Rekindling US-Nigeria Relations in The Wake Of A New Administration

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By Chiaka Orjiako

he United States of America (USA) has had a long reputation of being the world super power. Countries across the globe hold the US in very high regard and look to it as a father-figure. Not only is the US the world’s strongest economy, it has the world’s strongest military, most advanced technology, and has the most powerful foreign affairs capabilities. Consequent to President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent trip to the US, Nigerians are pregnant with hope to see stronger bilateral relations between the two nations in terms of trade and security matters. Montage Africa Magazine was privileged to interview the current Ambassador of the US to Nigeria, His Excellency James F Entwistle, who was part of the entourage that witnessed the unusual bilateral high-level talks in the White House. Entwistle, who has a great wealth of experience in diplomatic spheres talked extensively on the United States’ commitment in assisting Nigeria combat terrorism, investment opportunities for Nigerians interested in the US and more.

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MA:
Your Excellency, thank you for the rare opportunity to interview you. What makes Nigeria different to other countries you have worked in?

JFE:
I have been in this business for almost 35 years. I have had the privilege of serving my country in many assignments around the world both in Africa and Asia. What I like about this career is you get to visit many new places, deal with new issues and basically reinvent yourself. Coming to Nigeria, especially having served in bordering countries, I feel like I’ve come back to a part of the world where my career started. I find the economic engine here which drives the rest of Africa very interesting. I also find the people to people contacts between US and Nigerian individuals and institutions very interesting and it is just fun to be here. In general, Nigerians and Americans like each other and get along. It is a tremendous assignment, my wife and I are delighted to be here.

Q:
Following President Buhari’s four-day visit to the United States and discussions with President Obama in the White House, which areas of investment is the United States willing to re-strengthen?

JFE:
I was very proud to have the privilege to be involved in President Buhari’s visit to Washington, I had the privilege of being in President Obama’s oval office meeting with President Buhari, as well as the meetings President Buhari had with Vice President Joe Biden and the Secretary of State, John Kerry, and a number of Cabinet Officials. From President Obama and down, there was a very clear message for President Buhari, it was, we are very impressed with the elections that took place in Nigeria, both in terms of what it m e a n s f o r N i g e r i a a n d a l s o f o r t h e development of democracy across Africa. We are very impressed with what President Buhari is saying he wants to do in terms of tackling the challenges that face Nigeria, and as a long standing friend and partner of Africa, we see that it is very clear to us and that it is in our interest in doing everything we can to help the new administration succeed. As you know, President Buhari has identified a couple of key areas of course, the situation in the North East and the struggle against Boko Haram, fighting corruption, reforming the Petroleum sector and making sure petroleum revenues find their ways into the government coffers. We are glad to support him on his objectives. The message was loud and clear in Washington that as he pursues this, we are willing to help him in any way we can. Everything is on the table, we are glad to talk about what ever ways he thinks we can help. Step one of course is to see exactly what his plans are, step two is to see how we can help, but I would emphasise that, much of the work here has already been done. In my opinion, the relationship between the United States and Nigeria has always been excellent in different areas. What we will do here in my o p i n i o n i s t o t a k e a n a l r e a d y g o o d relationship and hopefully work hard on taking it to the next level.

Q:
In which ways has the United States assisted Nigeria to combat terrorism, particularly in the North Eastern region?

JFE:
No partner is doing more to help Nigeria in its struggle against Boko Haram than the United States. For years, we have provided military training and education. Some of your officers have studied in the best military schools in the US including President Buhari. We constantly have training teams here focusing on specific issues and also teams that help share our experience in fighting terror in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the likes. The biggest message that we have to share and we incorporate this into all of our training is, as you fight a terrorist group like Boko Haram that doesn’t care less about human rights or protecting the civilian Population and indeed seems to go out of its way to brutalise the civilian population, we have learned through our own experience that one of the most effective things you could do is that as in fighting terrorists, you should maintain human rights, and do everything that you can to protect the civilian population to keep the m a t u r e s i d e i n t h e s t r u g g l e , i n o u r experiences, this does not distract from the counter-terrorism effort, it makes the effort stronger. We put a big effort on that. We have constant discussions on various types of equipment that might be relevant. Without going into details, I would say that we have also provided information to your military that I think is useful, but I think that another thing President Buhari clearly understands given his military background is the key in any military is; Are you taking care of your troops? Are they fed? Are they well led? Do country in the world. In my experience, stemming corruption begins to happen when you have two things in place, one is when you have effective law enforcement in place who are allowed to do their jobs without political interference, and two is when individual citizens say, “enough of this, I am sick of this, I am tired of paying my taxes and not seeing where the money goes, I am tired of the street in front of my house not being fixed for ten years even though politicians promise they will do something.” When you get those two things, then I think you can see corruption begin to end. It is very clear to me, that President Buhari is very serious, it is also clear that the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is looking at cases that involve people from all political parties. In terms of what we are doing to help is two things, one, we have been active for years providing training to the EFCC and other law enforcement agencies that are they have the equipment that they need? As he focuses on those issues, I think the performance against Boko Haram, which I think is going well in many regards, will get even stronger.

Q:
With the Buhari administration in power, one of its main mandates is to make Nigeria a corruption-free country. What programs does the United States plan to launch in Nigeria to assist with its fight against corruption?

