Professor George Obiozor, a former Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Cyprus, Israel and erstwhile Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, in an interview with ARISE TV monitored by Bayo Akinloye, talks about President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent appointment of Professor Ibrahim Gambari as the new chief of staff weeks after the death of Mallam Abba Kyari. The diplomat also highlights the present dangers and future of Nigeria as a multinational federation. Excerpts:
Many people have reacted to the appointment of Prof. Agboola Ibrahim Gambari. Their reaction is that though he possesses excellent credentials as an academic, scholar, and diplomat, they wonder that at 75 years, is he not too old to handle the tasks of a chief of staff? Couldn’t the president have looked for another candidate also with excellent credentials but much younger and can take on the onerous tasks of managing the Presidency on a day-to-day basis?
My answer to that question is simple: as a matter of fact, every country must use what’s practical, desirable, and what’s possible to solve national problems at critical times. As a matter of fact, which one is better: ideas or youth – youth in comparison with experience? Are we going for a mile’s race? Ibrahim Gambari is eminently qualified.
Indeed, the President has made of one the best appointments in his administration. Gambari has an impeccable qualification for this job; and his skills and experience, which he’ll impart, will be excellently positive for this administration and the nation. Let me be frank with you: by denying men of ideas and experience of positions of critical importance to the nation has caused the country a lot.
Indeed, this country will continue in motion without movement, without asking for skilled and experienced people to lead it in critical situations like we have today.
Today, whether you accept it or not, Nigeria as a country is not only becoming more complex but actually more dangerous. It needs the skills of a diplomat, a scholar, a man with a sense of history and an amazing knowledge of Nigeria and its problems and the desirable solutions. Gambari is exceptionally qualified. I’ve known Gambari for 50 years. We were both students at the Columbia University.
He’s a man of impeccable integrity and can get this job done very, very well to the satisfaction of those, who appointed him, especially, the President and the Commander-in-Chief, whom I must congratulate and thank for actually using a talent that is at home here. Indeed, one of the problems of academics is that if they don’t get their talents used at home, they get used abroad.
If you read the history of one of the most successful countries in the world, South Korea, it was Nigerian talent: Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, who was the IMF adviser to South Korea in those critical days. Look at our own Dr. (Akinwunmi) Adesina (AfDB President).
Go everywhere in the world, you’ll find Nigerian talents. Go to America and you’ll see a bubbling talent of Nigerians. Let me be frank with you, Mr. President has made a wonderful appointment and, in all sincerity, I know Ibrahim Gambari will do a great job for this country. I know that.
Another issue raised by critics of Prof. Gambari’s appointment is the role he played as Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN between 1990 and 1999, particularly, during the Gen. Sani Abacha regime. A former New Zealand ambassador to the UN stated that ‘If you didn’t know Abacha, you’d think that Gambari represented an enlightened African country. He consistently defended Nigeria and the Abacha regime, saying he hasn’t oppressed anyone.’ What’s your reaction to or how relevant do you find this?
I want to be modest as well as be frank. It will be a diplomatic ignorance to think that an ambassador is sent abroad to condemn his own government. An ambassador has a right and it’s his duty to defend his government and come back and advise the same government to do the right thing. I was around at that time too. I was the director general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs during that regime. In fact, the major negotiations that brought peace to Nigeria were those things that were done with the help of Gambari at the United Nations.
As a matter of fact, during the Lancaster meeting between the Nigerian government and the Commonwealth, Gambari and I were like prefects monitoring members of the delegation, which included eminent Nigerians like the late Richard Akinjide, Prof. Tam David-West, Sammy Ikoku, and many others.
Of course, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tom Ikimi, was the head of the delegation. It was not strange in any way that an ambassador should defend his country. I wish those who made that accusation would see the honour and the prestige of defending your country.
I think they need to read history, particularly the history of successful nations in the world. It’s not indeed support for evil or support for wrongdoings. The truth is that you don’t wash your dirty linen in public. You have to explain, explain, and explain. That’s what makes the job of an ambassador very difficult but exciting. But Gambari as an ambassador of Nigeria to the United Nations was exceptionally successful. I am a witness to it.
