Joseph Stafford, Consul General of the United States Consulate General, Lagos, Nigeria, talks about corruption, Boko Haram and terrorism to a team of TELL reporters at the magazine’s corporate office, January 26.
You arrived Nigeria about two years ago. Naturally you must have been briefed about Nigeria before coming to the country. Is the Nigeria you met different from the one you had been briefed about?
Nigeria is one of the big countries I have heard of. It is an important country in Africa and the global community at large with a population of over 160 million with a strong economy led by the oil sector. It is a powerhouse in so many ways.
Do you think we are living up to expectations?
The important thing is the commitment of any society. Nigerian government and the Nigerian people are determined to utilise their potential. It is the same in the United States. We in the United States, using our full potential, think we have got strong political, economic and social institutions. I will say that developing potential is a work in progress for us and I think it is for Nigeria. Another thing is commitment. Nigeria is committed to moving forward.
There is a report from an agency sometime ago from America that Nigeria may disintegrate in the near future. From your observation, do you think that we are moving towards or away from that prediction?
No. US does not think that Nigeria is disintegrating. Every country faces challenges. Yes, there are issues of Boko Haram and killings but the trouble in the North does not mean that Nigeria is disintegrating. Majority of Nigerians are in support of their leadership (and) their government. To my mind, the symbol of unity in the country is in the fact that Christians and Muslims in Kano were shielding and supporting one another during the recent strike. To my mind, that is very important. We don’t think that Nigeria is disintegrating.
Why is it that the more support America gives to a country on the issue of terrorism the more the country gets into crisis like it happened in Afghanistan and Iraq?
This is primetime crisis. Think about the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra sometime ago. The important point is the people and the leaders, the determination and commitment to resolving crisis as a nation. The Nigerian situation is not the worst... The role we have to play is working with our friends abroad to resolve crises. I will give you some examples. In Afghanistan, the US helped to support government to fight terrorism and bring peace and development. Iraq, today, is better than what it was during the time of Saddam Hussein. Somalia was a mess before the United Nations intervened. It remains a very difficult situation. We don’t have troops now, but we are supporting the international community to restore government. In the case of Nigeria, we have had a meeting of bi-national commission and there are four working groups working on different issues. The working group met this week and they discussed elements like how we can support the Nigerian government to fight against elements such as the Boko Haram. There are working groups on energy and investment, food security, etc. We also have systems co-operation. We just commissioned a warship, training of naval officers and trying to make those in the region recognise Nigeria’s leadership role. We think that our involvement will help resolve crisis in the country. Again, in the case of Nigeria, we will try as we can to strengthen the bi-national commission; we do not have bi-national commission in many countries but we do in Nigeria.
Our system of government is modelled after the American system. Is our own presidential system of government okay?
Each country has a form of blueprint for democracy and democratic institutions. Both presidential and parliamentary systems are good, none is better than the other but it is the decision of a country to choose which one suits it better.
Okay. How would you describe government’s effort at fighting corruption?
The fight against corruption is for everybody. People should report corruption and there should be transparency in the system. There is corruption in government and also in the private sector. People should report corruption cases and there should be prosecution. If a road is supposed to be built and it is not built, it should be reported so that people will know.
You will observe that in most developing countries that are blessed with oil, the issue of corruption is a big one. Why is it that there is corruption in countries that produce oil?
You seem to be right there, but I’ll say oil wealth should be used for the benefit of the people. But then there should be strong governance. Institutions like the EFCC has important role to play in ensuring that the country’s wealth is used to develop the country. There should be a strong institution and transparency to ensure this.
The relations between Nigeria and the US are basically on oil. The country currently supplies about 17 per cent of US oil needs. If you remove oil, do you think that the US interest in Nigeria will still be as strong?
With or without oil Nigeria will certainly remain a major partner of the US because Nigeria is a major player in the African continent.
Which is more important – strong leadership or strong institution in governing a nation?
At the end of the day, strong institution is very important. Strong leadership is good but institutions must ensure continuity. Both of them go together in a democracy.
Do you think that the Nigerian media are doing well in helping government to fight corruption?
I think so, so long as they maintain objectivity while pursuing advertisement. The record of the Nigerian media is positive.
How best do you think government can tackle the issue of terrorism, especially Boko Haram?
It is important to address the socio-economic problems of the country that could be capitalised on by extremists. Government should be committed to addressing socio-economic issues that underlie extremism.
Can what is happening in Nigeria lead to a revolution like the Arab Spring?
I can’t say for now. What happened in the Arab world was an explosion of discontent. No one saw it coming. It just came because people were discontent with what was happening. The nature of struggle differs from one country to the other but it was clear that it was as a result of people’s discontent with the system.
What do you think about the call by Nigerians that governance be streamlined to cut cost of running government?
It is not a bad idea; it is a way of saving cost. The US is also doing something on streamlining governance to save cost.
Let’s go international again. Why is it that the US fears Iran’s move to develop nuclear energy whereas it does not see Israeli nuclear programmes as a threat?
Iranians have refused to be transparent to the international community on their intentions. Their irresponsible behaviour does not guarantee security. They are not open for inspection. We regard Israel as a close friend, a strong economy and a democratic nation in the Middle East. Israel is a responsible player in the international community. Iran is a problem because of its irresponsible behaviour. They have a record of supporting terrorism.