The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Bisa Williams, who is also the former Ambassador to Niger Republic, was on a working visit to Nigeria last week.
In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Business Editor, Bassey Udo, Ms Williams spoke on the role of the U.S. government in building the Nigerian economy, creating prosperity and stimulating investments and partnerships for national development.
PT: You said American investors are interested in coming to Nigeria to do business. In which sectors are they really looking at?
BISA WILLIAMS: One of the things people always talk about is that Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a diverse population and huge wealth in human and natural resources. I cannot say if the interest is in A or B sectors. We look at the potential here as absolutely limitless.
At the same time, things are changing. It used to be that 97 percent of Nigeria’s exports to the United States were in the petroleum sector. That is no longer the case.
Americans are interested in financial services, communication and information, and food transformation. Nigeria has tremendous agricultural potential.
As you know, the U.S. government has the Power Africa programme. We are working with Nigerians in the public and private sectors to dramatically increase access to energy and electricity in this country. That opens up another world of limitless possibilities. But, clearly, they are interested in agriculture and communications technology as well as security. The range is limitless.
PT: You said the dynamics are now changing, in terms of the volume of oil imports by the U.S. from Nigeria. Any real reason for this?
BISA WILLIAMS: The real reason for the change in economic dynamics is called market economy and competition. Nigerian oil developed domestic American competition with the American oil shale, which is cheaper, better and easier to use in domestic production. It’s simply economics, not mysterious or political.
PT: U.S. companies have invested heavily in the power sector. But one of these companies in the North Eastern part of the country was compelled to issue a force majeure because of security challenges. Would that be a major setback to those investors to further commit themselves to that sector?
BISA WILLIAMS: American investors are not different from Nigerian investors, or any other investors for that matter, in assessing what criteria we need to evaluate in order to decide where to spend our money.
Is security a factor that is going to influence the decision where to go? Clearly, yes! While there are concerns about what is going on in the North Eastern part of Nigeria, about some aspects of security, that does not cast a pall over the entire country. So, there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere.
PT: Nigeria is currently grappling with the challenge of reviewing the fiscal terms and operational laws of the petroleum industry through the Petroleum Industry (PIB). What proposal does the U.S. give to ensure the laws were brought up with the best global standards?
BISA WILLIAMS: I am aware there are American investors in Nigeria. But Nigerians are waiting for the Petroleum Industry Bill to be passed by the legislative arm. Once that Bill is finally passed, that will at least provide everybody with an understanding of what will be expected. Investors want to know what the rules are. We are looking for transparency, accountability and regulatory regime that is consistent and capable of being enforced.
Investors want to know what would be expected of them and how much they would be expected to pay.
To that extent, that has been the U.S. message. We are just looking for reliability, transparency in procurement and application of the law; equality before the law or application of the law.
The private sector will make a decision as to whether it’s going to be profitable, or make economic sense to continue to invest or operate. We’ll continue to give that message to our private partners.
We encourage the Nigerian partners, particularly those involved in that sector. Maybe this has far reaching implications. The Nigerian investors have to embrace transparency and accountability, effective application and sensible regulatory regime. That’s the U.S. influence. But, the actual decision making has to be Nigerian.
PT: On prosperity and wealth creation, how does the U.S. government hope to facilitate this in Nigeria?
BISA WILLIAMS: There are two ways to look at this – the Nigerian people or the private sector has to be able to produce, and employment has to thrive.
Maybe government has to set up some regulatory policies that would enable that. So, the main job rests with Nigerians, not necessarily with government. What the U.S. government will try to do will be to help contribute to that effort in programmes like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – to encourage African and Nigerian exports to the U.S.
Power Africa Initiative will dramatically increase everybody’s access to energy. Once one gets light going on reliable, then one can open small businesses like restaurant, hire a shop and others to support the catering industry. That’s one tiny example.
You might just as well create local wealth and employment for the community. You can have manufacturers of everything, ranging from clothing to shoes and high technology. So, the idea of trying to really invest in Nigeria, as in the past, where the country was one of the six countries to focus on Power Africa, has changed.
The idea is that if one stimulates and improves infrastructure in Nigeria and gets that access to energy and improve road infrastructure, then there will be a resonance or ripple effect throughout the country and the region. The U.S. considers these to be very important programmes.
With AGOA, one can look at opening the U.S. doors or ports to receive Nigerian goods. We have a whole country with potential buyers of Nigerian products. Those products get there through quality controls, by making sure they are up to the standards that American consumers would be looking for.
They get there by making sure they are produced in a quantity that is profitable and makes business sense for Nigerian producers to sell. They get there by being able to identify a market.
One does not have to sort out the entire American market. My recent AGOA story really comes from Mauritania. There is no comparison in any way between Nigeria and Mauritania. One Mauritanian producer of dried camel cheese is selling his product to Cincinnati.
It’s not a product that a lot of Americans are familiar with. Yet, through AGOA, ingenuity, studying the market and getting his products up to quality, he’s able to export it and make a profitable business.
