By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor, Vera Sam-Anyagafu & Prisca Sam-Duru
…Says Nigeria needs holistic approach to tackle terror
This interview with the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Terence McCulley was packaged in the wake of the rumpus arising from publications of the communiqué of the US-Nigerian Bi-National Commission stipulating public declaration of assets by public officers.
It was as such expected that meeting with the senior American diplomat in Nigeria, that the issue would surface. There were of course many other issues. The raging insecurity threats facing northern Nigeria and issues bordering on alleged hostility of U.S consular officers to Nigerian visa applicants.
Indeed the sight of scores of Nigerians lined up to face the consular officers in seeming desperation to catch their own portion of the American dream stirred the Sunday Vanguard team as it passed by through the firm but friendly security officers at the consulate.
Following the security checks, the team, made up of Emmanuel Aziken, Vera Sam-Anyagafu, Prisca Sam-Duru and Joe Akintola, Photo Editor, moved in to meet McCulley for the interview, with a team of senior American diplomats in attendance. The envoy is a career diplomat with varied experience in Africa that spans US diplomatic missions in South Africa, Chad, Mali, Niger, Togo, Senegal and Tunisia.
McCulley, before his posting to Nigeria, had served as Ambassador to Mali where he served as Chief of Mission. He was born in the heart of the US bible belt region of Medford, Oregon, and has a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in European History and French Language and Literature obtained from the University of Oregon.
How far would the United States and Nigeria go to ensure that the two parties uphold the framework of the Bi-National Commission tying the two countries?
I think it is important to look at the Bi-National Commission as a vehicle for our bilateral dialogue and our bilateral engagements with the government of Nigeria. The Bi-National Commission was established in April, 2010, signed by former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Yayale Ahmed, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The commission set up five working groups to advance our bilateral dialogue with the government of Nigeria.
One is governance transparency and integrity, another is energy and investment. Another is agriculture and food security, Niger Delta and regional security. We meet regularly to discuss our views on all these issues, how we can help build our bilateral relationship and advance our common goals.
We met in June in Washington. It was a sort of stock taking exercise, two years on to see where we are. It was the highest level of the Bi-National Commission that we have conducted with the government of Nigeria. Our side was led by our Deputy Secretary of States Bill Barnes and the Nigerian side was led by the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs Ambassador Ashiru. It was attended by numerous governors, senior officials across the Nigerian government as well as civil society and the private sector.
So, we looked at each area. On the issue of security, how can we work together to build Nigeria’s capacity to address a variety of security challenges that the country is facing? On energy and investment, how can we work together to ensure a level playing field for foreign investors, how can we work together to ensure that the Petroleum Industry Bill is passed in a manner that reflects equity for all stakeholders, both Nigerian and foreign oil companies?
In agriculture, how can we support the government’s transformation agriculture agenda where food and agriculture is a business and where are the opportunities for American investors? We did not hold the Niger Delta Working Group meeting but we are holding that in Abuja later in August. So it’s really a vehicle for high level dialogue to build on the excellent bi-lateral relationship that we have with the government and people of Nigeria.
On the issue of transparency in governance in the framework of the bi-national commission, are you satisfied with the issue of public declaration of assets on the part of Nigerian government officials?
We believe that transparency and accountability are essential elements in good governance. That is, indeed, a fundamental part of our conversation with the Nigerian government. In the run up to Nigeria’s historic 2011 elections, that was very much the theme of the conversation we had and our actions in support of the Nigerian civil society, in support of INEC to build a capacity through technical assistance to engage with Nigerian senior leadership to press for credible and fair elections. So, that transparency in governance and integrity working group will be a vehicle to help advance good governance agenda and encourage greater accountability and transparency.
Since Nigeria’s historic elections, we have continued that conversation. Certainly, we believe that good governance is intimately linked to security. In order for Nigeria to solve its various security challenges, whether in Niger Delta or in the North, governments at all levels, local, state or federal, need to repair that broken social contact, which will provide essential services to communities, need to become relevant again in peoples’ lives. That will form a very important part of our bilateral dialogue with Nigeria.
Does the debate on the public declaration of assets by Nigeria government officials interest you?
