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30 minutes with David Greene, Acting US Ambassador to Nigeria

The acting United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr David Greene, is no stranger to diplomatic activities in Africa, having served in Morocco and other places.…

The acting United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr David Greene, is no stranger to diplomatic activities in Africa, having served in Morocco and other places. In this interview in Abuja, he speaks on his role as a diplomat, the relationship between Nigeria and the US and other issues.

 

Let me start from the somewhat unusual position you have been holding – the acting Ambassador of the United States to Nigeria. We know that President Biden announced a new nominee in July last year, but we are in March of another year and you are still sitting on that chair; what happened?

It is an honour for me to lead the embassy at this time. It is such a consequential post and country. Let me wish Ramadan Karim to all those that are celebrating.

The US-Nigeria relationship is such an important and vital one. The US and Nigeria are not just essential but also natural partners because we share so much in common. So, I am very proud of all we are doing. This mission actively supports so many shared agendas on peace and security, democratic governance, health outcomes, food security, climate change.

Do you have any idea of when the substantive ambassador could be cleared? Are there issues to do with the clearance because we know it is usually a process? What is happening?

Well, it is the US Senate that must provide advice and consent on nomination of ambassadors. And you know it is not uncommon for there to be delays between the confirmation of an ambassador and other officers of the United States.

So, in the interim, I will continue to work and advance US-Nigerian relations in the different fields we are cooperating.

Part of your responsibility is to advance the cause of the United States and its citizens who are based here. What would you say is the main challenge to achieving that at the moment?

What we do as the US mission in Nigeria is of great benefit to both Nigerians and Americans. Of course we protect American citizens that are in Nigeria but we invest billion dollars a year roughly in development and humanitarian assistance.

US businesses have invested over $5billion in Nigeria over the years. We have a two-way trade of $10bn a year, and all those engagements and investments are creating opportunities for Nigerian citizens; they are creating jobs and improving health outcomes.

So, what we are doing together in this very important partnership has dividends for Nigerians and Americans; and quite frankly, beyond, because of Nigeria’s very vital role as an important economic and security actor, not just in the continent but globally.

Indeed, at one point, the balance of trade between Nigeria and the United States was in favour of Nigeria, which is usually strange because normally, Nigeria imports so much and is usually at the other variance. Why is it so with America? Is it still the situation?

I think it is. Last year, our statistics for 2022 was a slight edge to Nigeria in terms of trade balance.

I think that balanced trade figures to over $10bn a year. It speaks to how kind and symbiotic our partnership is, and all the different levels and ways we engage.

You know there are bulk commodities we buy from each other. You also have tremendous trade and services. Look at what US firms are doing with the Nigerian creative and tech sector, for example, and you would see a trade relationship and investment that is really benefiting both Nigeria and the United States.

What about the issue of wheat because it is one of the main commodities? There’s oil from Nigeria and wheat from the US to Nigeria. And you know that at one point, Nigeria was trying to develop some local capability, I mean capacity in the production, which hasn’t yet happened. Is the US in any way interested in seeing that happen as it could harm its trade interest?

I think we always look at trade as an opportunity for beneficial gains for everybody. And obviously, if we eliminate barriers to trade and allow the market to find its natural balance where the products we have and what Nigeria has to sell are bought by others, there’s great benefit as it creates wealth and job opportunities everywhere.

I can’t really speak specifically on wheat, but the agric sector is an area we invest very heavily through USAID’s Feed the Future programme, which is intended to strengthen the productivity of Nigerian farmers.

I was recently at the launch of a $22million five-year investment by the US Department of Agriculture in the cocoa value chain in six states that produce cocoa intended to enhance the reliability and income that farmers get, and to support processing and export.

So, when we look at the agric sector in general, it has enormous potential, both in terms of providing livelihood, food security for Nigerians and export potential. And that’s something the United States is really eager to support and cooperate with Nigerians.

Specifically, will the agric department of the US government be interested in boosting the capability of Nigeria to produce more wheat? At the moment, Nigeria is facing huge forex crisis and part of it is caused by this outflow for wheat for other products we consume. Would US be interested in that kind of help to Nigeria?

