Nigeria has missed some opportunities in its business and economic policies but a rethink could salvage the country, the outgoing US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, says.
She noted that a rethink was important to attract more investors, both domestic and foreign into the country.
“There is huge interest from American companies in Nigeria, a very robust American business chamber but all investors, whether they are Nigerians operating in this environment or foreigners looking for engagement, seek stability and predictability; that ease with which one can move money in and out, these are all factors that colour the business environment in Nigeria and I think that there is some work to be done to make it more attractive,” Ms Leonard said in an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
She further cited the fuel subsidy which she described as ruinously expensive, noting that those funds could have alternate uses in things like health, education and infrastructure.
In the interview, Ms Leonard also spoke about her time as ambassador to Nigeria, the culture and the 2023 elections. The interview was limited to questions about Nigeria-US relations.
PT: Is the US walking back on the statement made by the State Department and comments made in your op-ed that the 2023 elections did not meet the expectations of Nigerians
Ms Leonard: Actually, I think that both of those expressions are complementary. You know there were clearly some technical and logistical challenges from INEC and that disappointed people and we totally understand those frustrations.
That said, there was a process that occurred and some people are unhappy about that result, some people are celebrating that result. But at the end of the day, there are well-established legal channels through which to bring those concerns and we are very pleased that both Mr Obi and Mr Atiku have committed themselves to that and also that the president-elect has welcomed their right to do so.
Yes, there were some disappointments in some of the elements of execution and we understand that that caused frustrations but still there is a process moving forward and we look forward to watching Nigerians engage in it.
PT: One addition to that question will be the comment made by a US senator asking the US president not to be too fast in congratulating a flawed process…
Ms Leonard: I cannot speak for the senator in that vein. However, you know there is a well-established process here for going through challenges that people may wish to pose and we certainly encourage all Nigerians to take full advantage of those.
PT: Last October, you raised an alarm on insecurity and an impending terrorist attack here in Nigeria, especially in the FCT. The Nigerian government at the time was on the opposite side and questions were raised on if there were no intelligence sharing between both governments. I would like you to help Nigerians understand what happened there.
Ms Leonard: Absolutely. Well, first of all, the United States government just does not make announcements in a vacuum. We have an enduring relationship and an ongoing relationship with the government of Nigeria that includes security cooperation, which is quite robust, and that cooperation also includes raising shared concerns together.
I would say that, actually, there are a couple of pretty public statements by Nigerian government officials about steps that they were taking to address concerns about security in Abuja and I think we really have to congratulate Nigeria’s various security services for really stepping up attention to keep Abuja safe and we are always going to be a committed partner in that regard. And you have seen that we were able actually to bring all of our families back because we believe quite strongly that there is indeed safety and security in Abuja.
PT: You are categorically saying intelligence was shared?
Ms Leonard: Obviously I am not going to get into the discussions of private conversations with the government of Nigeria but yes, we are partners and we speak about many things.
PT: You are very much aware of the Japa syndrome in Nigeria which characterises young Nigerians, especially, leaving the country in their numbers in search of greener pastures. I conducted a survey last year which showed that the US is in the top three destinations for young Nigerian young people. How does this fit into the narrative of helping Nigeria develop itself and also making sure that migration is not a result of a lack of development thereof?
Ms Leonard: You know we are in a global and interconnected world. For one thing, it is actually a point of pride for the United States that many Nigerians seek to study in the US. I think that they are the largest source of students from Africa and the 10th largest foreign student presence in the United States and I think that’s a really great thing.
Here at the embassy, our job is about making connections between Nigerians and Americans and many of these connections are regardless of venue, if you will. We try to bring together the various business communities to figure out shared opportunities. We do a lot of very deliberate work for cross-pollination in the creative sectors things like filmmaker education and working hard to have Nigerian and US educational institutions cross-pollinate. You know we have Fulbright scholars who come and study here. We work hard to think about trade between the two. So we focus on bringing the US and Nigeria together, regardless of venue. Obviously, neither we nor the government of Nigeria control the decisions of individual Nigerians.
I would say that there are in fact some US exchange programmes that very explicitly have a component of requiring a return to Nigeria. For example, until you have been back in your home country for a certain period of time, you are ineligible for another US visa. I think that from my perspective I would celebrate the sort of intellectual collaboration that comes from travels between the two countries.
The Nigerian diaspora in the United States is a very vibrant and well-educated community and that has probably advantages as well as disadvantages. I think it is one of the most heartening things I see when I see young US-educated Nigerians who are here doing fabulous stuff in technology and in the creative sector and I think it is a question of people recognising that there are opportunities in bringing the two countries together.
