Buhari’s kept his promise to Nigerians — out-going U.S. Ambassador
James Entwistle assumed duties in Abuja as United States’ ambassador in the country on October 28, 2013. After almost three years working in the world’s most populous black nation, Mr. Entwistle is counting down to the end of his tour of duty in Africa, and final exit from the American foreign service after 35 and half years.
For his exit interview, Mr. Entwistle sat with a select group of Nigerian journalists at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. BASSEY UDO was there for PREMIUM TIMES.
INTRODUCTION: I’m very happy to see all of you. I always love the chance to sit down with the media, particularly since I am leaving definitively later this month at the end of my assignment as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, and at the end of July, I am retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service after 35 and half years of service.
I had a tremendous career all over the world and a number of assignments in Africa. As I get ready to leave, I think back, and I cannot think of a better way to wrap up my career than to be entrusted by President Obama with the stewardship of what I believe was the most important relationship in Africa.
I say in public all the time, and I actually believe that what our two countries have is a partnership. That means, in the way I always describe it – two great democracies working together to make the world a better place. That’s absolutely true.
I have been warmly received in every corner of this country. It’s been a marvellous experience. The other day I was asked: What’s the most unpleasant experience I had in Nigeria? I was stuck, and fought for a long time, and responded that I haven’t had any unpleasant experience in this country. They were very disappointed. But, that’s the truth.
So, I will leave here having enjoyed every minute of my time as the U.S. Ambassador. I will leave with a sense of satisfaction, because I think our relationship, by and large, is in very good shape.
And one thing I’ll never forget is the election process last year in March. In my over 35 years career, that was the most inspirational thing I have been part of. The process here, the way in which the Nigerian people made clear that this time they wanted their vote to count, and would accept nothing less. I found that inspirational.
I was proud in my small way to have been part of it. That’s something I will carry in my heart forever. So, it’s up to all Nigerians to make sure that 2019 is even better.
PT: President Buhari recently celebrated his first year in office. You’ve just spoken so glowingly about the process that brought him to office. But, it’s like Nigerians are a little impatient with him, particularly achievements so far. They say they want to see the change he promised. What’s your take on this?
ENTWISTLE: I see a parallel between President Buhari and President Obama. President Obama had not been in office for a long time before people began to have the same kind of impatience. I think in the U.S., a lot of people forgot how difficult the situation President Obama inherited was at the time. I think the same thing is happening with President Buhari to a certain degree.
It’s completely understandable for people to have high expectations. They are impatient, because they want to see change. But, President Buhari inherited a pretty difficult set of circumstances, and some of the things he’s identified that needed to be done – end corruption, reform the petroleum sector, end the conflict in the North East region – are things that even if he works as hard as he can, they are going to take some time to yield the kind of results people expect.
I understand why people are impatient. I remember a week after inauguration, looking at the newspapers, there was already an editorial that said: “Well, Mr. President, it’s been a week, we haven’t seen much yet.” And I thought to myself: Whao! Expectations are high. There is not going to be much of a honeymoon. So, I think it’s good that the expectations from Mr. President are very high. But, I think we have to remember what he inherited. And in my opinion, I try always to be neutral and balanced. I think Mr. President and his team have done a good job this first year. They need some patience.
PT: But, the massive slide in the economy in the last one year seems not to bear your view out?
ENTWISTLE: Well, I think it’s true with Presidents in any democracy. When times are good, you take the credits for it, fairly or unfairly. When times are bad, you get the blame, fairly or unfairly.
At the moment, oil prices are down. The Nigerian economy is affected by some of the things he (Buhari) inherited, like poor infrastructure in the petroleum sector, and things like that.
I am not much of an economist, But, I think what he has done with the exchange rate of the Naira, removal of fuel subsidies, and so on are things that had to be done. I think in very deliberate fashion, the economy would, hopefully, begin to improve.
But, remember in this day and age, no country is an economic island. We are all tied together. What happens in one country affects the economy in every other country. So, I give the President pretty good marks. Let’s see how he marches forward in the next few years.
PT: You said you had a great time in Nigeria. What areas of bilateral trade relations did you improve upon between the U.S. and Nigeria during your time?
ENTWISTLE: By myself, I did not come with anything. But, as the head of the U.S. team in Nigeria, I think we had some tremendous achievements. On the economic front, we have a number of the biggest U.S. companies in the world in Nigeria and very active – General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, big oil companies, some of the Hi-tech boys, like Google and Microsoft, are here.
I think with our support, the U.S. commercial presence here has increased. That’s a good thing. Under my stewardship here, the U.S. team has put in a huge effort in helping the Nigerian government in North East. Some of that have been military training, equipment, etc.
We are also doing a lot to help the government get ready for the next stage in the North East, which will be the return of civilian administration; getting the police up and running again in the North East.
