The outgoing Australian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Claire Ireland, speaks in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Publisher Dapo Olorunyomi, Taiwo Hassan Adebayo, Busayo Agbola and Adebimpe Abodunde on how Nigeria can attract big multinational corporations into its mining sector, and other issues.
PT: What are your impressions about this country, which you now have to leave?
High Commissioner: I have only been here for 18 months, which is a lot shorter than I had intended. But I think as many of us have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, I have been too. Very sadly, my family hasn’t been with me and I have three young children; 15, 13 and 9. They’re not here at the moment and so now, with the COVID crisis, you have to do quarantine every time you travel, so I can’t see them as much as I could before. So it is with a very heavy heart that I made the decision to leave the posting early so that I could be with my family.
I work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia and over the last five years, they have had a really strong commitment to women leadership and to supporting women to take more leadership roles and to be much more engaged across the agencies. We set a target about four or five years ago to have 40 per cent of ambassadors to be female by 2020.
At the time they made that target, it was only 25 per cent of Australian ambassadors around the world that were female and so in a very short period of time they’ve managed to achieve that target and I’m definitely one of those people who have benefited from that. I was very well supported to take on this role to come here, and when I found, as a woman in a leadership role, that I was faced with this challenge of my family and my career, I was given a huge amount of support by Canberra to step down.
I haven’t been penalised at all, they’ve given me some time out to stay with my family so I can reconnect with them, having been separated for almost nine months now. And so they’ve really supported me to do that and given me the time off. And then I will be welcomed back into the department. They’re very keen for me to carry on and take further roles in Africa down the line. So whilst I’m very sad to be leaving here, I’m also very proud of the Australian government for its commitment to women leadership and it has enabled me to make what has been a very tough decision in a positive way with a huge amount of support.
The Australian government really does prioritise Nigeria as a country. So, even though I’m leaving, they have already identified someone to replace me. They have gone through the process very quickly, we’ve submitted all the necessary paperwork to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, hopefully, my replacement will be here very soon so we won’t have a big gap between me and the next person. And I think that’s really indicative of the commitment that the Australian government has to filling the role.
PT: With regards to Nigeria, what are the Australian foreign policy goals?
High Commissioner: I arrived at a time when we were going through change. We had moved to our current embassy location and we had bought a new piece of land, which is where we are today. And there was a commitment to invest in building a new high commission premises and that really demonstrated our longevity that we saw in terms of our relationship here in Nigeria and the region more broadly.
We have invested a significant amount of money in purchasing this piece of land and we have just completed the first phase of this building. There will be another phase to do another part to this building. So we’re in this transition of scaling our presence up. But in so doing, we had to scale down our people on the ground at that moment, and so a lot of focus came on to getting the High Commission up and running and so there was less focus at that time on our policy work.
Once we got the embassy back up and running in December last year, one of the first things we did was to have one of our senior official talks with the government of Nigeria. It had been eight years since we had our last senior official talks.
But the team and I really prioritised that as a first priority for us to be able to answer that very question that you just asked me. What are our priorities here, where are we focused, what are we going to do?
So we had the senior official talks. We had a very senior representative come from the Australian government, with the Nigerian High Commissioner who came from Canberra, and we had the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And I think during those talks, we really acknowledged that we have a modest but a focused engagement here in Nigeria.
While we don’t have a huge amount of investment or two-way trade, we have a very long historical relationship that dates back to the 1960s. Just before Nigeria had its independence, the Australian government had a representative here who became the High Commissioner as soon as Nigeria got its independence. And so for the last 60 years, we have had a very enduring relationship built in the Commonwealth.
But perhaps at this moment in time, there wasn’t a very deep trade relationship particularly or a very deep political relationship. So the senior official talk was a chance to really regroup and say where our priorities are.
Following the senior official talks, what the team and I have done is to develop an internal think-piece to guide us on where our priorities are for the next five years. We wanted to make sure the outcome of the senior official talks was really embedded in our engagement and we identified four main areas where we are going to work. The first area is our economic relationship. Like I said, we don’t have a big two-way trade between our countries. Australia buys oil from Nigeria and we used to sell wheat but it is not (in) huge numbers.
What we do have, though, is a big intellectual investment in the mining sector. Since 2003, the Australian government has been working very closely with the Nigerian government to support the development of the mining sector, and that was really starting from the basics, in terms of getting the mining legislation in place. The legislation that is in place in Nigeria now is very similar and mirrored on the mining legislation in place in West Australia, for example.
And so we’ve shared intellectual knowledge and capability of our own experience of 150 years in the mining sector to make sure we’ve enabled Nigeria the opportunity to develop its mining sector and get that legal framework in place, which is really critical and a foundation for it. So that’s happened and the sector is developing.
