“Cooperation between Ethiopia and Nigeria will provide leadership for Africa,” Bulus Paul Lolo, Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia.
Bulus Paul Lolo has been in the diplomatic mission of his country, Nigeria, for some decades now. He had represented his country in Canada and Benin Republic, for which he was credited by his government as being an effective diplomat.
Lately, he also served as a permanent representative to the UN, before he was appointed Ambassador to Ethiopia in 2011. Following his election as the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, paid a visit to Ethiopia and discussed with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi different topics. The visit resulted in the establishment of a joint ministerial committee, which regularly meets to deliberate on investment and political matters. The purpose of the joint committee was to facilitate discussions on bilateral and continental issues. The common stance on recognizing the then Libyan rebel forces, NTC, was one of the results of the discussions of the joint committee.
The two countries being power houses in their respective regions, the relationship between the two countries is assumed by some as strategic in the sense that it could provide leadership model to the rest of the continent while doing their part to represent the continent in world affairs.
What exactly is the status of Ethio-Nigerian relationship at present?
I would say the relationship is excellent. It has been so for quite some time now and, of course, we have enjoyed very friendly relationships historically. But I think that in the last one year or so, things have been absolute, in the sense that we are going down a different line, where we are focusing on a holistic relationship between the two countries. Being the two most populous countries in Africa, we don’t want to look at the relationship purely from the political point of view but also into the economic, social and cultural spheres and how this will translate into mutual benefits for the people of Ethiopia and Nigeria.
I imagine that there is a big market waiting to be tapped. Only a few days ago the summit of the African Union focused on intra-Africa trade and how to boost it. I believe that Nigeria and Ethiopia, working together as partners, can serve as a vehicle to push for greater integration of the continent. So the cooperation between the two countries is a shining example of what other African countries can do.
What do you say changed in just one year to take the relationship to a new level? And what do see for the future of this bilateral tie?
I will look back a little bit further to the time when President Olusegun Obasanjo was in power. He enjoyed a great relationship with Prime Minister Meles. The period after that was somewhat slow as you would expect, with the ailment of President Yar A’dua and his eventual passing away. But in the short period that President Jonathan came to office as acting president, Ethiopia remained an important partner and ally. Ethiopia was one of the three countries he visited soon after winning his 4-year mandate as substantive president of Nigeria in 2011. To be specific, he undertook a tour of Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana, and he spent a night in Ethiopia. And the time of his visit was very critical because he had assumed office only a few months earlier, and he wanted to make personal contact with a number of countries in Africa. So the choice of Ethiopia as one of the three countries he visited was indicative of the importance. And it was no accident. So, there is a personal chemistry between President Goodluck Jonathan and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Indeed, it showed both in the planning of the visit and during the visit itself, during which time the two leaders discussed a number of very important issues. They agreed to look into areas of cooperation to deepen and expand the relationship between the two countries. They gave their blessing to the second joint ministerial commission between Nigeria and Ethiopia to be held in less than four months from now. Thirdly, the two leaders agreed that expert officials should sit together to examine ways of liberalizing the visa regime of the two countries to enable their diplomats, business people, frequent travelers and transit passengers to enjoy a visa regime that is favorable and one that promotes greater contacts rather than limits. So we have exchanged drafts, the Ethiopian government has come up with a proposal which Nigeria is considering. But I believe that in the not-too-distant future, there will be a meeting of both sides on the visa agreement that will have implications on the trade relationship of the two countries. Putting all these together, it is very evident that Nigeria and Ethiopia are on a new, positive and dynamic path.
What about in terms of investment?
As to the investment side of the relationship, the Dangote Group’s presence in Ethiopia is an example of what is to come. Just days before the visit of President Jonathan last October, the Dangote Group signed an agreement with the Ethiopian authorities and was given the green light to move very quickly to realize the construction of a cement factory that would generate employment and help to bridge the gap in the supply of cement in Ethiopia. And there are signs that construction is booming in the country. This is what you see in Addis, and I also witnessed this during my visit to some of the regions of Ethiopia.
