Madame Ambassador — The Lioness of Nigeria in ATL
By Publisher Cynthia L. Blandford
Madame Ambassador, Thank you for making time to speak to us. Could you describe your role as Consul General of Nigeria in Atlanta and share with us the responsibilities of your Mission and how it hopes to accomplish its goals.
Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to talk to you about the important work of the Consulate General of Nigeria in Atlanta. As you know, the Consulate is, among other things, focused on strengthening relations between Nigeria and the USA, protecting Nigerians and interests of Nigeria in the USA, promoting investment and trade, and developing economic, cultural and scientific relations between the United States and Nigeria. We carry out our mandate through engagement with the host authorities and sectoral leaders in the states under our consular jurisdiction, as well as through working closely with leaders of Nigerian communities and bodies.
Traditionally, the work of the Consulate General is concentrated in two areas. First is to cater for the welfare and interest of Nigerian citizens who live in Atlanta and other southern eastern states under the jurisdiction of the Consulate. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. However, I arrived in Atlanta in July 2021, and the measures undertaken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic limited the reach of the Consulate. Thus, my work has been concentrated within the state of Georgia. So far, I have been to 4 States, namely Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and Oklahoma and in the period ahead I intend to have more physical presence and interaction with Nigerians in the rest of the states.
Second, is dealing with issues pertaining to issuance of travel documents and extension of needed consular support within the means provided to the Mission by the Nigerian government. Furthermore, is the imperative of maintaining close contact with the host authorities in the various places which I have mentioned to ensure that resident Nigerians are able to live well and contribute their quota in the development of the various communities where they live.
Since my arrival, I have been able to work with the Nigerian Immigration Service which has the statutory authority for the processing of travel documents for our nationals, to issue over 19,000 passport booklets to Nigerians. This has been able to bridge the gap in the deficit of unissued documents which has existed for years by about 85 per cent in just 9 months. This is quite humbling and fulfilling, as I have been instrumental to providing relief to my fellow Nigerians. I intend to continue working with more vigour to attend to their other needs. After all, that is my primary reason for being here. Each time I see unimaginable joy on the faces of the Nigerians who get their problems solved, I feel a greater sense of fulfillment.
On the Economic front, Atlanta boasts of great institutions such as the World Chamber of Commerce, World Trade Center, the New Black Wall Street Market and other major economic power houses such as Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, UPS, Home Depot as well as a number of other globally rated businesses. This has made it possible for me to engage all these various institutions and many more to strengthen and expand relations with Nigeria, and so far, very good results have been recorded. There is greater awareness of the business opportunities available in Nigeria for American businesses. I must also acknowledge the invaluable support and collaboration offered by the political authorities and eminent persons in Georgia, especially the Governor, His Excellency Brian Kemp, the Honorable Mayor Andre Dickens and Ambassador Andrew Young.
Atlanta is a great center of culture, civilization, knowledge and enterprise and therefore, it has been my major drive to work with partners to open greater opportunities for collaboration. Since my arrival, I have come to appreciate that the Nigerian Community is one of the most impactful diaspora community in Atlanta, particularly in the spheres of cultural life and the development of the city. The city has in turn been welcoming and appreciative of the contributions of Nigerians.
I therefore do not intend to slow down but to put in my modest best to promote the bilateral relations between this part of the United States of America and the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Madame Ambassador, as Head of Mission, we are aware that you are focused on strengthening relations between Nigeria and the USA, please share your views on Nigeria-US Trade Relations, Current Trends.
The economic relations between Nigeria and the US has a long history. This has expanded into all areas of commercial activities. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and a leading black and African nation on global affairs. At present, Nigeria is the second largest trading partner of the US in sub-Saharan Africa. The US is also Nigeria’s biggest export market and enjoys preferential trading relations under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Agreement (AGOA). Because of the size of its economy which at $448 billion, which is the largest in Africa and its huge resource endowment and large population, Nigeria offers US companies the best market in Africa. Also, because of its very modern and open market economic system, the business environment offers American businesses the best market to put their money in Africa. Since the present level of trade between both countries is still below $10 billion, there is huge potential for American business companies to improve and expand their businesses and go into investment relations with their Nigerian counterparts in areas of mutual benefits.
Madam Ambassador, as the leadership of the only African government owned Consulate in Atlanta-Georgia, give us your opinion on investment reforms and Nigeria’s role in the African Continental Free Trade Area.
