Friday, August 2, 2013

Benin Republic clocks 53

As Benin Republic clocks 53: 6.5m Nigerians live in former Dahomey, 200 in jail but Amb Obisakin says ‘Nigeria is a power here’


On 1 August, 53 years ago; then Dahomey, today’s Republique du Benin (Republic of Benin) attained independence from France. At the political level, Benin has recorded enviable strides; for, it was one of the first post-colonial African nations to jettison military dictatorship/autocracy for democratic rule.

President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan GCFR during his visit to Cotonou on 31 December, 2010.
Moreover, Benin Republic must be an icon of pride for the entire black race because an African traditional religion, Vothoun aka Voodoo, is State Religion in this country of barely 10 million inhabitants. Interestingly, 10 January is an annual National Holiday in honour of Vothoun in these climes.

On this public holiday, countless foreign tourists could be seen savouring the charms of Vodounsi as well as the sights and sounds of Vodouno (adherents) on street procession in many a local settlement. Wow! You should come to Ouidah or Cotonou next 10th of January! Believe it or not, when it comes to commonsense, size counts for little. Welcome to the small, yet great nation called Benin.

6.5m Nigerians in Benin

Did you know that Nigerians and people of Nigerian ancestry account for more than 6 million, of the barely 10 million population of Benin Republic? According to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to Cotonou, Ambassador Lawrence Olufemi Obisakin, this revelation came from no-less a personality than President of Benin Republic, Dr Thomas Boni Yayi.

Speaking during an exclusive chat with mauricearchibongtravels at the Residence of the Nigerian Ambassador in Cotonou, Amb Obisakin, further revealed that about 200 Nigerians were in different prisons across that neighbouring country. Although some of these inmates are convicts, many others are in detention awaiting trial.

Painfully, akin to the situation in Nigeria, many of those undergoing trial have been in detention for a long, long time. Expatiating, the Nigerian ambassador added that, officials of his mission had toured some of the jailhouses and he was also planning to personally visit these inmates to see things for himself.

“Some of them may have issues that need looking into and a few days ago, we facilitated the release of a Nigerian woman that had been in incarceration for some time. We don’t just want to see the inmates, we have made requests for a list of all Nigerians in prison in this country, their personal data and the offences they allegedly commited. With that, it would be easier to tell, whose case needs to be reviewed. Thus far, we are yet to be furnished with this list. However, we are not giving up on this issue”, Amb Obisakin stressed.

One of the 16 countries of West Africa, Benin is a strategic gateway to the sub-region and is important, among others, because countless Nigerians daily commute between their country’s western frontiers and places as far away as Senegal. Benin is also an important trading partner of Nigeria, even though the bulk of the commercial activities is informal and, therefore, goes largely undocumented.

Porous border and national security

Porous border and improper documentation of business transactions between Beninese and Nigerian merchants could be exploitated by money launderers as well as drug and weapons traffickers, with consequent unpalatable impact on the security of either nation. What is Obisakin’s take on this? “You may not be wrong. It’s one of the challenges and it is being tackled. But, it is principally a political issue. And, the border is important here.

“Proper management of the border is crucial, especially Seme Border. Once the construction is completed and the people supposed to be there, are there; then we would begin to address the security issue. There are two major groups you need at the border: Immigration and Customs. These are the people we really need. The others could be in the background. And, I’m glad to hear that the Minister Coordinating the Economy, Prof Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said that she has started implementing that at Murtala Mohammed International Airport.

“As Pareto would say, ‘Once you resolve 20 per cent of the major problems, then 80 per cent of the minor ones could be considered solved. So, the 20-80 principle will apply, here”, Obisakin mused.

The equivalent of billions of dollars exchange hands annually through Nigerian importers and other merchants that use Cotonou’s Port Autonome. The bulk of goods imported through Port of Cotonou includes cars and edibles, such as rice, wines, spirits, poultry and vegetable oil. Other items are engine oil and used clothing alias okrika, like footwear, shirts, trousers, skirts, blouses and even underwear.

As a result, Cotonou Port has morphed into one of the busiest wharves in West Africa. As artery in and out of Nigeria, Benin Republic is also a factor in our nation’s security. Over the last three decades, Benin Republic has been attracting countless Nigerian merchants who flock the neighbouring country either as importers, clearing agents, traders or smugglers.

Cotonou, now academic Mecca for Nigerians

In the last 10 years, however, Benin has also evolved into an academic haven for thousands of Nigerian youngsters desparate for university admission. Such is the influx of our compatriots in Benin Republic that during a lecture on Conflict Management at Houdegbe North American University Benin (HNAUB), one of the many private universities in Cotonou, all the 28 students in that class were Nigerians!

