Nigeria’s High Commissioner to The Gambia, Esther John Audu, is quite a fulfilled woman. Though a teacher by earlier training, she went on to become a woman’s leader in Nigeria, a member of the House of Representatives, and mayor of Abuja of all important cities, before she was appointed as high commissioner to The Gambia in 2008. She’s not finished yet; she is pursuing a doctorate programme in diplomacy at Cambridge University. Saikou Jammeh interviewed her for the Bantaba.
Where is this journey taking you?
Well, I am an ambitious person. I believe that there is nothing that is impossible, especially when you’re a spiritually guided person. I would say I am aiming at the sky. I aim to become a global leader. By the grace of God, if I don’t reach the sky, I will shoot above the trees.
Specifically, where do you see yourself, say, in three or five years’ time?
I am supposed to be moving; moving gradually to greater heights. Elections have come and gone in Nigeria. I would not say I am going back home to contest Senate or House of Representatives. Where I will be next two or three years will depend on where my government wants me to be. But I won’t tell you lies. One day I may contest.
Presidency or senatorial?
There is nothing wrong with running for president. Nigeria is ripe for that. Africa is ripe for that.
But politics in Nigeria, as in many parts of the world, remains a sport for men to play. Do you foresee a female president for Nigeria in the near future?
Of course. The women in Nigeria are doing well and we are still agitating for more. A lot of women are contesting executive and legislative positions. Women who have been tested have proved themselves. Currently, we have as minister for finance a woman who has led the country to become the biggest economy in Africa.
But we are yet to see even a female vice president for Nigeria?
If women can contest to become senators, there is nothing that stops them from contesting presidency or becoming vice presidents. I see us going very close to that. Everybody is now getting tired of men. So, women should come and show what they can do. I believe that very soon we will have female presidents and female vice presidents. Even in the last election, there was a woman who ran for president and her party did well. This is the second time we are having a woman contesting the presidency.
To quote you in one of your press interviews, you said: “I have seen the set I met on ground go. Those who came with me have finished and left, and some have come, met me and still left.” How comes, seven years and counting, you’re still here as ambassador for Nigeria?
I was appointed by the late President Umar Yar’adua. Our tour of duty is four years. I have completed my first four years. President Goodluck Jonathan came and re-posted me here. It is not easy for you to serve and be reappointed. But I have seen it happen in my case. It is the judgement passed by my government upon me. I believe that I have done very well that is why President Jonathan retained me. My joy is that he posted me back to an environment in which I am acculturated. I am very comfortable here in The Gambia.
You did describe yourself as a grassroots person following your humanitarian support to the women gardeners of Sittanunku. What do you mean?
I believe in the people, in development, in reaching out to everybody. If you make yourself available for the popular masses, then you will know the reality on the ground. If you have to do things to touch everybody, you have to visit villagers, know what they are going through. By the time you touch those in the village, you will be touching reality in your country. The grassroots people are those that I like dealing with. Their demands are the state’s demands.
Your love for and contribution to Gambia’s development has been recognised by the government, earning you a national award. When you finally leave Gambia, how would you want to be remembered?
I am a practical person. I thank God because when I came in as Nigerian High Commissioner to The Gambia on 19 April 2008, we were staying in a rented chancery. Today, we are living in our own building built from the Nigerian tax payers’ money. The Nigerian International School was also in a rented place. It is a thing of pride for me that we have built a permanent site. These are practical things I want to be remembered for. And, like you said I went to Sittanunku, discussed with them and helped the women gardeners with the bit that I could. Whether you like it or not, they will not forget that. Not just there. There are other agricultural and skill acquisition centres, even the SOS Children Village and the prison. These are areas I have visited.
And, I want to be remembered for my relationship with the people of The Gambia and in particular, the government. I would say I am one of you; I am comfortable anywhere, any day within The Gambia. I eat and dine and dance with the people. I have learnt how to dance ndagga. The people here are hospitable and I have learnt to be more hospitable than before. I have made new friends, I will not forget them. I want them to continue remembering me. This is home for me.
President Jonathan of your party, PDP, has recently lost to Buhari. In your opinion, what has gone wrong for him?
Nothing has gone wrong with Jonathan. But something has gone wrong with the party. The PDP produced Jonathan, ACP produced Buhari. It’s a party to party affair. It is what your party is able to do that makes you stand out. As a PDP person, I would say that the PDP fought itself. This affected Jonathan. He is a victim of circumstances.
The Obasanjo factor or what?
No, the circumstances of the party fighting itself. A house divided against itself cannot stand. If you look at the APC, three quarter of the membership were PDP members who defected.
Why were they disgruntled?
They are all different individuals put together. There are people who had issues after the previous election and felt that the only way to address it is to go to another party.
What are those issues?
I cannot go into specifics. But I know that defection by individuals varies. So, Jonathan became a victim.