PT: How can Nigeria and the US better partner to see that what the vibrant Nigerian community is doing in the US is replicated here in Nigeria?
Ms Leonard: I think that there are a lot of people who self-consciously reach out to to get to the diaspora populations and I think that that is something that I have heard several of the candidates speak about – about drawing on the talent that is in the United States as they craft a new administration and I think that that is a wonderful avenue for doing so.
PT: You spoke about creating a conducive environment which brings me to the question of trade. The trade numbers I dare to say can be better between both countries. How do we make those figures better?
Ms Leonard: I would say that I think it is very true that Nigeria has perhaps missed some opportunities in its own business environment and its economic policies that maybe could use a rethink. For example, you know domestically the huge amount of money that is spent on the fuel subsidy is ruinously expensive and those are funds that could be having alternate uses in things like health and education and infrastructure.
Also, if you decide that you want to diversify your economy and diversify agriculture, that is great. But sometimes if it comes in the form of import bans, that has the unintended effect of raising food prices for consumers. I think that in a new administration, it is a good moment to sort of look at what Nigeria is doing and think about what helps or hinders private sector growth.
There is huge interest from American companies in Nigeria, a very robust American business chamber. But all investors, whether they are Nigerians operating in this environment or foreigners looking for engagement, seek stability and predictability; that ease with which one can move money in and out. These are all factors that colour the business environment in Nigeria and I think that there is some work to be done to make it more attractive.
It (Nigeria) is inherently attractive because of just the size of the market. I mean no one wants to be outside of Nigeria because it is just too tempting a place but I think that it could be made easier for people.
PT: Two questions that are quite similar; how would you describe the US-Nigeria relation and how can we improve that relationship?
Ms Leonard: Well, a 60-year relationship, whether it is government to government or people to people, we are always looking for ways to develop it further and make it better.
To think about how we make it better, it is a question of looking at where we intervene and then what is the next step that we need to do. You know that we are really big here on PEPFAR, the president’s programme for aid relief, and we have put something like 1.7 million people on treatment. We have invested billions of dollars and now the step ahead is since we are very close to epidemic control, how do we go about finding those last people? What is the strategy that you need to find the people that you have not already managed to come across? That is a big thing there.
We of course spent over $140 million on COVID, both contact testing and tracing in the early days, and helping to support the provision of 100 million vaccines over the last year in Nigeria. It’s a great accomplishment but the next step is how do we make it better. How do we take these activities in HIV and in COVID and figure out how to make them a better part or a more predictable part of the core of health systems and health systems delivery? It is a really important point. Last year we gave $350 million of humanitarian assistance in the northeast and northwest, in areas of health and sanitation, food and shelter. So that is great but then, how do we transform that into a sustainable future for everyone? That is something that is worthy of reflection.
Think about cultural preservation – the Smithsonian and a couple of other institutions just sent back 29 bronzes and it is wonderful to have them home. Now we need to collaborate. How should those be curated? How can they be used as a mechanism to bring museums and citizens and artists together to examine a wonderful cultural heritage?
The students, as you mentioned, OK! Great. I told you I am proud that they are the largest source of students in the United States from Africa. But I would say a new step forward that many people would appreciate is continued efforts by us on how to reduce those wait times for visa interviews.
Security cooperation, wonderful. We have a robust partnership, including for example the recent sale of the A29 Super Tucanos. And so, as we move forward and think about other platforms, how do we reinforce effectiveness and precision and make sure that citizens are kept safe?
Nigeria at the African Leaders Summit signed the Artemis Accords, which is all about space. So moving forward, how do we organise responsible civilian space exploration?
Climate crisis, the United States government gave funding in response to the flooding, both for shelter and emergency assistance. So moving forward, how do we figure out how to balance climate concerns and address them with the importance of Nigerians’ own power needs, access to electricity, for example?
So my time is coming to a close here but on all of these things, I will be watching to see how that evolution continues.
PT: Describe the relationship between the US and Nigeria. A lot of people say it is like the hand-me-down shop kind of relationship. I would like you to perhaps use five words to describe the relationship.
Ms Leonard: I would say that it is robust; it is entrepreneurial… Can I use phrases? It always seeks to improve itself, it goes to the core needs of Nigeria’s population and areas of mutual interest. I think it is in terrific shape. But as I just outlined at great length, there are always ways that we can make it better.
I think at the African Leaders Summit, you saw that President Buhari was one of the few presidents who participated in a one-to-one meeting and there has been a steady parade of US high-ranking officials coming to Nigeria; we had Secretary Blinken here, both virtually at the end of the pandemic and then in person in November 2021, the people from the Power Africa, our special envoy for climate change John Kerry, all have visited here. It is a relationship that is marked by great opportunity and I think that we are very busy working to meet that opportunity, to meet the promise, if you will, of the African Leaders Summit, to engage as steadfast and reliable and proactive partners.
