Abike Dabiri-Erewa: On Nigeria @ 61
Words By – Yemisi Suleiman
As Nigeria gets set to celebrate her 61st independence anniversary on Thursday, 1st October, Nigeria’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nigerian Diaspora Comission (NIDCOM), Hon Abike Dabiri Erewa in this exclusive interview, speaks on some salient issues currently plaguing the country.
The former House of Representatives Member, who was one of the most vocal voices, especially on the issues of women and children, also opens up on the place of women in politics today, her role and challenges as head of NIDCOM, the issue of migration and of course, the Nigeria of her dreams.
Nigeria will on October 1, turn 61 as a nation. At a time like this, do you think there is anything or reason to celebrate?
Of course, there is every reason to celebrate; that we are alive today, that we have a country, and I tell you, it is a country to be proud of. There are challenges no doubt, but we must look at our strengths, rather than our weaknesses. We should look at what unites us rather than what separates us. So, yes, Nigeria is not where it should be at 61, but gradually, we will get there. But it’s not about government alone, it is about every one of us, at home and in the diaspora, working together to build this great country of ours.
Many Nigerians who trusted your party the APC to bring about change and move them to the next level have had their hopes dashed, with many opting to migrate to other countries. How can hope be rekindled again?
I don’t know what you mean by the situation in Nigeria, what we encourage is, you can migrate. You can’t stop migration, legal or illegal. But, try to avoid irregular migration. And also, when you are in another man’s country, it is important that you try to obey the laws of that country. In the UAE for instance, we are bombarded every day with complaints that UAE is not renewing work permits. But we went to see the UAE Ambassador, and he made it clear that there is no official policy from the UAE government about not renewing work permits. But Nigerians are still being denied work permits. In this situation for instance, it’s a case of the bad now affecting the good.
When you are in another man’s country and you go to rob a bank in broad daylight in a place like UAE, I condemned it and I listed the names of the four Nigerians who committed the crime. I was criticized for mentioning their names. People felt it was because they were from a particular section of the country, but when you are out there, you are seen as Nigerian first before any tribe.
This is a country with laws and zero tolerance for crime. Now those guys are serving life imprisonment. In the same UAE, our brothers took cultism there, and they were killing themselves openly. We have seen a lot of things happen and now the bad is affecting the good.
So what I am telling Nigerians in UAE that are being affected now is, you go out there condemn bad behaviour. Let it be known that those few do not represent who we are as a people. But when you sit down there and you don’t call out those who do these things, then, the bad will definitely affect the good. But I am hoping that the issue of the UAE can be dealt with at the ministerial level, not at my level. However, UAE has said that there is no official policy on the issue.
In UAE and in other countries, no Nigerian will be allowed to be treated anyhow as instructed by Mr. President and we’ve had a lot of interventions.
But NIDCOM does not deal with consular issues, it is basically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that deals with consular issues. So, in terms of being treated anyhow, once you don’t commit a crime, we will intervene. But you cannot commit a crime, or break the laws and expect that we are going to beg for you.
The economic situation in Nigeria has made Nigerians endure indignities in different countries across the globe. How easy or difficult has this home situation made your work as head of NIDCOM?
This question is general. I’ll take specific cases. In South Africa with the issue of xenophobia, Mr. President intervened himself, it was dealt with.
We dealt with the issue of Traders in Ghana and the President also sent a delegation.
The issue of Libya, and Nigerians languishing in Libyan detention centers for years, Mr President set up a committee headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to go into detention camps in Libya. We brought thousands of Nigerians back. But guess what, despite all that, people are still going. We need massive awareness campaign. In Lebanon for instance, we brought stranded Nigerians back and one of the girls said to me “I will rather be selling guguru (popcorn) under the bridge than go back there.”
So, I think if people know that where they are running to is worse than where they are running from, they will have a rethink.
What can be done to stem the rise of abuse of Nigerians by their host country?
Any Nigerian, if you are unjustly abused, we will definitely intervene. We have intervened on many occasions. We will not allow you to suffer for a crime you didn’t commit, period. We work with the missions to ensure that no Nigerian is treated unjustly and we also reject stereotyping of Nigerians. If A commits a crime deal with it, don’t say because A committed a crime, you punish B for that because he is a Nigerian. That is not going to happen. We as Nigerians must reject that stereotype.
But, please, if you don’t obey laws in your own country, you can’t go to another man’s country and disobey. It is as simple as that, but we have definitely been intervening in cases where Nigerians have been affected. Many of them are not even in the media. When we get complaints, we work directly with the missions and a whole lot of times, we get results.
Nigeria hasn’t been this divided since Independence, and fingers point at what is generally regarded as poor leadership at the center. What do you make of it?
Leadership has its own role, followership also has its own role. So, let’s look at it holistically. I think as a people, what are our values? What are our morals? What are the things that matter to us? So, I look at it holistically, yes, leadership is a problem, but so is followership. There has to be better participatory democracy, and for the elites in particular who sit back and say “oh, I won’t get involved,” to know it is wrong. It is also important for the citizens to demand the best of their leaders.
Do you share the growing notion that Nigeria may cease to exist if current multifaceted problems are not addressed urgently?