What does Buhari’s win mean to your position as ambassador?
His win means success to Nigeria. He is president for Nigeria. I am working for the Nigerian government. He is going to take over and continue with the job [Jonathan has started]. As an ambassador, I will continue to work for the Nigerian government. So, I become his staff. We work by tour of duty. I am in my last lap. Any day, anytime, recall letters can come. They will come not because power has changed hands.
What would you say is Jonathan’s legacy?
The biggest of all is when he congratulated Buhari as results were being collated. That is a step forward for Nigerian politics and for African politics. He has displayed that transformational leadership that we expect for Africa. It is going to change a lot of minds positively. Also, he has a lot of projects on the ground.
What sort of task lies ahead for Buhari?
To hit the ground running; forgetting political gimmicks and facing reality. There are security issues, corruption issues which he has to fight. He has to think of completing projects on the ground. Nigeria is affected by the drop in oil prices. He has to look at areas of diversification; develop the solid materials industry.
Buhari’s campaign promise was that he will rid Nigeria of corruption. What is your take?
You can’t just say somebody will stop something, especially a thing like corruption. All I can say is that he will fight corruption, like Jonathan has done, and like Yar’adua did. We have institutions in place to fight corruption. It is for Buhari to come with his own style of how to tackle corruption. I believe he will use the agencies on the ground to fight corruption.
There is a popular opinion that the election of Buhari marks the beginning of an end of Boko Haram. Do you share that view?
That is my prayer. Boko Haram is a worldwide issue. It is not only Nigeria that is attacked by terrorists. France, America are being attacked. It’s my sincere prayer that he will be able to conquer Boko Haram. Jonathan has been able to equip the military. Generally, Nigeria had been underrating the terrorists’ capability. With time, they realised that these people are ready. These terrorists take you from where you don’t even expect. For Boko Haram, we understand that they want to a caliphate. I don’t know what type of caliphate they want. But I do know that just like Jonathan did not sleep, Buhari too will not sleep on Boko Haram. Maybe his military background could be an advantage.
The bad press blitz and resultant stereotype of Nigerians as criminals, 419ers have reduced. We understand that you’ve personally intervened in engaging the police and Nigerian community. How did you do it?
Everything boils down to leadership. The type of leadership I came in with has worked for me. I don’t believe that Nigerians are criminals. I have tried to make Nigerians living here understand that you can reach the greatest height without hurting a fly. You don’t have to hurt anybody, kill or steal to get to the top. And that is more honourable. A lot of people have come to see terms with it. Today, we have fewer crimes involving Nigerians. I thank God for it. God did the magic. Maybe my background as a teacher helped, too.
Not every Nigerian national rated you favourably. Edwin Nebolisa of Africa in Democracy and Good Governance had trouble with the law here. When he returned home, he told the Nigerian media you did not help him when he got into trouble here. How do you respond to that allegation?
We are people of different opinions. He has right to his own opinion. But I have tried my best. I will intervene in different issues as they affect Nigerians, which included his case. It is unfortunate that his own problem was not solved the way he wanted. But the laws of the land where we live have to be respected. We will not encourage you to break the law. So, we tried our best as a mission. Thank God he was able to get back to Nigeria. We can’t stop him from talking. The mission here is doing its best. If nothing was done, probably he would have been languishing in jail. That shows you something was done.
Also, some time ago, Gambians in abroad sent a petition to you regarding the performance of Nigerian judges in Gambian courts. How did you address such things?
I have not seen that petition. I am hearing it for the first time. We would have responded to it. I know that Nigeria gives technical assistance to Gambia in the area of judiciary. We send lawyers and they serve for three years. We send lawyers, not judges. If they are appointed judges, it is the government that makes them judges. They have been doing very well. We used to send judges but that has stopped.
What is the state of Nigeria-Gambia relations?
Everyday our relationship is getting stronger. We’re going into areas we’ve not been to in the past. Recently, when Gambia was commemorating the Golden Jubilee, President Jonathan himself wanted to come, but he could not make it. He had to send the vice president and he had been here on official visits.
Anything you wish to add?
The Gambian leader and the Nigerian leader are two people who have transformed our two countries. They have built strong relationships. When Nigeria had its Golden Jubilee, President Jammeh visited himself. He made a strong statement that is binding the entire continent together.
With the maturity displayed by Jonathan, there is now excuse in not conceding defeat when one loses an election. It has given us a new orientation and we should emulate good things. This has brought in peace. By what had happened, democracy will be sustained in Nigeria and by extension, Africa.
I would want us to look at ourselves as a continent that needs to move. We should not be fighting. We are supposed to be talking about integration. When you see other nationals in your country trying to help build your economy, you should be happy instead of fighting them. If they leave, your economy may collapse. The business that they set up may end up employing your children. It is for you to wake up to the challenge.]]>