By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
FOUNDER and Executive Director of The Netherlands-based Hope for Niger Delta Campaign, HNDC, Mr Sunny Ofehe, says an alleged plan by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to shut down 80 foreign missions and embassies will bring disgrace to Nigeria if it happens.
“President Muhammadu Buhari understands the benefit of international shuttle diplomacy and that is why he travels around the world on state visits and international engagements to promote Nigerian exports and seek foreign investments in our economy”, Ofehe said.
“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 comity of nations”.
The Nigerian-born environmental and human rights activist, who has travelled around the world campaigning on environmental degradation and human rights conditions of the people of his native Niger Delta, told Sunday Vanguard, “I am disturbed; the Nigerian Foreign Ministry presented a budget before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. The amount that was presented was cut by 60 per cent, which has led the Ministry to reach a decision to cut down Nigerian foreign missions and embassies from 110 to 30.
“This means that, if urgent steps are not taken, Nigeria will close down 80 foreign missions and embassies, and throw several families into unemployment. I have carefully followed the news, but I am shocked that nobody has seen the need to speak on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I have very close friends who have worked for this ministry for years and, through these people, I can feel their suffering even though they sacrifice daily to keep our foreign image positive.
“We have a President who travels and sees the situation of foreign missions and should not allow closure in his time. I think, as Nigerians, we must take decisive steps and I have started with a piece of my voice”.
He went on: “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 30 foreign embassies. 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, the 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, and the list goes on and on.
“A country like Nigeria that enjoys this robust global acceptability and respect cannot afford to 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.
“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 cannot see why any of them should be shut down or merged.
“The 30 countries that will be left should Nigeria shut down 80 foreign missions will not be sufficient to serve our citizens and foreign interests in the continent of Africa.
“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 functions 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. Nigeria, as a signatory to that Convention, established her first diplomatic missions in the early 60s after independence. Thanks to the country’s economic boom of the early 70s, we were able to acquire choice properties in prime locations of our mission countries capitals. Today, Nigeria owns the majority of our foreign missions and residences of the ambassadors.
“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. In respect of specific public agencies with local interests in the host country, also to promote the interests of Nigeria and its citizens in that 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 Nigeria’s policies, identify potential threats to and opportunities for Nigerian interests, and provide a 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 a huge number of Nigerians in the Diaspora, who visit 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.
“I clearly understand the challenges that our economy back home is facing, but you must remember that these problems are peculiar with all countries across the world today. Despite the need to cut spending and prioritize government expenditure, we must set our priorities straight.
“I know that the education and healthcare sectors are critical areas that require government funding. The country needs to boost its revenue in order to be able to fund these critical sectors, but 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 advanced 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 economy, and embassies play key roles in bringing this into reality. I am aware that our embassies usually send profiles 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 within this context, devoting a 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 defence of the 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 workers, worried that they could hardly pay their health bills, were 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 spoke on an engagement with Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund for the redevelopment of the Federal Government properties abroad; rehabilitation and rent of properties not in use through public-private partnership arrangement; sharing cost for utilities with other agencies occupying the missions’ buildings 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 while the foreign ministry’s budget is reducing. He made a promise that they will look at the budget holistically and find a way to bridge the gap.
“The vice chair of the committee, Senator Shehu Sani, also said no responsible country will deliberately underfund its missions. Year in, year out, they present and defend budgets, but things remain the same. Our diplomats are subjected to all kinds of humiliation because we refused to fund our missions.
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“Small countries are funding their missions, but ours are not funded and no resources to pay the diplomats’ children fees and others. 60 years after independence, we are still renting apartments for embassies. You cannot claim to be the giant of Africa if you cannot fund embassies.
“I am completely in support of measures to reduce the cost of funding foreign missions rather than shutting them down. As it stands today, Nigerian foreign missions have around 2,000 gainfully employed diplomats. What happens to such staff if the government shuts down the missions? Will they return to the foreign ministry in Abuja redundant?
“On whether embassies and diplomats are still needed or relevant in the 21st century since the globalization and rapid advances in information and communications technology have connected billions of people, there have 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 advanced 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 people can perform the information gathering and country assessment functions of an embassy by 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 via phone and e-mail is very helpful and air travel makes it easy for officials to fly in for crucial meetings, these tools cannot replicate the relationship 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 former and informal meetings compared to constant exchanges of e-mails or phone calls.
“Just take a look at the size of Nigeria and her population living outside the country, are 110 foreign missions and embassies too much for Nigeria? I do not think so if you truly understand the benefits of those missions to our nation’s development.
“Any government that understands how the world respects Nigeria will not starve its foreign missions of funds. Let us look at the numbers, For instance, in 2018, the Federal Government allocated N11.333 billion 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 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 N4.9 billion 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. 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 visited the headquarters of our foreign ministry in Abuja a few times; do you know that even printing paper and other normal office items are not available? A friend, who is a French journalist, told me, last year, that he was at our foreign ministry headquarters in Abuja and was disappointed with what he saw. “He even told me that Nigeria is gradually losing skilled career diplomats because the ministry cannot fund the training of staff.
“I have so many 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 the key to the conduct of international relations.