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. In this edition of Bantaba, she spoke to Standard editor Sainey Darboe and associate editor Lamin Njie.
President Yahya Jammeh recently visited Nigeria to join celebrations marking the country’s centenary. How has this helped in further cementing ties between The Gambia and Nigeria?..
Thank you very much for that question. I believe that a lot of people don’t know that diplomacy is all about building relationships, sustaining relationships and if possible to further improve on the existing relationship. We all know how close Nigeria is to The Gambia and also how close The Gambia is to Nigeria. Generally, it is in the interest of Nigeria to ensure that all other African nations are working hard towards development and are also at peace. In this area of interest, we ensure that all countries are attended to. I see the visit of President Jammeh to Nigeria for the centenary celebration as a reciprocal kind of love. Nigeria has shown love to The Gambia and The Gambia is reciprocating. Last year in November, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan visited The Gambia on an official visit. It wasn’t like he just bounced into President Jammeh; it was an official visit as a way of meeting with his colleague and they discussed issues at their level. It was not a shock for us when President Jammeh upon hearing that Nigeria is celebrating its centenary showed up. It’s like both celebrating and attending to cement the relationship. So it’s a thing of honour that he was able to attend the centenary celebration and he didn’t just attended but made a statement.
In President Jammeh’s speech, he spoke about the threat of Boko Haram, the use of religion to divide and the importance Nigeria as a big brother in Africa to stay intact. What do you make of the Boko Haram threat?
Well, all over the world, we have terrorists here and there and Nigeria will not look at the issue of Boko Haram as a different thing. Terrorists are scattered all over the world and we should be more cautious and prepared to face our security issues not only in Nigeria but everywhere. This is because the names that they give themselves depend on the places that they are coming from and where they are heading. The names they are calling the ones in Mali is different from the ones in Syria, and Egypt. The one in Nigeria is called Boko Haram. These groups are out to terrorise and to destroy and it is a wake-up call for every African nation to sit up because you can never know where they are heading and where they are coming from.
The government of The Gambia has made it clear that it denounces all forms of terrorism especially in the sub-region and has been in solidarity with countries that face threats of terrorism. What other form of support do you think Nigeria can get from The Gambia?
There’s no support that we can get from The Gambia other than the one we are already getting. If President Jammeh is speaking for us, then the entire Gambia is speaking for us. He is already fighting for security for Nigeria and for the entire Africa. He doesn’t have to go and fight before we realise he’s fighting. No! There are different ways of handling security issues depending on the style that terrorist groups use. So, security issues are handled the way you see them come. Given that the issue of Boko Haram hasn’t reached the stage of real fighting, then it’s about a secretive way of handling things especially when it comes to security. And so if there’s a secretive way of handling things, then everything shouldn’t be open to the entire public to know.
With the recent abduction of over 200 girls, the Nigerian government has come under pressure both internally and externally for its failure to tackle corruption and poverty which many mark as one of the core causes of Boko Haram’s insurgency. What is your take on this?
Well I know that there’s corruption in everyone country and Nigeria is not an exception. There’s corruption all over the world, there’s corruption in every government and in every country. When you talk about poverty, there’s no country where you don’t have poverty. It is up to us as Africans to sit up and face our challenges. We shouldn’t use excuses to misbehave or use excuses like poverty and corruption to be idle. I have seen people sitting down, doing nothing but take attaya from morning until evening. That’s corruption. You should be seen engaged in doing one activity or the other as a youth. There are many things to be done and if you’re a youth there’s nothing wrong with making cake and selling than being a prostitute. If you have a farm, why can’t you farm, feed yourself, your family and if possible feed the nation or even have foreign exchange earnings out of your farm work? But when you sit down and say there’s poverty, and you are not doing anything, then you yourself is part of the corruption. Like I said, there’s corruption everywhere, poverty everywhere and even here in The Gambia, there’s poverty. I cannot say we are free from corruption and so it’s left to us to face the reality. If you are a youth, you have to engage in activities that can earn you income and with that you will develop skills, discover your talents, make money, and you will not sit down and talk about poverty or corruption. You are only corrupt when you sit down and you want to eat where you did not sow. You want to consume food that you did not produce and then you start going to beg and telling people to make money for you. That is the only way that you ignite corruption.
