Activist urges FG to rethink foreign embassies closure

Comrade Sunny Ofehe is the Founder and Executive Director of Hope for Niger Delta Campaign based in The Netherlands and former Delta State 2019 Governorship aspirant for the National ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).

The Nigerian born environmental and human rights activists who has travelled around the world campaigning on the environmental degradation and human rights conditions of the people of his native Niger Delta region spoke from his base in Rotterdam on the dire state of Nigerian Foreign Missions and its embassies around the world.

1. Nigeria is set to close down 80 Foreign Embassies around the world due to lack of funds from the Federal Government. What is your take on this?

As we speak right now, Nigeria has 110 foreign missions and Embassies around the world, so if you are shutting down 80 Embassies and foreign Missions, it therefore means that we are left with only 30 foreign Embassies around the world.

Nigeria is the most populous black nation in the world with a population of around 180 million people. Nigeria has a huge Diaspora population living within Africa, Europe, The Americas, Asia, Caribbean and the Middle East.

Nigerian is currently Africa’s largest economy, Africa’s largest producer and exporter of crude oil and a leading African global player in world politics. Nigeria is a member of several regional, continental and international organizations such as ECOWAS, Africa Union (AU), the United Nations (UN), Commonwealth, OIC, OPEC, OPCW, ICC, ICJ, among others.

A country like Nigerian that enjoys this robust global acceptability and respect must not compromise and diminish its international diplomatic posture before the world. It is therefore imperative that as a country, we must ensure adequate representation in global affairs and at the same time serve our citizens and promote our core socio-economic values around the world.

In other to stand out in the comity of Nations, we must retain all the current existing 110 Foreign Missions and Embassies.

Africa has 54 countries and Nigeria being a leading country in the continent has foreign missions and embassies in 42 countries. I have carefully reviewed the location of our African foreign missions and can’t see why any of them should be shut down or merged.

The 30 countries that will be left should Nigeria close down 80 foreign missions will not be sufficient to serve our citizens and foreign interest in the continent of Africa.

2. How important is the Foreign Missions and Embassies to the growth of a country such as Nigeria?

To understand the importance of Foreign Missions and Embassies, we must know the purpose for the establishment of Foreign Missions.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations came into force in 1961 as an international treaty setting out the framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission which enable diplomats to perform their function without fear of intimidation or provocation by the host country.

This treaty ratified by 192 countries is considered the cornerstone of modern international diplomatic relations. As a signatory to that convention, Nigeria established her first diplomatic missions in the early 60s after independence.

Thanks to the country’s economic boom in the early 70s, we were able to acquire choice properties in prime locations of our missions countries capitals. Today, majority of our foreign missions and residences of the Ambassadors are owned by Nigeria.

There are several strong cases to be made in support of maintaining a diplomatic presence overseas. This case rests on the premise that the outlays are necessary and will produce a return over the long term.

The role of Nigerian diplomatic missions abroad is to function as the channel of communication between the Nigerian Government and that of the host country, to act as the official representative of Nigeria interest in general, and in respect of specific public agencies with local interests in the host country.

In order to carry out their work, diplomatic missions must have a strong grasp of the host country’s politics, society and culture. They must be able to explain Nigerian policies, identify potential threats to and opportunities for Nigerian interests, and provide political and economic analysis of local conditions to inform decision-making back home. Much of the day-to-day work carried out by diplomatic missions involves promoting Nigerian trade interests.

The consular section of our foreign missions attracts huge number of Nigerians in the Diaspora who visits the embassies to sort out all their immigration related matters. The Nigerian embassies in The Hague, Berlin, Brussels and Paris attract a minimum of 100 visitors daily for passport and visa applications even though these four countries share borders.

3. Why should Nigerian spend foreign currency to maintain 110 foreign Missions at a time when our economy is struggling and our currency has depreciated against the dollars? Don’t you think that shutting down some foreign missions will enable the government to divest such funds to other sectors like education or healthcare back home?

