Daniel Bertrand, the Belgium Ambassador to Nigeria, is one year in office. In this interview, he speaks on the diplomatic ties between Nigeria and his country, and the strong interest of his country in the development of Nigerian ports, agriculture and security in the Sahel region.
It has been a year now since you assumed office; can we know more about you?
I arrived in Nigeria in September last year, exactly one year ago. I have a long experience of West Africa. I was an Ambassador in Burkina Faso, I also worked for the United Nations in Mali, so for me, it is a pleasure to be back in West Africa and for the first time to be based in Nigeria.
With your vast experience having gone round Africa as an ambassador, what’s your impression of Nigeria?
I spent the first year travelling round the country. I visited 15 states: Borno, Katsina, Kano, Oyo, Osun, Lagos and the southeast states. First of all, I would like to thank the Nigerian authorities for welcoming everyone and also, I would like to thank the Nigerian people for their warm reception.
So, for me it’s very important to understand better why I am here, that’s why I visited the states where Belgium is involved. In the North West, we are supporting humanitarian efforts, in the South East and South West, we are very active from an economic point of view, so I also wanted to support our Belgian community in the South and our humanitarian efforts in the North.
How would you describe the Nigeria-Belgium relationship in terms of trade?
Our bilateral relations are excellent. I have a very dynamic relationship with the Nigerian authorities. I paid courtesy calls to all the members of the government and I sat with one or two ministers. So, I developed a strong relationship with Nigerian authorities including the new Nigerian Ambassador in Brussels. I also strengthened our ties with the Nigerian civil societies. It’s still a process in working.
But as far as economic and trade relations are concerned, I would say that we can do better. When I arrived here, I saw a certain number of companies, very active here and in very strategic fields but I think we can do far better.
Nigeria is the first economy in Africa, 200 million people is a market and Belgium has so much to offer in the agricultural sector of Nigeria – one of the prioritised areas of President Muhammadu Buhari. We can offer many things.
As you probably know, Belgium has been supporting an agricultural institute in Ibadan for a very long time. We can do it far better via the development of ties between enterprises. My country specializes in the diversification and transformation of good agricultural products. It’s just one example but for that, we have to receive our companies here and we’re preparing for economic issues in the next few months. Probably this year, maybe next year, depends on the sanitary regulations.
Although the coronavirus is also an obstacle, which is why we do many things virtually but nothing can replace physical presence and physical visit. I am pushing with my people in Brussels, the Nigerian Ambassador, to receive a certain number of companies that are interested in the Nigerian market. It’s a strong interest for Belgian companies to come and deepen ties but, for the time being, we have been a little bit of an obstacle by not understanding sanitary regulations.
Can you translate the volume of the trade into figures?
Well, for the time being, maybe my assistant can give a very good update on numbers but what struck me for example when I visited Nigeria is the fact that in cities like Benin City, Belgian investment is the first employer in the refined oil industry. It’s one of the examples.
Can we know your areas of priority, for now?
Well, my priority is to stimulate, encourage and facilitate a first commercial visit from Belgium to Nigeria. The second priority is to develop a structural political dialogue between both countries. I think that economy is one thing, politics is another thing and both are complementary. We’ve common interests here, and common sources of occupation. I think that we’ve to develop our very deep-rooted political dialogue between our two countries. And the very third priority for sure is to continue to visit your country, 13 states? It’s not enough.
Can we know some of the areas you explore in terms of economic cooperation?
Well, it depends on the interests of our companies so it depends on the expressions of the interests of our companies.
We have specialised in the hi-tech industry, in the transformation of agricultural products, in chemistry, and pharmaceutical products but it depends on the expressions of the Belgian companies.
What do you think Nigeria can learn from Belgium in terms of port decongestion and maybe opening more ports?
Yes, the Port of Antwerp is one of the first in the world and there is very strong interest in Antwerp to develop its relations with Nigeria. I visited Lagos port facilities and for sure the situation is very complicated as far as congestion is concerned.
So, it depends on the cooperation between both countries and it depends not only on the willingness of Belgium but also the willingness of the Nigerian Ports Authority.
We are open, port Antwerp is open to developing its ties and I think that we can deepen our cooperation towards that.
You went round 13 states, what potentials did you discover there that can be promoted in terms of socioeconomic relationship between the two countries?
Everywhere in Nigeria has agricultural potential. It’s a very fertile country with an excellent climate, rainy season and sun; so, there is potential and I have some friends and some Belgian citizens here, very active in the agriculture sector and they are prosperous, so modernization, diversification and stimulation of agriculture are a must.
In industry as well, Nigeria has the potential, the first potential of Nigeria is its people and as we can see, there are very successful Nigerians, not only outside Nigeria but inside Nigeria.
Recently, there was a coup in Mali, Chad and an attempt in Niger Republic. What does this portend for the future of this region?
A few days ago, there was also a coup in Guinea Conakry. So, I think that this is a very interesting topic we have to discuss with Nigeria. Belgium has developed a very active Sahelian foreign policy to support the stabilization of the region via cooperation development, via the right enforcement of the state authorities, the reform of the policy support of different institutions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The occupation of Belgium is to stabilize for the wellbeing of the people and the security of the region.
I feel that Belgium and Nigeria have the same occupations. So, what I think is, with Nigeria and France, we can develop something to see what we can do together, to stabilize and promote peace, security and development in this region.
If you are to advise Nigeria, the giant of Africa, what vital role do you think it can play in terms of stabilization in the conflict situation?
My word is not to advise Nigerian authorities. If you look at the role played by former President Goodluck Jonathan in Mali, when we see the role of His Excellency President Buhari we can see that Nigerians are aware of what to do.
I want to recognize the efforts made by the Nigerian authorities in Mali for example via the mediation of Goodluck Jonathan. Nigeria is also the capital of ECOWAS and ECOWAS is very dynamic towards the stabilization of the region. My word is not to advise but just to promote the dialogue between my country and Nigeria as far as what we can do together.
It’s a year now since you’ve been here, has your impression of Nigeria changed?
Well, frankly speaking, I learnt a lot during the first months. The diversity of the country; first, if you are in Katsina you are not in Benin city, not only from the landscape point of view but also from the culture and architecture. Kano for example is wonderful and interesting for architecture and also the traditions. I had the opportunity to visit some of the cities in the North. It’s very interesting from a cultural point of view. If you go to Osogbo in the South, it is another culture.
So, the diversity first, but despite this vast diversity, I can say the common bond between the North, the South, the East and the West in the architecture, in the way of thinking, the way of doing things and this mixture of diversity and unity is very interesting. This is what struck me first.
Is there anything that Nigeria should learn from Belgium in terms of diversity as a country?
Well, it’s very difficult to compare because Nigeria is huge and we are so small. Nigeria’s population is 200 million and we are 12 million people. Imagine the difference. So, it’s very difficult to make a comparison between the two countries.
But I think that what we have in common is basically managing diversity, and it’s not very easy for sure. So, what we have in common basically is tolerance and our love for diversity.
Are there other things you will want the common man on the streets of Nigeria to know about Belgium?
I think the common man on the streets of Nigeria already knows Belgium cars (second-hand) and as I told you, we have many things to offer to the common people on the streets. We have some electronics which are very interesting.