By Onome Amawhe
German Consul General in Lagos, Ingo Herbert is a distinguished diplomat with vast experience in different roles. He has a pragmatic world view which seeks win-win situations in trade and diplomacy. Herbert was confirmed as Consul General in September 2015. Before his nomination, he had served Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy in Pretoria and Tanzania. Previous assignments include Deputy Head of Division at German Foreign Service, Ministry for Cultural Affairs in Berlin and Press Officer at German Embassy in Tel Aviv. MEET THE BOSS recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Consul General for an interview.
THIS is your first experience as a Consul General. How does it compare to being the deputy head of mission in Pretoria where you served?
I think that I’ve been well prepared for my current role here in Nigeria, having served as the deputy head of mission in South Africa and Tanzania. As deputy head of mission, I dealt much more with the in-house keeping so I got to learn a lot about the management of an embassy.
Of course, that meant that whenever the ambassador was away, I represented him in every capacity. In addition to being deputy head of mission, I was also the head of economic section in South Africa which was quite a big office because of the very intense economic relationship we have with South Africa (A lot of German companies in Sub-Saharan Africa are all very well represented in South Africa).
Most sensitive postings
I’ve had other postings too in Tel Aviv as Press Officer and because of the holocaust that was one of the most sensitive postings for me as a German.
All in all, what I enjoy here as Consul General is that I am the one who can really give the guidelines as to the activity of the consulate. As the boss here, I like to work in a team and convince them about my ideas and what I would like to achieve. And I think that since I’ve been here, we’ve done a lot to make our consulate quite visible.
How does being consul general compare to being ambassador? What are the primary differences between the two positions?
Many people still refer to the embassy when they approach us but the distinction is that embassies are always domiciled in countries’ capitals, just like you have the Nigerian embassy in Berlin or in Washington and consulates in Frankfurt and New York.
And then you have consulates in places where there’s an economic interest and socio-cultural scientific importance; which is not the case here in Lagos, where you have a lot of tourist-issued German community.
Important economic city hub
In Spain for example, we have a Consulate General in Barcelona which is of course an important economic city hub for Spain but also at the coast we have a lot of German tourists spending the winter there every year. The same in Cape Town. Basically, we have only two consulates in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa: One is in Cape Town and the other one is here in Lagos.
Cape Town is of course an economically important place and seat of the parliament there. But the other reason is that there is a huge German community in South Africa and during the Christmas holidays when we have winter in Germany I think more than a hundred thousand Germans are spending their holidays in South Africa, especially in Western Cape. But these, we do not have here.
We are in Lagos because we deal with the consular (legal work) for the whole of Nigeria and then because of the economic importance of Lagos (Lagos alone as the seventh largest economy in Africa) and all German companies which are in Nigeria have their representations here in Lagos. And most of the Germans in Nigeria are based in Lagos.
So for us, the natural place to have a consulate in Nigeria is Lagos because there’s no other city in Africa that’s as important. Mombasa is another place that has a lot of German tourists but we only have a Honorary Consul there and not a consulate because it’s not economically such a power house like Lagos.
How has diplomacy changed in the course of your career?
It has changed a lot. I started my career in 1988 at the Diplomatic Academy in Bonn. At the time, we had the West and East Germany with the Bi-Polar world and the cold war between the east and west. The socialist bloc and western bloc were the main parameters of world politics as well as a clear definition of the so called “third world”. I mean, there were already developments going on in Poland and Hungary as at 1988, but no one really foresaw such a radical change so quickly. Nowadays, we have what we would call ‘the globalized world’ and multi-polar world with many different actors and hot spots crisis: Asia with China rising, new powerful players, the emerging countries. I think it’s not so easy anymore and there have been a lot of unexpected developments like the Arab spring and new conflicts or even in Europe new challenges like more recently the Brexit.
In addition, there are more and more topics that can only be solved through international cooperation like environmental, climate, health or other developmental issues. I would say diplomacy has completely changed going back to the time when I started.
For me, it has become very complex but on the other hand, I would say it’s been much more interesting even if there’s always a tendency we’d like to have more black and white and easy structures in world policies.
What are the challenges you’ve had working as the German Consul General in Nigeria?
I think one challenge which I like is to understand Nigerian politics and how the economy (businesses) functions. Another challenge that I see as a personal goal is the image of Nigeria which needs to be improved. I think you know this yourself. Even President Buhari mentioned it in London during one of his trips that there’s this image question which everyone has to work on.
This is also a major issue for me especially because of my task to bring back German investments to Nigeria. In the face of this image question though, I was quite astonished about the huge community of highly educated repatriates, with vast work experience, who have come back and really want to make an impact. I find these people as a great asset for the future development of Nigeria and for investors looking for partners in Nigeria.
How would you describe Germany’s current relationship with the Republic of Nigeria?
On the official level, I would say we have very good relations. We have a Bi-National Commission that will meet in Abuja in October and which will be headed by the Foreign Ministers of Nigeria and Germany. The commission has sub-groups such as the Political Dialogue which recently took place last June in Abuja and chaired by permanent secretaries of both foreign ministries. I can assure you that Germany considers Nigeria as a priority partner country in Africa together with South Africa.