The Nigerian government has continued to work assiduously to improve the enabling environment in which business is done in the country. We practice an open and liberalized economy in which the private sector takes the lead and government provides the institutional and regulatory framework to allow private enterprise to thrive. As you would expect, challenges of various types would rear themselves from time to time, however, with each of such occurrences, government has always tried to respond in a very strident manner. For example, the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission for 20 years, has existed as a one-stop shop for registration of new foreign businesses and the processing of all matters relating to new investments coming into the country and provision of support to potential investors.
The Corporate Affairs Commission of Nigeria, which is responsible for registration of businesses, has been fully digitalized to the extent that it is possible for a potential investor from the United States of America to register a new business in Nigeria directly from his office or living room here in the US. More recently, the Federal Government has introduced an office headed by the Special Adviser to the President for the Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria. This office addresses the needs of investors and other prospective business partners coming into Nigeria.
Through a period of sustained economic reforms, which started sometime in the year 2000, the country’s economy has also grown to become the most attractive in Africa and the highest destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the continent. In 2019, the country attracted $2.3 billion as FDI, and this fell substantially to $900 million in 2020 due to Covid-19. This has continued to prompt the government to improve on various incentives to attract more investment. Under its Economic Sustainability Plan of 2020, the government has put in place various strategies for improving FDI including the ease of doing business initiatives. This plan has placed Nigeria in a good position to play the leading role in the new Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA).
The Africa Continental Free Trade Area is perhaps one of the most important initiatives which leaders of the region have brought about. In fact, Nigeria was greatly instrumental in all the diplomatic initiatives including the Kigali Summit of March 2018 which led to the signing of the protocols. As one of the main industrial hubs on the continent with a great productive capacity and as the most populous nation with a population of over 220 million, Nigeria looks forward to playing a greater role in promoting regional trade under the platform of AFCFTA.
Nigeria is being looked up to, to be the driver for growth and stimulation of economic activities around the much smaller economies on the continent. It is pertinent to note that, Nigerian banks are now located in almost all African countries providing the financial mechanisms for such trade flows. It is expected that much of the economic activities of all African countries have a Nigerian content, especially because of the size of the country’s economy and its consumption power.
Madam Ambassador, could you hint us on the future of the Oil Industry in Nigeria amidst global push for Renewables?
Interestingly, the oil industry has been the mainstay of the Nigerian economy for at least the past 50 years. It is the largest contributor to foreign exchange earnings of the country and plays a major role in government expenditure and 40% of the country’s GDP. With the new emphasis on renewables, fears have been expressed that Nigerian oil and gas sector may go into decline and the country’s economy may suffer. However, this is not expected to create any shocks or disruptions as Nigeria is essentially a gas province. At present, the country has a gas reserve of at least 209 trillion cubic feet as of January 2022, which makes it no. 7 in the world. Indeed, Nigeria is more of a gas province than oil. Fortunately, gas, though not renewable, is a clean energy and will continue to be one of the world’s cheapest sources of energy.
In addition to this, Nigeria itself is also heavily endowed with great potentials in its energy mix. Among other things, it has one of the best sun radiation for solar energy development. It also has great potential for wind energy both from the Sahara Desert and along its Atlantic coastline of approximately 853 kilometres. The country’s huge tropical rainforest also has potentials for development of energy from biomass.
The process of transition from oil industry into renewables may therefore not seriously impact on Nigeria in an adverse manner as government policies are already focused on developing these new sources of energy.
Madam Ambassador, in most of your statements at events, you highlight the priority of the current leadership in Nigeria on Agricultural engagement. Nigeria has an abundance of arable land area and agriculture accounts for about 24 percent of Nigeria’s GDP. How does exportation of agricultural production to countries like the US impact Nigeria’s economy? Could you also highlight some Agricultural tributes between Georgia and Nigeria?
Nigeria has arable land area of about 34 million hectares: 6.5 million hectares for permanent crops, and 28.6 million hectares on meadows and pastures. From the environment and climatic point of view, Nigeria’s land is considered one of the most fertile in the world. Nigeria is known as one of the large producers of cash crops as cocoa, palm kernel and palm oil, groundnuts, rubber, banana, gum Arabic, crops and vegetables and so many other products. One great advantage for agricultural productivity in Nigeria is the fact that such productions are free from genetic modification and large application of chemical content.