Actually, this is a Nigerian issue. We are friends and partners. As in Nigeria, in United States, declaration of assets is very much part of our political culture. Virtually every senior government official must make an annual declaration of assets. I make an annual declaration of assets. We believe that it is an important part in providing accountability and assurance for those who are placed in positions of public responsibility. So, from the American experience, we believe it is an effective tool and it certainly promotes transparency. I think this is, debate that Nigerians will have to resolve by themselves.
How is the United States responding to the transformation agenda of the Jonathan administration?
President Jonathan, when he came into office in May 2011, advanced a very ambitious agenda, in agriculture, in power and we believe that it is important for progress to be made in these areas, to put Nigeria where it wants or needs to be.
So, in agriculture, for instance, we are looking at how we can help provide technical assistance to farmers, how we can attract American investments to the agriculture sector.
After all, it is 42% of GDP and most Nigerian farmers are subsistence farmers. I think that the Honourable Minister Adesina is correct that we need to look at agriculture as a business and if the conditions are right, if there is a lot of transparency, I think it will interest Americans to invest in that sector.
In the power sector, we had an energy trade mission that came to Nigeria this year with American companies who are looking to invest in Nigeria’s power sector in support of efforts to provide electricity across this country. We were talking with some people a couple of days ago and I noted that Times Square in New York consumes more electricity than is produced in Nigeria in a year. So clearly, there is a lot of work to be done and I think there is interest by US companies. Last November, we had a visit from the CEO of US Export-Import Bank who signed a $1.5 billion MOU with the Ministry of Power to support purchase of American goods and services in the power sector.
US administration officials have over time sought to promote civic rights including the rights of homosexuals. But seeing the culture gap with Africa in this area, to what extent would you tie technical assistance programmes to the enactment of rights of homosexuals?
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made it clear that we support the rights of LGBTs, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender. It is an important part of our foreign policy agenda. We believe it is a fundamental human right and we believe that it is not a question of culture, it’s a question of rights for all human beings.
We have not made explicit link as Prime Minister Cameron (of the United Kingdom) did between aid and respect for human rights but it is certainly going to be an important part of our conversation and, in fact, we engaged, a couple of months ago, with the National Assembly when the bill that was before the parliament which was to put a ban on same sex marriage, and appeared also to make consensual behavior criminal and even coming together to advocate for LGBT rights criminal.
We said same sex marriage is a controversial issue in the US as well, it has been left as a matter for the states to decide. In some states, it is permitted; in some states it is banned. Congress has passed the Defence of Marriage Act which says that marriage is between a man and a woman. But we said basically, it’s up to the states.
But that’s a conversation that Nigerians need to have. But our point is that by appearing to place limits on freedom of association, to criminalise consensual acts between consenting adults, you are getting at fundamental human rights and, in fact, it is contrary to international conventions to which Nigeria is a party to. We see it really as a basic human right and not a culture issue. And this is a conversation we are going to continue to be having. We recognise that it is an issue which is difficult here in Nigeria and also in Africa.
Have you made an assessment of the impact of the African Growth and Opportunities Act, AGOA ,on business with Nigeria?
We have been frankly disappointed that Nigeria business has not taken advantage of AGOA to the extent we had hoped. 99.55 percent of Nigeria’s export to US is crude oil, that’s 0.45% for the rest, cocoa, cassava and other items. It is not a lot. We think there are many more opportunities for Nigerian business people to export to the United States, to take advantage of one of the most generous trade regimes that the world has ever seen.
While we said we will welcome increased Nigerian exports to the United States, I was taken by the comments your Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi made when he said ‘we have a market of over 160 million people; if we can diversify our economy, we have a huge internal market, so we do not necessarily need to export.’
But we will welcome increased Nigerian export to the United States under AGOA, we will also welcome a Nigerian economy which is more transparent, which is more diverse, which is going to create opportunities for Nigerian business people to sell goods within Nigeria and also create opportunities for American investors to come in and invest in the country.
Has the commercial section of the embassy identified constraints that made AGOA not to be effective in Nigeria?
I think there are a number of factors. If you are looking at agricultural products, we have very strict sanitary regulations just as the European Union. I don’t think that they are insurmountable. When I was Ambassador to Mali, I saw Malian mango farmers successfully export mangoes to Holland which has equally strict sanitary regulations.
So, I think that it’s a matter of understanding, of getting information. It is a matter of understanding the US market and looking at where the opportunities are and certainly our commercial section here in Lagos and economic office in the embassy in Abuja is open to providing information about where the opportunities may be and helping Nigerian business people understand our rules and regulations which will allow them extend their market to the United States.
