" It’s Difficult To Recover Nigeria’s Stolen Money Stashed Abroad " —US Ambassador
United States’ Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle, tells BAYO AKINLOYE that America is not responsible for the loss of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan at the presidential election and that America is working with Nigeria to extradite Senator Buruji Kashamu
What should Nigeria and the United States look forward to, following the Washington DC meeting between Presidents Muhammadu Buhari and Barack Obama?
First of all, let me state that, of course, I was in Washington for the visit. I had the privileges of sitting in on the Presidents’ meeting and the Vice Presidents’. And I was very impressed with the warmth between the two sides. The two Presidents, in particular, seemed to strike a very personal chord with each other. I was also very impressed with how the message of all levels of the US Government was very straightforward with Mr. President (Buhari). It was ‘we think this is a unique moment in Nigeria’s history. We think this is a unique moment in the Nigerian-American relationship. We admire the things you (Nigeria) have said you want to do as per this new administration. Therefore, we are in; as friends and partners. We are glad to locate anywhere we can help, as you develop your programme.’ And it was that kind of visit that you sort of build in a personal relationship and making it clear that President Buhari is off to a good start. We admire what he is trying to do and as a historic friend and partner, we are glad to assist the country anywhere we can.
But I think it is also important to note that we are not starting from zero. The US and Nigeria already have a very good relationship. I am constantly struck in my jab every subject I look at; health, education, cultural exchange –whatever it is; the US and Nigeria have been doing good things together for many decades. So, the way I look at it is that we are having an excellent relationship and looking for ways to take it to the next level as Mr. President (Buhari) puts his programme in place.
Between 1993 and 1999, the US government was very interested in the goings-on, politically, in Nigeria – probably because of the military rule and the urgent need to transition to a democracy. But at a point, after attaining democracy, especially during the administration of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, some people feel there was a taciturn relationship from Washington towards Abuja…
(Cuts in) I disagree completely.
…Between 2014 and now that Washington has become vociferous again as regards Nigeria’s economic and political affairs. What went wrong along the line?
I don’t agree with your analysis at all.
Let us look at the trade relationship between Nigeria and the US. According to www.census.gov, analyses of the first five months of 2014 and 2015 show a decline in trade activities between the two countries. In January 2014, total trade volume was $752m and in January 2015, it was $376m. In May 2014, total trade volume was $1bn compared to May 2015’s $372m. What do you think about that?
I think you’re reaching for facts and figures and you are trying to twist that to support your thesis.
Our relationship with Nigeria has always been good. Obviously, there had been periods, for example during the (Gen. Sani) Abacha regime, (when) we had difficulties with the (Nigerian) government. But any relationship has its ups and downs. Think about your best friend in the world; do you always agree every day? Of course not; you have in the relationship ups and downs. In terms of the trade relationships, they are not determined by governance but are determined by market forces. Trade figures were probably down because we are producing much more of our oil in the US and we are importing much less from the rest of the world. Therefore, that’s not a conscious decision regarding Nigeria. We have market forces due to the oil market, which is the way it should be.
Considering the outcome of Nigeria’s March 28 presidential election, was the US responsible for the fall of the past administration of Jonathan?
No. Frankly, that is not true. What we did in the run-up to the election was (that) we focused on (the) system and the process. We also focused on something like encouraging non-violence before, during and after the elections. We underlined, for example, the point that in a democracy, it is very important that the candidates who lose (will) publicly accept the results. So, we focused on the system; the process towards what could make that stronger and building the Independent National Electoral Commission’s capability; empowering the civil society and things like that. A lot of messages were put out by me and others on non-violence and so on. Who won the election, the Peoples Democratic Party or the All Progressives Congress; we had nothing to do with it. That was a decision for the Nigerian people.
You note that in 2007 and 2011 general elections, Nigerians did not see the kind of engagement the US government had with Nigeria in the build up to the last general elections.
I was not in Nigeria then. I do not know about that; all I can speak of is what happened since I came here. And our message on non-violence, transparency and all that was loud and clear.
