Foreign affairs minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, recently represented President Umaru Yar’Adua at the 64th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. He fielded questions on Nigeria from members of the United Nations Correspondents Association in the UN Building. Excerpts:

By Abayomi Adesida

SOME African delegations are kind of upset by the fact that whereas one of the largest countries in Africa is playing a big role, President Yar’Adua is not here. So, can you explain exactly what happened?
I’m sure that Nigeria is in good company if you are looking at countries whose presidents are not here, so, I don’t see why Nigeria should be singled out on this issue. There are many countries that are being very well represented, without their presidents being here.

Of course, I’ll have loved to have my president here but he is at a critical threshold in terms of certain successes that are being expected on important domestic issues he’s been dealing with. I just mentioned the Niger Delta challenge, in which the amnesty programme is working, we are closing in on that; we have gone ahead beyond the international community in terms of dealing with the financial crisis.

The very muscular intervention that has taken place in sanitizing the banking sector in Nigeria has gone far beyond what any other country has dared attempt to achieve so much that the IMF (International Monetary Fund) quickly sent a message of solidarity in support of what the Nigerian government is doing.

All these are issues of statecraft which the president of a country dealing with some of these matters that are, as I said, at the critical threshold of success is well entitled to say my minister of foreign affairs, you go to New York, not because New York is not important to the president today but because the president in his own wisdom believes that his minister of foreign affairs can take his message to New York while he wraps up the success story on these very important issues in Nigeria, the domestic success story that have strong foreign policy implications.

Can I follow up quickly if I may? What does a Niger Delta challenge and the domestic issues  have with the visit to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia?
I am sure the visit you are referring to is not something that could take the kind of time that it would take to be in New York.

So, you are saying that the president shouldn’t be here? I heard an African delegate saying that President Yar’Adua, for the second year now is not coming to New York to speak his mind, to share his view with African delegations on climate change. In peacekeeping, we know that you are the fourth greatest country that contributes, why has the president chosen to stay in Nigeria, not to come to New York?
To answer your question, as important as the United Nations is, it’s a truly important platform, it is not the only platform where  the president shares his views. For all the points you raised, he has already done that when he met with them at the AU (African Union) meetings, he has done that in bilateral discussions, he has done that on state visits, he has done that when some of them had visited him.

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I fully appreciate the powerful symbolism of the United Nations outing, but for this president, the challenges we have in Nigeria go beyond symbolism. It is also about productive statecraft and dealing with challenging issues that  especially have a chance of getting some success so close. He is taking his decisions, and I think we should respect his decision in terms of balancing what are his priorities at this point in time.

So, this doesn’t have anything to do with health issues.
Absolutely not.

Still on the president’s absence, people believe that his presence would have given him the opportunity to throw his weight behind the bid of Amb. Ogbu for the Security Council. Don’t you think that his absence could jeopardize her chances?
The short answer is I don’t think so.

The president is presently in Saudi Arabia to commission a university while the universities in his country are shut down due to ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) strike. Do you think that his visit to commission a university is diplomatic and just?
You don’t because your universities at home are on strike, and you are dealing with challenges arising from that strike; shut down every other activity of statecraft including relations with other countries that are quite friendly to Nigeria.

I’m sure you’ll be the first to complain if the president locked himself up and did nothing else than dealing with the ASUU strike, and every other thing was held up because of that. Governance is a multi-faceted exercise; he has a minister of education who is doing a good job addressing that issue.

The president of any country is a person who has to multiply his effectiveness; any president, name any country in the world, multiplies his effectiveness by having his ministers dealing with education, dealing with foreign affairs, dealing with infrastructure, he can not be in more than one place all at the same time. So, what should bother you is whether the government is doing all it ought to do in addressing the crisis in the universities.

And the answer is yes. I think it will be trivializing the issue to suggest because university lecturers whose demands do not seem to reflect the economic realities in Nigeria, want to earn the kind of salaries that perhaps university teachers in New York earn and by so doing are literally holding the system to ransom.

Yes, there are many of them who are reasonable, there are many of them who are patriotic, there many of them who are seeing the need to go back to school and make sure that our children are taught, but if there are a few of them… and it’s a democracy. What they are doing is an expression of their democratic rights. Those few that are expressing their democratic rights by going on strike, their matters are being addressed; I don’t think that is the reason for the president not to accept the invitation from his brother head of state, the King of Saudi Arabia.

You mentioned that the climate change was an existential threat. How do you plan to deal with climate change while the other African countries are looking for the adaptation change strategy?
We intend to leverage on all the various trajectories that will enable us deal with that. Yes, we may not be an LDC, which we are not, but we have some challenges that are not too far away from that of some LDCs. And the paradox of plenty, which is what Nigeria represents, means that there are a number of things really that we have not done very well.

I just alluded to the fact that the gas reserve we have can drive the whole continent in terms of power supply, and yet, our poor folks go to the farm to cut firewood. So, if addressing the rural poverty engendered by the situation I have just described would require some kind of funds for adaptation, why not? We’ll welcome that. On the other hand, the issue of cleaner technology; and here, I think the crises of climate change come also with a great opportunity for a country like Nigeria.

We are on the threshold of industrialization, we haven’t gotten there, in terms of being a powerful industrial economy. But what it means is that we can now in the area of equipping our factories, now put in place, machinery that are low carbon machinery. Nigeria has a wonderful opportunity with its tremendous resources to be a powerful example of the model that can inspire the twenty-first century, which is rich country, low carbon.

In achieving that, we can’t do that alone, therefore, we need the kind of technology that has that low carbon capacity and yet create rapid economic growth.  And whatever adaptation funds that can create the incentive in that direction will be welcome. We need also to begin to think beyond oil, because, oil has not been such a wonderful blessing for us.