We are always looking for areas of collaboration. I think we can help because we are such a large agricultural producing country. We have the technical means to help Nigerian farmers produce more and enhance the value chain.

We all know that a lot of Nigerian agricultural wealth is lost because of post harvest challenges or lack of cold chain and lack of effective transportation. These are areas where the US Department of Agriculture and USAID and other parts of our government have vast experience in trying to help with successful and enhanced agricultural production all over.

I think there’s a lot we can do in the agric sector. We have an Office of Foreign Agricultural Service in Lagos, which works very closely with producers and policy makers across Nigeria to try and enhance Nigerian agriculture.

Going into the future, where is the tech matter? Where exactly is the US in terms of trying to make the best of some Nigeria’s talents without necessarily taking them away from the country?

Absolutely, the tech sector is very exciting and vibrant. This is one of those areas I think the US-Nigeria relationship is very strong because of shared characteristics our two countries have.

We are two great federal republics. Nigeria has the largest population, economy and democracy on the continent; and those are things we are very proud of – the size of our economy and the stability of our democracy.

Both countries also have this entrepreneurial innovative culture, which is what has driven so much of the success in the tech sectors, and there’s a natural fit there.

Look at American tech firms like Google, Microsoft or Meta and Equinex and you would know that we are making enormous investments and creating jobs in Nigeria. Look at Nigerian firms like Flutterwave or Interswitch, which are some of Africa’s tech giants.

Nigeria pulls so much of the investment on the continent because of the vibrancy and the dynamism of the Nigerian tech sector with regard to how our close ties are contributing to this.

Some of Nigeria’s biggest tech leaders like Flutterwave and Interswitch were founded by Nigerians who studied in the United States and brought what they experienced in their exposure to Nigeria in innovative ways that have contributed immensely to the economy and job creation.

 But there are issues in the big tech companies. Even in the US, there are still questions about the role of the big ones and whether they are giving back as much as they are taking. Here in Nigeria, if we are talking of the industry, the media is dying while the Googles and the Yahoos of this world are flourishing. Is there something the US can do, given the internal conversation within the country? I have seen the bosses of all the big companies being hauled before the Senate and the Congress to answer questions about some of their practices. Is there any concern that the media, for example, in Nigeria, is on the brink of almost extension because the big companies are just hovering their information and giving them peanuts?

Well, I am not an expert on the media sector, but I do think the transformation of media globally is something the internet is driving at a very rapid clip.

This is precisely where the US-Nigeria partnership is very important because Nigeria is a leader in tech, not just for the country or the region, the continent but globally. We can really benefit a lot from our close partnership when it comes to setting the rules of the road.

An example is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is on everybody’s lip these days. There are lots of questions about what’s appropriate, how it is to be used, how we are to safeguard ourselves against misusing it. We are also fighting misinformation and disinformation.

There are lots of efforts to sort of establish the rules of the road on how we can use AI safely and responsibly. That’s an area the US is really seeking, promoting and working closely with Nigeria as a partner, especially given the importance of tech in contributing to those economies. We have a very vested interest, not just in the successful AI sector but in a responsible one.

We are working together to establish the rules of the road, and that’s part of what a strong US-Nigeria relationship can bring for our countries and the world.

I am wondering whether the US is not just concerned about itself but also about other societies like Nigeria, where tech companies are having a field day making tonnes of money and giving small change to those who generate some of the information they use on their platforms. By your assessment, do you think enough is being done?

I think we see the tech sector as a tremendous field of opportunity for economic growth, investment and job creation.

Look at the value Nigerian tech firms have created and the jobs they are creating across Nigeria. Look at the opportunity it provides and think of how that establishes the country as a tech hub in the region and the continent, drawing more investment.

When you look at them you know the investments that are made by major US tech firms, bringing large undersea cables that are landing in southern Nigeria, which are going to allow for incredible high-speed data access across the country.