I clearly understand the challenges that our economy back home is facing but you must remember that these problems are peculiar with all countries around the world today. Despite the need to cut spending and prioritize government expenditure, we must set our priorities straight.

The education and healthcare sectors you have mentioned are critical areas that require government funding. The country need to boost its economic revenue in other to be able to fund these critical sectors.

One of the impacts of the global recession is that it has compelled a number of countries to scale back their diplomatic representation overseas by closing some of their embassies; even some advance countries have taken such step.

The Netherlands scaled down their diplomatic representation in Nigeria when there was a cut in the foreign ministry budget. They expanded their economic unit and delegated the consular services such as short term visa applications to Belgium and France. The economic unit is significant to sustaining and expanding bilateral business and trade.

Faced with the economic and financial realities of our current economic downturns, governments often have little choice but to cut back on the spending that is involved in maintaining and operating embassies overseas. At a time Nigeria is facing issues such as poverty, serious income inequality, battered economies and poor quality of life for average citizens, it can be quite difficult to justify the allocation of limited government funds to maintaining embassies.

However, Nigeria as a developing country will require foreign direct investments and increased market access for their goods and services to help grow the economies, and embassies play key roles in bringing these into the country. I am aware that our embassies usually send profile of foreign companies willing to invest and do business in Nigeria to the relevant ministries and government agencies after properly vetting the legality and legitimacy of such companies.

Viewed from this context, devoting significant percentage of our GDP to improving the chances of securing much-needed investments, broader market access overseas and developmental aid seems to constitute a worthwhile outlay.

During the foreign ministry defense of its 2019 budget before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, the permanent secretary, Mustapha Suleiman spoke on the cost-saving and survival measures the ministry had embarked upon to keep the missions afloat.

Suleiman said that there was a rationalization of local staff and their conversion to contract workers as a cost-saving measure to reduce personnel cost and avoid huge terminal benefits. He said that staff who are worried that they can hardly pay their health bills, are adopting the Global Health Insurance Scheme to address the situation. The approval of the scheme according to him will provide health insurance facilities for officers in the missions at an affordable cost.

He also said that engagement with Nigeria Sovereign Wealth Fund for the redevelopment of the federal government properties abroad; rehabilitation and renting of properties not in use through public-private partnership arrangement; sharing cost for utilities with other agencies occupying the missions’ building and the provision of intervention funds for missions under the service-wide vote.

This clearly shows that the ministry itself has marshalled a plan to help the government deal with the paucity of funds.

I was very impressed with the position of some members of the Senate Committee like Senator James Manager who said that there were reasons for opening those missions. He said, the number of missions increased to 110 but the total National budget is increasing every year but the foreign ministry’s budget is reducing. He made a promise that they will look at the budget holistically and find a way to fund the gap.

The vice chairman of the committee, Senator Shehu Sani also said no responsible country will deliberately underfund its mission. He said year in year out, budgets are presented and defended but things remain the same. Our diplomats have been subjected to all kinds of humiliation because we cannot or refused to fund our missions.

Small countries are funding their missions but ours are not funded. No resources to pay the diplomats children fees and others. Sixty years after independence, we are still renting apartments for embassies. You can’t claim to be the giant of Africa if you can’t fund embassies.

I am completely in support of measures to reduce cost of funding foreign missions rather than shutting them down. As it stands today, Nigerian foreign missions have around 2,000 diplomats who are gainfully employed. What happen to such staff when the missions are shut down? Will they return to the foreign ministry in Abuja redundant?

4. There has been discussion or debate as to whether embassies and diplomats are still needed or relevant in the 21st century. Globalization and rapid advances in information and communications technology have connected billions of people. Do we really still need foreign missions since cost of running them are high?

There has been arguments made in favour of eliminating embassies, particularly for governments facing harsh fiscal and economic realities like Nigeria. The call for modern technology replacing foreign mission is laughable. The US with all the advance technology in the world and running trillion dollars in deficit still see the need to expand and widen their foreign missions.

