have not paid him for six months, such an officer could be easily compromised.
I learnt that the funding has improved, but I don’t know if it has improved to the level that missions are now adequately funded or it is just slightly better than when I was in service. But I can say for a fact that when I was in service, funding was very poor and that affected the performance of the missions. When I say the officers get compromised, it was all encompassing so that whoever reads it will say compromise in what? They go out of their diplomatic duties to do things they should not do
At the moment, Nigeria has an estimated 98 diplomatic posts. Would you say there has been value in so many of such posts given the realities on ground?
I think the missions are more than 98. If you are talking about embassies, you are talking about high commissions, you are talking about consulates, may be more than 98. I think by the sheer size of Nigeria and the fact that we want to be known throughout the world, you may find that a country like South Africa may have more than what we have.
So if we are thinking of one day becoming a member of the United Nations Security Council, we have to reckon with certain countries, so that by the time we need them, they will not say ‘oh, you never reckoned with us, that is why you never established your presence in country’. But where you have a mission that normally consists of five people, you have 10-12 people; I will not support that. Let us have manageable missions; instead of big size missions, if we have manageable missions, then the resources can be applied better.
Nigeria seems to always sacrifice in terms of human and material resources to bring political stability into troubled African countries. Do you think we have benefited from some of these commitments?
I happen to be one of those who were against the “Father Christmas” role of Nigeria. Yes we helped in the decolonization effort in Africa and the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. Whether those people appreciated what we did or not, that is immaterial. They are out of bondage. We went to Liberia, got them out of the problem they had, Sierra Leone, we got them out of the problem they had.
Whether they appreciated what Nigeria did or not, that is a different thing; but what I feel Nigeria should do is to try to extract certain conceptions. They say in America there is no free lunch; if America is the most powerful country literally and economically and there is no free lunch with them, why should there be free lunch in Nigeria?
I give you an example; we did a lot for Angola, but Nigeria never benefited anything from Angola; even when Nigeria wanted to sign a fishing right with Angola, they didn’t agree, but they signed a fishing right agreement with Ibru organization. When I was in Angola, Ibru fishing trolleys were fishing in Angolan territorial water, but for the Nigerian government to sign an agreement with them, they didn’t.
So perhaps it is our own way of making our own foreign policy at that time just to make sure that everybody was out of the woods, but we never thought of, after we come out of the woods, what will be our reward? Liberia, the same thing happened; Sierra-Leone, the same thing also happened. Senate President David Mark said something, he went to watch the final of the African Cup of Nation (AFCON) between Nigeria and Cote d‘Ivoire.
When he came back, he said that African countries don’t like us because of the comments he heard. I have said it many times that we are not liked in Africa, we are only tolerated. All these African countries, they tell you something when you are around, but behind you, they say a different thing. Nigeria has never had territorial ambition but despite the fact that we have never had territorial ambition and we have been Father Christmas to everybody, they still resent her and that is nothing but envy. They envy Nigeria because of what God has blessed Nigeria with. So, we have not received commensurate appreciation for what we did.
But it does not mean that Nigeria should not continue to do what is right since it is part of our foreign policy goal to defend the interest of the black race wherever they are.
It has been argued in some quarters that the practice of appointing politicians as ambassadors does more harm to Nigerian interest than good. What is your opinion?
I was a professional. I spent all my adult life in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Will I be happy if you bring someone from nowhere and make him ambassador over and above me? No. I don’t think what Nigeria is doing is right. You can do your research work; you will not find any country that appoints so many politicians as ambassadors. I have said it and I will continue to say it.
Every country in the world is professionalizing but in Nigeria instead of professionalizing, we are politicizing and we should de-emphasize that. Professional work should be left to the professionals. It is a constitutional provision that the President can appoint only three non-career ambassadors. Only three and all the rest must be career, but in Nigeria you get 40%, 50%, 60% of ambassadors who are politicians.
There is no way the country can derive maximum benefit from it. I don’t mind, they want to go to high flying missions, let them go but please don’t appoint too many of them. When they go there, they don’t even know from where to start. You get somebody who was a local government chairman who doesn’t even know what is happening in Abuja, and then you are now sending him abroad to represent the whole of Nigeria.
In fact when I was heading the Establishment Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I frustrated every effort to bring in outsiders to join the ministry as officers. If you want to be a career diplomat, start from the scratch and rise through the ranks but not for you to come at the middle. I can tell you that most of those who transferred to the ministry from the middle on a higher level or on a higher level ended up as disasters.
If you are to advice, what percentage do you think should be given to political appointees?
To be honest with you, I wouldn’t recommend more than 10% maximum. If you will not bring someone from outside and make him a colonel, brigadier or assistant commissioner of police, commissioner of police, controller general of Customs or controller of Immigration, why should you bring to foreign affairs?
This is not to say that there are not some non- career ambassadors who have not performed well. I can tell you some like Professor Jubril Aminu performed creditably; I can tell you that Professor Joy Ogu in New York is performing creditably, but we should stop seeing the diplomatic service as a dumping ground for politicians who could not realize their ambition of becoming senators, House of Representatives members or ministers.
What do you think about increasing the retirement age of Nigerian career diplomats given the loss of experience that results in such retirements?
They say when you reach the age of 60 you retire or when you serve for 35years, this is the regulation. But, with good health, do you retire someone at the age of 60 who is performing optimally? Left to me, the diplomatic service in particular where you have invested so much to train and re-train officers, the retirement age should not be less than 65.
I do attend our meeting of retired career ambassadors. When you hear retired ambassador contributing to issues, discussing issues, you know that these are people who have a lot to offer the country and most of them are young. Okay look at me, I am retired but I know I am strong physically, mentally but I retired five or six years ago. So you have specific jobs requiring specific skills like it was done for university professors and judges.
Career diplomats should retire at the age of 65 not 60. If you go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you see everybody looking agile and young but maybe in one or two years you are asking them to go with all the skills they have been able to fashion out; so I think we are wasting too much manpower by asking people because of 35years of service or 60 years of age to go; I think something should be done about it.