By Onome Amawhe
Ambassador Inger Ultvedt is proactive in the promotion of socio-economic and cultural programmes between Nigeria and Sweden. As an advocate of strong bilateral ties between both countries, Ultvedt is one of the female pioneers of Swedish Foreign Service who has overcome several challenges to rise to the top of her diplomatic career. The diversity in global diplomatic community has long birthed a different approach to diplomatic communication by way of less-male domination.
As Europe’s fifth largest country by area, with a population of 10 million (2017), Sweden’s self-declared feminist foreign policy has helped to strengthen the Nordic country’s women’s rights, representation and access to resources. In December 2015, Sweden released the Swedish Foreign Service action plan for feminist foreign policy 2015-2018; declaring that all national policies, budgets and international aid contribute to gender equality. This towering declaration has also enabled Sweden to make important contributions to sustainable gender equality, development, commerce and diplomacy.
In commerce, the Swedish economy is heavily dependent on a highly developed and internationally successful industrial sector, which was established in the early part of the 20th Century through companies such as Ericsson, ASEA/ABB, Astra, Alfa Laval, SKF, Electrolux, Volvo and SAAB, and now includes more recently established companies such as Skype, Spotify and IKEA, the multinational group that designs and sells ready-to-assemble furniture, kitchen appliances and home accessories. Nigeria’s diplomatic relations with Sweden continues to soar as it yielded N222.713 billion as at 2015 while Swedish exports to Nigeria is valued at N74.237 billion.
Ambassador Inger Ultvedt took office in 2016 as the Ambassador of Sweden to Nigeria. She is no stranger to Africa, and takes pride in being the first woman to hold such a role in Abuja. Ultvedt is one of those bold officials who have raised the bar in the area of promoting her country’s cultural and political agenda while having fun and defying stereotypes.
Can you talk a bit about your career in the Swedish Foreign Service?
In the very beginning of my career, before joining the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I actually worked with the Farmers’ Association. However, since joining the Foreign Service, I never looked back. During my training for Foreign Affairs in 1985, we were only three women. It was quite different then compared to now, when we see many more young women joining the Foreign Service.
The Swedish Foreign Service emphasizes the importance of being able to be posted to all corners of the world, and although I had a background in Eastern Europe and spoke Russian, my very first posting was to Tanzania in 1988. I spent two years there and learnt a lot about East Africa, it was an incredibly interesting first posting. After Tanzania, I was posted to London and Oslo, as well as Stockholm in different positions, before being named Ambassador to the Philippines in 2007. I have since also served as the Swedish Ambassador to Slovenia 2008-2010 and to the Czech Republic – 2010-2012. Just before being named Ambassador of Sweden to Nigeria in 2016, I focused solely on promoting trade between Sweden and sub-Saharan Africa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm.
What do you hope to accomplish during your time in Nigeria as the Ambassador of Sweden?
I want to see deeper relations between Nigeria and Sweden in the area of trade and other partnerships within areas such as environment and gender equality. Sweden is at present also a large humanitarian donor in the North-East. However, I hope that when the situation stabilises, it can also lead to more interaction in other policy areas.
In what fields do you see potential for the development of relations between the two countries?
Nigeria is one of the priority countries for Sweden in increasing global trade, and for good reason. I see a lot of potential in trade with Nigeria both in export of goods as well as services. We increasingly see innovative approaches to business with international service providers in different countries, and Nigeria could very well become one of these countries. Trade is not only about manufacturing and goods, innovation and entrepreneurship are important to move forward. We see now increasing interest and demand from the Nigerian side to interact with Sweden and Swedish companies. To us, that is a sign of strong trade relations and a good foundation to build on to increase trade even further. I and my colleagues at the Embassy work closely with businesses in Sweden and our honorary consuls in Lagos and Accra to promote Nigeria and Ghana as markets for Swedish companies. My role is primarily to open doors and support companies in their endeavours to reach the Nigerian market. But of course, also to stimulate Nigerian interest for the Swedish market, especially when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship.Aside from our trade partnership, we also see Nigeria as an important counterpart when it comes to peace and security in the region.
How have the private sectors of both countries collaborated to leverage on opportunities for sustainable economic growth? More importantly, in which areas have Nigeria and Sweden cooperated well over the past year and what achievements have been made?
We have a strong and historical connection in business and trade. The Swedish construction and power company, ABB, was first established in Nigeria in the 1970s, and still has a large presence here. Other companies within telecom and ICT, such as Ericsson and more recent consultancy companies such as Flexenclosure, and large companies in transport and infrastructure, such as Volvo and Scania, also have important roles in their respective sectors. For Swedish companies in Nigeria, they almost always have a local partner or a local sub-contractor, thereby extending their business and know-how to the national private sector. An interesting example is Oriflame, which produces and distributes makeup. They are actually making it possible for a large number of Nigerians, mainly women, to earn a living based on selling Swedish products in Nigeria. Also noteworthy is the fact that most CEOs of the Nigerian offices of Swedish companies are Nigerian, not Swedish. All of these companies are contributing to both employment and sustainable economic growth in Nigeria, as well as transfer of skills to the local community.
How has ICT, energy, infrastructure and transport factored into economic relations between the two countries?
All of these sectors are sectors in which Sweden has strong capacity and knowledge, both based on our traditional business and new and more modern companies such as Skype and Spotify, which were both established by Swedes. They are also sectors where we see a lot of engagement with Nigeria and where there is an interest from both sides to further strengthen that engagement. ICT and energy in particular are two areas where there are a lot of opportunities for Swedish companies, and then likewise a lot of opportunities for Nigeria and Nigerian companies to join them in partnership.
If you could only pick one thing to share with Nigerians about Sweden, what would it be?
I know that this is sometimes a contentious word, but I am proud to call myself a feminist. The Government of Sweden has actually also pronounced itself as feminist, in reality this means that gender equality is central to the Government’s priorities. This is of course apparent in discussions about all people’s equal rights nationally and globally, but it is just as, if not more, important when you look at the economic development of a country. A country, no matter if it is in Europe or in Africa, cannot afford to exclude half of its population in business, trade or politics.