The greatest sector of the Nigerian economy is agriculture. It is also the largest employer of labour. A good percentage of its population is engaged on the farm. Nigeria’s massive arable land area makes it possible for continued expansion of that sector. Fortunately, the weather situation and the availability of multiple rivers around the country makes the agricultural sector to have the greatest potential.
To the extent that agriculture is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, exportation of products to the United States and other developed economies will improve the well-being of our Peoples. It will also enhance economic transformation and growth.
However, only 41% of this arable land is presently cultivated. Accordingly, much opportunity exists for participation of American entrepreneurs in the field of agriculture in Nigeria, for exportation in the United States.
On the Agricultural tribute, Georgia and Nigeria have a lot of similarities, where Agriculture is one of the mainstays of the people. As you know, Georgia has great productivity in almost all aspects of agriculture, and this could be easily matched with what is available in Nigeria in terms of infusion of capital and technology. Agriculture in Nigeria is still largely organic and therefore a collaborative approach on joint production of such crops as peanuts, vegetables, and in the non-food sector, cotton, sugarcane and grains for which Georgia is known to have great experience. Another opportunity is the diary sector and also the production of chicken for which Georgia companies can target the African markets through Nigeria, taking advantage of the AFCTA.
Madam Ambassador, it is delightful news that Nigeria has a fast-growing Fintech sector, tell us more about that sector and its attraction for investment.
Amazingly, Nigeria has one of the fastest growing fintech (financial technology) industries in the world. Over 60% of Nigeria’s 220 million population are people below the age of 35. This is combined with the fact that STEM education as well as science and technology based post-secondary education are becoming the currency all around the country. People are specialized in science and technology all over the country. For a country the size of Nigeria, the size of the fintech industry, which reached about $800 million in 2021, is merely a tip of the iceberg, compared to existing potentials. It is therefore, expected that Nigeria’s place with respect to the 4th industrial revolution will continue to increase.
The fintech industry in the country is also promoted by the fact that the country’s smart phone usage has in few years jumped from just a couple of millions to over 100 million. The fintech industry offers potential investors one of the most fertile areas to invest in Nigeria. These include such areas as finance and investment companies, trading and crypto currency exchanges in saving and investment companies, lending companies, etc. In Fintech, Nigeria will continue almost to the level attained by such places like the Silicon Valley and Bangalore.
Madame Ambassador, we understand that you recently met with the City of Atlanta’s Mayor and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. What were the main take aways from your discussions and what would you consider are next steps?
I must say that the Mayor, Honorable Andre Dickens, is a most committed and exceptional public servant. His commitment to deepening the bilateral relations with similar entities in Nigeria is very encouraging. I am also very glad that he truly appreciates the efforts of resident Nigerians here towards the social and economic development of the city. Fortunately, some persons of Nigerian descent are also in politics. The Hartfield-Jackson Airport is the main entry point for most Nigerians who are here. As you know, in 2007, Delta Air Lines inaugurated its daily nonstop flights between Atlanta and our sister city Lagos, Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest multicultural and commercial centers which has now become one of Delta Air Lines most profitable and enduring routes globally. We are discussing a number of initiatives, including the signing of the MOU and the possibility of opening more opportunities to strengthen our existing relationship. I intend to redouble efforts in following up. Also, I am continuously meeting various high-level officials and top economic operators.
You were a keynote speaker at the Wesleyan College Commencement exercise on May 14, 2022. What did you share with the students, faculty and staff and do you anticipate that educational partnerships will be strengthened with Wesleyan College and the Nigerian community?
Wesleyan College, being the first college in the world to charter degrees to women has made a mark in history. I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Wesleyan and thank the authorities of that institution of high standing for inviting me. My message at the commencement ceremony was both inspirational and aspirational, with the intention to set a right cord and tone for the steady ascension of the graduates through the journeys of life. My target was to ensure that my message, especially to the students, should have enduring influence and impact on them. Generally, cooperation in the education sphere is very important. I am already in discussions with several institutions here and in Nigeria. These will be pursued with vigour.
You have a large Nigerian educated population in the diaspora notably in Atlanta and Houston area. How do you engage with them? Share a success story with us.