These are the kinds of investments in digital infrastructure that are really important for the success of Nigeria or any country that wants to be successful in the modern economy.

So, I see that the US tech working with the Nigerian tech is creating tremendous opportunities for individual Nigerians. But of course you know there are challenges on regulators to make smart choices that are going to support and strengthen that sector so that it can grow and create jobs and bring prosperity but in a responsible way. That’s another area where the United States and Nigeria are working together on rules of the road.

Talking of opportunities and prosperity, Nigeria is currently passing through a very difficult path economically. Do you have other views about the path chosen by the current government in terms of forex and the deregulation of the oil sector; that is the refined products, selling them at more or less the market price etc? What is your take on this, especially vis-a-viz the current difficulties that Nigerians are facing?

It is clear that this is a challenging moment in Nigeria’s economy and for Nigerians. Certainly, we see and feel that.

Part of what the United States does through its billion-dollar a year investment in development and humanitarian assistance is both to help lay the foundation for stronger economic growth and opportunity for the future and through our humanitarian assistance, which is over $300million a year, to try and help the most vulnerable Nigerians and cope with the current difficult circumstances. We are doing what we can to help directly.

The thing is that in order to have economic growth and jobs, you have to have investment, you have to have businesses that want to come and invest; and that’s how you get and trade. That’s how you get job creation and economic growth and prosperity.

But some people say that is not workable when you are busy killing local industries because the cost of fuel is more or less throttling the few that are around, do you agree with this?

I will refer you to the Nigerian government for their views on their economic policies going forward.

But we all know, for example, that fuel subsidy was blowing $10bn a year in the Nigerian budget; and most of the benefits of fuel subsidy were going to the richest Nigerians, who are the ones that consumed the most fuel.

So, yes it does. We see the immediate term pains that many Nigerians are going through, but the $10bn or $12bn a year needs to go to investment in infrastructure, education, health care. That’s how you build a successful economy for the future.

Stabilising the exchange rate of the naira and dealing with fuel subsidy are obviously painful decisions that were put off for too long.

We are trying to support these economic reforms by the Tinubu administration, hoping that it would lay the foundation for a stronger Nigerian economy for the future, one that can grow, and in which Nigerians can prosper and thrive.

But many Nigerians think otherwise, saying it is just making it easy for cheap pickings by foreign companies because Nigerians are highly pauperised, the few industries or businesses that are around are shutting down, and some, of even the big multinationals, are posting losses. How will that encourage foreign direct investment that would have sustainable growth and prosperity for Nigerians?

When you look at business opportunities in Nigeria, I think it is not that foreign companies are taking advantage of it. In fact, in the previous environment, foreign companies were hesitant to invest because they weren’t sure they were going to be able to repatriate their earnings because there were all kinds restriction on foreign exchange availability in sectors and barriers to open trade.

So, I think that creating that economic framework and environment is going to hopefully stabilise the exchange rate and the economy more broadly, as well as create an environment in which foreign direct investment flows in and brings prosperity opportunities for Nigerians and Americans.

But certainly, we recognise the difficulty that many Nigerians are going through right now. As I said, we are doing what we can with the resources we have. We are working with other partners and donors. The World Bank has been supporting palliatives for the poorest Nigerians.

We know it is a time of pain for many Nigerians but it is our hope that this package of economic reforms the Tinubu administration is pursuing would build a foundation for a more prosperous Nigeria in the future.

Insecurity seems to be growing, even with the best effort to fight it. Nigeria bought Super Tucanos for this purpose some years ago, but nothing has dramatically changed. Attack helicopters are also being sold to Nigeria at a billion dollars by the US. Is there more the US could do to help Nigeria overcome this terrorism, banditry and other forms of insecurity?

We take the insecurity issue very seriously. In any country, security is top in everybody’s mind. If you don’t have security you can’t have a livelihood, you can’t have a business, you can’t have investment and you can’t safely send your kids to school.

By the way, I want to express my sympathy for the victims of violence and kidnapping in the North. It is heartbreaking. We certainly stand with victims of those crimes and want to see those folks returned and the perpetrators punished.