The GDP of Nigeria was higher in the days when we didn’t have oil. Before the civil war, when oil revenue was just about five percent of the total revenue we had, and galloped to be about eighty percent about ten years after. Our GDP was higher than those of the many of the countries that are among the top ten economies in the world.

Leverage of skills

So, oil has not been an unmixed blessing, we are thinking of life beyond oil in which the issue of oil will be seen not just in  terms of commodity to export and earn some foreign exchange which creates dull disease for us. But a final resource that can create jobs in terms of the various derivatives of oil; value added kind of… And we need all the leverages of new technologies in that direction, all the leverages of skills, and incentives that can enable us build capacity in that area.

Can I ask you to elaborate on the question of the gas reserves? Are you talking about specific projects being developed? Are you already in touch with any foreign companies to develop your gas reserves? Can you also give us a specific figure? You mentioned that there is  enough to power the entire continent of Africa, can you give us a figure of how large the gas reserves are?
I think I can give you in general terms, right now, proven gas reserves in Nigeria make us among the sixth largest in the world.

But there are indications that we could really be among the top three; but in terms of specifics, infrastructures that are emerging, the trans Saharan pipeline that is already in construction and this should be able to provide gas supplies to all the countries within sub Saharan Africa that so desire.

We have important players in the field like Gaspro that have shown interests in working with us in this direction. We are having some very important discussions with the Brazilians; I’m just back from Brazil where very far-reaching meetings have taken place between Petrolbraz of Brazil and our own NNPC, which is the big oil company in Nigeria.

So, currently, discussions are taking place that can enable us have access to world-class technology, entrepreneurships skills that will enter into various series of agreement that can get the gas reserves into very commercially viable ventures.

What is Nigeria’s stance on the Middle-East crises? Is it along the same line being toed by the Arabs who now lead the African Union?
I can say quite frankly that we are proud of our heritage that involves both black Africa, and of course, the Arab heritage. We believe that that is part of the richness of Africa and even through countries, great societies like South Africa.

We also have the other heritage that enriches us even more, and if you bring it to religion, both the Islamic and Christian heritage; that is why Africa holds virtually infinite possibilities for the rest of the world as a pivot for the dialogue of civilizations for a world in which your creed and the colour of your skin will not matter, it is the values you identify with.

Take a country like Nigeria of a hundred and fifty million people, almost evenly divided among Muslims and Christians; the capacity of a country like that to manage its pluralism and do so will send the right kind of signal.

But we are also making it clear, and I said so to the Israeli foreign minister, when he called on me in Abuja that sub-Saharan Africa has its own clear identity as much as we cherish our interaction with our Arab brothers. The Israeli issue should not be seen as if we have a knee-jack response to the crises in the Middle East based on what the Arabs want.

The Middle-East crises can benefit from having the challenge there looked at in a manner that will bring about peace between the Arabs and the Israelis on the basis of justice, on the basis of along the same line that President Obama spoke today, and that our support for the Arab in respect of the Middle-East is not a knee-jack one but a principled one.

But to just equate the Arab position with the African position is an error of judgment. So, these are possibilities that are emerging out of Africa that can make our voices indeed more relevant in terms of the challenges for peace in Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

IdiAmin of Uganda once chased out some foreigners. Is there a place for the Hindus in Africa?
Oh yes! Nigeria is one.

President Hu Jin Tao of China  just delivered his speech, where he highlighted four issues, as well as calling for the cancellation of debts of African countries. How would you comment on the issues he raised in his speech?
We were quite impressed with the speech, and we believe China is doing quite a lot. In fact, what China is doing needs to be more appreciated than has been the case.

But we believe that even the best of Chinese effort, just like the best of American effort, indeed French effort, all that still fall below what we think an existential threat requires. In the case of Africa, I think it should be clear to everyone now that paying special attention to the development of Africa is gone beyond an act of conscience, it’s now a matter of global survival.

We are not saying this purely out of any sentiment that everybody is an African from anywhere because you all came from Africa originally. But we say this because Africa, as the poorest continent, happens also to be the richest continent. So, while we thank the Chinese president for the comments he made, we believe that there is still need for a more imaginative response to the developmental challenges we face in Africa.

Are there Chinese investments in Nigeria?
Of course yes.

Why are some Asian countries complaining about Chinese businesses coming to Nigeria?
Maybe they are getting jealous.

Can you elaborate more? You said the amnesty is working, the rebel groups said the amnesty does not cover some key issues. Are you sure it is working? How many of these militants have laid down their arms?

You know, those matters arising as we describe them in Nigeria are  few. The very strong committee, which has been set up by the president is dealing with these issues.

They are not just sitting down in Abuja and saying, ‘well, here we are, amnesty has been granted, all will be fine’, no. they are going to even the communities where these militants were living to see the things that these militants were  doing that got them some support from the villagers so that government can provide those kind of support facilities. Here, government attitude is very much a development one not just a law and order response.

Nigerians are basically peace-loving people, even the militants, we believe that if the environmental injustices have not taken place, the developmental neglects haven’t taken place over the years, definitely we wouldn’t have had the problems in the Niger Delta.

So, we believe that the mood of Niger Delta now is one for peace. They have made their points albeit many cases rather quite in a way that are quite vicious as well as cost some innocent lives but Nigeria is a country where we forgive quite easily.

If we could forgive each other over the loss of the civil war,  what happened in the Niger Delta gets into insignificance; we do not see why we cannot bring a closure to the unfortunate violent chapter that has led to the basically a legitimate struggle on the part of the people of the Niger Delta were high jacked by criminality.

Now, the president has given an opportunity to reset the button so we move away from criminality to using constitutional legal means to stress a point and get attention and get the results.

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