Could you provide a bit of background about your career? What have been your most trying and most memorable/successful experiences as an Ambassador?
Thank you. I have been in the service for about 33 years and during that period I served in seven countries including Addis Ababa, Brussels, Geneva, Pakistan, Zambia, Austria and then I came here. From those countries I was an Ambassador in Zambia, in Austria and here in Germany. During the other periods I was in the service in the government at lower levels, and focused on conferences in particular. In the course of my work, I worked on human rights and also in the economic and legislative directives leading to the creation of the human rights council, which was formally the human right commission. I was very central to issues of Human rights because I used to defend the Nigerian position at the UN convention on the issue of development and Nigeria’s right to development. And so most of the time the subject concerning culture was pertinent, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. While issues of civil and political rights are important, particularly considering Nigeria’s relationship with other countries, the subject of economic, social and cultural rights is extremely important to the developing world.
So, throughout this period, the most trying time was when Nigeria was a pariah state and I was in the human rights desk. I was aware of the problem created by the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. At that time, the phobia in the world was so rich that it was very difficult for us to manage. In addition, at the time when we were trying to get him out, the last government said that Abacha had been adopted as the only presidential candidate and as such it was an even more difficult moment. That for me was one of the very difficult points of my life at the time.
But the most interesting aspect of my career is also that I have been very lucky in the Foreign Service in the sense that I have served in very important capitals of the world and through that I have interacted very much with so many people, and I have gained a lot of experience. I was in Geneva for four years and negotiated some very important subjects. In addition, my election as Ambassador here in Berlin was recently renewed. So I think these are some of the high points in my career.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the negative image Nigeria had in times of Abacha and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s trail and death, which leads me to the next question; what is Nigeria’s image in Berlin? As a representative of Nigeria, how accurately do you think Nigeria; its culture, traditions and people, is presented in Germany? What are some of the strongest misconceptions Germans have about Nigeria and Nigerians?
Unfortunately, negative aspects of the image of Nigeria are often times the Niger delta issues, where someone is abducted for ransom. For a few years it created a very bad image in terms of publicity. However, the Nigerian government has made a strong effort, in fact my president made that part of the agenda to resolve the Niger-Delta issue. A lot of effort has been put in on the ground and efforts are being made to ensure that the Niger Delta issue is solved and there is a lot of discussion with the traditional rulers in the area to ensure that the matter is tackled. Recently there has not been too much—in fact in the last 2-3 months, there has been no major abduction, no major kidnapping, so the government seems to have been controlling it. I think the government itself is very much concerned with the phobia created by the wrong understanding; it is thus a policy by the government to try and tackle it. With regard to Nigerians living here in Germany, I do not have any specific negative information or report concerning their activities. I know that in other parts of the world while we know of issues like drug trafficking, 419 scam and so on, but I think these things are not very high points here. We don’t have that kind of image; the only thing I know is that most Nigerians living here have demonstrated themselves to be good ambassadors of Nigeria as they have portrayed themselves as responsible and well meaning people. If you look at their activities, you can see, especially during the festivals like the yam festival they organized around September, the attendance was very high and involved both the Germans and Nigerians. It was a very excellent program, which created a good image for the people. I agree that there might have been some discrimination here, but there is nothing I have seen or report that I have read to indicate that any open hostility exists. There are a lot of Nigerians who marry Germans, Germans who marry Nigerians and I have seen them living well and happily. This creates a very good cultural image.
You spoke briefly about the new yam festival—What have been the most successful and least successful or significant events, programs, informal cultural exchanges and other forms of cultural diplomacy to promote Nigeria’s image in Germany? What do you think should be done for better intercultural understanding?
Just last month there was an interest in Nigeria particularly during the international tourism fair. There were cultural performances organized by the embassy, and important cultural displays were put on. There was a lot of display of various cultural artifacts, including weavings. The Benin artifacts were put on show and are also on display [in the ethnology Museum] from now until May. The Minister of Culture and Tourism visited to open the exhibition. When you visit the exhibition you see the impact in terms of improving our image is tremendous. We would never have otherwise known about some of the artifacts, as they are collected in many museums, even as far as New York. In fact some of them are collected in places like Hamburg, some in Dresden and in Berlin museums here and some came from other parts of the world. That is an important event.
Besides that, we do not have a program specifically for promoting cultural events apart from disseminating information from the embassy about the activities that go on in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, we are trying even now to organize a type of exchange program between the Berlin carnival and Abuja carnival. The Abuja Carnival takes place in November and the Berlin Carnival takes place in May so there is a talk of exchange of cooperation between the two carnivals as a part of exchange of cultural events. In addition, when people come to our visa section or come to get some information, we have materials produced in Nigeria that we make available for them to see. Recently, somebody asked about the pictures you see around the office and names. We are trying to explain the art all over the Embassy and where it is from. These are some of the things that we do in the Embassy to display, show and throw light on Nigeria. Carvings and paintings are shown all over the embassy depicting our people. These are part of the information dissemination that we do in the Embassy to create understanding. These have been well appreciated with a lot of comments being made about the effort being made to let people know about the cultural diversity. Nigeria is not one person, we are 250 different Ethnic groups; we are different cultures. There are highly divergent religious and cultural people living within the one entity called Nigeria. There are equally wide differences from the Northern part down to the Middle part, down to the South, from the vegetation of the country to the geography. We try to show this information and show that it is a melting point of many different tribes, ethnic groups, religions and so on. So theses are some of the information we are showing. Despite all these difficulties we are still one and we are moving forward and despite the level of education we have which is not as advanced as in many other countries. Yet the people are forging ahead in terms of economic development and political development. So these are some of the things we are doing to show them that Nigeria has changed and we are moving forward.
