I will not allow my country to be disparaged – Amb. Kema Chikwe

Dr (Mrs) Kema Chikwe, Nigeria Ambassador to Ireland

Nigeria celebrated its 49 Independence anniversary in October. Can you truly say that Nigeria has done well at 49?

I think our people have done very well given the circumstances. You have to look at the history of Nigeria. Where we are coming from and where we are today. I will say Nigeria has done well.

In the eyes of the international community, a major problem of Nigeria is its lack of credible democracy. This was amply demonstrated when President Barack Obama shunned Nigeria for Ghana in his first ever visit to Africa as the President of the United States. Considering our strong influence in Africa, especially the sub-Saharan Africa, and as a big trading partner with the United States, one expected President Obama to at least make a brief stop in Nigeria like he did in Egypt. Many Nigerians see this as an indictment of our bad political leadership.

President Obama going to Ghana is in no way an indictment on Nigeria. There must be a purpose for visiting Ghana.

Elections are the very heart of democracy, but it appears that bad leadership is about to kill what would have been a laudable Electoral Reform. The Justice Mohammed Uwais-led Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) made some far-reaching recommendations, which have been either discarded by President Yar’Adua or watered down to make them less effective.

The fact that the President set up an electoral reform committee is in itself a milestone. The Federal Government has not adopted any document yet. At the moment people are meeting minds, offering their opinions. You have to look at the constitution to understand the roles of the Executive and the Legislature. They have to work harmoniously to produce a document that will be suitable for our own democracy. There is no President that will not want to do what is in the best interest of his country. No President will want to promote anarchy in his country.

But already the Federal Government has rejected the ERC’s key recommendation that the National Judicial Council (NJC) should shortlist names of prospective candidates for the chairmanship of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on the grounds that it violates the principles of the separation of powers.

If they have rejected it why have they not adopted the final document? I can assure you that when a particular process of appointing the INEC chairman is adopted the federal government would have reviewed it properly.

Invariably, you are satisfied with the way the electoral reform process is going?

I am very satisfied. We have a President who tells you about due process. This is a President who believes in the rule of law. And that should give all Nigerians a measure of confidence that the right thing will be done at the right time.

Two years since the general elections, there is still a raging judicial battle for the governorship seat in Imo State. As an indigene of the state and one of the aspirants at the primary level, does it not worry you that this has been dragging on for too long?

The situation is a symptom of a strong democratic structure. If the democratic structure was weak, some decisions would have been rubber-stamped. For you to get justice there must be a proper judicial process and that is what is happening in Imo state. There is a change going on in our country. One thing about change is that it is salient; you only wake up one day to discover that things are no longer the same. We Nigerians must appreciate what we have achieved. We have achieved democracy without bloodshed, and we are consolidating it without bloodshed.

Now let’s look at what it is happening here in Ireland. We understand that Missions are classified in a pecking order of A, B, C. In what group is the Mission here in Ireland?

We are in group C.

Using the Mission in Ireland as a case study, would you say that Nigeria Embassies are adequately funded?

It is relative because we go through budgetary allocations and there are so many competing factors. There are the social services, education, health, roads and agriculture sectors. Nigeria is also involved in peace-keeping missions abroad. The amount of funding depends on what the Mission is focusing on, what programmes they are pursuing.

In this case, what is the major programme your Mission is currently pursuing?

We are initiating a School Twining programme. We are trying to pair schools in Nigeria with schools in Ireland, from primary to tertiary institutions. These schools will have direct contact with each other. The Mission is also using this School Twinning programme to expand our scope of diplomacy with Ireland. And it will cost us more money. So when the next budgetary allocation is being prepared we will use that to highlight that we are doing more work.

What really informed your decision to embark on this programme?