There is still a lot for the sector to develop in terms of being able to be competitive, compared to the rest of West Africa like Ghana, Senegal, who’ve got much further advanced mining sectors. But what Nigeria is doing, and it has had support from the World Bank through a project called Mcdyver, is in terms of mapping and geology.
For example, to be enabled to get mining leases transparently and for the private sector to purchase, they need to know what’s in the ground, they need to have the geological data and that needs to be open and transparently available. That’s what the mining industry is working on and the Mcdyver project has been helping them to do.
Australia has been very much supporting that in the background, sharing our technology, experience and skills. We have a couple of Australian mining companies here working on the ground to develop projects and have mining leases. And so they’re very much looking forward to the day when they can begin extracting minerals. For the moment, they’re not there yet, they’re still taking their analysis before getting to that point.
I think what’s exciting when I talk to them is we are really excited that if Nigeria is able to get an internationally recognised company to have a successful mining operation in the ground. It would really demonstrate to the rest of the world the transparency and the good systems because Australian companies, they have to operate with good environmental due diligence, good social due diligence. If all those things are in place and you have an international company like an Australian company in place, you know then you have world-class standard.
At the moment Nigeria has a Canadian company, Thor, who’s doing some gold mining and that has been the first one to really hit off. I keep my fingers crossed and hope that Australia could be the next country to have a successful relationship and partnership with Nigeria in terms of the mining sector.
And I think, what I said to the mining minister, that is what would really show to the rest of the world that Nigeria is open for business and is a credible country to do business in when it comes to the mining sector. We are not there yet but we are getting close and there is a lot of people working very hard to make that happen. Australia will stay fully engaged in that sector and fully supporting, where we can.
And then, just recently, we had a very successful engagement with Premium Times itself, in terms of the women in mining monograph that was done. And I think going back to my earlier point on women in leadership, and from my own experience with women engaging in the mining sector, we see that also as critical. So to be able to work on those areas is really the whole package when it comes to supporting the mining sector.
So mining is probably the biggest area that we’re engaged in. The other main area is the education sector. We have had over the years something called the Australian Awards. The Australian government had a scholarship programme for Nigerians to study in Australia. But at the moment, with the COVID crisis, our borders are closed and so we’ve had to put a pause on that programme. I know it is a challenge for international students right now.
But in Australia, our universities are world-class and it is a big destination for international students in the world. I really hope that, once the COVID crisis is over and people are able to travel again, that we would be in that situation where we would be able to promote the education sector in Australia. Over the last five years, we have seen the number of Nigerian students who are studying in Australia has gone up quite a lot. It is still not a lot of people, it is still only around 3,000. But a few years ago, that was only 500 students.
And I think there is that recognition that Australia is a real gateway to South-east Asia and the Pacific. So when you come to study in Australia, it’s not just a fantastic Australian education you’re getting, it’s also a gateway to networks, to other students. Particularly, there are Chinese students, Pacific students studying in our universities. And so those networks are formed and enable Nigerians to broaden their own networks into an area that perhaps they haven’t historically had those relationships. So the mining and the education are really, from a sectoral perspective, the areas that we are actively engaged in.
Agriculture is an area that we feel is, perhaps, underexplored. But there is raw potential, given the similarities in our climates. At the moment, we are not doing a huge amount in that area. We’re doing some light exchange in the dairy sector but we are not doing a huge amount. Like I said, our analysis and research show that given the similarity in climate, given that Nigeria wants to become more productive in its own country, and that we have the technology and capabilities that could be worth sharing, I think over the next five years, I think we’d like to explore that more. But our priorities remain the mining sector and the education sector.
PT: Is there something you are doing regarding supporting Nigeria to develop local capacity in the education sector, especially basic education?
High Commissioner: Our relationship is an economic partnership, so we don’t have a bilateral aid programme in Nigeria. We do give aid financing but through the multilaterals. I am very conscious that we give our bilateral aid assistance to the Pacific and Asian Pacific countries who are our neighbours. It is the Europeans, Americans who give a lot of bilateral aid assistance here in Africa and in Nigeria particularly.
To answer your question, the last thing we think Nigeria needs is Australia to come here with another basic education project. So we give our money to the multilaterals and we trust the multi-laterals to prioritise investment in this country. For example, we put a lot of money into UNICEF who work here, we put a lot of money into UNDP and the World Bank. We are believers in the multi-lateral system and the global rules-based system, and so we feel the better way to get aid investment to support basic education, like you’re talking about, is through the experts like the World Bank and the UN system. That is how our money comes through for that. We don’t have any separate bilateral programmes, to answer your question directly.
PT: When you started, you mentioned the historic relationship between Nigeria and Australia. How do you assess the current relationship, with regards to shared commitment to international public good like climate change and fighting terrorism?
High Commissioner: This is something I have really been thinking about during my time here. Because when you come here as a high commissioner, you’re here to promote the relationship between two countries and you want to see a really strong bilateral relationship. And one thing I have really tried to understand is, where is the added value in that relationship and what can we bring?