What other areas of investment can we look into in which the Nigerian investors can be involved in the country?
In the course of my stay here, I have come to realize that Ethiopia is the leading producer of meat in Africa. So, I believe that meat could be another area of cooperation between the two. Energy is yet another potential area. And above all is the agro sector, where there is still room for our investors to take advantage both in Ethiopia and Nigeria. The value chain in the agro sector allows us to go beyond the production of raw materials. Value adding through processing and packaging will have a multiplier effect for the whole economy and hence eliminates poverty. And by doing so, of course, the quality of life would be better. This will be translated into human security, capacity building and what not. I believe the Ethiopian government is vigorously perusing the five-year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). Because Ethiopia has already begun the construction of the Renaissance Dam, which will be the tenth largest in the world, many more opportunities will accrue. So, I can only re-assure you that cooperation between Ethiopia and Nigeria will provide a direction for Africa.
You talked about the significance of Ethio-Nigeria relations. Given the importance of both countries in their respective regions, how do you envisage this growing partnership impacting the rest of the continent as it matures?
Already it is impacting the continent. Let me cite a very good example, that in August of 2011, in the height of the Libyan crisis, the Nigerian Minister of External Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, was in Ethiopia, and he met with his Ethiopian counterpart, Haile-Mariam Desaleign. After the meeting they addressed a joint press conference here in Addis. The press conference came only a day or two after Nigeria, in its national capacity, had recognized the National Transitional Council (NTC) as representing the legitimate interest of the Libyan people and therefore deserving of support. This was at the height of the crisis as I mentioned, and the AU had not taken a firm position on whether to recognize the NTC or not. I believe the joint press conference by the two ministers and the decision of the two governments to recognize the NTC at that point in time helped to push other countries to recognize the NTC and ultimately, the African Union to follow suit. This is an example of the kind of leadership that the two countries can provide in very concrete terms. The other one, of course, is a matter of potentials. With Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, being what Nigeria is in West Africa, and the two countries cooperating and coordinating their development strategies, it is reasonable therefore that they will help in providing meaningful leadership for the continent. And, of course, they are not going to act alone, because there are other linkages, be it the ECOWAS, IGAD, COMESA or EAC. I am not boasting when I say that the Nigerian market extends far beyond our sub- region. Just take Nigerian movies and churches. There is not a single region today in Africa where you do not find Nigeria movies and churches. These are two commodities that can be used. Here I am talking about the power of inter-faith dialogue, and how this can help to reduce conflict and build confidence and cooperation among Africans across the regions. Take the case of Somalia. That is one case where I believe that such cooperation will lead us in the right direction. Adding Sudan to that mix, there are Sudanese of Nigerian extractions. Ethiopia is a key player in the stability of both Somalia and the Sudan. Add a new dimension to it, indeed both countries can work together to address the issue of terrorism. The practical experiences of Ethiopia and now with what Nigeria is also going through, makes such cooperation even more relevant. And I am happy to say without equivocation that at the highest levels of your country Ethiopia, there has been an expression of solidarity, an expression of support and an expression of cooperation with Nigeria in the fight against terrorism. So, all said and done, if both countries maintain the excellent relations that they have now, deepening their cooperation even further, then, indeed, Africa will have the kind of visionary leadership that it desperately needs.
You give the impression of a relationship that is very strong. Did you see this manifesting itself during the last AU summit, given that the Union seems to be in a flux, with the failure of the elections of a substantive chairperson of the Commission and the acrimony that accompanied the process?