In 2014, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell…
(Cuts in) This is not a Nigeria-going-to-break-up question, is it?
No. Campbell wrote a book on US policy to counter Boko Haram in Nigeria. One of the recommendations he made was that the American government should open a consulate in Kano State in order to improve US’ outreach to that region’s predominantly Muslim population. What has Washington done about that?
Well, keep in mind that his (Campbell’s) book was expressing his personal views. We have thought for many years about opening a consulate in Kano. I will like to see it (happen).
We, however, in our current budget climate, have no global budget in building new consulate facilities; things are going down, not up; given the security challenges in the North in Nigeria and the level of protection that we have to provide for our diplomats and so on. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is going to happen soon. We will love to have our consulate general in Kano. I do not expect to see it soon. But, there are a lot of other things that we can do. In this electronic age, we can have tremendous outreach with people in the North, even without being in Kano. We travel extensively; I travel to the North every chance I get. My team travels to the North every chance they get. Therefore, the absence of a consulate in Kano is not that we are doing nothing in the North. On the contrary, we are active in northern Nigeria just as we are in every corner of this magnificent country.
Part of the recommendations by the former US ambassador is that Washington should revoke US visas granted to Nigerians who are considered guilty of promoting violence or inciting others to violence before, during and after the general elections. How many Nigerians have been denied visas by the US government as a result of this?
Do you remember when the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, came to Lagos in January? If you recall when he spoke to the press, he was clear when he said Nigerians who promoted violence or tried to rig elections would not be welcomed in the US and (that) we would use our visa policy to that end. He was quite clear about that. In the weeks after that, I had a number of Nigerians coming to me and ask, ‘Was the Secretary talking about me?’ To which my response was, ‘Should he have been talking about you?’ I think that really got Nigerians’ attention. We are looking into a number of cases. But visa matters have strict private policy consideration in our system, so I cannot talk about particular cases. You can be sure that this issue is under active consideration.
While not looking into particular cases, can you give a number of politicians who have been denied visas because they incited violence or tried to rig the last elections?
I am not going to get into the numbers game.
With various figures being bandied about concerning Nigeria’s looted funds kept abroad, like in the US, amounting to between $61 billion and $150 billion, how much really is the US trying to assist Nigeria recover?
It is hard to say because we have not — we do not — know about all of the divergence; all of the investigations already held. Getting the money back will take a long time. First of all, it takes forensic accounting work to figure out exactly what money is where; it is not an easy task. The second thing is (that) when we make cases and we take them to court, they can take a long time in the court. I believe the case involving the Abacha era; they are still working on it in the US.
Therefore, the one thing that is absolutely crystal clear, however, as we said to Mr. President in Washington, is our intent and our willingness to work with this case. But even if they take time, even if we do not know the exact amount (of Nigeria’s looted funds) right now, we will do everything we can to help with the cases.
During his visit to the US, President Buhari stated that he would love President Obama to visit Nigeria, adding that a letter would be written to that effect. Is your President willing to visit Nigeria before his tenure expires in 2016?
I think President Obama will very much like to come back to Africa. I think if he comes back, he will very much consider Nigeria. But his calendar is, as you know, planned months and months ahead. So, I am confident he will visit Nigeria, either as President or after his presidency. But if he would visit Nigeria while I am still the ambassador, I will be the happiest diplomat in the US service. But I think it is important to remember that visiting a country is not the only indicator of a relationship. Keep in mind what just happened: Mr. President was invited to Washington at the instance of the President (Obama), Vice President (Joe Biden) and four or five cabinet secretaries. That is a massive advantage and a huge indicator of the importance we place on the US-Nigeria relationship.
Recently, six Nigerians in South Africa were extradited to the US for committing various crimes. There is also a case of alleged drug-related offence in the US against a Nigerian senator (Buruji Kashamu), who is on your country’s wanted list. Is American government still interested in that case?
First of all, the case from South Africa, I am not familiar with it and will not be able to comment on that. But on (the case of) the senator who you referred to, you have seen in newspaper articles that the case is being pursued. Yes, we are interested in extraditing him to the US. I cannot go into the details of where we are exactly. But as far as the headline goes, that is a case we are interested in pursuing, in cooperation with the Nigerian government.