The Atlanta area has traditionally been one of the most attractive destinations for Nigerians moving or travelling to the United States. This is for obvious cultural reasons. Although the Mission is still updating its data on the exact number of its citizens in the Atlanta area, we estimate that we have about 20,000 (twenty thousand) Nigerians in the area, including those who are completely naturalized. A large number of Nigerian citizens who come to Georgia are highly educated professionals engaged in almost all spheres of national life. A number of these high-profile Nigerian professionals are within the university system as highly valued academics. These can be found in virtually every tertiary institution, universities and colleges as well as at other lower-level educational establishments. There are also a good number of Nigerian medical professionals who are highly rated physicians, surgeons, dental surgeons, nurses and health workers. Others are Nigerians who are involved in local politics.
In recent times, a number of persons in the entertainment industry, an aspect of Nigerian national life which has continued to attract a lot of global attention, are shifting to the Atlanta area which is a known centre of culture and civilization. Last, but not least, are Nigerians of the business class, most of whom are very successful entrepreneurs in real estate, manufacturing, trading, banking and finance.
It has been useful working closely with the various Nigerian organizations. Nigerians are highly organized through cultural, professional, religious, and other interest groups. These structures have made it quite easy to reach out. I recently visited Houston, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Charlotte, North Carolina; and later, Tulsa, Oklahoma; during which we extended consular services to some of the states and interacted with Nigerian groups. By God’s grace, we will soon visit all the cities under the Consulate’s jurisdiction.
I must add that, these Nigerians remain law abiding in their daily pursuits, and focused on the improvement of the overall inter-communal relations in the Atlanta area and improvement of the relations between Nigeria and the US.
What makes African culture unique, and how has it influenced other cultures globally and most importantly, you have arrived in Atlanta with important initiatives including your most recent “Nigeria Speaks” art and cultural program, which some might say is “soft diplomacy.” Madam Ambassador, what did you hope to accomplish with these types of efforts?
Interestingly, culture provides the foundation for all other facets of human existence. Cultural heritage is a mirror to understanding the dynamics and potentials for economic activities, growth and development. The productive capacity of any people finds explanations in their cultural origin and its adaptability to change and innovation.
African culture is unique and rich due to the fact that the continent is made up of over 1,000 distinct indigenous peoples. Each of these peoples have their traditions and cultures, languages and historical experiences. This has left an indelible and rich kaleidoscope of human expressions derived from several centuries.
Nigeria’s culture, for instance has attained growing influence globally. Nigeria has always been politically and culturally influential on the African continent undoubtably, as a result of its large population and rich culture. A lot of attention comes after increased international consumption of Nigeria’s hugely popular film industry, Nollywood, which is already well-established across the African continent. Nollywood movies have reached audiences in Europe and the United States, with cities around the world hosting Nollywood film festivals.
In addition, Nigeria is home to an influential music scene, particularly Afrobeats, which has now gained popularity around the globe with musicians like the Burna boy, Davido, Wizkid, amongst others who have become internationally famous. Nigeria’s culture, which is deeply rooted in Art, fashion, film, music, food and literature, translates into remarkable international prestige. Nigeria has conveniently provided Africa with a “seat at the table” among the traditional international powers. This has been realized through the beauty of its art and culture. It is in this respect that the Nigerian Consulate, which I head in Atlanta, has made it a priority to focus amongst others, on the strengthening of cultural diplomacy between Nigeria and the USA.
You mentioned our recent outstanding Art Exhibition entitled “Nigeria Speaks”. We hosted it along with creative icon Chief Mrs. Nike Okundaye, and I’m glad we drew the most impressive audience here. You call it “soft power”, but I call it the greatest form of communication. We organized the Nigerian Art Exhibition to generate momentum to unlock art and culture’s transformative potential in making our societies more prosperous and especially in these challenging times, more human friendly.
The Exhibition was a novel cultural extravaganza which brought one of the best and largest collections of Nigeria’s modern art, from the Nigerian city of Lagos; thus opening a new vista much central to retelling and projecting Nigerian and African art, in all of its diversity, depth and beauty. The “Nigeria Speaks” event became an undeniable iconic moment in history with the passing of the resolution by the State of Georgia Senate declaring May 25th “Nigeria’s Art and Culture Day”.
Finally, I was honored to present an award to a trailblazing quintessential citizen who has brought honor to the Federal Republic of Nigeria for “Outstanding Achievements” to Augustine O. Esogbue, in recognition of his Academic Achievements, his exemplary accomplishments and commitment to humanity.
Many thanks and it has been an honor and privilege to interview you today.
The pleasure is truly mine. Please keep up the excellent work.