Samuela Isopi resumed in August 2021 as the new European Union Ambassador to Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). PREMIUM TIMES spoke to her on diverse issues including the EU’s activities in relation to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in Nigeria, her plans for the next four years, EU’s priorities in Nigeria and what Nigerians should expect from her and her team.
Trained in political science, Ms Isopi, 49, specialises in international relations, modern and contemporary history, public law and international and European law. As well as her native Italian, she is fluent in English and French.
She arrived in Abuja to assume duties as Ambassador on August 31, 2021. She presented her letters of credence to President Muhammadu Buhari on October 25, 2021.
At other times, Ms Isopi was the EU Ambassador at the EU Delegation in Bangui, Central African Republic. She had previously served as the ambassador of Italy to Cameroon, with concurrent accreditation to the Central African Republic, Chad and Equatorial Guinea. Previous postings include the Russian Federation, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as deputy head of mission and first counsellor.
Ms Isopi had the interview on November 29 with a PREMIUM TIMES team that included Managing Editor Idris Akinbajo, Reporters Chiamaka Okafor, Yusuf Akinpelu and George Kaduna.
PT: You are relatively new in Nigeria but you have had experiences working in other developing countries, in the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Russia, Afghanistan. What has your experience been in Nigeria in the last few months?
Isopi: I am a little new, and I try to be humble in the way I approach this country, as I did with all other countries. I’ve only been here for less than three months. What I could see so far is the big potential of this country and the big challenges as well.
What I have been trying to do and will continue to do is very much trying to understand, trying to listen to people — this is something that diplomats and officials sometimes do not do enough of — and travelling.
So I try to look also at the positive sides, positive stories, and then the positive side of our cooperation. I hope to be able to visit the rest of the country; I am very much curious about visiting the north, both the Northeast and the Northwest.
So this is my plan, to try to meet as many people as possible, especially Nigerians. That’s why my first social event was with the media. Next January will be a meeting with the civil society, because I really want to learn and I need to learn from those that are in the field as you are, working every day with the issues.
I am a career diplomat who started 24 years ago. I spent most of my career abroad in seven countries so far, but each country is different from the other. You could never and should never think that what you have done somewhere can simply be replicated or repeated in another. It is very true also in Africa, I was in Cameroon, although there are a lot of similarities, each country is very much different.
I think Nigeria is very special, because yes, it is a developing country, but also you have a very big economy, a middle class, and a lot of things together. It is like being in several countries at the same time. This is what attracts me a lot, the diversity, which is maybe the most valuable resource that Nigeria has.
We have so many things we can do together. If I look at my mission letter, there is almost everything. We are political partners, we have to work together to address the crisis in western Africa; working together on trade and investment because this is a country which is too big, too important, a big potential in terms of trade, in terms of some business opportunities for our companies here.
We are very much engaged, committed and working on supporting the electoral process, trying also to support, under the rule of law, justice reform, human rights, particularly we focus on gender rights, these are things that are at the very heart of our attention. PT: You mentioned the EU is launching 16 fact reports through the Spotlight Initiative. Can you shed more light on the report and what exactly the report will be doing for Nigerian women?
Isopi: The idea was to choose a fact per day to highlight a fact about gender-based violence during the 16 Days of Activism Against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. It was the idea of the campaign that was launched in the framework of the EU, UN, spotlight initiative.
For the last edition of the 16 days of activism, the EU’s idea was first to create more awareness; to encourage more women to report; to help women understand that there are services that are opportunities for them and to increase the number of reported cases because we know that most of the cases of gender-based violence are underreported because of the stigma, shame, culture.
And what we see in terms of data, is very much like the tip of the iceberg, because we already know as it is the case not only in Nigeria but everywhere in the world that most of these cases happen within the family and are not reported.
So this was the first objective: to highlight the cases and to help women understand that there are services, the police, centres, in order for these cases to be reported and to have more cases reported and data collection. We really need data to have a clearer view of the phenomena to be able to better respond.
The second thing, which is, in my view, particularly important – even though most of the cases of gender-based violence are underreported – the reported cases have a very limited number of offenders convicted, which is unacceptable.
One is to get women to report and in order to get more women to report, we need to have a deterrent so that justice is delivered. This was one of the messages on which we wanted to focus for last edition of the 16 days of activism and to push for the creation of special courts, dealing with gender-based violence in the framework of our Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption (RoLAC) programme (implemented by the British Council).