Here’s another thing people have said about the new chief of staff. An article was written by Omoyele Sowore, which was republished to remind the public of his own assessment of Prof. Gambari, whom he said was anti-June 12 and supported dictatorship. There’s another reaction attributed to Ambassador Dapo Fafowora, who you know very well. Both in his book and memoirs titled, ‘Lest I Forget’, also argued that Prof. Gambari would substitute national interests for his own personal interests. What do you say to all of this?
Believe me, I’m familiar with stories about Ambassador Fowora, an eminent scholar, and diplomat himself. He’s one of our best and brightest just like Gambari himself. The whole issue is this: in politics, especially, in international relations, time is extremely important. And, events that happened at a particular time cannot be used to judge the future. In fact, in politics in general, a day is eternity.
There is no perfect person. To say that you’re perfect is to compete with God. However, we cannot bring a personal issue or personal encounter. We all saw some major disappointments among ourselves who were diplomats. Were I to tell my own story it would be different and would also be as painful as anybody’s. But the truth is that these things do happen but sometimes due to circumstances you did not create nor can you control.
However, whatever anybody can say, the truth is ask yourself: what are you looking for: a saint or a man who can perform this job? If I feel strongly, whether individual differences with some people or eminent people for that matter, you have to look at the issues at stake. Believe me, Ibrahim Gambari’s appointment is extremely timely.
And I know he’ll bring with this position ideas in advocating peace and security in the country. He’ll bring to bear the harmony of reconciliation and healing of the nation. In fact, the truth of the matter is, he’s coming at a right time and we should all give him the support. I really know that there’s goodwill for him and he has more virtues than vices. These virtues must be acknowledged and encouraged.
Gambari was once described as United Nations favourite and seen as a formidable diplomat with an eminent standing in Africa. What do you think he can bring to the table with all the good accolades he enjoys and the virtues he possesses?
To be candid, it’s just part of what I have just said. We need healing. We need more ideas that will unite us and not ideas that will divide us. As a matter of fact, sometimes the personality of a leader matters more and important than even what he says. I sincerely believe that he’ll bring to the table and bring to his office enough dignity, impeccable character that will enable him to reconcile the country and help Mr. President to do a lot for this nation.
Under the former Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, the office was very controversial and people referred to Kyari as shadow president, saying he was too powerful. Nigerians will likely have a different set of expectations this time around. What will you advise Prof. Gambari in his new position, having in mind how controversial the office has become?
As a matter of fact, I don’t want to give advice. I want to make a statement. I’ll say to Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, ambassador extraordinaire and plenipotentiary, a professor of International Relations, a public speaker that is one of the most in demand worldwide in major institutions, an international personality, do your best and do it with fear of God, which I know you’ve always had.
And, do it for the good of mankind and to the benefit of mankind and to the glory of God. He’ll do so. He’ll really know how to navigate the delicate balance that this country requires. By the way, his doctoral dissertation was on linkage politics, which has to deal with the impact of domestic problems on country’s foreign policy and he’s indeed one of many Nigerians but actually few experts that are actually concerned about Nigeria’s political questions and their possible solutions.
Maybe, his appointment came at a time that God wants to use him to solve a lot of this country’s problems. Whether you like it or not God works through some people and through some individuals. The problem Nigeria has today is what I saw in 1986, when I gave a lecture with the title, ‘We Need Heroes Because Mortals Have Failed’.
It was a lecture given at the invitation of the late Aboderin, the then publisher of The Punch, and my friend, Dr. Haruna Adamu, who was the managing director. The situation in Nigeria is definitely similar today in many ways. We need people with knowledge, skills, knowledge with wisdom, genuine patriots, and nationalists, not impostors and impersonators. A lot must be done and should be done.
It’s now time for Nigeria to use their ideas and keep moving forward, if it’s what they choose. Otherwise, you choose your fate.