Therefore when Germany hosted the annual G7 summit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited President Buhari as one of the few foreign Heads of State to attend. Considering the different roles of Embassies and Consulates as mentioned above, these official relations are good in many fields but mainly handled by the embassy in Abuja.
Major oil and gas business
On the other hand, when it comes to our task here at the consulate, the economic relations have also improved and there are interests of German businesses to come back, especially with this new policy of diversification. Although, the German companies are not in the major oil and gas business but when it comes to production and setting up new businesses; Nigeria is an interesting partner for Germany.
And I think that there is always a room for improvement. The cultural relations I would say are very well established as I have seen last week when the director in charge of the Goethe Institute Nigeria left after five years. Through this, I was able to see first-hand how artistes appreciate the Goethe Institute and the space it gives and initiatives it supports.
At the time of your assumption of office, there were about 30,000 Nigerians in Germany. What is the current figure?
In 2014, there were around 30,000 Nigerians in Germany. That increased to 37,000 in 2015. That’s really more than I thought but still it’s not in comparison to U.K or U.S but the largest foreign population in Germany is the Turkish one. Our Foreign Minister during an Africa-German business forum last September noted that Africa is a continent that is very near and at the same time very far from Germany. And I think he is right because more than a hundred years ago Germany had colonies in Africa but it’s not really part of the current identity of Germany. But all the Nigerians that I’ve met and who’ve visited Germany, i.e. Berlin, or who have lived there for some time told me they really loved the country or the city of Berlin; this also helps to foster the relations. Another interesting aspect is that many of these Nigerians are married to Germans. And it’s very interesting for us as consulate to work with the children of these Nigerians who are quite in way small ambassadors for our relations when they return to Nigeria. One such ambassador is Ade Bantu and his project“Afropolitan Vibes” in Freedompark every third Friday of the month. The other point is, Nigerians who have studied in Germany and returning are also good for our relations. In line with this, we have created some kind of alumni network with the German Academic Exchange Service and the Alexander-von-Humboldt-Foundation to stay in contact and continue the link.
Some say that German Visa is the most difficult to obtain from Nigeria? Why is this so?
Well, regulations are clear and people have to fulfill requirements just like I also have to fulfill requirements for a Nigerian visa. I have not intervened as often for visa applicants as I thought, but I quite agree that the denial right for German visa is actually one of the highest in the world. However, the reason for this is that people submit fraud papers. People who have genuine interests and can afford to travel seems to get to their visa.
Trade promotion is one of the consulate’s major roles. The German economy is extremely export driven. What opportunities are there for Nigerian companies willing to invest in Germany? Are there German companies bringing new investments to Nigeria?
Germany is always ranked as one of the best investment destinations in the world. Just very recently, the World Bank ranked Germany number one in the area of logistics. I must say that since I arrived here last September, I haven’t been approached by any Nigerian company for investments but we have a delegation of the German Commerce and Industry here and they are supported by the German Ministry of Economics. And they also support Nigerian investors whenever they look for partners in Germany. I assume that many of the wealthier Nigerians hold chairs in major German companies. Since I have been here though, some major German companies have opened offices of representation because they are now looking to the African continent for investment and Nigeria is again one of the countries that they have interest in.
In October 2014, the German Government took a bold step by completely scrapping tuition fees at public universities thus allowing international students to study without paying any tuition fees. Why did the German Government take this initiative?
Education is the competence of the federal states not the national government. The federal government only gives extra funds for special programs but it’s solely the decision of the federal states. Traditionally, education is free at schools but there are some private schools where students might have to pay but most of the schools are public schools. Even when I studied, it was free and then some years ago, a few federal states introduced very low fees of about five hundred euros per semester. So, in comparison with the United States or England it was still very low but even at that, there were heavy protests by students. Although, we have special grants for students from low income families but even then, five hundred euros is quite an amount. As education in general should be available for everyone, the federal states reverted the decision and abolished any fees again. Traditionally our universities are mass oriented but nevertheless the outcome is good. I once read that the four universities in Berlin have 120,000 students but have only the budget of Stanford University where you have 20,000 students. On the other hand very common in Germany is the link of teaching and research and a close cooperation of universities and research units of companies.
Are there some events in Nigeria that hold a special place in your memory, events that you look back on as particular successes?
The highlight for every foreign mission is the visit of their presidents. And the visit of the German President in February of this year was definitely one of the highlights and that really involved a lot of work. The visit that was supposed to commence from Abuja actually started here In Lagos and that gave the president and the whole delegation comprising members of parliament, business people, the German press a very good introduction to Nigeria. And for a president that comes from a East German dissident background, visiting the Freedom Park and meeting Professor Wole Soyinka and having a talk with him there was one of the high-points of the visit. The president also had a very warm reception by the Lagos Governor and a lively discussion over lunch with a selection of business people who openly discussed the situation– both the challenges and opportunities. We also arranged a boat trip for the president to give him an impression of the size of Lagos. And that really made a strong impression on him. The visit of the German President went well and all were impressed.