Despite the many initiatives that the government of Nigeria has taken under Goodluck Jonathan, the country is still struggling to provide employment for the majority of its citizens despite its enormous resources. What factors account for this failure?
Nigeria has not failed to provide avenues for employment. If you talk about industries in the entire African continent, I don’t think there is any country with industries like we have in Nigeria. If you see Milo, Coca Cola, and Bon Vita, they are all produced and consumed in Nigeria. We even export to other countries. If you see clothes like the one I am wearing today, they are all made in Nigeria. We have industries, the population and the market. It is left to us to be engaged and get ourselves fixed up in doing one thing or the other. We have enough population to consume even what we produce and today we are the biggest exporter of cassava to China to produce bread. We possess a lot of wheat and produce bread from our own wheat, and cassava. We hardly import food but for our large population, what we are producing sometimes does not meet the needs of our population and therefore we still do little import. But there are a lot of things that we have stopped importing. We don’t import furniture; the furniture is produced by Nigerians and sold in Nigeria. Most of our food items are not imported and very soon we are going to stop the importation of rice so that we can double up and meet up with our population’s local consumption. We have enough tuber yams that we’re producing and if you go to Nigerian markets, you will know what I’m talking about. This is because people are engaged to work but there are also people who deliberately refuse to work. I have my daughter who graduated from the university and after graduation got no work. She had to engage herself in baking cakes to sell and she didn’t wait to say ‘my mother is an ambassador so I can sit down and eat’. They know that they cannot sit down under our roof, do nothing and then saying they are waiting for government to give them jobs. Government cannot do everything and it’s our duty as people that have gone to school to discover our talents, develop, improve upon them and be part of production and not wait for government and industries at all times for employment. Industries are there to employ but they have their limits. If you know that the kind of industry you have is small cottage industry, you shouldn’t go out there to employ 20 people just because there are people out there that don’t have jobs when you know that you can pay only 14 people. You should cut your coat according to your size! So we have industries that are productive and I wouldn’t say we don’t have challenges back home including power which the government is really working hard on. It’s not a one-day issue and because the available facilities are overstretched. There’s a saying that a house is not built in a day and if you have a house with bedrooms and your family is increasing every day, then you have to keep building. That’s what Nigeria as a country is doing. If what was available is only for 5 million or 35 million people, today Nigeria is about 170 million people and so you have to try again and put in place as government things that will take care of the additional population. That’s what they are doing.
Since the dawn of democracy with Obasanjo, Yar’adua and now Jonathan, there has been renewed efforts in Nigeria to tackle corruption. How successful has this endeavour been?
You know that we have agencies put in place that handle things like that. We have the ICPC and EFCC. These are all bodies that handle corruption for you to know that the government is not sitting down and doing nothing. Once there’s any allegation against anybody, ICPC and EFCC handle that allegation. So measures and agencies are in place to handle corrupt practices.
You have always talked about the many areas of cooperation that exist between the government of Nigeria and The Gambia. Can you update me on some of the areas that the government of Nigeria and The Gambia are engaged in?
You know it’s more of Nigeria giving and we still have our volunteers on the ground and we are the one paying them. It’s not the Gambian government paying our volunteers. The teachers, the nurses, the lecturers and others are being paid by the Nigerian government. On the Gambian part, they still reciprocate by providing accommodation, cooking, and facilities like gas and cash power. We have lawyers too on the ground and so we are still providing these services while the Gambian side is also playing its own part. Right now, the request made by the Gambian people to have personnel at the emergency agency, led to two officers being sent down to serve for one year, to work with the Gambia National Emergency Agency from our own NEMA back in Nigeria. In fact, they are going to leave this month because they have completed their one-year stay and during that period, they were able teach the Gambian officers on the ground on how to predict weather, how to handle environmental challenges, weather forecasting and expected environmental challenges. They have finished and they are leaving now and if the request is on again, Nigeria will always be there to help. There are other areas including the military where we helped to train military officers and I think presently about three of them just graduated. Training programmes are still there and open to even the immigration officers. All these relationships are there including the exchange programme which is still going on.]]>