Is Washington disappointed about Buhari’s stance against the rights of the l£sb!an, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Nigeria?
Well, these are issues countries and people can disagree on. The point that we have made consistently on that issue is, first of all, on the issue of same-sex marriage. As I said repeatedly after your (anti-LGBT) bill was signed, the definition of a legal marriage in Nigeria is up to Nigerians (to decide). That is none of our business. Our concern about the bill is that it puts restriction on the freedom of speech and assembly related to those issues. And our fear, as a democratic friend of Nigeria, is once you start putting limits on those basic rights, it is easier to continue to do it on other subjects and in other areas. The other idea, as a friend of Nigeria; we feel the bill can be used as a pretext for violence against homosexuals or could discourage people who are HIV-positive from going to get the treatment that they need.
So, it was in that context that we are raising our concern about this issue. At the time Nigeria passed the bill concerning this issue, I think almost a third of the US had already approved same-sex marriage. As you have now seen, the issue moved very quickly and the US Supreme has made it the law of the land. These issues move differently in every country. But the point I always try to make to Nigerians is: surely, we can all agree regardless of where people live in the world; our religions, ethnicity, skin colour, sexual orientations, they should be able to live their lives free of fear and free from violence; and that even people who have (a) different opinion about same-sex marriage can certainly agree on that. And that’s where we are coming from.
A lot has been said about the refusal of the US to sell arms to the Nigerian government, contributing to the inability of Nigerian troops to effectively combat Boko Haram. At the moment, has the issue of human rights violations allegedly committed by the Nigerian military been resolved and what exactly is your government offering Nigeria in terms of arms?
There’s been a lot of misunderstanding on this issue before, during and after President Buhari’s visit to Washington. Let me be clear about a couple of things. One, we have worked very closely with Nigerians on the Leahy Amendment for years. The Nigerian government and its military understand very clearly how the human rights value has to go before we train Nigerian troops and all of that. Therefore, the notion that the Leahy Amendment is, somehow, an impediment to combating Boko Haram, I take great exception to that. The second piece of misinformation, which is being bandied about in (newspapers’) headlines, is that the US has lifted its arms embargo on Nigeria. There was never an arms embargo. Our military has always had a good relationship with Nigeria’s.
I will be very clear; when I arrived in November 2013, the big issue at the time was treatment of prisoners at a place called Gibo Barracks in Borno (State). There are also concerns about how the (Nigerian) Army conducted themselves in military operations and how they treated the civilian population – fellow Nigerians – during the operations. Human right is (a) core piece of US Foreign Policy and when we are trying to help a country that has those issues — poor treatment of prisoners and sometimes poor treatment of civilian population — those are the things the US law requires us to take into consideration. I think things have gone better on both sides of the issues and we are moving forward in our military relationship. Where we need to train more troops, we are glad to look at any sort of equipment required.
The point I will make, however, is (that) equipment alone is not going to defeat Boko Haram. We encourage the Nigerian Army — I think President Buhari as a former military man understands this – to focus on the basics. The troops in the frontline, are they being fed? Do they have boots? Do they have bullets? Do they have good leadership? These are fundamental ways that you build a good army. And if you are not doing those things, you can have the best equipment in the world and they will not matter. So, in the past six or nine months I have been very impressed; I think the Nigerian Army is paying attention to those basic issues. If you go back to the period before the general elections.
When the Army suddenly had success against Boko Haram, I think the fact that the troops started to take care of their soldiers clearly was one of the reasons for that success. Therefore, we are willing to talk about anything on the military front. The answers may not always be yes but we will sit down with everything on the table, talk to your Army and your government as equal partners and together find out what the best way forward is in terms of helping with the struggle against Boko Haram. We are firmly committed to helping the Nigerian government in the fight against Boko Haram. No bilateral partner is doing more than we are doing to help.
So what does the US government get in all this?
We get a peaceful, secure Nigeria and West Africa, which is in your interest and also in our interest.