And I really have landed back to that point, multilateralism. Those kind of shared values is something we really have in common. Back in 1960 when our relationship first started, it was very much off Nigeria being a member of the Commonwealth and we were members of the Commonwealth, so that partnership organisation brought us together. And that was the basis of our relationship then.
I think the distance between the two countries makes a bilateral relationship very different to what you would have with a European country. So it is where can we really add that value?
So for example, right now, Nigeria and Australia are both in the Human Rights Council. We are working in the UN on the human rights council, both of us pushing for those issues to become mainstream and institutionalised in our partner countries. And I think where our added value comes, and where our relationship with Nigeria particularly comes, is to work on those shared values. The global dynamics are changing and the power dynamics are changing and understandably for Australia, we’ve really focused on our backyard in terms of the Asian Pacific, and that’s our priority in terms of our neighbours.
And I hear a very similar story when I hear the Nigerian Foreign Minister talk about your background in terms of the ECOWAS community. So I think we’re really like-minded in our approach. While we have different focus areas, the approach to focus in our immediate neighbours and surrounding. For us, it is the Pacific, Asian Pacific, the Asean community. For us, we’re part and parcel of that. When I hear Nigeria talk about its foreign policy, it is about its immediate neighbours Cameroon or Benin, then the Chad Basin, then the ECOWAS and the African Union.
So our approach is actually very similar and I think what is interesting is where we can help potentially bring the two together. The more that we can help share in the Asian Pacific what’s happening, the more we can learn from Nigeria about what’s happening in Africa. And it is at that higher level where I think there’s a real potential for working together, and it is those shared values like human rights and climate change. In the Commonwealth still we have those forums where we can work together.
PT: Do you have any running programme with Nigeria on climate change?
High Commissioner: No, I don’t think we do.
PT: You should, because Nigeria is considerably affected by the climate change. You are aware of the farmers and herdsmen crisis and it has a link with climate change.
High Commissioner: Absolutely. When I presented my credentials to President (Muhammadu) Buhari, one thing he spoke to me about was the climate change issue and the Lake Chad Basin. And he was really concerned about it. We did talk about the fact that, while we don’t have a programme particularly between the two countries, we have a lot of shared experience.
So obviously in Australia you know our climate is very harsh. Fires. Drought is also something we’ve struggled with. And the Murray-Darling basin is a big trans-boundary water resource that has really suffered over the years of drought. Our water sources have dried up and we’ve had to work together collectively across states to be able to reinvigorate the climate and support farmers who depend on the water resource for it.
So we have a lot of experience that we can share and that’s something we are very committed to. And obviously, we will be at the Cup 21 in Glasgow. It is disappointing that it won’t be this year and had to be postponed till next year. But Australia stands firmly committed to that agenda. So again, working at the multi-lateral level and we would be working with Nigeria. But on a bilateral level, we don’t have a programme.
PT: How optimistic are you that the support you have given Nigeria to develop this legal framework in the mining sector will translate to something that will encourage companies from your country to operate here? And how optimistic are you about Nigeria’s business environment to encourage investment from abroad?
High Commissioner: My background, before I got into the foreign policy side, I worked in aid for 25 years and I’m very passionate about it. But I’m also very passionate about the fact that you have just touched on, that you actually need a trade relationship and trade is a really important part of it.
To get to sustainable economic development, I am a firm believer that we need to move away from lots of small-scale projects and we need to focus on positive change and institutionalised change. I am often having debates with my colleagues who work on the aid programme here about when that kind of mining company finally takes off that will be potentially 100-150 year mine? A really long duration in terms of economic engagement, which will in turn employ up to 5000 people down the value chain for a sustained number of years. And how much more transformation that will be to the economy than another project which perhaps doesn’t have that sustainability?
So I’m a real believer that you need to get that proper sort of engagement and you need to have that trade to be able to sustain the economy. But I do believe, (my background is in environmental management), that you have to do it sustainably, so environmentally sustainable development is critical.
So whilst I’m passionate about the mining sector, it has to be done right, it has to be done with the community’s engagement, it has to be done in a way which isn’t going to negatively impact the environment. So if you get that all right, I really believe that is much more beneficial long-term for a country’s development than small aid projects which potentially don’t have the sustainability.
To answer the second part of your question, how optimistic am I about that happening anytime soon? I think I’ve realised that it’s going to take longer than I imagined when I first arrived. I would love to be leaving here to say that the Australian Mining Company is now at the extraction stage. But it is not and there are still these roadblocks that the companies come across. And I think what we have here is that the Australian government kind of convey what those policies are.