PT: Let us get more personal and talk about you in Nigeria. Before arriving in Nigeria, I am sure you have heard a couple of stories about what Nigeria looks like and this is not peculiar to Nigeria. Africa has a lot of stories that may be true and untrue and you definitely have had your own share of it. What was it for you before arriving?
Ms Leonard: Actually, this is kind of a fun story. So the first time I came to Nigeria was when I was a first tour junior officer next door in Cameroon and I came to Lagos and frankly, I felt like a country bumpkin in the big city, Because here is this amazing metropolis. and then it took a while for me to come back again. I came back as West Africa director in 2011, just before the elections and Abuja was still a new and sort of artificial capital and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness’! And I came back then again when I was Ambassador to the African Union for a conference in Lagos on the African continental free trade area. And so, it just was a reminder of the centrality of Nigeria in any big international continental decision.
ALSO READ: Confidence of Manufacturing companies’ CEOs in Nigeria’s economy drops – Report
While I was here for that, this is the fun part of this story, I was at a reception at the Consul General’s residence, which of course in the day was the ambassador’s residence, as it was when I came from Cameroon in 1989 maybe. It was the first place that I ever went to a reception in an ambassador’s residence and I was terrified. You know, what do I do? What is next? What is my role? And so when I went to a reception during the AfCFTA conference at the residence, at some point the consul-general was getting around to introduce me. When they got to formal remarks, I was nowhere to be found because I had gone outside on the patio to take a phone call from the head of personnel at the State Department asking if I would agree to be put forward as ambassador to Nigeria.
So the place where I was as a terrified junior officer in 1989 was the same place where I learned that I was going to become ambassador to Nigeria. The rest of the evening was quite difficult because, of course, between being told that you are the candidate and becoming the ambassador is a very long road. And so there were all these fabulous Nigerian and American business people inside at this reception and I could tell none of them my stunning news but it all came to fruition and I actually got to tell that story to that group of people.
PT: You must have heard negative stories too around Nigeria before you chose to visit.
Ms Leonard: You can say negative things about every place. But when I came here I see that Nigeria has grown over these years and Nigeria addresses a lot of challenges. But the thing that does not change about Nigeria is its just warm and welcoming and vibrant people. It is totally a constant across all my visits and my various interactions with this country.
PT: End of posting, end of tour. We would like to know what you have enjoyed most through your stay here.
Ms Leonard: It is so hard to pick. Well, you know you do not want to forget the fabulous culture, listening to Asa and unforgettably at a pre-Headies concert that we had at the residence in Lagos, and getting hauled up on the stage by John Doe to dance in the middle of the concert, so much that I actually went to Atlanta for the Headies.
Great food. You know everybody loves their Suya and their jollof rice. And I am a big fan of pepper soup; I really like a lot of spice so I will bring that with me. Fashion; I have not done it today but I have always enjoyed adding some Ankara or Adire fabrics to my professional wardrobe.
Art: at my residence, I have a wonderful collection of works by African-American and Nigerian-American and Nigerian artists. And I am going home with some Nigerian arts, two from Nikki Davies, Victor Ekpuk, Osi Audu, so my permanent residence in the United States will be well adorned by the highlights of African arts.
PT: If you were asked to give an appraisal of the Nigerian state, what would be your assessment?
Ms Leonard: As I said, I think it is a place that has perhaps missed some economic opportunities in the way it has organised itself. But it is also a source of inspiration and encouragement that you realise that there are solutions to these problems.
I think also less looking at the Nigerian state, what I like people to take away from the events of the last few weeks is that despite all the disappointments and frustrations, something very special happened in these elections. You know it was not only about two parties or somebody is really gonna win. Nobody’s outcome was assured, 20 states flipped parties. It was not a given that governors got their Senate seats and so people showed that they are willing to look for alternatives. And the people who aspire to lead this country need to hear that call that people would like to see options, people would like to see their government doing its best to support them and I hope that Nigerians take that hopefulness along with some of the disappointment and frustrations that they have experienced in recent weeks.
PT: We hope you come back to visit Nigeria.
Ms Leonard: I bet you I will. I will tell you that it was not the only reason I specialised in African Studies but a big part is that I come from a very cold place and I do not like the winter. so I think you will see me back in Africa again before you know it. Probably between the months of December and March in particular.
Editor’s note: Questions asked in this interview were limited to US-Nigeria relations as Mary Beth Leonard, US ambassador to Nigeria, marks the end of her posting/tour.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.Donate
TEXT AD: Call Willie - +2348098788999