When we look at the totality of the summit, particularly regarding the botched election of the chairperson of the commission and other commissioners, I do not think that one would say what came out of the summit was not expected. But I would rather not go into the actual process of the elections as yet, because I suspect there will be further questions on that. But I can simply say that Nigeria and Ethiopia exchanged views very informally on all aspects of the summit, and we continue to do so. We consult each other regularly, so I believe that these consultations reflected on the approach of both countries as far as issues pertaining to the summit are concerned. In fact, just days before the summit, there was a special envoy sent by the Ethiopian government to Nigeria, who was received by the president in Abuja. That further goes to show you the level of cooperation and consultations that go on between the two countries. So, yes, even coming into the summit our two leaders had an opportunity to exchange views and will continue to do so.
Still on the AU, the role of the big powers, particularly regarding the position of the chairperson, countries like Nigeria, South Africa and the others, including Ethiopia as host nation, isn’t there some form of understanding about how or who presents a candidate? Are we looking at a situation here where Nigeria too may present a candidate for chairperson sooner or later, given what has just happened?
I think we sometimes make mistakes, and I do not want to alluoy such a mistake to the question you are raising right now. As sovereign countries, each has the right to aspire to any position at the AU. Secondly, each member state that pays their dues ranks equal with the other. And because it is a sovereign decision whether to present or not to present a candidate, it is out of the question to even ask whether a country has the right to present or not present a candidate for any position. That’s on one side. On the other side, however, is what I will call the un-written principle. That un-written principle existed during the OAU days, where the so-called big fives, or P5 as they are unofficially referred to, Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, South Africa and Algeria by the size of their contributions to the OAU then and the AU now, are regarded as the main financiers of the organization. And because by their roles, resources and their size, they are generally regarded as well-endowed and this is reflected through the contributions that they make. And, of course, the position of chairperson of the commission is a highly visible position. It is one that can foster a sense of belonging, and if the big five already have a presence through their contributions it is assumed that they already have a leverage to influence affairs at the commission and the AU in general. That is why they name it African Union, and the Union is made up of the assemblage of these individual parts, consequently the small states must be made to feel a sense of belonging, to have a stake in the Union. How do you encourage that? By conceding such a position to them. And this has been the principle that has guided and continues to guide Nigeria. When it comes to the big positions at the AU and before that the OAU, Nigeria never contested or fielded a candidate to be the secretary general of the OAU. I am aware that Ambassador. Peter Onu of Nigeria, in an acting capacity, was acting secretary general of the OAU, but not in an active or permanent capacity. Coming then to the AU following its transformation, the same principle has guided our approach. The decision of South Africa to field the candidacy of Dr. Zuma should be seen in the context of the sovereignty of South Africa, and its sovereign right, which they did. Secondly, South Africa argued that they wanted to bring dynamism to the Commission, and they believed that Dr. Zuma was capable of leading it to that direction. And so today when you look at the outcome of the election, one must not fail to see that South Africa acted within their sovereign right, even if with the exercise of that sovereignty also did not go in line with the unwritten principle I talked about, as a way of fostering cohesion, fostering unity and solidarity of the continent.
Do we consider this unwritten principle as dead, when South Africa is acting within its sovereign right?
I will not rush to say yes, that this is the end of the unwritten principle because we have not seen the end of it yet. It is a test. It is a challenge to the principle, and you cannot use a test or a challenge as the final outcome. I will repeat that, each country, Nigeria inclusive, deserves the right to take certain decisions, but I hope, and I stress here that I hope, that those decisions will be decisions that help to promote unity, that help to consolidate solidarity, that will help also, in fact to move Africa in a new direction. 2011 was a challenging year for the continent. We started the year with Cốte d’Ivoire, and then came the Arab Spring and of course Libya. Arguments abound, and I am sure you journalists have written extensively about how Africa lost its voice, how Africa was marginalized, and how Africa became almost irrelevant in the scheme of things on matters affecting the continent. One would hope that 2012 would present a different vista, so that the continent under a new Chair of the Union, and possibly a new chairperson of the commission, with the full mandate to implement the decisions of member states, that once again finds its voice, Africa will become more relevant, and that Africa will become more cohesive.
You sound very optimistic, what informs your optimism?