JFE:
President Buhari has made it very clear that fighting corruption is one of his top priorities. It is important to know that corruption happens in every country, including the United States. I voted in the state of Virginia and currently, the former Governor of Virginia is currently in court facing corruption charges. So it plagues every country in the world. In my experience, stemming corruption begins to happen when you have two things in place, one is when you have effective law enforcement in place who are allowed to do their jobs without political interference, and two is when individual citizens say, “enough of this, I am sick of this, I am tired of paying my taxes and not seeing where the money goes, I am tired of the street in front of my house not being fixed for ten years even though politicians promise they will do something.” When you get those two things, then I think you can see corruption begin to end. It is very clear to me, that President Buhari is very serious, it is also clear that the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is looking at cases that involve people from all political parties. In terms of what we are doing to help is two things, one, we have been active for years providing training to the EFCC and other law enforcement agencies that are serious about this , we are glad to help train your experts. The second thing which we have emphasised is, as you pursue corruption cases here and if you see links that suggest that monies that were gained through corruption and have gone into the US banking system, we will do everything we can to help trace and get those monies back, It is not as easy as it sounds, it can sometimes take a long time especially if these cases are taken to court in the US. But it is very clearly our intent to do everything we can to help with this.

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Q:
The United States offers one of the highest quality educations in the world. Apart from the American University of Nigeria, what plans are there to increase American institutions of higher education on Nigerian soil?

JFE:
Please keep in mind that the American University of Nigeria which is a superb institution was not established by the US government, it is entirely a private effort which we are glad to help as much as we can, and I think that underlines the fact that these days, international education efforts really don’t have as much government involvement as they used to. These days it is much more of individual institutions developing ties with individual institutions in the US. I am always impressed almost every time I visit some Nigerian universities and when I talk to the faculty or the Dean. Inevitably they tell me that they have exchange programs between various universities in the US. I find that these programs that are direct between educational institutions in our two countries and do not go through the Nigerian government nor the US government and that’s a good thing, it is really a question of the institutions talking of each other. As you know, a lot of Nigerian students want to study in the US. Right now, our visa section is working hard to get all the visas out for students studying this fall. As you say, we think we provide the best educational opportunities in the world and we are very happy to try and assist students who want to go there. Young Nigerians who are interested in studying in the US should go to our website, we offer counselling services to students who are interested in studying in the US. I think the educational ties between our two countries are a great success story. f a c i l i t a t e c o n t a c t s b e t w e e n p r i v a t e companies in the US and here. You are right, ICT has huge potential here in Nigeria. I believe it contributes almost 10% of the GDP of Nigeria. So what we do is everything we can to encourage US companies to take a look at Nigeria. Google is here, Microsoft is here, IBM too and more. I believe company to company ties can flourish. My sense is the US ICT companies that are here are generally happy, they like the environment, and look forward to doing business here. There are a few concerns with the protection of intellectual property rights and so on, but I know that is something your government is dealing with through law enforcement channels, but I must say I am very impressed with young Nigerians who are working in ICT. I was in Lagos recently, in Yaba, and visited a technology hub there that gives Nigerians innovators space to work and resources. I think, in terms of the most important thing that you need for ICT success is smart young people who know how things work, I think Nigeria is already in very good shape.

Q:
What is the level of U.S. investment in Nigeria and what are the U.S. government thoughts on Nigeria’s investment environment?

JFE:
The latest numbers we have are from 2013 which suggest that US Foreign Direct Investment in Nigeria was a little over $8bilion. US Companies are very interested in Nigeria, why? First of all, Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, and an economic driver for the rest of Africa, and secondly, the size of the Nigerian market and the number of potential Nigerian consumers is attractive to investors. I spend a lot of time talking to US business owners. For example, one of the biggest retailers in the US, Wal-Mart was in my office recently, as you know some big US oil companies are here, General Electric is here, Proctor and Gamble (one of our biggest companies) opened a factory in the North of Lagos within the past year and more. There is tremendous interest in investing in Nigeria. When a US company or any foreign company decide where to invest in any part of the world, what they look at is based on a couple of key things. First, they want to know the laws and regulations are, they want to know laws are fairly enforced, they want to know that if they are to have investment disputes, they will be fairly treated in court, and they want predictability. They want to know that if they come into the market under a certain set of assumptions, agreements, and regulations, they want an assurance that those laws will not suddenly change overnight. They also want a well trained, well motivated labour force, which I think is one of the things Nigeria has going for it. So those are the things that American companies look for. I am always told as the US Ambassador “Oh, Mr. Ambassador, you need to encourage more US companies to come to Nigeria,” but my response is, my team does everything it can, but it is up to the Nigerian government and N i g e r i a n s t o g o o u t a n d g e t f o r e i g n investment, to make the case that from all the places you can go to in the world, Nigeria is a place to go. That is a case that only Nigerians can make, but we are very glad to help. Like I said, the companies that are here are generally happy, but it is transparency to know what the rules are, those are the things that will attract foreign investment.

Q:
Finally, What advice do you have for Nigerians wishing to invest in the United States?

JFE:
The first thing I would say is come to the embassy. We are very glad to help Nigerian investors who are interested in the US, especially I would suggest that either through telephone, through our website or in person, come and see our foreign commercial service operation which is based at the consulate in Lagos. They are very ready to help potential Nigerian investors get into US markets, how to navigate our customs, our health requirements, and so on. I am not much of an economist, but it seems to me the area with the potential for great growth in Nigerian exports to the US is though processed agricultural goods, and we are glad to help people who want to do that navigate entry into the US. Especially things that might help create jobs in the US and encourage buying US products, but step one is come see us!