Why South Africa didn’t grant Nigeria visa waiver –Onyeama

Geoffrey Onyeama, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Image via Daily Sun
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, has opened up on why South Africa did not deem it fit to extend its visa-free policy to Nigeria like it did to some other countries recently.
In this exclusive interview with Sunday Sun in Abuja, Onyeama said that no country in the world would allow a poor country with a large number of unemployed people emigrating irregularly and regularly, have an open door policy with them.
Onyeama also spoke on the recent attack on the immediate past Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu in Nuremberg, Germany, disclosing the measures the country would put in place to forestall future occurrence.
He also disclosed that he would focus more on citizens’ diplomacy and the economy in his second term. Excerpts:
How do you see your second missionary journey?
Well, we want to consolidate in certain areas, but we also want to see to fruition the projects that we have initiated.
Some elements were somehow against your return. How do you see that move?
No, there were no elements against my return. There was one individual who went to the media and claimed that he was speaking on behalf of the state executive committee. And all the members of the executive committee said that no meeting ever took place and that he had no right whatsoever to presume to speak for them. So, essentially, it was just one individual claiming to be speaking for a lot of people.
What are you going to do now to reposition the APC in Enugu State?
I have written a letter to the chairman of the party, Comrade (Adams) Oshiomhole, I have copied the president and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. And I will certainly need the support of the chairman of the party if we are to turn things around in Enugu, if we are to secure the credibility of the party in Enugu and the future of the APC in Enugu State.
Now that you are back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, what are you going to do differently?
I think number one, I am going to put more attention on what I will call citizens’ diplomacy. Clearly, there is a large number of Nigerians in the Diaspora. And we have to address their needs and be responsive to their needs and to make them comfortable in the knowledge that the ministry is providing through its embassies, the services that they expect. So, that is going to be an important focus. I would also like to complete the project and have it really up and running, of the economic diplomacy initiative where we will have an Internet portal that will be a mechanism for business matching; matching Nigerian businesses with foreign businesses.
Are you referring to NEDI (Nigerian Economic Diplomacy Initiative)?
I am referring to NEDI because I believe that can make a substantial contribution to the economy of this country. It will help as a one-stop-shop for market access for a large number of Nigerian businesses that otherwise might have problems accessing foreign markets. And I think that it will also do a lot to make it easier, promoting ease of doing business for foreign businesses that might be interested in coming to Nigeria. So, it will be a one-stop-shop through a credible platform for that.
Is this like a response to calls by some Nigerians that our foreign policy should be restructured to have direct impact on the citizens?
No, it is not a response to anybody. I mean, these are things that we have had in place that we have always wanted to do. But the problem has always been resources. We have a very clear idea of what we need to be doing, but the challenge has really been having the resources to do those things. For instance, a call centre, 24/7 call centre. It is high technology, but it requires a lot of funding, a lot of resources. The NEDI also requires funding. And as we know, one of the problems that we had, has been the inadequacy of the funding of the Foreign Ministry.
From your assessment, do you think we got the desired results on the war against corruption, insecurity and the revamping of the economy during your first term?
Yes, because it was always going to be a work in progress. I don’t think that anybody could realistically have said that in three and half years, you are going to wipe out corruption in Nigeria and that in three and half years, you are going to have a 100 per cent full employment. So, the thing that we did in the first term was really to develop a roadmap and to lay the basic structures and foundations. And that has been done.
So, now you are going to consolidate?
And build on it. Build on what we have.
Let’s digress a little; people find it difficult to separate the functions of the Diaspora Commission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Can you enlighten us please?
I think that we, as a ministry, prepared the proposal for the Diaspora Commission and I signed-off for it in a memo to the Presidency for the approval that was given. So, we know exactly what the terms of reference are for the Diaspora Commission and it is very, very clear and there should not be any overlap as such. It is basically a framework for Nigerians in the Diaspora to be engaging with the country, a platform essentially for them and a support mechanism really for them. And that is basically it because in most countries around the world, there is a NIDO, Nigerians in Diaspora Organization with the membership and all that. They, essentially, are interest group. So, they are the focal point and they should remain the focal point of the Diaspora Commission here and we are just working with them. I think the terms of reference are very clear.
What position is the government going to take on the killing of Nigerians abroad, particularly in South Africa?
First and foremost, the South African government itself is engaged with that. When we talk of killing of Nigerians in South Africa, the impression is sometimes created that Nigerians per se are like being targeted. But the reality is that there is a high level of crime in South Africa and a lot of it is due to the apartheid past and the conditions in which the blacks lived, little education, very, very poor circumstances and all that. Zimbabweans are being killed, Mozambicans are being killed and others are being killed by criminal elements. One death, one Nigerian death or a Zimbabwean death or a Senegalese death or a South African death is one death too many. I mean, we are not saying that there is any justification. Be that as it may, we are engaging with the South African government to find a solution. And what I proposed that we focus on is to have the South African Police and the Nigerians in South Africa Organization to have them working with the police. Because at the moment, the impression is that the South African Police are part of the problem and a major part of the problem. And that there have been some killings of Nigerians by the South African Police and that there is this trust deficit. So, we need to have them on the same side. That is what we are working on. We have an Early Warning System…
(Cuts in) Is there a breakdown on the Early Warning Mechanism or it hasn’t come into operation?