Given Gambari’s profile, do you think this is someone capable of helping Nigeria to eradicate Boko Haram and insecurity and what do you think his most important mandate should be?
I want to tell you something. His major career at the international level was making peace in many parts of the world in similar situations like Boko Haram. In fact, on something worse, civil wars, insurgencies as you can tell if you look at his biography, he was everywhere there was a problem.
The secretary-general definitely sent him everywhere and he did his best, including up to Darfur. Name anywhere there was a crisis in the world that he had not been part of the peacemaking? Indeed, he knows that Nigeria has problems. I know probably the President himself knows that Gambari can help him in solving these problems. I feel, sincerely, that there’s no need in comparing people.
Individuals are unique. Many have their own ambitions. Don’t forget, at the point that Gambari is, he’s not looking for fame. He’s not looking for recognition. That had been done and taken care of a long time ago. If he had been appointed and he accepted, I sincerely believe it’s because of true inspiration to serve this country, reduce the conflicts going on and find a medium that’ll advise the President wisely and inevitably change the course, if possible, of Nigeria’s history. I know he’ll be capable of doing this.
Conflict in Nigeria, I know he had studied it like many of us. The Boko Haram thing has been there because it has become lucrative. So, don’t ask me too many questions about this area or even making the attempt to think that you can unite Nigeria through intimidation. That’s impossible. You can try it. Many empires and governments had tried that. It’s not a route to succeed in uniting a country.
Gambari knows that it’s through peaceful co-existence and negotiations that plural societies co-exist. To talk about all these things, Gambari is aware of them. He’s among the four most prominent people in Nigeria and others, who know what a federation is. And he knows what federalism is.
Perhaps, in that category of academics in Nigeria, you’ll add Prof. Sawe Lagun. You’ll add Prof. Jide Osuntokun and perhaps, my humble self, in addition to Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi and a few others, who are indeed knowledgeable of what makes federalism works.
When a federal system degenerates, when you see it degenerating, it has a solution. If some people have refused the solution to federal situations and turn it into something else, then, that’s why there’s a crisis. So, Gambari will bring some form of solution to the multinational state of Nigeria.
In fact, those who recommended him and those who appointed him must have seen this character and quality in him, which is what I sincerely believe knowing him as long as I have, participating with him in debates for national survival of this country for so many years and I’ll even tell you something: he has the resilience and the capacity to endure including a lot of things that many Nigerians will not go for. I am sure he is here somehow by divine intervention.
Let’s talk COVID-19. What’s your assessment of Nigeria’s management of the crisis so far? Do you think Nigeria acted too quickly in easing the lockdown and what else do you think the Nigerian government should do in the best interest of Nigerians and the economy?
I don’t know how you’ll take this but generally, most of the countries in the world were not prepared for COVID-19 and not only Nigeria to be candid with you and to be objective. So, I’m not an expert in viruses; I’m not a medical expert. I’ll refer you if you want details on this question, please, I’ll refer you to experts.
Some of them are close by like Prof. Ebun Bamgboye of St. Nicholas. People like Prof. Maurice Iwu. They’ll answer this kind of question. The political side of the whole situation in Nigeria, which has been consistent in any form that you can interpret it, including COVID-19, is mismanagement of diversity.
Nigerian leaders have found it difficult to manage diversity. I read a few days ago something that was absolutely absurd with the federal system of government. The federal government of Nigeria to do school feeding – something local governments and ward levels should do. The federal government, feeding?
How do you explain a federation going from Abuja to feed schoolchildren in Birnin-Kebbi and Onitsha? You have state governments. You have local governments. I’ve never seen how wasteful we can be. And we can try to solve national problems, what kind of logistics would you need to go and feed people? Federal Government of Nigeria!
About COVID-19, those managing it are unique. They’re doing their best. But then, the same problem of mismanaging federalism, mismanaging diversity is what is inhibiting them. I can see them struggling with acceptance of their directives to different parts of Nigeria, because there’s no coordination or ineffective coordination, or inability to coordinate, because they can’t be everywhere.