This is no exaggeration. The lecturer happened to be the Nigerian Ambassador to Benin Republic, Dr Obisakin. Obisakin, who holds a PhD in Conflict Management, taught gratis for one semester at HNAUB. That stint, which had the blessing of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was practical demonstration of Obisakin’s desire to impart knowledge.

The top-flight diplomat also disclosed that some 8,000 Nigerians are currently enrolled at HNAUB. About 5,000 of these students are on-campus, while the remaining 3,000 are correspondence students. “In fact, we believe that as many as 90 per cent of students at Houdegbe University could be Nigerians”, Amb Obisakin declared.

With over 20 private universities in Cotonou, the plenitude of Nigerians studying at HNAUB alone offers an insight into the plethora of Nigerian youngsters in Benin. But, there are worries: Are they enrolled at approved schools, and do the universities have accreditation for the courses they run?

As regards revelations that a number of Nigerians had actually spent tons of money and years of studying at Beninese universities only to discover on returning home after graduation that their degree was worthless; Obisakin revealed that,  finally; his mission has successfully drawn up a list of approved universities in Benin Republic.

There are 21 universities in that neighbouring country, where Nigerians seeking admission could apply, he said. The list was arrived at after meticulous study by Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou working in collaboration with Beninese Ministry of Tertiary Education, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education and other stakeholders, we gathered.

Nigeria is a power here

Although he arrived in Benin Republic’s economic capital, Cotonou, on 9 July, 2012; to assume duty as President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to that country, Amb Obisakin got official endorsement of the host head of state about a month later.

Interestingly, even when he had not yet sealed protocol formalities by 1 August, 2012; Obisakin was invited to the Beninese State House to partake in the celebration of that country’s 52nd independence anniversary. He put his invitation down to the special relationship between Benin Republic and Nigeria. “O, They were very kind to me”, he enthused.

According to Obisakin, the special ties between the two West African neighbours explains why the protocol of not having yet presented his Letter of Credence was waived as regards his invitation to Benin State House for the 1 August, 2012 national day felicitations.

Twelves months ago, on 6 August, 2012; Obisakin was at the Beninese State House, where he presented his Letter of Credence to President Boni Yayi. Therefore, on 6 August, 2013; Obisakin will clock a year as Nigerian Ambassador to Benin Republic.

“A lot has been achieved in the last one year. But, first of all; I must thank you Maurice Archibong for your keen interest in our work”, Amb Obisakin remarked. Back to what has been achieved over the last 12 months, Obisakin continued: “If you ask any Nigerian living in Benin Republic, they will tell you that they are seeing a better life. In fact, the watershed was in February, this year. On 19 February, 2013; we were at Benin State House from 9am till 5pm in a meeting with His Excellency, President Boni Yayi”.

Obisakin recalled that the Beninese president had “summoned all his Service Chiefs, including Chief of the Forest Department, to that meeting with me. At the meeting, HE Dr Thomas Boni Yayi gave them (Benin Service Chiefs) some orders. One, that nobody must maltreat any Nigerian on this territory, any more.

“Number two: President Boni Yayi also directed that, if the most respected citizens were the French and the Americans, all citizens of Benin should give double the respect that they grant to the Americans and the French to Nigerian citizens. And, he gave reasons …

“Number one: Nigeria is the biggest partner of Benin Republic. Number two: we are one actually. We share seven common indigenous languages with them. We share 778km border with them. We have been one from pre-colonial times. Don’t forget that the Oyo Empire was here and that the Borgu Empire also was here. So, Nigeria was a power here in the past. And, we are still a power, commercially”.

Obisakin added that another achievement of his administration as Nigerian Ambassador to Cotonou could be found in the existence of a new international market at Seme-Krake. At some point, Nigerian traders were going to have problems but we were there for them. We stood by them and now, the market near Seme-Krake border is running. Seme-Krake border is the busiest of all the land borders in Nigeria. It is also the land border that yields the greatest revenue.

“Apart from that, Nigeria is clearly visible now across Benin although I would have loved to have some concrete architectural edifice here because we have more competitors now. No doubt. China is here … and that is the reality. We are immediate neighbours: that is what is special about Nigeria and Benin Republic”.