I hope not because, Nigeria will emerge strong, but it has to be a united Nigeria, where merit counts, where it doesn’t matter who you know or where you come from and one that will expose the best of your potentials.
I believe that the kind of democracy, or system of government we are practicing now is not meant for us, but we are in it. What do we do to make it better? There has to be devolution of powers to the local and state levels. The strongest arm of government should be the local level. What would the federal government be doing with education in a local community like Imota for instance? I believe in devolution of power. Let powers devolve to the local level, and at that stage, you can have the very strongest in the community head the local government. I mean that is what federalism should be about. The kind of system we are operating now is not working for us, and will not not work for us until we take certain measures and that rests with the National Assembly. The National Assembly needs to look at both the exclusive and concurrent list in the constitution and review them such that more powers go to the local government. If you have a strong local government that is empowered and funded, we will solve a lot of problems.
What would you say are the challenges you face as head of NIDCOM and how do you overcome them?
The greatest challenge is funding, you know it is a new agency, but we don’t let that stop us. We are trying to work on gathering data but Nigerians abroad don’t want to share their data. But we are working at building trust and confidence of Nigerians abroad knowing that it helps in planning.
What do you think are some of the ways to help a country like Nigeria help itself, and relieve some of the pressures for emigration?
Mr. President is concentrating a lot on infrastructural development, creating the kind of environment where jobs can be created. This is what government is doing under the office of the Vice President, to encourage small businesses and startups. Although not everybody is looking for a job, because from the experience I have had, even if you have the jobs, there are some people who just believe that their destiny is abroad. Why would somebody that has three trailers, sell them for about 10 million naira, decides that he wants to relocate to Europe, gets stuck in Libya and then, comes back with nothing? We need a lot of awareness. It is not rosy out there. Go to the streets of Greece and see Africans including Nigerians, just roaming about; no jobs, they can’t even speak the language and then, they are hawking and not selling anything. Like the lady from Lebanon said, she is better off selling guguru (popcorn) somewhere.
Unfortunately, the kind of education that we are providing is not making graduates startup on their own. So, the government has a role to play, but we also have our own roles to play too in letting that young person know not to fall victim of traffickers. So, a lot has to be done by government and us, but you can’t stop migration. If I am below 30 and I find opportunities abroad, of course, I am going to go.
Since your time at the National Assembly, female legislators have not been very vocal. What is happening with the women?
I don’t think women in the parliament are less vocal. There is a bill in place now to create over 100 seats dedicated to women and I think it was sponsored by Hon. Nkiruka. So I don’t think women are less vocal, they are less in number. When I was in parliament, we were 27; but now, I think they are just half the number both in the House and the Senate. Also, there are less women in political space in terms of leadership. We need to work at making it better.
How far would you say women have come in terms of politics, since independence?
We can do better and beyond tokenism which is what the two major parties- APC and PDP are doing now. You know there is no level- playing field, so, I encourage women, If you want a change, you need to leave your comfort zone and be part of politics. I don’t mean you have to contest elections, just let your voices be heard. I started at the local level, attending ward meetings, before I decided to contest elections. If you know it is in you, you need to venture out to succeed.
However, there are some cultural issues that still make it difficult for women in politics. But we can’t give up, more women need to participat. So, join a political party, be a leader in your community, go to your ward level, get to know the grassroots, mingle with them, and get to know what is going on. The more women you have in the system, no matter what anybody says, when you give them a task, they deliver.
You are obviously a very busy woman when you are not working, how do you spend your ‘me’ time?
I like to be home and to spend time with my family. I love music so I like to sing and dance. Music relaxes me and I try to exercise but a lot of times, you get to lazy to do it. But yes, home is my comfort zone and music relaxes me.
When it comes to fashion does your office determine your style? What are you more comfortable in?
The occasion determines what I wear. I wear what suits me, but of course you know I love Nigerian attires. I remember a lot of times when I travelled, I always bought skirts, suits and trousers; not anymore. Maybe one or two for some occasions. I do love,our Nigerian outfits, and a whole lot of times that I travel, sometimes, I don’t come back with them because somebody likes them and has to take them.
So, I wear what I feel comfortable in. I believe you can be simple and elegant.
Are you looking at contesting for any political position sometime soon?
Well, right now, I am chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission and it has been very challenging setting up a new commission and dealing with millions of Nigerians all over the world. I think my key thing now is just to succeed on the job and set a solid structure on the ground. The future will take care of itself.
What is the Nigeria of your dream?
The Nigeria of my dreams is a strong united Nigeria; a Nigeria where it doesn’t matter where you come from, who you know, where merit will be our watchword, where you progress because you are good and where your potentials will not be buried. I dream of a free, fair, equitable Nigeria, a Nigeria where poverty will be absolutely and totally reduced, a Nigeria where everybody can live comfortably, where the rich will not be getting richer and the poor getting poorer and a Nigeria where corruption will be totally gone.
One of our major problems is corruption and corruption is from top to bottom. We just have to tackle that cankerworm called corruption. Having a corrupt-free Nigeria is the only way we can make progress.
And then, civil service reforms are quite important; otherwise, the business of government will be difficult.