Nigerian can produce all kinds of products and be able to satisfy the market. We are providing, facilitating programmes, but the policies and contract reliability, transparency, elimination of corruption and other issues that would help the Nigerian producer and manufacturer to export his or products, will have to come from inside.
PT: Access to finance by these small and medium-scale enterprises is a big issue in wealth creation and promotion of prosperity. How would the U.S. government facilitate access to cheap pool of funds for these people?
BISA WILLIAMS: Dealing with the high interest rate in Nigeria banks is an important issue for Nigerians to address. But this is a local issue that needs to be addressed.
There are several ways to tackle this problem. With AGOA, the tariff is eliminated for the importer. That’s already a huge reduction in the cost of doing business. It is really important for government to encourage small businesses.
The U.S. government has small business administration (SBA). It works with small businesses to help their products be more marketable. Teams are sent by the SBA to parts of Africa to work with their counterparts and finance and trade ministries to talk about the kinds of measures that work for the U.S. to help small businesses.
This is one way we exchange best practices and information that would help small manufacturers and small or mid-size businesses.
The other way to look at this is through the global market; to see what would really be helpful. If one looks at what is going on in the Nigerian economy, and what is being done to prevent or make it more difficult for U.S. investors to come in and import U.S. technology and technical know-how.
If some of these obstacles are to be addressed, that would also help the Nigerian business person to be able to export its products.
For instance, if he is trying to produce, say computers, but does not have all the parts or technology needed, the restrictions the Nigerians government has placed for local content requirements, foreign exchange and some protectionist policies, make it harder for the Nigerian manufacturer to put together the best products possible; to find an American partner that would be willing to work with him or her, to get his or her product to the U.S. market.
So, exportability and ability to have cash flow and capital really depends on importability. We have to redress these obstacles or constraints. The real question marks raised about the provisional policies are protectionist and limiting in nature.
PT: Let’s talk about transparency, accountability, anti-corruption and rule of law. If the business environment in Nigeria is to be made more transparent and credible, global collaboration is necessary. How is the U.S. government going to help in apprehending those involved in corruption for them to face justice?
BISA WILLIAMS: The U.S. government is very supportive of the anti-corruption policies of the Nigerian government. Transparency, accountability and rule of law are very important for Nigeria.
It is true Nigeria has some image issues relating to corruption and transparency. But, you don’t need to anticipate any kind of problems from the U.S. working with the Nigerian government when it comes to responding to information on investigations in pursuit of rule of law, particularly on corruption involving state funds in U.S. banks taken out of the country illegally.
PT: Is there any legal framework in place to support that?
BISA WILLIAMS: There is what is called mutual legal assistance treaty with Nigeria. But, we don’t need that treaty to hold these discussions, or to comply with the Nigerian government’s requests, if it has reason to believe some funds were incorrectly transferred into certain accounts.
That’s a normal government to government transaction. We are certainly ready and willing to engage with the Nigerian government to see that through.
PT: How about the extradition of officials involved in those corruption cases?
BISA WILLIAMS: The U.S. government does extradition all the time. We have a large justice department. There is a process for that. The Nigerian government obviously knows how to go about it. So, there would not be any problem following through with extradition procedures.
I can’t understate the importance of transparency and the need to eliminate corruption in all aspects of government and business transactions.
Whether we are talking about how to get products that have been imported into Nigeria, from the port to the vendor, or whether we are talking about process of contract signed sealed and delivered in front of a whole board room of people, and not complied with and somehow undermined.
We are hoping that this administration and the Nigerian private sector will go full blast on transparency, rule of law, credibility of contract enforcement, protection of intellectual property right and all the basics of good business so that we can rebuild confidence of U.S. investors.
Those who are waiting to see what will happen to this administration would be encouraged to move forward, and other potentials. Everybody’s eyes are on Nigeria, waiting to try to get into this market and partner with Nigerian businesses will have the confidence to go forward.
PT: What specific message would want to leave with Nigerians on this visit?
BISA WILLIAMS: It is very important that everybody embraces this message that Nigeria needs to move forward with a diversified economy, get rid of corruption and make it down the line. The country needs to be able to open up the economy to really change the foreign exchange restrictions as people need hard currency to buy products from other countries.
People need to know that they are not going to lose the value of their investment, because of restrictions in foreign exchange.
The country also needs to be able to accept that a real partnership means recognizing and accepting value added about your partners.
The idea, mission and goal of wanting to have local content, so that the country can improve its local market and human resource capacity, and create jobs, is a good one. But, you don’t start the employment at the goal.
You need to be able to accept that there is going to be something you have to import to improve the policy. Right now, there is a conflict or an obstacle to that; that is really addressing the restrictions or the protectionist policies in place.
There is really tremendous enthusiasm. Nigerians and Americans know each other. They like each other. Americans want to be here. What we are willing to do is stimulating a lot more investments and partnerships.