When taken up on his idea of a Nigerian architectural icon in Benin, this is what Amb Obisakin had to say: “I have always had this dream. There should be a Nigerian Cultural Centre here. We are a power, here. There’s no doubt about it”. When we put it to His Excellency that, given his vantage position to start the process of establishing a Nigerian Cultural Centre in Benin Republic, what has he done about it; Amb Obisakin replied: “Well, we are starting. But, you will agree that some of these things cannot be achieved over-night. We are just praying that it will be accepted by the leadership and relevant authorities. But, I know that with time, this will surely come.

“That’s my dream: for Nigeria to have an educational-cum-research centre, here. There’s yearning for it. The people need it. We have initiated the process by putting in some memos and NOUN (National Open University of Nigeria) is coming. People are yearning for education, here. Don’t forget, this is where you have the highest concentration of Nigerians outside home. There are 6.5 million Nigerians here”!

As to how he came by such a staggering figure, Amb Obisakin’s response was: “The President of Benin Republic, HE Dr Thomas Boni Yayi, said so. He said that about 65 per cent of the inhabitants of Benin Republic are Nigerians or Nigerian-related”.

The enviable affinity between Benin and Nigeria, Amb Obisakin intoned, has fostered formalisation of virtually all types of useful bilateral ties, one could think of. Obisakin again: “Remember, we’ve been together long before we got independence. But, let me use my own experience as an example. Nigeria and Benin have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the exchange of teachers and lecturers”.

With regard to the year that pact was entered into, Obisakin said it was a long time ago. This ambassador, who was admitted to University of Ife in 1975, was beneficiary of this academic exchange treaty. That is how Obisakin came to have a Beninese, Prof Ige Akanni Mahmoud, among his lecturers at Ife, those days. Evidently, that MoU, he noted must have been signed more than 35 years, ago.

Nonetheless, it must be pointed out, that the much-vaunted bond between Benin and Nigeria is not bereft of challenges. We also took Nigeria’s Number One citizen in Benin on this point. “The only challenge we have, and thank God it is being resolved by our President, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan GCFR, who is interested in the very good and warm relation we have with this country, is that; in 2009, a meeting of the Benin-Nigeria Joint Commission had to end abruptly as a result of some border and boundary issues. But, now; we are meeting again.

“Remember, that our presidents have been meeting. The President of Benin, Dr Boni Yayi, is about the only foreign president that spends his vacation in Nigeria. In September, last year; he was in Nigeria for one week; from the 19th to the 26th on national vacation”.

Rules must be obeyed: Nobody should leave Nigeria without travel papers

Obisakin however warned that the propinquity between Benin and Nigeria is not an excuse for anyone to disobey necessary rules. “Nigerians”, he stressed, “must realise that, though Benin may be close and they may share the same language with some Beninese, Benin Republic is, albeit, another country. Only yesterday (27 July, 2013), some people came; about 20, and they had not a single passport on them. Yet, they want to cross the border. And, not only that; they planned to go farther beyond Benin.

“I want Nigerians to know that, it is true that ECOWAS links us and there’s free movement of persons, goods and services; but, you must have a valid Nigerian passport to cross the Nigerian border. Nobody should leave his country into another without necessary documents. Nigerians need to know this because it will save us a lot of distraction. We have so much to do.

“There are many opportunities that we need to explore. For example, can you believe that people here have links with Belgium? Can’t we have a facility here to airlift such tourists to Obudu in Nigeria by helicopter, when they are through with their visit here? So, we don’t want distraction because every time you send an officer out, to go and bail someone, another duty suffers”, Obisakin stressed.

Nigerians crossing the border with firearms is another source of worry for Ambassador Obisakin. “You can’t do that … You are indirectly declaring war, the moment you cross into another man’s land with firearms without approval”, he charged.

Have we had such incidents? “O, I thank God that one of the things we have succeeded in drumming into Nigerians is that those that have authority to bear arms, now know that; that authorisation only covers Nigerian territory. It does not cover another person’s territory”, Obisakin remarked.

The weal outweighs the woes

In spite of all the challenges thrown at the Amb Obisakin-led Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou, the envoy reasoned: “Yes, there are challenges. But, considering the large body of Nigerians in this country, things could have been worse. In other words, out of every twelve, there must be a Judas. Even Jesus Christ had a Judas. So, a very tiny fraction of our population here present challenges and I have to thank God for the people I have here.

“Apart from the capable hands at the mission, there are a lot of Nigerian personalities in Benin. Most Nigerians in this country are noted for doing their duty well. For example, those in Kandi: During my visit there, the Mayor told me he thanks God for having Nigerians in their midst. Not only do Nigerians living in Kandi pay their taxes promptly, they sometimes pay ahead of time. I’m proud of Nigerians and I can tell you that others are proud of us, too”; Obisakin concluded.

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