There is a MoU to be signed. But we have prepared and they still have not signed. The Early Warning Mechanism, when I conceived it, it was essentially to have a framework for the main protagonists, the main actors to meet regularly – the South African Police at the highest level, with the Nigerian High Commissioner, the Consul General, the Foreign Affairs and the Justice Department. If they are meeting at the highest level on a regular basis, we will have a situation where either side, be the Nigerian side, will be providing information and suggestions and strategies because they know the Nigerian community, they will know where the threats are coming from and will be given to them at the highest level. And the mere fact with the meeting regularly will be a bonding mechanism, also get them working together and they can then be responding to whatever challenges and threat that may come up. So, this was basically the structure one wanted to create, an oversight mechanism that really had the parties working together. And what is particularly important about that is that we wanted also the police people on the beat to know that their bosses are working with the Nigerian authorities in South Africa and are watching them so that there is an oversight on the police. So, if there is an accusation that a Nigerian has been killed in police custody or whatever, they will know that that kind of impunity will no longer be tolerated because Nigerians have access to their bosses.
South Africa granted visa free regime to other countries, leaving Nigeria in the cold. What is going on?
Well, what is going on is first of all, that Nigeria is a country of two hundred million people going through a very, very serious economic crisis and that there is a large number of Nigerians who are unemployed and unfortunately, significant number of Nigerians engaged in criminal activities, drug trafficking and peddling in the first instance and other things. So, Nigeria is about four times the size of South Africa and I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where a country will allow a poor country with a large number of unemployed people emigrating irregularly and regularly, have an open door policy with them. It just will not happen because they know there will be swamp. And already, there is a high level of irregular Nigerian migrants, illegal Nigerian migrants in South Africa. So, if they had a visa free policy, as far as they are concerned, it would constitute, I think, a destabilizing factor for them. But they are taking, of course, skilled Nigerians and it is the same in every country. In most countries, they want people who will be assets to their countries either with high skills in areas that are needed or wealthy people who will be investing in their country. Unless very rich countries that have a shortage of unskilled labour market who will want them attract unskilled labour. But South Africa has enough unskilled workers already in their country. So, they are not looking for that level of migrants.
Earlier today, I saw the President of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). And that reminded me to ask this question: what does Nigeria stand to gain from the UNGA presidency?
It brings much prestige to our country. And when you are at the dining table, you are sitting around the dining table, you are in a good position to know how much food there is, what kinds of food there is and maybe, how much of it you can get for your children to also eat. So, these are the advantages of those kinds of positions.
So, in that case, we can say that there is hope for Nigeria having a permanent seat at the Security Council, which we have always been yearning for?
Well, not as the direct consequence of being president of the General Assembly because the Security Council essentially holds the key to that question. And to be honest with you, permanent seats of the Security Council is not something that you will get international consensus on for the foreseeable future.
If you have read the papers today, you would have seen the United States indicting some Nigerians on money laundering and fraud. What is the government going to do? Is the government going to extradite them?
No,if you can prove and you find that they are in Nigeria. We don’t have a law. And most countries don’t usually have laws that extradite their own citizens to other countries. But for maybe certain grave crimes, it could be looked at. Obviously, you look at it on a case by case basis if there is a request for the crimes. But countries do not as a rule; extradite their own nationals to face justice in another jurisdiction.
The issue of the immediate past Deputy President of the Senate has been trending. Do you think the reminder, which the ministry sent to Nigerian dignitaries to always inform the ministry and missions abroad before travelling is enough to solve that situation?
Yes, I think it is important that when dignitaries are always travelling, they should inform them. But in this case, he had informed. The embassy was aware that he was coming. And not only that, I think he was even accompanied to the venue by an official, a local staff in the consulate. I have had an experience myself about three years ago and I think it is probably even trending now I understand. In Vienna, Austria, about three years ago, where we were at the Nigerian Embassy and some people were complaining when we finished the meeting that they had not been given an opportunity to speak. And they were becoming a bit unruly and I begged the organisers to allow them to speak. So, the point is that we have to be more careful, all the embassies, in vetting properly, the people you allow into meetings in which dignitaries from Nigeria will be taking part and to secure those venues. Because what tends to happen, a few of them will come in, supposing to be Nigerians in the area who want to come and listen and who have hidden agenda. So, they have to be more rigorous. That is what we are going to be telling them in making sure that anybody who goes there, they have to be well searched and frisked before entering these kinds of events. So, they have to secure the premises where dignitaries are meeting, especially where they are really meeting with Nigerians in those foreign countries because most Nigerian leaders, they want to be able to meet with their compatriots when we go to these countries especially if you are in the government, or legislature or justice, you are there representing these people. So, you want to be able to engage with them and also get their engagement. That is really what needs to be done. But also, I think just as a matter of procedure, we tell anybody who is going abroad, government officials, to always inform the Nigerian missions.
For Nigerian dignitaries who may be developing cold feet travelling abroad for such functions, what do you have to tell them?
I don’t personally believe that any Nigerian because of what happened there will not travel. That is not going to happen. I don’t think Nigerians need to be worried or concerned about that. Just a simple proportion that in these meetings where you are inviting the Nigerian public to attend, just make sure that the right people are there and that the premises are secured.