Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nigeria needs a full fledged envoy in Cotonou fast

...Echoes of Benin at 51

Former French colony, Benin Republic, Nigeria’s immediate neighbour to the West, turned 51 as an independent nation on Monday, August 1, 2011.

Expectedly, that day was declared a national holiday; and, interestingly, the following day was also decreed work-free to enable indigenes that travelled from remote areas to Natitingou in the northern parts to participate in special observances of the fete recover from journey pangs.

Welcome to Benin Republic, formerly known as Dahomey, where in April this year a tightly contested presidential election put everyone on edge. Interestingly, a run-off expected by many was scuttled by announcement that incumbent President, Dr. Boni Yayi, had eventually secured enough votes to remain in office.

Subsequently, unlike the enthusiasm that heralded the presidential poll, the legislative elections that follwed weeks after was akin to an anti-climax; for, voter-apathy was conspicuous at countless polling stations, where electoral officials and security personnel outnumbered those that appeared to have reluctantly turned up to vote, following strident appeals over various media asking the electorate to seize the opportunity to exercise their franchise.

Marching forward steadily
This is Benin Republic, where signs of steady progress in nation building as well as social and economic growth fostered by elected leaders since the return of democracy here 20 years ago can be perceived in the lives of the people. In deed, the country’s economic capital, Cotonou, has been dramatically transformed in barely two decades to the point that, anyone that last visted these parts 20 years ago would be hard-put to recognise this settlement today.

Cotonou is not the only Benin Republic ville enjoying modernization at dizzying pace: similar progress can also be seen around the country’s official capital, Porto Novo. And, one can say the same about Parakou in the country’s central Borgou area as well as Natitingou and Malaville in the far north.

However, critics are wont to say that developments have been principally restricted to the urban areas; for, thousands of kilometres of rural roads network are pot-holes infested dirt-roads, and people travelling from Babana, the Nigerian border settlement in Borgu area of Niger State; through Nikki in Benin Republic, where the nearest local immigration post is located, arrive in Dali; completely covered by dust.

But, to be candid; one must recognise the untiring efforts of the Beninoise authorities and their international donor agencies even in these rural areas; for, we saw countless schools and health centres in very remote places. And, what is more, not only are many remote villages electrified, their inhabitabants also enjoy uninterrupted electricity!

Benin-Nigeria relations
Benin’s proximity to Nigeria and the economic activities between the two countries as well as the millions of Nigerians that have made home there, throw up both opportunities and challenges. Border areas are porous and pose threats to national security through smuggling, especially of narcotic drugs as well as arms and ammunitions.

Because of logistic deficiences and the fact that the volume of human traffic across the borders between Nigeria and Benin could sometimes be overwhelming, statistics are vague. Although various security agencies on both sides frequently record interceptions and apprehend many an undesirable commuter, there is no doubt that many of such vermin successfully slip through, going by reports of transboder crimes in both countries.

At the economic level, Nigeria and Benin Republic enjoy staggering trade relations; sadly, however, everything is at best nebulous because the bulk of exchange of goods and currencies take place at the informal level. Whereas some of the drawbacks could be reined in by taking advantage of the two countries’ memberships of various international bodies, including the reginal ECOWAS, it would seem that efforts need to be made to fast-track things on the diplomatic level between Benin and Nigeria.

The prevailing unsatisfactory situation is sorely pushed to the fore by the fact that 51 years after independence, there is no bilateral tie signed by the two nations, despite being nextdoor neighbours. This is in spite of the fact that along their border areas Benin and Nigeria are home to the same indigenous peoples.

Among such aborigines are the Ogu (Egun) around Oglogbo (Seme) and Krake near Badagry; Yoruba from Idiroko through Igolo to Ketou as well as Borgu (Borgou) people in Nigeria’s Kwara, Kebbi and Niger states’ areas and Parakou et cetera parts of Benin Republic.

Prospective areas of bilateral agreements between Benin and Nigeria include “Elimination of double taxation” and “Framework for development” et cetera. In deed, we gathered that a “Co-prosperity Alliance Zone” agreement, conceived to fast-track and facilitate economic growth from Nigeria to Ghana, through Benin Republic and Togo is also on the card. However, without putting necessary signatures to relevant documents, such plans would prove no better than mere dreams.

Speaking with mauricearchibongtravels inside his office in Cotonou, Amb. Lawrence Akindele (now deceased) once said; “As a matter of fact, for more than 10 years now; the Joint Commission, which is the framework for carrying out bilateral relations between Nigeria and Benin Republic, was in doldrums”. Although the fourth session of that joint commission took place sometime last year in Abuja; sadly, however; “the meeting was inconclusive”, Ambassador Akindele had recalled.

“There are a number of important frameworks for cooperation. And, you would remember that we also have the West Africa Gas Pipeline Project, and Benin Republic have challenges of oil and gas. This means that there are many, many bilateral frameworks within which we can address issues of mutual interests”, Akindele emphasized.

Nigerian mission to Cotonou should be strong, efficient
Given Benin’s strategic importance to Nigeria, one would expect that our country’s embassy in Cotonou enjoys priority status. And, that this mission would be properly equipped, both in human and material resources terms, to be able to execute their functions effectively and efficiently.