The U.S. government is doing a lot, about $700 million this year to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the North East. There is a food crisis in the North East. I think all Nigerians should get involved in finding solutions to this crisis. They are Nigerians dying of starvation in Nigeria. How can that be in this marvellous country?
I think the government and the donor agencies, like the U.S. government, we all need to up our game in the humanitarian front. But, let’s be clear, these are Nigerians in distress in Nigeria. The primary responsibility lies with the government of Nigeria.
The U.S. government and many other donor agencies stand ready to help in every way we can. But, they are Nigerians in a bad way in the North East. I think we all have to do more to help them.
So, those are some of the big areas I focused on in my time here. I already talked about the elections.
We also had some fruitful cooperation on health issues. Sometimes we are judged by what doesn’t happen. I think we were very effective working together to prevent Ebola from breaking out across the country. I think it was a very effective collaboration. That’s the approach I tried to take – collaboration, cooperation – two great democracies working together to make the world a better place.
PT: After the March 2015 elections, there have been a number of other re-run elections. But, there have been a lot of outcry that INEC under the new leadership does not seem to do as much as the previous one. How do you respond to this?
ENTWISTLE: I don’t agree with that. I was a big admirer of Professor (Attahiru) Jega. I think he’s Nigeria true hero. But, in my dealing with Professor Mahmood Yakubu, I’ve been very impressed as well. I think we do not have to be an election expert to know.
If we look at everything INEC is responsible for, it is a huge array of responsibilities – from conducting elections, to voter education, to this and that. And we look at the fact that they would have to depend on volunteers they do not always have control over, all of the challenges they have, I think they are doing a pretty good job.
Obviously, they have been some re-runs were people have found fault with the results. I am not sure if you can put a lot of that on INEC. I think you have to put it on the candidates and the political parties. Have they been inciting violence, fraud? All the things I spoke out against in the general elections campaigns, I think there is a sense, and understandable that, well we don’t have to worry again about the 2015 elections until 2019.
So, I will call on all candidates to make public commitments to non-violence, participation in fraud and manipulation or intimidation. I hope the media and civil society in Nigeria will continue to hold all candidates (even in out of the ways elections that don’t get national attention) to very high standards.
PT: What’s been the level of investment by the U.S. in Nigeria, particularly in energy projects?
ENTWISTLE: We are doing a lot on the energy front. Much of these are through President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative. Through that we are trying to help power generating and distribution companies (DISCOs) privatize and get in business.
We have put some advisers on various DISCOs and so on. We are focused on developing more solar energy. There are some rural communities that would probably never be on the national grid. So, solar energy makes tremendous sense. We also use the opportunity to promote U.S. business, through U.S. companies that provide cost-effective solar energy equipment. So, the power system in Nigeria is probably the key thing that has to be fixed for the economy to grow. We are trying to help in every way we can to power Africa.
PT: There have been allegations that the fight against corruption does not follow due process; that it is selective, politically-motivated to witch-hunt, and all that. Do you agree?
ENTWISTLE: I don’t agree. I have a lot of respect for President Buhari on the corruption issue. He made it clear during the campaigns that he was going to make that his focus. He has done exactly what he said he would do. It’s clear that he has unleashed the investigative agencies, and told them to follow evidence and information wherever it goes.
I have followed all the things you have just mentioned, that there are prosecutions that are politically-motivated and so on. I have been following this, looking for either investigations or arrests that are solely politically-motivated, or only political, I haven’t found any. I think there are cases where there might be a political angle to it, but are also some real evidence to support the real case.
That’s something we follow very closely, just as you do. Narrow are the paths of investigations, making arrests, but what I hope Nigerians will follow very closely in the next few years is, as these cases go to court, how they are handled in court, how the courts do their job, how the government reacts when inevitably they would lose a case in court, what’s the reaction to that. All these are things that have to be observed and handled very carefully.
But, the premise of your question is absolutely correct. In any country, it is easy for corruption cases to begin to spin out of control. I don’t see that happening here. I hope all Nigerians will follow that very closely, and if you see it, say it.
PT: You are about to end your tour of duty in Nigeria in a matter of weeks. In your handover note, which area would you advice your successor to focus on to strengthen the relations between Nigeria and the U.S.?
ENTWISTLE: My successor is very good and talented. I know that Nigeria will be in very good hands. I don’t think you would have to break new grounds that would need inclusion in my handover note. I think he will continue work on the things we have been working on, particularly all the areas we have been cooperating on – from security assistance to health and everything in between. I will encourage him to travel as much as he can and spend as much time as he can to meet and spend time with young Nigerians.
In my time, when I travel I tried to go to some universities or some places I can sit down with young Nigerians. I always find it incredibly impressive – the energy, dynamism, ideas, brainpower and all that. That’s Nigeria’s greatest resources – dynamic and talented young people, who have a vision of the future for their country. I found that very inspiring.