Are there any future initiatives planned?
I think the future depends on the outcome that the president wants. I think already at the governmental level there is a lot of effort being made. The foreign minister of the Federal Republic of Germany visited Nigeria for his first visit to Africa. When he came in 2005, when the team was going to Nigeria, he told us that the theme of the visit was cultural diplomacy. He said it had nothing to do with going with traders or going with commercial people etc, no, he talked to people who included artists, football commentators and people involved in the arts. When he went to Nigeria, he also met with a young lady who was both an artist and wrote books. His idea was to visit our country and consider it from a cultural point of view. And then the president of Germany invited our president at the African forum sometime last year and also about six other African countries. He said the theme of that conference, which was well attended, was on cultural diplomacy and culture. My president included those who attended that summit, however, most of the people who came in where not necessarily government officials, but they were also civil society people, artist, Nobel laureate authors and people in the arts and sciences and so on. I believe that this kind of high level cooperation at the governmental level is very important as it shows that there is a further move to improve on the aspect of culture, especially as it was the initiative of the German presidency. The first meeting in Germany was held in Bonn in 2005, the second one was in Ghana and then another one was held in Germany and then I think this year another one will be held in Africa, though we do not know where that one would be. The important point to note here is that we have already at the governmental level realized the need for these kinds of cultural exchanges between Germany and Africa. And so Nigeria is always participating in various summits and conferences. We believe that this is an important program that aims to enforce information exchange between Africa and Nigeria and various other countries involved. In addition to foreign conventional development through commercial activities, cultural and religious exposure is needed to be able to understand the differences between the different people and it is important to be able to address that. So I believe that whatever program or policy we are doing in the future will be in the line of high level cooperation. It is very high on the agenda of the president of this country and also high on the agenda of our president. We will look at development from other angles to be able to understand, not just in doing commercial activities. Take for example, the aspect of the problem we are facing in the Niger Delta in terms of negative environmental impact, whereby people and the oil companies who extract oil, make their profit and go, fail to appreciate the impact they have on the people. In understanding the culture of the people, they would understand that it is not only a matter of profit making, no, it is not necessarily that, it extends father to understanding the culture of the people, the environment, the impact of their actions and so on. I think this to me is an effort we aim to pursue.
Dialogue and understanding seems to be working well at high levels, but what about at lower levels? If you could have a wish list as an Ambassador while you are here, before you leave Germany, what would be three things you will like to accomplish? Is there is a need for academic exchange, more cultural exchange, maybe at the civil society level?
I think my greatest wish is that hopefully there would be more cooperation in terms exchanges and in fact I have just mentioned in another interview how important youth exchanges are because the world and the future lives for the youth. There should be much more youth exchanges of ideas to understand others and other parts of the world. So, a kind of mini-UN where people from different parts of the world interact either through a symposium or through activities that bring them together is very important. I wish that that could take place. As a result, it is one of my primary concerns here that we attract as much investment and cooperation as possible between my country and Germany and ensure that this is strengthened. In addition, I would hope to work to strengthen initiatives that are already taking place at higher levels like AU and EU cooperation. The last summit in Lisbon was very important to show that Africa and Europe are cooperating because there is often a lot of negative publicity especially as concerns the issue of people in Africa who come to Europe as illegal immigrants and when they come to Europe they have nothing to do. With this type of high-level cooperation and organization with Africa as well as with Europe to discuss the above issue of illegal immigration, the two parties can ensure that they will find the solution. It is a matter of information and education because a lot of people who come here to Europe wonder why they came, as they have very good jobs back home, they have opportunities and they come here with nothing doing, to find out that it was a mirage. All this is because of a lack of information. So I wish that a lot of dissimilation of information through maybe short terms programs whereby youths can understand and learn from each other and know that everyone in the world has problems, and that there are opportunities and challenges everywhere. I will wish that that type of intensive knowledge were disseminated so that people understand each other. As for me, I was quite fortunate as I went to school in Europe, I was in Holland and England as a student, and I served in several European countries so I seem to have spent more than three-quarters of my career in Europe and as such seem to have this kind of experiences and can say that I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of greed, but if people would only understand each other. As a result, efforts should be made on all levels to stimulate change by exchange on all levels. Professors can go to Africa to lecture or conduct symposia, sabbatical should be improved so that much more people will come here to Europe and go back and also people in universities should come and do internships two to three months and go back and put knowledge into good use. On another note, because of the problem of the brain drain, we are facing in Africa a real need for people. It is said that there are more nurses in Europe than in Africa, this is very bad approach, so people should be educated to understand the need to go back home and to impact their knowledge and experiences. The exchange is very important and also a practical application, and a very important supplement to theoretical knowledge.
What is your final message to our readers?
There are a lot of elements that go beyond the question of understanding the people and understanding different cultures, and different civilizations. A lot of people have written on the issue of clash of civilization—you should read and try to study people before making conclusion about their behavior. Always put yourself in their own shoes and try to understand, if you do not put yourself in their shoes you will look at them negatively and will always have prejudices. For me, the most important thing is for people to sit down and see why people are following their particular line of action, understand them very well and be in their shoes and maybe also see what they think, it is a matter of understanding. By being patient we will then be able to learn and know why things are so. But if you simply conclude things, put it in your own perspective, in your own upbringing, in your own background, you will not understand the other person. Thus, I believe there is a need for the world as a whole to seek in an increasingly globalized world and in doing so we should be able to learn and understand what other people think about us what we think about them, then we can be able to live a very peaceful and happy life.
Interview conducted by Chidiogo Akunyili