As part of strategies to absolve the Nigerian economy from the biting effect of dwindling oil revenue and as the world braces-up for a future, less driving by crude, the Buhari-led administration have made concerted efforts towards diversifying the economy. Agriculture, solid minerals, ICT amongst others have been identified as the sectors that will drive Nigeria’s gradual move from a mono-economy. In this interview with African Leadership Magazine, His Excellency, Mr Christopher Thorney, Canada High Commissioner to Nigeria, opens up on why there are no Canadian Investors in Nigeria’s Solid Mineral Sector; the implications of Nigeria’s delay in signing the Foreign Investment and Protection Agreement; among other issues. Excerpts:
- The Canada-Nigeria Bi-national Commission was created in 1992 as the main forum for bilateral exchanges between both countries; how has this commission fared since its inception?
It’s been remarkable, just one correction to your question, it was created as I understand in 2012, not 1992, about 5 years ago. It is more recent and we have had five of them. We’ve been able to do pretty much every year, alternating between Canada and Nigeria, so our last activity was last November(2016) when our foreign minister at the time, Stephane Dion, visited Nigeria and it was very productive. It was good we had it here on the ground, due to the presence of the foreign ministry, we had a good discussion on a variety of areas. The good thing about the bi-national commission is that it puts some structure on our relationship and it allows us to treat the relationship as a priority and I think the same applies to Nigeria as well. So, we found it a very useful tool as a part of our very broad and multidimensional relationship, but in a way it is the blueprint for the relationship, it is the structure around which we formally build our overall relationship. We had a communique, at the end of it, we talked about common values, human rights, peace and security, the humanitarian situation in Nigeria, healthcare for the women and girls, economic diversification, it is a very long list, which also included governance and immigration. Although a one-day discussion, it is a useful discussion, that we have once a year and it provides basically a plan to go forward and look at areas where we can work together to build a relationship, it’s not uncommon. Canada doesn’t do very many of these joint commissions, we use to have very many of them, but we went through a process to eliminate them because a lot of them were dormant. But Nigeria is different, it is the biggest country and economy in Africa, and for us, Nigeria is a very important partner. We are having the sixth one in Canada, early next year, 2018.
- Available statistics have shown that half of Nigeria’s 182 Million population are under 30, which has led to an increased clamour by young people for inclusion in the political process; how can Nigeria benefit from your country’s experience in this regard?
Youth engagement is essential in the political process, but what is more important is having a diverse engagement with the youths being a part of that as well as all areas of the population being part of the process, women, minorities, different region, youths and the elderly people as well. It shouldn’t be the domain of the elders necessarily, that is the worrying thing in societies, that by the time somebody has the means and the backing of becoming a political leader, such a person might have lived a long part of their life. For youths to talk about it in Nigeria shows that they are interested, and want to engage. This is promising and I am optimistic quite honestly.
Canada is actually an old country, we are 150 years, and older than many countries, including a number of European countries. We have a long tradition of democracy and governance, and we have made many mistakes, and I dare say that 100 years ago there were a very few young people involved in politics because they had to raise money, have the backing and other things that we see in younger democracies. For us, youth is an important part of our fabric, particularly the Prime Minister, who along with being the Prime Minister is the Minister of Youth, he designated the youth as one of our values to mark our 150th anniversary, he has a youth council that provides advice to him on a range of issues not just issues relevant to youths alone, but about the country. This is part of the building block of Canada that diversity makes us stronger, and the youths are part of that and a part of our society. People involve in unproductive ways in the political process, and that is why you see things like insecurity, unemployment, and other challenges facing Nigeria. I think it is important for young people to feel that they are part of the political process, that they have influence, to get involved so that they don’t feel marginalized that they can be engaged. With the theme of your magazine- leadership, it takes longer to develop leaders, and if you can start them early, as they develop, they become strong and effective leaders. What was interesting about Canada was that our Prime Minister was elected for many different reasons, but his youth was not really in the forefront, his energy was noticed, his emphasis on diversity, his creativity, and imagination, which may all be a part of being young, but there was very little discussion about whether he was too young. The political calculus was whether he was the right person to lead the country – obviously, he was, because, he won the election(Laughs).Democracy is never wrong!
