The Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, gave an exclusive interview to SaharaReporters in the United States capital, Washington, D.C. Mr. Onyeama discussed some of the top priorities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including reforming Nigeria’s foreign embassies and consulates, improving global business relations, and cooperating with neighboring states and the African Union in the fight against Boko Haram.
When asked about deficiencies of Nigerian embassies and consulates across the globe, Mr. Onyeama cited flawed, "unscientific" recruitment and hiring practices as a major source of the problem. He explained that in the past, staff were chosen based on connections rather than merit, resulting in poor management of embassies and consulates. To improve the recruiting process, Mr. Onyeama said he wants to grant positions to "people who are motivated and have a sense of responsibility" and rid the embassies of employees not qualified for their positions.
"A lot of work is being done within the Ministry to really address the institutional governance issues there and also in our missions abroad, and in our engagement with the diaspora and the role of our consulate in all these countries around the world."
The Minister also seeks to implement a "results-based management system" that would see the embassies and consulates run more like businesses. Under this system, he explained, there would be greater communication between consular personnel and Nigerian citizens abroad ("clients") and more oversight, which would make the embassies more efficient.
"We're going to read them [embassy and consulate staff] the Riot Act, and we're going to impose a greater level of oversight and a mechanism for getting feedback from clients and customers."
While speaking of consular services, our correspondent asked Mr. Onyeama about steps his Ministry can take to improve services for Nigerian students studying abroad. SaharaReporters has received numerous complaints from Nigerian students across the globe lamenting the lack of support they have received while overseas.
Mr. Onyeama said that while he wants the embassies to provide support the students need, they are limited in their capacities to do so. Often times, embassies "have no idea where they [students] are" until problems arise that require them to visit the embassy. He said that the majority of Nigerian students studying abroad do so on private funding and not through State or government scholarships. He added that “if a Nigerian Ministry, for instance, sponsoring some students then we could intercede with that Ministry to point out that there is a certain problem.”
When asked specifically about the non-payment of fees experienced by Nigerian students abroad, Mr. Onyeama said embassies "do not have the resources" to assist them financially but reiterated that students’ first point of contact should be with the government or institution granting them that educational assistance.
When speaking about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs role in improving the national economy, the Minister said he wants to set up a database that would match Nigerian businesspeople, at home and abroad, with businesses around the world. This would facilitate communications among Nigerian and foreign businesses and promote greater market access and foreign direct investment in Nigeria, according to Mr. Onyeama. The Minister added that this database would also be used to connect members of the Nigerian diaspora to businesses back home.
"We're trying to build an architecture, a match-making architecture to match Nigerian businesses with foreign businesses."
He described it as a "platform or database in which all Nigerian businesses, any Nigerian business, can upload all the details about what they'd like to export, and our people will have focal points in all those countries to promote market access for those products."
Mr. Onyeama stated that his Ministry has also been working closely with the African Union in an effort to increase intra-African trade, which he said is "extremely low." According to Mr. Onyeama, the African Union is developing an agreement that would permit greater intra-African movement among businesspeople.
On the topic of security, Mr. Onyeama said that the Foreign Affairs Ministry has been cooperating closely with neighboring states and the African Union in the fight against Boko Haram.
"We have an outreach in my Ministry with, first of all, the neighboring countries who we share challenges with, like Boko Haram in the North and the Gulf of Guinea and the security situation there," he said.
"The Ministry has been at the forefront in engaging with our neighbors to address those immediate security challenges."
Mr. Onyeama said the Ministry has also been engaging with the African Union and the "peace and security architecture" they are building for Africa, including a rapid deployment force.