The Deputy Assistant Secretary for West Africa and Economic & Regional Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, Peter Barlerin, was in Nigeria recently. He was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy by a select group of journalists, including PREMIUM TIMES’ Bassey Udo, on issues bordering on economy, humanitarian intervention, Nigeria’s anti-corruption and insurgency in the North East.
Barlerin: I am very happy to be here. I want to start off by saying, Nigeria is one of the most important countries for the United States in sub-Saharan Africa. With the largest population in the continent, a rapidly growing youth population and the second largest economy in the continent, it’s very important to us to have a good relationship. We want a very strong and vibrant Nigeria to work with.
In terms of overall U.S.-Africa policy, President Obama’s strategy has been to increase peace and security in sub-Saharan Africa; improve economic growth, trade, investment and relationship with the United States; improve democracy and governance and human rights, and increase opportunity and development on the continent.
PT: You are coming at a time Nigeria’s economy is in recession, the first in over two decades. What advice would you offer to the Nigerian government on how to come out of it?
Barlerin: The decline in the price of oil in the international market has a significant impact on Nigeria, and a number of other oil producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is making good effort to try and improve economic conditions in the country.
From the U.S. government’s perspective, we believe a more flexible currency regime will, in the immediate to long-term, be helpful for the economy.
It will make Nigeria’s export more attractive to the region, to United States, and the rest of the world. It will also help the Nigerian economy diversify into other areas, and no longer dependent on oil.
In the past, there were a number of sectors in Nigeria that were very promising. These are the Hi-tech, services, art and culture, fashion industry, film and entertainment. You have Nollywood, which produces a lot of great movies the Diasporas in the United States watch; not just Nigerians, but other Africans and Americans, are interested in.
We just had late last month the Forum on the Africa Growth and Opportunity (AGOA). Nigeria participated long with the other AGOA eligible countries. One thing we noticed with AGOA was the trade preference arrangement, where we agreed to allow importation of about 6,000 duty-free products into U.S. from AGOA eligible countries.
What we have noticed is that in the past majority of imports into the U.S. under AGOA were oil and natural resources. That was certainly the case with Nigeria in the past.
So, we are looking at the possibility of working with Nigeria to help diversify those exports to the U.S., to build a deeper trade relationship that is not just being oil-dependent.
The Nigerian government’s efforts to improve its ease of doing business indicators will help Nigerian companies and U.S. and other investors to come in here and have a more dynamic economy that would give good jobs, better exports and a huge domestic market they can take advantage of.
PT: Despite U.S. intervention, most Nigerians find it difficult to be accepted in the U.S. markets. What support is there for Nigerian exporters in some technical areas, to facilitate easy access to the U.S. market?
Barlerin: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has programmes out of our regional USAID office based in Accra, Ghana. We are working actively to help Nigerian companies market their exports to the U.S. and to comply with our sanitary standards for agricultural products.
Also, we have, through the department of state, just bringing in intellectual property rights experts, who would be working in the region, particularly in Nigeria, to ensure that intellectual property rights are respected and protected within Nigeria.
PT: If Nigeria is such an important country to the U.S., how come not enough seems to have been done to help fix her economy? For instance, the U.S. was major buyer of Nigeria’s oil, today, China has since taken over.
Barlerin: That’s very true. But, the two statements are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The U.S. welcomes other countries’ interests in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa, so long as they play by the rules, and a matter of negotiation with Nigerian businesses and government on the kind of economic relationships they want to have with other countries.
In terms of the U.S., the discovery of shale oil and gas has changed her economy significantly. So, the U.S. is no longer a major oil importer. That has impacted the U.S. oil imports from Nigeria. But, it gives the U.S. an opportunity to diversify its economic relationships in other ways.
Like I said, there are lots of promising export potentials in services, fashion industry, agriculture and quite a number of other sectors. I also would like to emphasise that the U.S. is trying to increase two way investments with Nigeria.
If we have a level of trade down here, we want to increase both U.S. exports to Nigeria and U.S. imports from Nigeria, so that our two-way trade is up here.