Sadly, however, this appears not to be the case; for, there have been times, when the conducts of some embassy staffers here were declared as far from satisfactory. Moreover, there were also periods, when Nigerian Embassy, Cotonou was put at the mercy of some Charge d’Affaires; when those who should know ought not to do so, because a substantive ambassador is naturally in a stronger position to make things happen than someone generally seen as merely holding fort.

Going through the history of Nigerian ambassadors to Cotonou as well as each one’s tenure, one would discover that there have been times; when this outpost was left virtually rudderless. It is also worth noting that, even though both West African countries got independence from European colonial masters since 1960, it would take another 14 years before Nigeria assigned its first envoy to Cotonou.

History of Nigerian Envoys to Cotonou
Interestingly, Mr. D.D. Obunge, who was Nigerian’s debut Ambassador to Benin Republic, was posted there in 1974. In February 1976, Ambassador Edwin Ihama was appointed to succeed Obunge, and the former served there till 1981.

Thenafter, it would seem that this important mission was left acephalous for six whole years until Miss J.J. Ayorinde assumed duty there as Ambassador in 1987. Following Ambassador Ayorinde’s exit in 1989, Mr Philip Binye Koroye served there in the same capacity from February 8, 1990 to November 17, 1992.

After Ambassador Koroye’s departure, Ambassador Lanre Adigun was appointed Chargé d’Affaires at some point. Curiously, this high flying diplomat, who was able to consolidate on the cordial relationship between Nigerians and Beninoise tremendously, in spite of lack of any bilateral ties, would later be hounded by the despicable General Sani Abacha’s regime.

Sadly, Ambassador Adigun; who took his first degree at University of Lagos in Mass Communication, was drafted to Abuja and virtually placed on interdiction over his refusal to cooperate with murdering agents of Abacha’s junta, who believed he failed by not helping them apprehend NADECO activists, who presumably fled Nigeria through Seme and Idiroko borders.

Interestingly, we had engaged Ambassador Adigun for some chats, and the harvest from such encounters were published in the Saturday Weekend Magazine of the Daily Times around December 1992. Interestingly, during our conversations with Mr. Adigun, he had named Newswatch CEO, Chief Ray Ekpu, among his classmates, while a student at UNILAG.

After these encounters with Amb. Adigun, I was further convinced that my deep-rooted interests in the welfare of Nigerians in Diaspora as well as helping to foster ties between my country and other nations were not misplaced.

The Abacha dictatorship held Nigerian Embassy Cotonou in contempt: that this outpost was practically left rudderless until Ambassador M.M. Bauchi was appointed envoy here in 1999 is one proof of this disdain, which; sadly, ignored the social and economic interests of some one million Nigerians living in Cotonou or doing business across Benin Republic.

Interestingly, Mr. Bauchi worked there for barely six months before Ambassador E.O. Oladeji was brought in, in 2000. Seven years later, in 2007, Mr. Oladeji was redeployed. However, it would take roughly two years before his successor, Ambassador Lawrence Akindele, was posted to Cotonou. Painfully, on February 3, 2011; Akindele, who practically won everyone’s heart through his detribalized conduct, dedication to work and excellent communication skills et cetera passed on.

Nigeria needs an ambassador to Cotonou, fast
Now, more than six months since that tragedy, Nigerian Embassy Cotonou is still without an ambassador. Although Mr. Joseph Ajayi Ayoola has been installed as Chargé d’Affaires, there is a limit to what a diplomat in this capacity can do. For example, several issues remain unresolved more than four months since they broke. These include the case of killing of two Nigerians in Lokossa over allegation of armed robbery and the corpse of another Nigerian lying in a morgue since May 2, in another Benin settlement.

Given his dedication and drive, there is no doubt that any matter would linger for so long waiting for attention; were Amb Akindele alive. It is widely believed that this late envoy died from stress-related ailment, and there was talk that he virtually died from lack of rest because he would not delegate duties.

Well, the current situation; where exercises that demand expeditious treatment are handled lackadaisically, hints at the possibility that Amb Akindele lived by the Yoruba maxim; Oju mewa, k’oto oju eni, which simply put, means five persons pairs of eyes can hardly serve you better than yours.

From a one-time loathed mission, members of Nigerian Community Cotonou had told President Goodluck Jonathan during a reception for him in Benin Republic on December 31, 2010, that; “Amb Akindele had transformed Nigerian Embassy Cotonou from mere consulting clinic to a teaching hospital”. You can’t soar like an eagle when flying with turkeys, says another adage; and, it would seem Akindele was able to achieve success by monitoring work every step of the way because of weak links in the chain.

Evidently, there is no doubt that a substantive ambassador can easily achieve more and exact greater efficiency from his staff and foreign counterparts as well as governments, than a Chargé d’Affaires; who, in most cases commands little attention because he is seen as one merely holding fort.

It is therefore imperative that efforts should be expedited to appoint and post a substantive ambassador of Nigeria to Cotonou as soon as possible.

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