Of course, we must know this before it’s too late. All revolutions are blamed on the leaders, not on the people. We in Nigerians must be careful about what’s happening to our country, particularly the leaders.
Let’s talk about the expulsion of Africans in certain parts of China currently causing a diplomatic storm. What’s your view regarding Nigeria’s response so far, mainly through the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, summoning Chinese ambassador to Nigeria?
A few months ago, the institute of international affairs director general now, Prof. Buka Bukarambe invited me to chair a dialogue between the Chinese Institute, African Institute, and the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. The dialogue was wonderful as to Africa-China relations. It’s very clear to many African scholars, very, very clear, China has done Africa favours but definitely all favours end in expectation of gratitude.
Sometimes, after you’ve got indebted, you’ll not know what the man you owe will demand as repayment. As a matter of fact, the way China is demanding repayment in Africa is not what African leaders expected. As time went on, African countries recognised some form of entrapment. In fact, they have over-borrowed and some of them have become nothing but so indebted and cannot get out of that debt burden easily.
What does China do? They didn’t come to Africa as the Red Cross movement. They came for national interests, which can be defined in many ways for other countries, which could be militarily strategic, economic, and socio-cultural. And they’re achieving them and achieving them faster than Europeans did. Now, it’s time for payment. And Africans were being surprised by their expectations of the benefactor.
Now to African countries’ response to what’s happening to their citizens in China. This is part of the problem of a lack of study of history. China, Japan, have been mono-cultural societies. They hardly absorb other people’s cultures. But Africans have gone there in ‘good days’ when China was wooing Africa. As a matter of fact, having entered, they really don’t need you anymore. They don’t need Africa so much anymore.
So, what was being built as a basis of friendship such as bringing students to China, business in China; business is now in Africa. If you look out through your window within two minutes, you’ll see Chinese but for this lockdown. Very close to you is a China shop. And they’re bringing their manufactured goods, just as the French did, just as the British did.
But then, the African countries have the right to rethink and re-design their diplomatic relations with China or any other country. But that will take again, leadership.
Where’s the leadership to do it? But it must be done. Maybe a generation that can confront it may be on its way. It may even include those who have been repatriated from China. But the sad memories of where you went to school or happy memories of where you went to school, guide you throughout your life. In international relations, when you’re abroad, you build interpersonal variables and they play a role in nations’ foreign policy.
So, I want to tell you China is not treating Africa very well, and during that conference at NIIA, we told them so. By then, this crisis had not erupted. I’ll advise our government to continue what they’re doing; continue dialoguing with China and tell them the real truth. We must stop playing around the issue of racism in China. We must tell them the truth: we don’t like racism. Pure and simple!
China has been heavily stigmatised in the face of COVID-19. There’re some who said China is the problem. President Trump, the German newspaper, Bild, and also some Nigerians, have taken China to court asserting China must pay compensation to Nigeria and other countries. Oby Ezekwesili wrote an article and has written another, saying China must pay reparation, because it’s the source of the coronavirus pandemic. Do you think the stigmatisation of China could have an impact on international relations post-COVID-19?
No doubt about that. The issue of coronavirus has become an issue of international politics and the issue of international economic relations. To be candid, ask yourself: who is gaining from this coronavirus? Which country? Which nation stands to gain the best? Look at the statistics economically. Everybody’s economy is declining; China’s own is growing. That alone is enough to trigger envy and anger and blame game. So, that is the truth of the matter.
However, as I said earlier, details of who’s responsible for COVID-19, you should go to experts, the virologist, and those who have, time and time, done research on this matter. We have many of them in Nigeria. Call them. For me, I’ll tell you coronavirus has become politicised, both at the national level and at the international level. And you know politicians are very smart.
Politicians will hang on anything to get power. Any opportunity. In fact, politicians are wonderful people. One of our teachers at Columbia University, said politicians can commit any offence, commit any crime and the devil will give you a witness if you don’t have any. As for the coronavirus, it has become an instrument of politicisation, of the struggle for power and dominance. That’s why it has turned into a controversy and no longer science alone.