Also, we think that increasing U.S. direct investment into Nigeria is very important. Buhari’s administration’s effort to improve the country’s ease of doing business indicators is very important. Openness to U.S. and other country’s investments is going to be important for Nigeria going forward.
PT: The U.S. appears to be slow in its support to Nigeria to repatriate stolen assets.
Barlerin: The U.S. Department of Justice is working very closely with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on behalf of the Nigerian government to repatriate these funds.
U.S. has a legal system that takes time to get these funds released, subject to legal challenges that can take time to answer. But, I can assure you we are committed to working with Nigeria to get those funds repatriated.
PT: The security situation in Nigeria, particularly in the north eastern part, requires more efforts from friendly nations like the U.S. How much more assistance is the U.S. government ready to give to bring the situation under control?
Barlerin: It is in the interest of the U.S., Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole to have a strong Nigeria with a strong military and security forces that can protect Nigeria’s borders and its people.
We are doing this in a number of areas. We have to train two army battalions. We are working with the Nigerian Army to provide intelligence information on Boko Haram and the fight against insurgents.
We are working to improve police in judicial capacity, especially in the north eastern Nigeria, so that police and judicial authorities can restore and maintain civilian order in those areas that have been liberated from Boko Haram.
Our hearts go out to the Chibok girls who have been kidnapped and their families who have been left without the girls for so long. We are working actively with the Nigerian military to try to secure their liberation.
We welcome the release of the 21 Chibok girls from captivity. We will continue to work actively with the Nigerian authorities to secure the release of the remaining girls, who have been in captivity with Boko Haram.
In terms of humanitarian assistance, the U.S. government is the largest bilateral donor in the north east. Although we work in the North east region, we also work in the Lake Chad basin to partner countries.
We provide food assistance. We also help with the internally displaced persons (IDPs), providing them with psycho-social support. A lot of them have gone through some pretty traumatic experiences in the hands of Boko Haram.
We were very disappointed to see the outbreak of polio in North Eastern Nigeria. We are working to improve the vaccination campaigns in northern Nigeria against polio and other infectious diseases.
PT: Energy is part of the effort to create the enabling environment for business. What’s the update on some of the projects the U.S. government and agencies are involved in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nigeria in particularly?
Barlerin: President Obama is committed to Power Africa programme he announced towards increasing the generation capacity in Africa by 30,000 megawatts by adding 60 million new connections to households in Africa.
The challenges of bringing energy electricity to Nigeria are huge. But, as I said earlier, Nigeria is the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the second largest economy.
So, the opportunity of getting the power economy right in Nigeria will allow the U.S. to almost completely realise all of President Obama’s goals on Power Africa in Nigeria alone.
So, it’s a great hope for us. That’s why we are working with all of our government agencies involved in Power Africa – USAID, U.S. state department, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, U.S. Export-Import Bank, to help make this a reality.
PT: Nigeria is obviously a rich country with huge potentials. But, how comfortable is the U.S. to always ready to give aid to a country that can take care of itself if things were done the right way, particularly if corruption was eliminated?
Barlerin: One of the things that came out of the sustainable development goals of the African Union (AU) is the importance of domestic resource mobilisation.
For many years, the Nigerian government has relied on taxation of international oil companies. Broadening the tax base is extremely important.
Tax administration improvement in all of our countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is very important. If Nigeria had an efficient tax system that collects taxes from a broad spectrum of individuals and businesses in the economy, it will help build trust in government and also force the government to be accountable to the people. In collecting taxes from the people, they can demand services they expect from government.
The U.S. is encouraged by President Buhari’s effort to combat corruption. We are working with his government on a number of fronts to accomplish that. We cannot speak on specifics. But, it is important to emphasize that corruption would no longer be tolerated, and that we have to move forward, from the highest level, down to the lowest level. Corruption has to stop if we have to make the economy and Nigeria work better.
PT: Thank for the opportunity to talk with you.
Barlerin: Thank you.