The Australian government recently contributed about $5Million dollars to the humanitarian crisis in the Northeastern part Nigeria, ravaged by Boko Haram. The country has remained a committed partner in Nigeria’s quest for sustained economic growth and diversification. In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine, the Australian High Commissioner to Nigeria, His Excellency, Ambassador Paul Lehmann, tell us why Australia is committed to Nigeria’s progress. Excerpts:
The Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations, was formed in 2015 and tasked with the responsibility of informing Australia’s Thinking and Policies on Africa; how has this group fared in this regard since inception?
It is interesting that you talked about this group because it is actually the first time that the Australian government did set up a formal mechanism to provide advice on how best to manage our relations with the African continent, with a particular focus on what we might do to grow the trade relationship. We have other aspects of our relationship that are equally important. So far, it has been great, though we are still in the early stages of the formation of the group, it is already looking at ways that we can better understand the commercial opportunities for Australian Businesses and also better promote the relations between Australia and major African countries.
The present Government is committed to diversifying the Nigerian Economy and one area of focus is the Solid Mineral Sector; your country has an extensive experience in this regard, how can Nigeria benefit from your experience?
This can be done in many ways. Principally through the exchange of ideas and the training and development of Nigerian professionals either in Australia or in Nigeria. There are recent works, during which we have Australian officials coming to Abuja to provide training for Nigerians on the administrations and management of the Mining sector. Officials from the central government and a number of states came together for a couple of days for this program. Also, we have a long-standing program of providing scholarships for Nigerian students and the focus areas for the students have been in the mining and extractive industry. The collaborations have been ongoing and everybody wins at the end of the day. It is terrific for us because we get to know more about Nigeria and we get to develop the depth of our people to people engagements. Also, for Nigeria they gain expertise, we have seen these individuals come back to fill important government positions in the extractive industry. So, I always say it’s a two-way arrangement for Australia and Nigeria. We have that sort of bilateral relationship. We are not such a large traditional development partner here in Nigeria, but we see our relationship more like two very important commodity exporting countries working together. We are constantly looking at what more we can do in the areas of services; commodities and a host of other areas. We look at skills development- education, as well as cultural exchanges. We have a couple of programs that we run from the Embassy, that is just a very small community development program. Priority areas are education, health, women and human rights. I was in Enugu recently where we constructed some residential accommodation for young people. We also provided some specially adapted IT equipment for four secondary school students, who are visually impaired. Again for us, it is more about the demonstration of what Australia and Nigeria can do together at the community level. So, we see it as a way to provide material benefits and also as a way to deepen our relationship and to also promote the values that are important to us and Nigeria. It also afforded me an opportunity to explore other parts of Nigeria.
The trade numbers between Nigeria and Australia has experienced a modest but slow growth in the last couple of years; the export from Nigeria stands at about $2 Billion dollars in 2015, what is the current figure today?
The numbers do fluctuate. they spike up and down depending on the demand for crude oil from the gulf of guinea, which is Australia’s traditional source for crude. So, the Nigerian-Australian bilateral relations have remained one of the largest in the continent. Last year, we didn’t purchase so much from Nigerian, so the numbers went down slightly. As I mentioned earlier, we would like to smoothen out those rough areas and see how we can improve on the trade and sustain it, by expanding the range of products and services that we trade. So, Agricultural products and services that support the growth of the Agric value chain. As I mentioned earlier, education is also an area that we are committed to promoting in Nigeria. Interestingly, Nigerian students are choosing to attend universities in Australia, for many reasons. They feel very much at home in Australia. People talk about the distance, but for Australians, it is in our bones, right from when we are born. we are made to understand that everywhere is far. For us making friendships and sustaining same. It is just natural, we do not think about it. For us, it is the distance that brings us together. The number of Nigerian students studying in Australia has been increasing quite dramatically. That is a sign of not just the quality of education, but also the cultural feat that we can have, been one of the world’s most recognized multicultural, multiracial and multireligious country. That is a great part of our success story.
With Nigeria’s quest to grow her Agric sector, it is increasingly becoming obvious that your country’s export of Wheat to Nigeria will be affected; are you thinking of encouraging some local players in the Agric sector to invest in Nigeria’s Agro-value chain?
That is a good question. Obviously, the development of the Agric sector in Nigeria is good for everyone, as it will increase job creation, food security and other trickles down effect it would have on the economy. So, we will support that. However no matter the growth, there are segments of the market that need to be sourced abroad. Australia produces a particular variety of wheat, specific for use in producing certain products. My understanding is that there is typically a need for any country to tie up their domestic production and also partly rely on partner countries for other segments. Again, we are working not just to be a single commodity exporter. Like Nigeria, diversification is an ongoing objective for us. It is part of my job to promote products that will support the massive urbanization that is happening here in Nigeria. Expertise, equipment, training and all sorts of input, that will quickly and promptly contribute to the speedy actualization of the agenda on the ground in a tangible way.
What is the Embassy doing to grow people-to-people interaction so as to increase tourism and cultural exchanges?
We love it when Nigerian go to visit Australia and we love it when Australians come to visit Nigeria. It is always lots of smiles. Some of the things we have in the horizon include, the torch relay for the Commonwealth Games, it will be coming through the region. We have international conferences in Australia regularly that attracts high levels of professional from Nigeria who come back and forth for short course training. So, there are so many opportunities that may have just been limited by imagination and the number of hours in a day. It is as you say a very critical part of what we are doing.
What are some of the areas you are looking to boost the relationship between Nigeria and Australia in the coming months?
Countries like Nigeria and Australia can always aspire to do more both in the region and international level. We have to promote common causes, which embodies common values like human rights. Nigeria and Australia were together at the security council level. There is a number of areas I think we can work together – giving the relative positions that both of our countries occupy in our respective regions. Nigeria has been the leader in the continent and for us, in the Pacific, it is a similar story. Other forums like the Commonwealth, long standing members like both countries can partner more. We can usefully progress all sorts issues. I think that there a bit more room to deepen our relationships and we are working on it. The world is changing and no one should be more informed about these changes than you and your readers. The shifting positions of different regions and the politics in various parts of the world underscore the need for countries to examine ways that countries who share the same values can work together. So, we want to look to the future and we see the growth of the continent and we would like to be part of that picture.
How has the Australian government contributed to the humanitarian crisis in the Northeastern part of Nigeria?
Australia did make a contribution of about $5million dollars to the world food program in the Chad basin. We have followed the situation closely in Africa. But as yu may be aware, we have very heavy humanitarian commitments in the Pacific, which is often the first point of call for us. We are however responding to a number of calls for humanitarian assistance in a number of countries in the continent.