- May 2017 marked two years since the Foreign Investment and Protection Agreement was signed between Nigeria and Canada; can you share some of the successes and challenges of this agreement?
It’s interesting because you are not wrong in saying 2017, it’s more of a fluid process than that, it started in 2013 and we were quite optimistic because we had the drive to sign this foreign investment protection agreement with numerous countries in West Africa. Nigeria was one of the very first, however, because it is a bilateral treaty, it has to be ratified by the parliament or your (Nigeria’s) congress. It has been ratified by our parliament, but it is still on the order table of the senate and house of representatives of Nigeria. That is a bit frustrating because it hasn’t been enforced. From our perspective, we think it would be very helpful for Nigeria’s economic development and growth and diversification, for example, mining, what you call solid minerals. Our mining companies go anywhere, they don’t pick whether minerals are there, they have to work there. Canada is the biggest foreign investor in Burkina Faso, we have one of the biggest mines in Mali, Myanmar, we are in places like Mauritania, we are all over the world, where the minerals are is where we are. But Canadian investments in solid minerals are not in Nigeria because the building blocks are important to create investor confidence. And it is important for the country to diversify its economy by moving out of its dependence on oil and gas to not being a hostage to the vagaries of the commodity market. We’d like to see this foreign investment protection agreement come into force. It will benefit us because we want to see our investment in any country get national attention, but we also see it as mutually beneficial for Nigeria. This is because economic investment has a massive impact, more than any donor contribution will ever have. A country economy will grow when it can attract and retain good, solid and sustainable economic investment.
- Canada’s core areas of bilateral development assistance in Nigeria are maternal, newborn and child health, the economic empowerment of women, and sustainable economic growth; can you share some of your specific programs in the last one year?
Well, it is the women’s question (general laughter). I say that with a lot of respect, but there has been a review of our international assistance, policy, and programs, it has been a comprehensive overarching review. We have done a lot of work in the areas you mentioned, and every development partner finds an area of development. From our position, if we empower women and girls, make them contributors to the economic environment and society, we would eradicate poverty. We have been actively involved in this area as well as sexual reproduction and rights, ending child marriage, women economic empowerment and health. We have a program called “Sustainable economic growth” where we help women in agriculture to develop agribusinesses and move it away from subsistence farming. Women have shown a better business sense and ability at this and it has also shown a multiplier effect in leadership and sustainability. If I throw the numbers at you, you’d be amazed because we have affected over 1500 communities through this, and in our primary health care program, we have administered over 180,000 Polio vaccines in fairly recent years, and Nigeria has almost eradicated Polio. We are proud of the work that we have done with the government of Nigeria and the Ministry of Health to make this progress. In the Northeastern part of the country where you have one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, the Canadian government is playing a significant role to help people affected and those in need as one of the top-five contributors to the on-going relief efforts. We do this not just to end it because it is a big problem or the right thing to do, we do this through a holistic and systemic solution approach because if we don’t, it revolves in a cycle and can bring insecurity to our borders as well.
- Nigeria is one of Canada’s main source of international students, with over 10,000 students in 2016 alone; there are however more opportunities if some of the Canadian institutions seek partnerships towards setting up local campuses. Are there plans to encourage Canadian institutions to consider this option?
I hope Canadian institutions have their plans to do so because we certainly have been encouraging them to do so as part of our strategy for the promotion of international education. There hasn’t been too much of it except for distance learning, virtual campuses, a blended approach. Nigeria is a frontier market for international education. We are proud of what Canada has to offer, and we respect the intelligence of Nigerian students as well. Canada is thought of as a ground of consistently high-quality education, with a lot of well-known institutions, where you can go to any single one of them and receive a very good education. It is also important for Nigerians who make up our sixth-biggest source of international students is that we offer safe cities, cities that are relatively well-organized, we also have walled cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but they are not massive and overwhelming and they are highly cosmopolitan. Nigerians must also understand that for every choice of education in any Canadian society, there will be other Nigerians there and a Nigerian community, so it is kind of a soft landing for them. The only thing we can’t do anything about is the weather, the fear of the winter (general laughter).