So you were in Mali?
Is the US administration concerned about the influence of Al-Queda in the Magreb which has taken over a substantial portion of that country?
It’s a fact that I am no longer Ambassador to Mali but, looking at that from the Nigerian perspective, we have been very impressed as usual with the Nigerian role within the ECOWAS in responding to the crisis in Mali. I think we are all concerned about the establishment of an Islamist enclave in northern Mali, particularly with the fall of Gaddafi, you have an influx of weapons from Libya.
When I was in Mali, we heard and read stories in the press of the so-called Nigerian Taliban or Boko Haram travelling into northern Mali for training. Yes, obviously, we are concerned that what is going on in northern Mali could have destabilising effect on the entire region which could provide a haven for those who wish to do obvious harm, to train. We are worried about potential links between extremists in northern Nigeria and extremists beyond Nigerian borders.
So, yes I think we have a right to be concerned about it. We have been very supportive of the ECOWAS’ efforts to redress the situation, to deploy an ECOWAS force to Bamako to help stabilize the transitional government of President Traore to allow that government to feel safe, to begin to restructure the Malian security forces and to initiate a dialogue with the elements of the Tuaregian insurgences, notably the MNLA, towards achieving a political solution to what is going on in Mali now and deny operational space to extremists who wish to do us harm.
So you believe in some measure of dialogue with Islamist groups?
Well, I think it is important to differentiate between AQIM which is an Al-queda affiliated group which has kidnapped and killed westerners, which has attacked the UN in Algeria, which has perpetrated acts of barbarity and Tuareg insurgents who continue to express the moderate Malian version of Islam and really have no problem with Tuaregs.
Given concerns in the United States about the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, would the US be ready to deploy troops to help ECOWAS quell the insurgency?
Absolutely not. That’s not on the table. We believe and have been very been very supportive of what ECOWAS has been doing since the outbreak of the crisis in Mali and Guinea Bissau. We believe this is an African issue and must be solved by Africans with the support of international partners and friends like the United States.
We are certainly prepared to provide capacity to ECOWAS to help plan an eventual deployment. I know that we and France have got a lot of things and will be prepared to provide logistical support but this is a job for ECOWAS with the support of its international partners. There no question of US troops participating.
What then is the essence of AFRICOM, the African Central Command of the US Army?
There is a lot of misunderstanding about what AFRICOM is and what AFRICOM is not. I know that when the command stood up in 2005, there was somehow (claims) that America was going to establish a command on the African continent for whatever purpose .There has been a lot of misinformation. AFRICOM is a unified command which is merely a continuation of what the United States has been doing on the African continent for 50 years.
Prior to the establishment of AFRICOM, our engagement with the African continent was divided between the European Command, the Pacific Command and the Central Command. It made no sense. Africa is one continent and we decided that as we partner with Africa’s military to provide technical system, build capacity, it is more reasonable to do it with one command that has its sole focus on Africa and that is why AFRICOM was created.
But it was really a continuation of the kind of joint exercise, training we’ve been doing since African countries achieved independence. For instance, in Nigeria, we have an active programme with the Nigerian Navy, we have quarterly exercises where US sailors come and train with Nigerian sailors in American interdiction, patrolling. We learn from them and they learn from us. It’s a mutually beneficial exercise.
There has been a concern here in Nigeria that AFRICOM is essentially to cater for American oil interest…
I disagree completely with the statement because AFRICOM is a vehicle for us to partner with African militaries and build their capacities to improve the Nigerian Navy’s ability to interdict oil bunkering and provide security in the Gulf of Guinea . We obviously have important commercial interests here in Nigeria as we do in other parts of Africa, but we have a very complex and multifaceted relationship with the government of Nigeria.
It is not all about oil. It is (also) about providing HIV/AIDS relief, which is, in fact, a $5 million programme. So, in looking at our engagement with the military in Nigeria, it has the navy component, we work with the air force. We are also working with the army. So it is a very multifaceted programme even within our military. It is not all just about building capacity for Nigeria security services to protect their resources.
You talked about interdicting bunkerers but we have not been hearing reports of your efforts in that direction.