Although I saw a lot of commitment, when you look at the statistics, it is very much shocking and so we need to work on that together. We saw that there are laws that are being domesticated at the state level but I think there is a lot to do and I feel the media should do more.
And something also which we will have to work on which is also linked to sexual and gender-based violence is women’s participation in politics. If you look at the statistics, you see that women’s representation in politics is extremely small.
So, there as well, something needs to be done. We hope that in the framework of the next election cycle, some progress can be made. We hope that Nigeria will also find its own way not necessarily following the example of others but having more women in parliament and other positions is something that will be good for the country.
PT: In light of supporting the establishment of special SGBV courts, what is the EU doing about mechanisms or systems that allow or make it easy for women and girls to come forth to report these cases? Are you looking at working with CSOs in creating a framework for safe spaces, sexual assaults referral centres (SARCS) in Nigeria and so on?
Isopi: This is exactly what we are trying to do with the referral centres. I visited one of these centres just outside of Abuja a few weeks ago, because I wanted to touch the reality. I think women and girls do not know enough about the existence of these centres and about what the centres are supposed to offer.
The idea of the centre is exactly for victims of gender-based violence to have a place where they can go, where they can be received, where they can receive some medical consultation and advice, where they can receive some kind of psychological support and where they can also stay.
This is something that needs to be improved; which means once you go to the centre, then you get some medical advice, psychological support, and then what? So, maybe something that needs to be developed at least is also to have more safe havens where women who are victims of gender-based violence or boys can actually stay because what happens in most of the cases is that people are sent back to their families or their communities.
However, the fact that the centres now have moved in eight years from one to 32 is really very good progress and I think you, our friends from the media, might help inform the public about the existence of these centres, and about the role that the centres play.
I think we also need to support the establishment of these centres in states where they do not exist. What is important of course, and what we are asking the government to do (federal and state level) is to support financially, because these centres are not private centres, they are part of the health system. This is the kind of community we are pushing for, and of course, pushing also for the specialised courts.
We are not there yet but I think if we put the right steps in place, one after the other; and the different components of the system slowly. We face the same problems in our countries. Gender-based violence is a problem in Europe as well as in my country but creating awareness for our women not to feel ashamed and not to feel guilty is important.
PT: Within the framework of the new EU-ACP partnership, a major priority area is ‘human rights, democracy, and governance in people-centred and rights-based societies.’ Having mentioned that the media needs to partner more to report SGBV, what is the EU doing to promote media freedom and freedom of expression in turn?
Isopi: You mentioned yourself that human rights are actually one of the main areas for us, not only one of the main areas in terms of cooperation but most of all, one of the main areas in terms of dialogue with the authorities.
I think this is the very first mechanism that we have in place, the dialogue that we have with the government and authorities at all levels. We have a formal mechanism once a year to discuss with the authorities about human rights issues. And freedom of the media, freedom of speech is always something that is always very much on the agenda and of course, gender issues.
So this is the main mechanism, but also at the same time we have this dialogue which is continuous and regular with authorities and we always try to bring these issues forward in our discussions. In terms of concrete programmes on media, apart from the cooperation we already have with the media, with the new cooperation programme, we will have more opportunities to partner with media on key issues and on campaigns like campaigns on human rights. We do not have to my knowledge specific programmes for media, but as I said, the European Union considers media as human rights defenders and I am not talking about Nigeria, I am talking globally. There are guidelines that are even available online about guidelines on the protection of freedom of the press that outlines exactly what the EU does and what the EU delegations have to do to help protect space for media.We did this in some countries when we have journalists that are under threat and we are talking about the specific cases, there are things that we can do. There is a platform, there are mechanisms that we can put in place and use to actually protect these people as we do normally with human rights defenders, activists.PT: Talking about putting pressure on the government to respect human rights, respect press freedom amongst others, many Nigerians feel that the EU and many other Western powers do not use their influence enough to pressure the government to act right. For example, perpetrators of electoral violence and human rights abuses are not denied Schengen visas like the U.S. sometimes does.
Isopi: First of all, we did not have the framework for doing that and this is something that the European Union at the central level is starting to develop. That is to have a legal framework in place to be able to adopt sanctions on human rights violations basis.
I think this is relatively recent, last year. It was a decision made by member states of the (European) council to put in place a mechanism which is similar to the one that is used by the United States.
I think the discussion is still ongoing with member states to implement this new system. The first step is to have the framework, which did not exist before; the second thing would be how to use it and in which cases.
