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Benin Republic’s peace important for Nigeria – Oguntuase

Ambassador Emmanuel Kayode Oguntuase is the Nigerian envoy to the Republic of Benin. He speaks on relations between both countries and his life as a…

Ambassador Emmanuel Kayode Oguntuase is the Nigerian envoy to the Republic of Benin. He speaks on relations between both countries and his life as a career diplomat, among other issues.

Daily Trust: What were your early days as a diplomat like?

Ambassador Emmanuel Kayode Oguntuase: I worked with a very experienced diplomat – Ambassador Judith Atta. Most of the time, she would like me to represent her at events; even at the ambassadors meeting. She would ask me to represent her and not make any commitment but to come and report back to her. She exposed me very well that even before I left, I was a well-grounded officer. It prepared me for more challenges. Also, the desk I occupied then was challenging. I was in charge of the Nigerian community in Rome. I was able to handle them and by the time I went for other postings, it was nothing much.

By the time I went to Angola – a small country just coming out of war, I had already been able to carve for myself a very good niche, diplomatically. So, to operate there was not a problem.

Also, I served in the Presidential Villa under President Obasanjo and there we were like diplomatic shuttle because we went around the world. It was as if I was still building on my diplomatic career. By the time I went to South Africa, I was a full-fledged diplomat. Not only playing the role of being a principal representative but I was well-groomed already.

DT: When you look at the challenges that the Nigerian community had to deal with in Rome when you were there and how those still exist today, what do you have to say especially with migration and prostitution?

Oguntuase: I am surprised because even then it was a big challenge. However, it was a little bit limited to a particular zone then. Most of the people came from Edo, at the time. They had a firm belief that Olokun the god of the river, would protect them and nothing would happen. I’m surprised that the business still thrives. I think poverty and our economic development are responsible. I don’t think it is something that people want to do but because of circumstances, they are forced to do it. It is good that a lot of measures were put in place. Even when we were collaborating with Interpol, we were deporting them, but they would tell me, ‘oga, we’re coming back,’ and indeed they would. I believe that if we did a little bit more of advocacy and create conducive environment for people to live, some of them may not go. However, there are some who no matter ever you give them, they think they can earn more abroad.

DT: What would you say about the relationship between Nigeria and Benin Republic?

Oguntuase: I think the relationship has always been very good because in the first place, Benin is the closest neighbour to Nigeria. Not only close in terms of distance, but also in terms of people and culture. There is no reason why we would not be close because three quarters of the people in Benin Republic have their roots in Nigeria. You have the Yorubas. Most of Southern Benin is part of the Oyo Kingdom -three of the seven original children of Oduduwa. The Oni Popo of Popo, the Oni Ketu of Ketu and the Oni Save of Save, who is the eldest of Oduduwa’s children. They all still trace themselves to Oyo. There are also the Borgu, Nupe and Bariba as well as Fulanis. Six of Nigeria’s 36 states share boundaries with Benin. There are cultural, historical and geographical affinities.

DT: When you talk about cultural affinity, how does this rub off on Nigeria in terms of celebrations and festivals?

Oguntuase: They are intricately intertwined. The Yourbas of Benin and those of Nigeria have the same cultures. People in Port Novo which is traditionally called Ajase, have an annual masquerade festival which includes participation from Nigeria. They also go to Nigeria during the Osun Oshogbo festival. We also work together economically. We have chambers of commerce.

DT: Benin Republic had elections in April, which has been chronicled with disapproval from various quarters. What can you say about this?

Oguntuase: Benin has a long legacy of democracy. It is also a peaceful country. Nigeria is interested for the peaceful political atmosphere to be sustained. When we started hearing about the political tension between the government and the opposition, President Buhari as chairperson of ECOWAS and also President of Nigeria, sent a special envoy here, about three times, under the auspices of ECOWAS. He also came as Nigeria’s president and a good neighbour to ensure that both parties dialogue and there is peace.

DT: What is the biggest trade alliance between both countries?

Oguntuase: They look up to Nigeria for electronics. The informal business which thrives the most here and has always been a problem between both countries is the issue of smuggling – rice, used vehicles and other items.

However, there has been a drastic reduction in these due to the land border ban that Nigeria initiated. It is a challenge to both countries because the rice smuggled into Nigeria is not rice produced in Benin. If it were, we would know that it is prosperity for them but it doesn’t generate income for them and it is also spoiling our own business in Nigeria. By ECOWAS Protocol, they are supposed to be able to sell to us, if they are their own goods. I think both countries have realized this and that is why we are forming what we call the Tripeptide Committee on how to curb smuggling between Nigeria, Benin and Niger. Niger came in because sometimes they lie that some goods are going to Niger but when they get to Malanville, they divert it to Nigeria. For car smuggling, it was cheaper and also quicker with the Benin port which seemed more efficient and with cheaper tariffs than ours in Apapa. As a result, people preferred to clear their goods or buy from Cotonou. This is an economic drain on Nigeria.

DT: What’s the most challenging part of being a diplomat and head of a mission?

Oguntuase: Being able to represent your country well. There is no limit to the level of representation. Also, in the country where you are, they must also see that you are not working against them. You must be able to balance both well. You need a lot of wisdom and experience to be able to do this. When your country is in crisis, it could be challenging because you have to represent your country even when things are bad. You still have to protect the interest of your country.

DT: What are the difficulties with funding in the service?

Oguntuase: It is still a problem. It has not been too encouraging. I remember when I came here, I had to make efforts to transform it. There were leakages everywhere. The entrance of the embassy was so defaced and not good for the image of Nigeria. In fact, about a month after I resumed here, my wife went to a meeting of ambassadors’ wives and she was told to tell her husband to work on the embassy. I ran home and met the perm sec who reasoned with me and helped get some money with which we were able to begin renovation.

DT: With postings, there are insinuations that people lobby to be sent to ‘profitable’ countries. Is that a true picture of what goes on?

Oguntuase: Even if you lobby, government knows what is important. If they know you cannot do the job, they would not want you to be there. Sometimes, people also think that it is those high standing countries that are more important, but government knows that the neighbouring countries are more strategic and important to them. If you look around at Nigeria’s neighbours, you will see that all the people sent there are career diplomats. We are not saying these others are not important but these are countries that when something happens, if you don’t have somebody who can handle it very well, the repercussions can be quickly felt in Nigeria.

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