Former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, Ambassador (Professor) Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, in this interview, speaks on the outcome of the last general elections in Nigeria, the recent trip of President Muhammadu Buhari to the United States, security challenges and other issues of national interest. Excerpt:
The outcome of the 2015 elections received commendation of stakeholders and the international community. How do you think we can improve on the successes recorded?
I am the Chairman, Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development. And the idea is that you can’t have development without peace; you can’t have durable peace without sustainable development.
During the last elections, we set up the Council of the Wise of the Savannah Centre, and former Chief Justice Lawal Uwais was chairman. We went to the six geographical zones. We were in Sokoto and Kano for the North West, Minna for the North Central, Yola for North East, Abeokuta and Lagos for the South West, Port-Harcourt for South-South and Awka and Onitsha for the South East.
We talked to the government, political party leaders, INEC, traditional rulers and religious leaders. We interacted with security agents, civil societies and the media because free and fair election is not the responsibility of INEC alone; it is the responsibility of all stakeholders; and so, traditional rulers have a role to play, political parties have a role to play, INEC has a role to play, civil society and the press have a role to play and security services have a role to play.
On the part of security, they have to be above board; they cannot intimidate, they cannot try to be partial. INEC must also have the capacity to conduct the election freely and fairly.
Political parties have to educate their people so that violence will be less. So, everybody has a role to play and I think it is because everybody played their role, more or less, that contributed to this success.
But, also, for the international community, they were very strong especially the United States and the UK, because they kept helping the capacity of INEC and they gave them resources. In the case of the US, their Secretary of State came here (Nigeria) and met with former President Jonathan and the then presidential candidate, Buhari, talked to them about accepting the result, conducting themselves and their followers well. So all these combinations were what made it possible to have free and fair elections.
What is your take on Buhari’s recent visit to the U.S?
I was in the United States myself. I spent many years there. They have never assembled that calibre of people to meet with any visiting Head of State like they did for him (Buhari). In the Oval Office of the U.S President where he received foreign dignitaries, look at the line up- the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser, who else is left?
They take Nigeria serious, they take this new government serious, they take the issues you want to discuss with them seriously enough. And if you look at his agenda he (Buhari) presented. In addition, he had a private meeting (breakfast) with the vice president, he was given a lunch by the Secretary of State, they came to see him where he was staying. Normally, you go and meet them. They came, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney-General, the Head of CIA, the Commerce Secretary, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, the Joint Chief of Staff. So, it is very clear that they wanted to hear from him what was his agenda and how they can help, and he was quite clear on what he wanted.
First, help to defeat Boko Haram; second, help to recover a lot of stolen property and to deal with corruption. Third, investment not just in the oil sector but non-oil (sector) so that the economy will be better and unemployment of the youth will be something that will be seriously tackled.
Now, the challenge is the follow-up on our part and on the part of the Americans. But, I think by all objective analysis, domestic politics apart in this country, the signals are clear from the American side- the willingness to cooperate, but ultimately, it is up to us to follow up; it is very, very essential because Americans don’t forget though they also have many issues – Syria is there, Iraq is there, Afghanistan is there, the Middle-East is there. So it is not as if the only issue they have to deal with is ours.
Do you predict an end to the Boko Haram onslaught in the country?
Boko Haram thing did not start yesterday and it may not end immediately. But there are three dimensions on how to defeat Boko Haram. The first is how to militarily degrade their capacity to kidnap, to terrorise and to confront our military. There has to be overwhelming force on the part of the government to face them and to degrade their capability. The second is the regional aspect. You see, Boko Haram is no longer just a threat to Nigeria, it is a threat to the whole region. And so we have to mobilise the entire region to see this as a fight, not just to Nigeria, but of the whole region. So, the president’s visit to Niger, to Chad, and only last week to Cameroon and Benin is a step in the right direction.
With the multi-national task force, which I think has about 8,500 troops, which will be authorised by the African Union and endorsed by the UN Security Council, it is a very important step so that they (Boko Haram insurgents) would see that there is nowhere to run.
The third aspect, which is very important, is that we must do everything possible so that the conditions that are attractive to these young people to join Boko Haram are addressed; that is socio-economic condition of the North East.
Some people believe that African leaders should not sell themselves cheap by responding to invitation by the western leaders. As a diplomat, what is your take on this sentiment?
The western world is very important and we are a non-aligned nation. We will go to everywhere that we can get help in our national interest. So it is up to us to evaluate what will be in our own best interest.
Terrorism is not limited to Nigeria, it is a global phenomenon now. And so, if you don’t help Nigeria and other countries in fighting terrorists, who knows their (terrorists) next target? They are targeting the western countries themselves.
As a scholar in international relations, they (western countries) are not inviting you because they love you, they are inviting you because they believe it is in their own interest to do so.
Unlike Buhari, there are insinuations that the US was not ready to assist the last administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in fighting Boko Haram. Do you also see a kind of bias on the part of the US?
Well, I don’t know whether it is a bias. When there is a new government in a country like ours, it is a new opportunity to do something different from the way people used to do it. So it is an opportunity for government to do things differently and it is also an opportunity for our partners to say okay, ‘these are new people with fresh ideas, let us work with them, particularly in the areas of common interest’.
So I think it would be unfair to say it is a bias. It is just that any new beginning, a new government provides an opportunity to do things differently. But it must not be missed also because opportunities don’t last for a longtime.
There is a Leahy Law in the US which prohibits sale of military hardware to the country where there are human right abuses. Do you think this could be responsible for the reluctance of the US government to assist Nigeria initially?
I think the way we should approach it is that we want this help. Look at the conditions they are making – it is easy to meet those conditions because this government has also said it will not tolerate. There was an Amnesty International report here (on human right abuses), President Buhari said he was going to investigate it with a view to stopping the abuses.
Do you support the approach of dialogue with the sect in resolving the insecurity problem in the North-East?
It depends on who you are dialoguing with. I think the failure of the previous attempts was that they were done with wrong people. So, you have to first of all make sure that those to be saddled with the responsibility of dialogue are those who can deliver, who have command and control on the insurgents. But as long as they are killing people on our side, the priority is to smash them.
And the best way to dialogue with people is when they know in advance that they are at disadvantage. That is the way for dialogue because you have conveyed to them they can’t win.
Recently, you advocated the setting up of an inter-ministerial council to coordinate Nigeria foreign policy Cuts in
It is about trade. I was arguing that if you look at foreign policy, you say it is about diplomacy and politics. But, how about economic diplomacy where emphasis is on promoting trade and investment? And I was saying that we have not been very good at coordinating both the political aspect of foreign relations and the economic and trade aspects. So, I now said that there should be a permanent inter-ministerial council, which will be formally headed by the president, but operationally, may be run or chaired by Foreign Affairs Minister.
In some countries, they have one single Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to emphasise that the two are linked. What is the point of foreign policy? It is to promote the security and welfare of the people. So you need to coordinate it. That was the point of my argument.