PT: Nigeria is seen as the giant of Africa, but a lot of Nigerians are worried that President Obama has visited Africa a couple of times and has not found it necessary to visit Nigeria. What’s going on?
ENTWISTLE: Nobody would be happier to see President Obama come to Nigeria than me. But, let me remind you that President Obama is in office for six more months, which is a long time. So, we’ll see what happens. Keep in mind that there are other ways to do finer relationships than just a visit by a president.
When President Buhari went to Washington a year ago this month, he met for long time with President Obama in the Oval office. So, we have a very good high level relationship even when President Obama has not been to Nigeria. But, as I said, he will be in office for six more months. We will see what happens.
PT: The U.S. and Nigeria have had very good trade relations over the years. But, in recent times, it appears that is fast losing ground to China. Are there areas of the relationship you would recommend to your successor to make amends to restore those good old days?
ENTWISTLE: I don’t agree we are losing grounds to anybody. China has its relationships with Africa. They have a different approach than we do. That’s fine. But, I think people will find that if they go American way they will get a better product and so on.
I think all the things that Nigeria needs to do are well understood, and have been done – the fight against corruption, trying to renovate and improve infrastructure in the oil industry, improve education and health systems. These are things we have already identified in our programmes. I really can’t think of anything else. The issues are fairly obvious. The leadership in Nigeria, and more importantly the ordinary citizens, need to understand what needs to be done.
I don’t agree that the U.S. private sector is not in Nigeria. Some of our biggest boys are here. They are very interested in doing more. That’s why I ask government to continue to do everything it can to maintain a climate that attracts foreign investments. A responsible foreign investment pays taxes, provides revenue, and creates jobs.
PT: Earlier, you said you could not find any unpleasant experience in Nigeria during your time. What then would you say was your most pleasant moment?
ENTWISTLE: I will have to go back to the elections. I found that to be a positive, almost euphoric experience. That’s something I will always carry in my heart forever. I will never forget it.
On Election Day, I stayed in Abuja, but we had our own teams all over the country. I went to a polling station in FCT and talked to an old woman. She’s been there all morning till that afternoon, and she said to me: “This is elections day. If I have to stand here all day in order to vote, then I will stand all day.”
I said to myself Whao! Sometimes it is easy to take the right to vote for granted. We forget what people have gone through all over the world to get their right to vote, and how precious it is.
Listening to the elderly woman reminded me how precious the right to vote is, and what people go through to get it.
I was there in Alabama when Martin Luther King made his now famous speech. I remember African-Americans protesting, because they wanted to vote, even though theoretically they have had the right for a hundred years. They wanted to have the right to vote. I remember the people being attacked by the police in Alabama with water and dogs.
That underlines to me how precious a thing the right to vote is. I think about what people have gone through. I saw the emphasis Nigerians put on, the patience that they stood in line, and the way the system worked after that. The votes were counted and tabulated; the incumbent president conceded defeat and stepped down. I thought the whole process was incredibly inspirational. That’s the high point of my time here.
PT: During the Chibok girls’ saga, the U.S. government raised the hopes of Nigerians when it offered to assist in locating the girls. But, it appears all that hope was dashed. What happened?
ENTWISTLE: Those Chibok girls and everyone else that have been captured and abused by Boko Haram are Nigerians in distress in Nigeria. The first responsibility lies with the Nigerian government. What the U.S. government offered to do was to help the Nigerian government with information and everything we could help with.
But, the notion that we were going to shove the government out of the way and bring back the girls would have been a great insult on the government and Nigerians.
Since the time of the kidnap, cooperation in the North East with the military and intelligence fronts have grown tremendously. So, the struggle is not over. The military has continued to make steady progress. They are opening areas and finding people inside. We all pray that the day will come that we will find some of the Chibok girls.
PT: What would you say has been your best Nigerian food, and may be the best place you would always want to return to?
ENTWISTLE: My second tour of duty here back in the 1980s was in the North of Nigeria. So, I learnt a lot about Kilishi (local dry meat) there. So, I’ve enjoyed a lot ofKilishi here in Nigeria.
On the place I will return to, I have to be careful, because whatever I say people will criticize me. But, I remember I took a trip to the northern part of Cross River state to look at the wild life that is still alive in this country – gorillas, elephants and all sorts of things.
That was a tremendous trip, but I came away with a sense that they were under tremendous threat, and hope Nigerians would do everything they can to preserve that population. If I come back, I would not mind spending some more time there.
PT: If you were to write your memoirs today, how would the chapter on your experience in Nigeria read?
ENTWISTLE: It will read exactly as I have said before. It was fascinating and incredible time to be here during the elections. I was impressed with Nigerians. I enjoyed my time. But, I have no particular plan to write memoirs.
PT: Any final word to all Nigerians
ENTWISTLE: Thank you.
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