Ambassador Esther John Audu is Nigeria’s high commissioner in The Gambia. She started her diplomatic career in The Gambia in 2008 and has remained in the country since then. Audu is about the longest serving Nigerian head of diplomatic mission. Vivian Onyebukwa and Chioma Igbokwe of Nigeria’s The Sun newspaper were in The Gambia, paid a visit to her office and she narrated her experience, challenges, achievements and politics, among others.
Six years and still counting on the same seat, how has it been?
Today, I will say I am the longest serving ambassador on ground because 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. So, I will count myself lucky because I was actually appointed by the late President Yar’Adua and was retained among the few. Just about 12 of us were retained by President Goodluck Jonathan and I was lucky, maybe I am also “Goodluck”. It is a thing of joy for those of us that were told to just go back to our missions. So, it was easier for me to just come back to the Gambia than maybe going to a new place. So, it was just like coming back to where I am already used to and where I understand.
What are the challenges you have encountered during this period?
A lot of challenges here and there with the consular matters, because we have nothing less than 30,000 Nigerians, all scattered all over the provinces. The provinces have five governors. We have two cities – the Kanifing Municipality and Banjul. We have two mayors also in addition to the five governors and Nigerians are all over the provinces – Banjul, Lower River Region, Upper River Region, West Coast Region, Central River Region and North Bank Region, and I take time to go round for consular visit so that I know what the problems are. I take my time to relate with the Customs, Immigrations and Police to find out if there are any challenges in these areas. I would say when I came in newly, it was really bad because that period Nigerians were paraded on television and newspapers every day for committing one crime or the other. But with experience, maybe with my leadership role through the NGOs, I’ve learnt to bring people together and we sit and discuss our issues. And maybe also with my experience as a grassroots person; I go down to their level and discuss with them. So, that period I came in I was able to have meetings here and there with the Nigerian community members in the city, the ones in the provinces and local governments. And I had to let them under stand that they should know where they are coming from. Nigerians are not known to be lazy; Nigerians are known to be hardworking people. We should not look for cheap ways of making money. We should be engaged in genuine businesses, and I would not want to see any Nigerian paraded anymore. If there is anyone among us who is not interested in any genuine business, I advised at that time that the person should just leave the country because I wouldn’t want a situation where I would continue to see them being paraded on the television or in the papers.And I thank God it worked because we discussed as members of one family and I had to tell them then if you have any challenge on ground with the government or anybody, you let me know, that is why we are here. And then we met with the relevant body and we discussed those issues. And I took my time and visited the superiors in the different areas. I visited the Customs, Immigration office and Police IG so that if there is any problem with any Nigerian, they should let me know instead of just going to the press.
How has it worked?
With time, they are dying down. We just discovered that if there is any problem with anybody, they call and then quickly, the consular officer would be sent down there to find out what the problem is, and they would sort out at that level instead of saying this is what is happening, or this is what they have done, even when they are just suspects. I thank God that it has worked. Some people actually left the country; I mean Nigerians that, maybe, were actually not here genuinely left, because I had to let them know that I was going to have surveillance for fishing out any questionable character because I wouldn’t want a situation where anybody would soil the name of Nigeria when I know what Nigeria is, and what Nigeria means to all the neighbouring countries and other countries out there. So, as people of good behaviour, people of good character, hardworking people and struggling people, I want everybody to see that in us because yes, I am the head of mission here, but every Nigerian in this country is an ambassador of Nigeria whether you like it or not. Nobody would say “that lady”, they would say that Nigerian. So, at the end of the day everybody is an ambassador. So, I had to tell them and let them know we are all doing the same work; the mission is here for them. And I thank God that it has worked. The Nigerians here are very law abiding; the ones that remain now after troublesome ones left. After those ones left, any time we have problems here with any Nigerian, we discover that it is Nigerian in transit. The common cases are those of Nigerians who don’t even know The Gambia, who may have been told to pass through The Gambia and they don’t know what The Gambia is. The Gambia is very small, so it’s like you are standing before the mirror. If you are taking a pin from the ground, the mirror is showing you what is happening. So, they know themselves door to door. They are like a family. In fact, not just like a family, they are one family. They have about seven to nine different tribes here but they understand one another, so any new face that comes into the country they know right from the airport. If it is through the boarder, they know. Once you are not a Gambian, they know you. I have discovered that there are people that have learnt to be committed to their area of discipline. You will be surprised that if something is happening may be between the border of Senegal and Gambia like Barra area, you will be surprised that once the IG hears about it, he will go there himself not minding that there are other policemen out there or that there is someone in charge of that area. So, you will be surprised that by the time they are reporting, you see the IG there himself. So, they are so proactive when it comes to responding to issues that concern their territory especially villages and towns around the border. So, before you know it, anything happening, in a twinkle of an eye, has gone round. We thank God too for the kind of president they have here. I must confess to you that His Excellency Dr Yahya Jammeh is someone who likes Nigeria and believe in the strength of Nigeria and Nigerians generally. And he doesn’t hide it. Several times he has appointed Nigerians to be judges, vice chancellors and presidents of the Appeal court. In fact, there was a period that the chief justice and the president of the Appeal Court were Nigerians. Public prosecutions, sensitive areas were handled by Nigerians, appointed by him, paid by The Gambian government. With that trust and belief he has in us, he will prefer to appoint a Nigerian to work for him because he still looks at it as people of the same culture. You will understand people better than people coming from a different world. That has also assisted me here. It has made my job easier. If I have anything to discuss at times, I sit down and discuss with him. So, also with his ministers. That has actually made our job easier in this mission. If there is anything to do with Nigeria, the government has never failed us, they have always supported Nigeria. Anything we need I tell them they would say, count it done. The last one that happened was the seat at the UN we were looking for and they wanted it also. By the time the president sent an envoy down here, they discussed and they withdrew their candidature. That was how we got that seat. So, this is an area that has encouraged me and the relationship keeps growing every day.
Which other areas are the two countries working together?
We try as much as possible to assist them in the areas we know they are lacking such as manpower, health, education and agriculture. We have also gone into the area of emergency management. Our lawyers are always sent down here too by the Nigerian government different from the ones being employed by The Gambian government. These ones are taken care of by the Nigerian government. So, we assist them in these areas. We pay our own volunteers like the technical aids called volunteers here in all these sectors. Some of them are lecturers in the University of Gambia. Some are teaching in the secondary schools. We have nurses, midwives in their hospitals. At present, we have nine lawyers in the country that have served for almost five to six years now because theirs is three years and it’s renewable. But for the technical aids volunteers, it is just two years and another set comes. Recently, we got the list of the new ones that will be coming for approval. We are expecting them. The ones on ground are rounding off by August/September and they would go back to Nigeria. These are areas where we have actually worked together. It’s not every country you go to that you see Nigerian facilities operating successfully and in a relaxed atmosphere. But here I would say our banks are here. We have the GTBank, Access Bank, Arab/Islamic Bank which is 70/75 per cent Nigerian and they are doing very well here. But you go to other countries, you won’t even find one Nigerian bank operating. They believe in our banking system here and they trust the facilities we have and they are operating well. Outside banks, we still have insurance companies; we have three insurance companies and one insurance broker, making it four. They are different from individuals that operate restaurants, cyber cafes, petty traders, etc. Some buy things from Nigeria and bring them here for sale. So, we have all these people working and trading here without any problem. I think it is a plus for us because if the government in place does not give you that enabling environment you cannot operate. These are areas that we cannot but say thank you at all times to President Jammeh and his people. You know, our people are always looking for where to make their input and we are here at the mission to encourage them and discourage any illegal activity because that is not in our name.]]>