One, there is no language barrier. In Europe Ireland is the nearest English speaking destination to Nigeria, apart from the UK. Two, the educational system is not far apart. Three, the common law system is the same with Nigeria. All the fundamental issues in both countries are similar. Many schools in Nigeria were established by the Irish. In fact, just as America colonised the world with coca cola and blue jeans, Ireland colonised the world with Guinness. And Nigeria is possibly the strongest point of contact for Guinness. So we already have a platform between the two countries to understand each other. The UNDP’s Human Development Index 2009 ranks Ireland very high, fifth in the world. Ireland is very strong in both IT and education. Therefore, by twining schools in Ireland, Nigerian children and Nigerian educational system will benefit directly without a middleman.

How do you twin these schools?

We have listed one hundred schools in Ireland from the three levels of education: primary, secondary and tertiary. We are exploring to find out which institutions in Ireland are favourably disposed to this programme. We will then list schools in every state of Nigeria.  We have thirty six states and Abuja. We will choose two schools from each state and the capital territory, which is a total of seventy four schools. We will then pick schools randomly based on recommendations. The schools in Ireland and Nigeria must have something to offer each other, even if it is Arts and Craft, in the case of a Nigerian school.

By twining schools, does it require students in Nigerian schools coming to Ireland to study, like a fellowship programme?

Don’t forget that there is virtual learning. You can use technology for a class in Nigeria and a class in Ireland to study together. However, what we are trying to do is to twin these schools and allow them to work out their own programmes, according to what is available to them and what is possible.

You said earlier that such programmes require higher budgetary allocations to the Mission from the federal government. Does the Mission have to fund these programmes for both schools?

The role of the Mission is to pair the schools and allow them to work out funding and other arrangements. But we expect that funding will come from the private sector, donors and other sources directly to these schools.

This school twining programme is a paradigm shift from the economic diplomacy that you have vigorously pursued since you assume office. Actually, in March 2009 the Mission organised a seven-day fact-finding economic mission to Nigeria for some Irish Business men and not too long ago the Mission organised an International Gateway Economic Partnership Summit (IGEPS) in Dublin.

When I came to Ireland there was so much scepticism. Then it was difficult to take Irish people to Nigeria to do business. We then had the fact-finding economic mission to Nigeria and then I-GEP Summit. Now it is easier for Nigerians here to communicate with the Irish people. The fundamental thing is to open up bilateral relationship and build confidence by showing to Irish business people that there is a structure in Nigeria for doing business, and that if they pass through the government structures they will protect themselves, know the kind of people to partner with, what the tax regimes are and the process for registering a company in Nigeria.

Is there any concrete evidence that your IGEPS initiative is working or is it a publicity stunt?

From our consular records it shows that more Irish business people now travel to Nigeria to do business.

Are Nigerian people also coming to Ireland to do business because it is supposed to be a two-way thing?

Of course, we have Nigerian business people in glass, commodity, brokerage, construction, fish exports and many other business areas. These are people who were involved in IGEPS. What motivated IGEPS was not only the scepticism about doing business in Nigeria, but the fact that there is a huge gap in trade between Ireland and Nigeria in favour of Ireland. In 2007, Irish exports to Nigeria was One Hundred and Eighty Eight Million Eight Hundred and Three Thousand Euro (€188,803,000) as against the Nigerian imports from Ireland that was Six Hundred Thousand Euros (€600,000). In 2008, Irish exports to Nigeria increased to Two Hundred and Two million, Seven Hundred and Sixty Three Thousand Euro (€202,763,000) and Nigerian imports from Ireland decreased to Two hundred and Seventy Nine Thousand Euro (€279,000). We are not saying that Ireland should not do business in Nigeria and make profit and grow, but we want Nigeria to establish a trade partnership that does not make Nigeria too inferior. Right now Nigeria is too inferior a trading partner with Ireland. We want to address the trade balance between Ireland and Nigeria and bridge the gap in business benefits.

From the consular records how many Nigerians are in jail in Ireland?

There are not many Nigerians in jail here. What we really have more are Nigerians who have immigration problems and are detained, waiting for deportation.