But you know about elections, of course, I just arrived here in Nigeria, so I can only talk about the experience that I have had in other countries.
In elections, we have other ways. We have a dialogue and other ways as well to raise all the issues you are talking about. It is not only by imposing sanctions, which sometimes is the very last resort.
So that (sanctions) is something new for us. Now we have that and I guess we would use that. I am not aware of cases where the sanctions have already been used and already been adopted. I would guess that this will be used in very serious cases. But you will be informed of the first human rights sanctions proposed by the European Union about wrongs of human rights violation from now.
PT: What will be your definition of success at the end of your time as ambassador to Nigeria?
Isopi: You know, it is not easy because the task is very big. There are things you cannot change at all, and that you cannot change in three or four years. If I think about the next priorities, I would say, as we support the electoral process, to help Nigerians to have good elections.
Our role is simply to provide our expertise to the institutions, INEC, the other institutions, civil society to play their role, this is our role — to very much support those Nigerian mechanisms that exist.
If we can help those institutions to fully play their role in the next electoral cycle, that for me will be a success to the country and to the European Union. I think this is very much a priority for us or we can support the country in that regard.
We have been talking about gender issues. To see some of these challenges and some of the commitments that I believe are very much genuine commitments to materialise and to have more convictions for gender-based violence and to have more women in parliament, more girls in school.These are things that I would consider as progress and a successful Nigeria and a success for us.
On a purely bilateral basis, we would like to see our bilateral cooperation to be strong; trade to be strong; I would like to see more European companies coming here to invest, which will be a win-win situation because that will not only bring some European know-how but will create good jobs, respect environment, transfer technology and develop the national industry.
I think that will be something extremely strategic because this is something that can change a lot of things but it is not easy because there are a lot of issues we have to look at together.This is not something you can do in three or four years, but I think increasing the number of European companies in Nigeria will for me, be a huge indicator of success. PT: How do you strike a balance between this sort of partnership and ensuring that there is also respect for human rights. For instance, when there was a coup in Chad, one of the countries that did not condemn it is France and that is perhaps because there is a relationship between both governments. Some will also say it is because of the bilateral relationships between countries that prevent them from condemning such acts. How will the EU ensure a balance between the strategic priorities and respect for democratic norms?Isopi: The European Union is not shy in expressing itself on human rights.
PT: Are you sure of that, ma?
Isopi: You’re talking about Chad, I think the position of the European Union was quite clear.
PT: Actually, no western organisation or group called it a coup when actually it is, of course.
Ms Isopi: Of course it is a coup. When I was ambassador of Italy to Cameroon, I was also attending to Chad, so it is a country that I know relatively well.
I accompanied the president of Cameroon for a visit to Chad in 2017. There’s always a way to be more vocal, but I think the European Union is among Western organisations that are more vocal than others.
And if you look at situations in Africa, we are quite vocal. And now Chad, maybe we did not call it a coup but there were declarations and pressure for some of the things that the government has done.
There were many things that were done because of the pressure from France, maybe you are also looking at the things made public, and also the strong pressure from the European Union.One thing which is important for us, even more important is for African institutions and African countries to speak in all these cases, and we want to see more African governments take their positions on these issues and not only and not always European Union or the West.
PT: Experts believe the EU’s role in Libya and the events that followed led to the proliferation of arms, which has contributed largely to security issues in Nigeria today. So the question for the EU on security in Nigeria is how and what role is the EU playing in helping Nigeria tackle its security challenges?
Ms Isopi: We are not a state but a group of states. As a group of states, we do not have an army ourselves. What we do in many countries is to deploy training missions like when I was in the Central Africa Republic, we had a European mission training and developing the army. We did the same in Mali and developing the internal security forces. We do not do this here in Nigeria.
Apart from the Gulf of Guinea where we have developed something new with five to six member states. We developed what we call the coordinated maritime presence, where naval assets of member states coordinate themselves in order to make for a safer Gulf of Guinea.
This is relatively new and it is not a (military) mission, it is not an operational mission but only a deterrent.
What we do in Nigeria mostly since we do not have this military mission is to try to address the root causes, because insecurity always has root causes — poverty, social services, education amongst others.
On the Lake Chad Basin, maybe this is something that people do not know, the multinational joint task force, which is composed of the five countries, is one of the initiatives we support.
Also, what member states (of the EU) do here is part of what we are doing for Nigeria.
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