Okay, if you take this as over-optimism on my side, let me remind you that the election that took place on the 30th of January, even as inconclusive as it was, lasted several hours, it went four rounds. Recall that in the past, African solutions to African problems would probably have dictated a rubber stamp on one candidate, but it was an intense contest, intense lobbying. And what you have in a democracy is the ability to convince, ability to persuade, that the options that you provide are superior, and then the electorate will make their choice. So I would not see what happened at the summit different from what we do in our political domains, that here we are really seeing the root of democracy getting deeper and deeper on the continent even at the highest political levels. Therefore moving ahead in the course of the year, and indeed the electoral issue at the Commission is only a storm in a tea cup, if I may use the expression. We have come to that point where in Africa, in the months to come, there are big conferences that will take place, and I am referring to Rio +20 that will take place in Brazil, that Africa will go there as a continent seeking to highlight a common position for the continent and asking for concrete actions that will enable Africa determine its own growth path out of poverty. 2011 was also a year in which more than twenty countries in Africa had national elections, and analysts across the globe commenting on these elections felt the continent will be torn apart. But in all, bar none, yes there were pockets of violence here and there, but on the whole, the electoral processes were very successful.
Consequently, I see Africa in 2012 building on these gains, strengthening it so that external factors will not adversely affect the continent, such as the crises in the Euro zone. The African economies have continued to grow, and are still growing, but that is not to say it is a given, that there will be no obstacles on the path of this growth. So if Africa is able to boost its economy, more fair prices for our commodities, greater access to markets, more favorable international business environment, then indeed those who have said the 21st century will belong to Africa, will come to pass. You remember that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in his statement during the commissioning of the new AU headquarters reminded us of a reputable international magazine that once wrote about Africa a decade ago as “a lost continent”, and ten years later the same magazine comes up with a cover saying “Africa Rising”. So, there is hope on the continent and I do not want to be that pessimist who will take a single issue in a single frame and conclude that it is all doom and gloom on the continent. On the contrary I see the sun rising and the continent rising with the sun and shining brightly.
There have been comments about China’s construction of the new AU headquarters, some questioning the motives and others, particularly westerners, who see it as a form of bribery by China as it expands its economic interests on the continent. What is your view on this?
Then in that case China will be manipulating every other continent, not just Africa. They are everywhere. Let’s face the truth, is there any region of the world today that China does not have its reach? China has become the second largest global economy, and by its very culture, China does not have a history of attaching too many conditions or strings to the aid it provides or the relations it has with other countries. Now China, in fact, is being called upon and even invited to play a greater role in Europe. In the height of the financial crisis in the United States, China did not shrink, rather China stepped forward; and if China has done this for others, then why not Africa. For those who feel that because China has given this edifice to Africa, then necessarily they are going to exploit Africa in what some say is the second scramble for Africa, I think, and in particular or rather in relation to the African Union, I thought you would also bring up the issue of the complex being constructed by the Germans for the AU peace and security council headquarters. What strings have the Germans attached to the construction of their own complex? Not much is being talked about that. It is not a matter of size, but intent. So I think we sometimes miss the argument when we look for that blithe in good intentions. So the gift by China has fast tracked a process that Africans themselves can do. It cost a little over two hundred million dollars to build this edifice, and I cannot even contemplate anyone thinking that Africa and African countries cannot muster two hundred million dollars; there are several of them that can finance that complex. So I take the gift by China as a symbolic gesture, and I have already referred to the ongoing construction of the peace and security complex by the German government, and we are looking for more. But let it not be limited to structures of that nature, let these relations translate into infrastructure, let them translate into other sectors of our economy, into creating space for African peoples to improve their livelihood in terms of supporting cooperatives, in terms of quality of life issues, like the global fund for HIV/AIDs that has shut its doors simply because of a financial crises in the West. So we are looking for more. And I like what Bill Gates said a few days ago, that the global economic crises should not be an excuse for people to turn their back on support for Africa.
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