Why is it that the international company isn’t yet at the extraction stage? One of the things that we have discovered with our private sector companies is the alignment of community development agreements with the mining leases. That presents a sort of challenge. Getting access to information on the geology has been a challenge. And so, I think that’s where we can bring the conversation to the mining minister, about what those challenges are which are preventing the companies to be exploring or further extracting at the moment.
So it’s not happening yet. I think there are still a few hurdles to get through. But we are certainly passionate and will advocate to try and make it happen. We certainly see the potential. There are a lot of phenomenal resources here in Nigeria to make it happen but it is going to take sustained commitment by the Nigerian government to make it a reality.
PT: Does Australia have any local laws that prevent multi-nationals from using products produced by children or from using children in their factories or mines?
High Commissioner: Yes we do actually. There are a couple of things to note here. One, we have members signed up to the EITI, Extraction Industry Transparency Initiative. Australia is committed to that and that is part of the process, you know, having that transparency out there. Linked to that is also another initiative called the Voluntary Principles Initiative (VPI) and that’s about making sure companies and governments sign up to exactly what you’re saying, that commitment to social due diligence, environmental due diligence.
Australia was taking on the chair of the VPI this year and Nigeria is also a member of that, engaged in that. And that was something we were hoping to really take forward this year but perhaps got a bit slowed down because of the COVID crisis.
But certainly, this is where I mean we are real advocates of free trade system, a global laws-based system. And WTO, as you know, is a system we are really passionate about. We want to see a real trading system with the rules in place that we all kind of follow and commit to. So we really do it into those values and ensuring that environmental standards and social standards are committed to. So yeah, we’ve signed up to those agreements, we advocate for those agreements in the UN, we advocate for them in the WTO and we certainly implement them in our own country.
PT: What priorities does Australia have for Africa?
High Commissioner: Can I answer that in two ways, personally and professionally?
I first worked in Africa, in Kenya in 1995, so I’ve worked in Africa for a number of years. I have lived in Kenya, I have lived in Uganda, I have lived in South Africa, I have worked across most of Sub-Saharan Africa. But it was the first time I have lived and worked in a West African country, and it’s been such a different experience to my East African experience. But it is one I have really loved. It is so different to any country in Africa that I have worked in before.
Whilst there were a lot of frustrations, as with any country, it is a country that really gets under your skin in a positive way. I think I feel for Nigeria because as soon as you say the word, Nigeria, people have this negative impression of Nigeria. But when you get here, and you live and work here, your mind is opened up in the most incredible way.
The potential for Nigeria is phenomenal. The education of so many Nigerians is superior, I often feel uneducated and under-qualified when I am talking to people like you. People have studied in Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. Nigerians value education in a way which I have seen in no other country and are really so well educated, so the potential is phenomenal.
I see lots of frustrations, both from my own day to day experiences and from fellow Nigerians who are frustrated. But also, what I see is a phenomenal commitment. Both from Nigerians in Nigeria and also the diaspora, the commitment to this country is so inspirational and so motivating.
To answer the second part of your question, I think Australia, we’re honest about our relationship. It is not huge, but it is a relationship we are committed to. And like I said, we have invested in this new high commission residence and we see ourselves here for the long term. We are commitment in terms of our engagement on a global platform and in the UN, in the Commonwealth, and we see the relationship as one we would want to continue at that kind of global, multi-lateral level.
I hope that in 5-10 years’ time I come back and I see the Australian Mining Company in the ground and I meet a lot more Nigerians who have studied in Australia. If I come back in 5-10 years’ time, that would be what success looks like to me. I will leave here an absolute advocate for Nigeria and I will tell people a positive story about the potential of Nigeria and particularly the youth of Nigeria.
PT: Do you have any sleepless nights over the conduct of Nigerians in your country?
High Commissioner: I know that today, there was a petition of about 200,000 people in the UK to have an investigation and a parliamentary debate about what happened in Lekki (tollgate shooting). So it is fascinating to see you have that many Nigerians represented in the UK that can have that kind of positive impact on government.
To answer that question, we don’t have a huge diaspora in Australia. It’s only about 8,000 Nigerians who are registered in Australia. But what you do have are 8,000 really well-educated Nigerians. They are doctors, professors, legal practitioners. They are a very smart, well-educated diaspora who do engage and engage regularly with me.
So what we try to do as the High Commission here and also as the diaspora back in Australia is to help promote a more positive image of Africa back in Australia. There’s an African music festival that a Nigerian organises in Melbourne each year and we try to sort of promote that positive image.
But just like you’ve had Nigerian citizens in the UK raise concerns over the EndSARS, you’ve had in Australia. And I’m aware that the Nigerian diaspora in Australia have written to the prime minister with their concerns about what is happening. I think it is incredible to see that breadth of support for what is happening in Nigeria by the diaspora in other countries.
I don’t think I have quite as big a headache as my counterparts in America or in the UK. But Nigerians are really vocal and they’re really committed to their country and that’s what I have seen. Even in Australia, we see that.
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