That is really surprising considering that the major problem of Nigeria and Nigerians in Ireland is our negative image. Nigerians are vilified as fraudsters.

In Ireland we don’t really know where that is coming from. But we often get random 419 cases. Some Irish people come to the Embassy to complain about being defrauded. We could not determine if these letters originated from Ireland because they carried Lagos addresses. Also, it takes two to tango. Anyone who falls victim of 419 scam is a partner in crime. Nobody should want to receive money he does not deserve. You give money to someone you don’t know simply because you want to make money. But what we also try to do is to protect the image of Nigerians by making sure that nobody here that is into 419 can pollute the environment for the rest of Nigerians.

Do you get more 419 cases than Drugs cases involving Nigerians?

To be honest, since I assume office here in Ireland over one year ago, we have not had a single official report on a drug case.

That’s quite interesting. You said earlier that you have more Nigerians in detention over immigration issues. How frequent are the deportations of Nigerians?

It is not just Nigerians…

We are concerned with Nigerians.

Ireland is a sovereign nation. All we can do is to negotiate, where there is reason to negotiate. If there is no reason for negotiation there is nothing we can do. We cannot stop deportation. But what we have insisted upon is that the Embassy of Nigeria must be given enough notice. We must interview the deportees and make sure that their human rights are respected. We must ensure that the conditions under which they are being deported are proper and covered by law.

Armada Cover Second Edition
Armada Cover Second Edition

What are those conditions that violate the deportee’s human rights?

A case of a heavily pregnant woman who may give birth in the plane; a very sick person who is too ill to fly; a person whose case is still pending in court. In any of these cases, we will intervene. But we don’t confront the Irish authorities. We have a diplomatic relationship. What we do is to explain and reason with them. The Irish authorities have been quite understanding, at least since I came here.

Ironically, on 1st October 2009 when Nigerians were in a celebrating mood, a Nigerian, Princess Oriyomi Somorin, married with four children, committed suicide. Mrs Somorin had lived in the asylum hostel for quite a while, but two months before the incident she had been granted leave to remain in Ireland, and that would have kept her in high spirits. From the information available to the Mission, what would have led the 41-year-old woman to take her life?

It is a purely family affair. We cannot express an opinion on a matter that is private. I never met the woman. But the husband came to see me. And the Mission sent the Minister I, who is the third in rank, to represent the Mission at her funeral.

Since you assumed office, you have had a few squabbles with some Nigerians. Which one has been the most touching?

We have not had many. But I think the major one was the issue of Pamela Izevbekhai…

The Nigerian lady who was fighting deportation because she feared her two daughters would be subjected to female genital mutilation in Nigeria? You were fiercely criticised for saying that there is no female circumcision in Nigeria.

Yes. I had to defend Nigeria. I am the Nigeria Ambassador. I won’t sit back and allow Nigeria to be disparaged for no just cause. Sometimes, if it is reasonable, we can let go, but not when negative news about Nigeria is making headlines every week. It is not good to tell lies against your country in such a way that it will cause serious damage to its image and affect the development of the country.

How is your relationship with the generality of Nigerians now?

It is very good. The people who were trying to create problem with the Mission, some of them did not understand what they were doing. Some of them were being used. And with some people it was lack of information. I am happy that many of these people are coming around to appreciate the difficulties of the Mission.

Is it not a case of if you can’t beat them you join them?

You can only beat someone who does not have the truth. If someone’s hands are clean it is difficult to fight the person successfully.

In 2007 you contested for the governorship (primaries) election in Imo state. 2011 is around the corner. Are you thinking of giving it another go?

My tenure as Nigeria Ambassador to Ireland runs for three years to 2011. I am very happy to represent my country in Ireland. In fact, I am becoming emotionally attached to Ireland:  my job and the people. I have made friends here. I am happy here. These are the things that matter to me now.