In The Netherlands, the US has two Ambassadors with one on multilateral and the other on bilateral. The Ambassador on bilateral is permanently handling the OPCW whereas we have one Ambassador covering the embassy and OPCW.

In Switzerland, the US has three Ambassadors whereas we have only one who covers the embassy and the UN. While the call to shut down most embassies for lack of funds is on, many Nigerian citizens living in Germany, Spain and Italy are calling on the Nigerian government to open consular missions outside of Berlin, Madrid and Rome respectively to serve their consular needs.

In addition, having people on the ground provides added value in terms of obtaining insight into what is going on in the host country. While it is plausible that the information gathering and country assessment functions of an embassy can be done remotely using modern technology, the quality is not the same.

Consolidating and aggregating information is not enough. Analyzing local developments is a key part of a diplomat’s work and requires a deep understanding and appreciation of the issues, culture and pulse of the host country and its citizens. While our globalized world is increasingly interdependent, competition for access to markets and resources remains. A country with people on the ground is more likely to get a more accurate assessment of local opportunities, risks and developments. That is a competitive advantage.

Another advantage of having people on the ground is the extensive people-to-people contact it allows the host country. While communication may be maintained via phone and e-mail, and air travel makes it easy for officials to fly in for crucial meetings, these tools cannot replicate the relationship that can be established through constant personal contact and interaction.

Particularly in countries like China, India and the Middle-East whose cultures put a premium on personal relationships as part of doing business, a lot more is usually achieved over formal and informal meetings compared to constant exchanges of e-mails or phone calls.

5. If you are completely against the shutting down of some of our foreign missions, how can we maintain the 110 foreign missions with the drop in the Ministry 2019 budget as presented to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs?

Please just take a look at the size of Nigeria and her population living outside the country, is 110 foreign missions and embassies too much for Nigeria? I don’t think so, if you truly understand the benefits of those missions to our nation’s development.

Any government who understands how Nigeria is respected around the world will not starve its foreign missions of funds. Let’s look at the numbers, For instance, in 2018 the federal government allocated N11.333billion to capital votes for the missions but cut it to N4.123billion in 2019, representing a reduction of N7.209billion or 64 per cent.

Already, many of the ambassadors serving in most of the missions are said to be unable to pay their children’s school fees, rent, electricity, medical and other utility bills due to the paucity of funds. The situation is even worse at the headquarters of the ministry in Abuja where both volunteers and permanent members of staff are owed the sum of N4.9billion as entitlements.

The permanent secretary also disclosed that agencies under the ministry have various challenges such as inadequate funds to renovate dilapidated building structures, epileptic power supply and lack of adequate capacity building for staff. The foreign missions are facing inadequate funds for their officers’ quarters which are in a dilapidated state, adding that “they have old representational cars begging for replacement; inadequate funds to pay school fees, medical and utility bills, rehabilitate/renovate residences, and insufficient funds to complete ongoing projects; insufficient funds for the payment of returning officers who have finished their missions.”

I have friends who have served and are still serving in the foreign ministry and foreign missions, I must tell you that they are sound and well trained but when you deprived them of the basic needs to function you kill their motivation.

This was the pathetic picture presented to members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We must not allow our country to degenerate to this level of diplomatic disgrace.

Embassies have existed for centuries and it is very likely that they will be around for a long time to come. The way they will operate and conduct their work will necessarily change and evolve to keep them relevant and responsive to global developments, but in one form or another, the embassy will continue to be key to the conduct of international relations.

President Muhammadu Buhari understands the benefit of international shuttle diplomacy and that is why he travels around the world on State visits and international engagement to promote Nigerian exports and seek foreign investments in our economy. I will therefore appeal to Mr. President to provide sufficient funds for the foreign ministry and see the ministry as a critical sector in the quest to build a stable economic nation that is respected in the League of Nations.