Well, I think a lot of work needs to be done clearly. Because of the level of bunkering that continues to go on. It is important to ensure that officials, local, state and federal, are all working together to interdict illegal activities. There are allegations of complicity, I don’t know whether they are true or not but I think the government should take them seriously. I think there is too much oil that is slipping away in the hands of illegitimate producers .
How do you react to widespread reports about cruelty and other abuses of Nigerians seeking visas at the embassy?
We are very interested in facilitating the legitimate travel of Nigerians to the United States. We welcome people to our shores. We are a country of immigrants and we believe that America is enriched by the visit of foreigners. In fact, more than 6,000 Nigerian students are studying in the US at this moment, that is the largest contingent from sub-Saharan Africa.
Having said that, our consular officers here in Lagos and in Abuja are obliged to strictly abide by US law and regulation and it is incumbent upon the individual applicants to demonstrate why he or she is eligible for a visa and the consular officer makes the decision. And they are faced with enormous increase in work load.
Here in Lagos, there is a 60% increase in application for visas to the US since the beginning of this year and I haven’t had a commensurate increase in the number of consular officers to process these applications. Nor have I had an increase in the number of windows to provide officers space to conduct interviews.
In Abuja, the situation is even worse. We have seen a 45% increase this year and we have four windows, far fewer than we have here in Lagos. That is an impossible workload. So, inevitably, that creates a backlog which we are trying to address by interviewing on Saturdays by bringing in temporary visa consular officers to help out.
But what I tell our consular officers here and in Abuja is that ‘you are perhaps the only American diplomat that these applicant are ever going to see. So you are giving them a window, a picture into what Americans are like, so you have an obligation to treat all applicants with dignity and respect even if at the end of the interview you have to give them an answer that they don’t want to hear, like they are not qualified.’
But let’s face it, there is a lot of visa fraud and there are a lot of people who don’t tell the truth about why they are going and who may want to use a visitor’s visa to stay permanently. So officers need to ask tough questions, they need to follow up, they need to look at documents, they need to satisfy themselves and look if the applicant is qualified for a visa. It is a tough job, but I think they do it well, I am very proud of the job our consular officers do.
Given the relatively high amount charged for US visas and the high level of patronage, the US administration must be making much money from this channel. In what way is the administration channeling back some of this money back to Nigeria?
It is a good question…
How much do you make?
I don’t know how much, but I do know that because of receipts from visa fees that the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs has an income of a Fortune 500 company. These resources are used exclusively to improve and upgrade our consular operations overseas. It goes to fund additional consular offices, it goes to fund and equip additional facilities like additional windows, it goes to fund resources for consular officers worldwide to do their jobs better. So while the receipts come in, they go back out to the field including here in Lagos to increase the resources demanded to assist our work load.
So, Nigeria must be contributing a lot to this…
(Laughter)…I would say that Nigeria, India, Mexico and China, are all very high volume countries; my hope is and that this is the case we are making to the Department and I hope that because of our significantly increased visa work load, we need additional offices and I think we are getting one in Abuja, I don’t know if we are getting one in Lagos.
A final word.
We are very much concerned about the insecurity that is facing northern Nigeria and we believe strongly and, in fact, encouraged strongly from what we have seen from the new National Security Adviser of Nigeria, Col. Dasuki: Reaching out and traveling in the North and talking about the need to engage all stakeholders. We really believe that the Nigerian government needs to look at this exhaustively.
Certainly, there is a security element you need to go after and target and capture extremists who are perpetrating these acts of barbarity. But at the same time we believe government needs to have a holistic government approach which really addresses the underlining cause of the grievances, which is under-development, which is lack of jobs. We believe that President Jonathan’s very laudable transformation agenda needs to be explained to the northern population in a way they understand and recognize that it is going to improve their lives.
Is the US still going on with its plans to strengthen its presence in Nigeria with an additional consulate in Kano as earlier planned?
We are still going ahead with that but it’s been deferred because the violence in Kano and elsewhere in the North has made it difficult for us to travel there and in order for us to establish presence in Kano, we need to put a team in, to assess facility, to look at where we want to establish that presence. So it remains a priority for the Department of State.
Secretary Clinton earlier this year announced that we are going to open a consulate in Kano; so, we are moving forward. It’s not going to be as quickly as we might have hoped and, in the meantime, I hope by next summer to have two additional offices at the US embassy in Abuja whose sole responsibility is to conduct activities in the North.