One thing that we find inspiring and the interesting thing about the education is that when a Nigerian goes to Canada, he/she chooses to come back to the country to contribute to the development and bring a completely different thing. And they are also ambassadors for us. Because of the experience that stays with them, they bring a one-to-one ambassadorial connection with their people. When we meet people who are influential, it brings to us the different perspectives of Nigerians, it is not just about Canada. This partnership will also grow investor confidence and a point of contact for us.
- What is the Embassy doing to grow people-to-people interaction so as to increase tourism and cultural exchanges?
We harp on the successes to education and it is vital we understand that except there is an organic flow, whenever it takes the form of a government-structured activity, it becomes a policy, and people, in turn, lose the feel of the initial conception. One thing we have tried to do is to develop an alumni connection of people who have studied in Canada, and I think that grows people-to-people linkages. I have had dealings with Nigerians who have had an experience of Canada. The governor of a significant state once told me he was taught by a Canadian teacher in his rural community, and not just being taught but he taught him how to swim. Right now as we speak, the Lagos Civil Service Commission is in Canada for exchange with our(Canadian) public service commission to develop more on proper recruitment, merit-based promotion, having a public service that runs based on a clear set of rules and is impartial and neutral, and I am quite happy about that. We had a little send-off event for a group that is involved in the criminal justice sector, that were being trained In the School of Public Policy of the University of Toronto and this is the second year of this program. What they are working on is metrics for establishing basic human rights.
On the cultural sides, for our 150th celebration – which is still on-going, remarkably, on July 1st, the Canada day, there were a number of traditional rulers that came to Canada, including the Ooni of Ife, and he interacted with the Nigerian community and Senior Canadian decision-makers, including our Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, who himself is from Africa, and was a child refugee to Canada.
A very good one is Masai Ujiri, he is from Northern Nigeria, he is a very good basketballer, he is now the President of the Toronto Raptors, one of our NBA teams, he is well-celebrated in Canada than here in Nigeria. He made a great impact in the Canadian basketball sports from playing to coaching, and now as an executive. He is very humble, and I quite respect him, because he runs a foundation called “ Giants of Africa”, he comes back with top NBA basketballers, scouts, and coaches and they run camps in African countries including here in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ghana, which are more than just teaching kids how to play the game, but value and leadership skills. Not from a wealthy background, sort of a self-made man, it’s the kind of role modelling Nigerian youths might look up to.
- What are some of the areas you are looking to boost the relationship between Nigeria and Canada in the coming months?
I think a lot of our relationships on the continent of Africa are unidimensional, with a country like Nigeria, we need to be multidimensional, it needs to grow beyond the solitary focus of development. In Nigeria, I see things like developing a much stronger commercial relationship. When there is a stronger commercial relationship, you then develop a sense of common interest, and this creates a level of mutual dependency. When that happens, you have people working together, not just diplomats, but business people who are working together at a people-to-people human level. This involves everyone in the economic chain. As for me, that is a healthy and flourishing relationship and it does a lot for development, foreign investments for example.
In the short-term, I see us continue in the humanitarian efforts in the Northeast, although there are lots of issues that call for attention, our focus on the Northeast is the identified crisis. And lastly, we must recognize that Nigeria is an influential partner, and we can work together on issues that have nothing to do with Nigeria and with Canada.
Also, we can work together on a common interest in the UN. We’d be putting in a bid for an election in 2020 into the UN security council, and we’ll be looking for Nigeria’s support, and through those mechanisms, we can find ways to work together. Canada is a member of the G7, and we can use our G7 membership to work closely with Nigeria and other African countries. We’ll be assuming the presidency next year, I can’t speak for the Prime Minister what the priority will be, but certainly, that scenario where we’ll work together will be one