What about some global issues like what is happening in the Middle East? Looking at what is currently happening in Gaza, a lot of people, especially in the northern part of Nigeria, feel as if the US is in cahoots with Israel in the disproportionate activity going on there. Is the US concerned about that perception or misperception?

I think it is important to remember that on October 7, Israel and Israelis were dehumanised in a way that is hard to contemplate – over 1,000 civilians were killed and over 200 kidnapped. We stand with Israel when it comes to making sure that such a horrible crime can never transpire again.

As you know, many Nigerians have been victims of mass terrorism, so I think we have a shared understanding of what terrorism and violence can do to a society. So we certainly defend Israel’s right to ensure that it never happens again.

President Biden has been in the lead on this, pressing Israel to take the actions it feels compelled to take in ways that minimise civilian harm.

We are at the forefront of efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to Gaza, whether it is by land or air drops. We are investing right now in the construction of a pier so that humanitarian assistance can be brought in by sea.

I think we are using all the means at our disposal to press Israel to take care of its own security in ways that do not cause extensive additional civilian harm. We are also trying to address humanitarian needs that are present right now in Gaza.

What about the over 30,000 lives, many of them women and children who have disappeared because of the conflict? Is there any concern about that, maybe in the policies of the US and its position, especially in some of the ways it vetoes some United Nations resolution on this subject?

Of course there’s great concern; any harm to civilians is of great concern to all of us. We feel very strongly that the international humanitarian law must be followed.

It is important to remember that all these deaths and destruction are because Hamas as an organisation dedicated to the destruction of a UN member-state. It launched a horrific attack against that state and provoked this whole conflagration.

Israel wants to live in peace and security and to be recognised by its neighbours. The United States has long been pushing for and supporting building coalitions to support a two-state solution with a path to an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.

The international community is working to create a durable solution to the challenges in the Middle East, but actors like Hamas, with backing from Iran, and Houtis threatening global shipping in the Gulf, Hezbollah acting from Lebanon, are destructive forces in the region.

We are looking for solutions that would bring peace, prosperity and security. I think we all need to work together. And that’s an area the United States and Nigeria partnership is very important. This is because Nigeria has a vital role, both as a voice on the world stage, partner to so many countries and as a key stabilising power in West Africa.

The presidential election coming up in the United States in November appears to be between Biden and Trump again. Will that in any way affect the relation between the two countries, whichever way it goes?

I don’t have a crystal.

At the moment, many Nigerians remember the uncomplimentary terms former President Trump described them. And he has lots of policies like his anti-immigration stand and what have you, which make some Nigerians a bit uneasy, but it is purely about US internal affairs; how would you respond to that?

I can’t really look into the future, but what I can say is that the US-Nigeria relationship is built on some key fundamentals; we are natural partners in so many ways.

Again, we have a shared federal democratic system, a kind of freewheeling economies with a healthy dose of entrepreneurialism and innovation. We have a 500,000 strong Nigerian Diaspora in the United States that binds our countries together. We have so much in common. Nigerian culture, food and film are everywhere in the United States these days. There is the presence of Netflix and Paramount and Amazon Prime.

When I look at the shared values and history of the US and Nigeria, I see a very strong relationship, no matter what.

US presidents were coming to Nigeria – Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and others – but it is now over 20 years since the last president was here. Is it suggesting that Nigeria’s influence and standing is diminishing in the eyes of the US?

I would say we have a tremendous high level engagement with Nigeria. Our presidents met at the G20 in India few months back.

We have a steady stream of very senior US officials coming to Nigeria to engage. And we have some senior Nigerians all the time in the United States. We see each other at global forums on every subject you can imagine.

So, I see that in the US-Nigeria relations we do so much together; we have a very robust ongoing conversation. Secretary of State Blinken was just here six weeks ago, and that was his second-in-person. Add the virtual visit he did shortly after he took office.

That speaks to how important the US-Nigeria relationship is and how we are investing in it in so many different ways.

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