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US unlikely to succeed in Africa without a partner like Nigeria – Envoy

Mary Beth Leonard is the Ambassador of the United States (US) to Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with Daily Trust, she speaks about the 60…

Mary Beth Leonard is the Ambassador of the United States (US) to Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with Daily Trust, she speaks about the 60 years of bilateral relations between her country and Nigeria, US support in conflict mitigating activities, improving the agriculture sector, and patent right for Nigeria and Africa to produce local COVID-19 vaccine, among others. Excerpt:

The diplomatic relations between Nigeria and the US have been a long-standing one; what is the level so far?

We are proud of our now 60 plus years’ relationship with Nigeria. You know, the country is significant with the largest population on the continent and is one of our biggest foreign direct investment destinations in Africa; the second-largest trading partner and an actor in regional and continental political affairs.


Can we know your action plan in the country?

We have a very broad array of activities here; we are involved in democracy and governance in terms of not only following elections but encouraging conflict mitigation activities like peace-building committees and making sure that women, youth, and people with disabilities have polling access, working with civil society.

We work of course massively in economic development with a very multi-range USAID presence, in which health is probably the single biggest expenditure and we have been involved in AIDS through the PEPFAR programme and now throughout these activities are credibly within 18 months to three years of epidemic control.

We are big actors in the polio campaign which helped bring Nigeria and therefore Africa to wild polio virus-free status just last year. We are so proud of our work in the health sector.

But we also work in expanding opportunities for Nigerians; things like Feed the Future and West Africa Trade Hub. We try to look at places where we think we can expand production and expand transformation so that we provide meaningful opportunities for Nigerians.

And of course, we work in peace and security, which has recently been in the headlines for the delivery of Nigeria’s new A29 Super Tucano aircraft. So we have a very broad and fulsome relationship that we are very proud of, and it’s my job to direct the components.


Are the Super Tucano aircraft going to be restricted to the North East or will they be operated in other troubled areas in the country?


Basically, no matter where you are in the world, military sales fall under the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Foreign Assistance Act. So the basic point of these pieces of legislation is: A, they apply to military sales across the world, and B, they are to make sure that things we export are not involved in civilian casualties and that they do not displace more traditional roles of law enforcement or the judiciary. So, there is that legislative restriction and guidelines, and there is also a more practical conversation about the task to which a particular platform or tool lends itself.

So there are some broad guidelines and we are very satisfied that through our interactions and training and monitoring them, foreign assistance and the A29 Super Tucano aircraft and other things have been used appropriately.


The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is losing steam; is there any plan to energise it?


I’m not sure I will characterise AGOA as losing steam. I think it’s the world economy that lost steam in the last year. First, you have what used to be the largest export from Nigeria under AGOA which is petroleum products and in the United States, of course, we now have our production and we are importing less.

Also, with the fall of oil prices, the value of goods has generally gone down. So, to say that it ran out of steam I think ignored that there has been a slowdown generally in the economy in the last year.

The United States is very concerned with helping Nigeria with its aspiration to diversify its economy to the things it makes and it can export. Certainly, one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is perilous to rely too much on revenue from one single sector. And there, I think, it is a question of diversification. It’s also a question of an enabling environment in Nigeria.

You know, when you look at the World Bank index for doing business, Nigeria has improved a little bit but is still down towards the bottom part of the pack. So things like the ease of regulations or the ease of using the ports or foreign exchange restrictions; all of these are elements that are coming to Nigerian economic operators and American economic operators’ decisions. We think there probably could be some improvements made there too.

We love AGOA and we are always looking for ways to improve it. The ultimate goal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act is of course to eventually have a more robust and standardized trading relationship with countries. The current African Growth and Opportunity Act expires in just a few more years and I don’t have the ability to predict whether Congress will retain it in its current form or in something slightly different.

I think there is no way to have that crystal ball. But I think it remains an option that is out there, and with an expansion of the types of production in Nigeria and some attention to the enabling environment, Nigeria could broaden the category of goods sent under that programme.


It’s a known fact that Nigeria is suffering from economic turmoil that needs support from strong economies like the US. What is the US doing in this regard?


Absolutely, but first of all, we have always been a big economic partner for Nigeria. We have a very strong American business chamber here that is marked by the presence of dozens and dozens of companies, and we have particular programmes like Feed the Future and West African Trade Hub that seek to enhance and diversify agricultural production and transform those products into something.

We have all kinds of programmes going on. I will thus cite two that I think were changed with particular reference to the recent crisis: One is that the West Africa Trade Hub had its budget significantly increased in recognition of the fact that with the slow down caused by the pandemic, maybe we need to up our game a little bit in finding places where you can enhance and transform agricultural production.

In May, I was in Kebbi, and we went to the big rice factory where we helped to provide the seed money to go along with private investment by the factory to greatly expand the acreage and the number of farmers planting rice which the factory can transform for the domestic market.

The other thing I will mention is that early this year. the US Treasury agreed with the IMF that it is important to increase the basic allocation of Special Drawing Rights, which is basically the currency of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The global amount of Special Drawing Rights is directly related to the amount of money that countries can take out of the IMF. So, in the case of Nigeria, our willingness to increase the SDR allocation meant an extra $3.4 billion that Nigeria could bring in.

So, those are some specific examples of things in expanding the budget of the West Africa Trade Hub, It goes with a very robust set of commercial promotions of foreign commercial services, foreign agricultural service and agricultural diversification through our USAID projects, like Feed the Future and West Africa Trade Hub.


Nigeria is heading towards the 2023 general elections for which many believe the forthcoming Anambra governorship election would serve as litmus. Is there anything the US is doing to ensure credible elections?


First of all, I agree with you that it can be viewed as sort of a trial run for things to come and in that sense, it is a very important event. Generally, our support for elections and democracy has three very important goals: we want them to be free and fair, we want to prevent and mitigate violence; and we want to enhance civic and political engagement especially among youth, women and people with physical challenges who sometimes have obstacles in going to the polls.

It’s very important that people participate in the elections. We know that there has been enhanced security presence in Anambra and our fervent wish is for them to be conducted peacefully.

Security conditions permitting, we are sending both before the elections and during the elections, some people to watch and see what is going on, and we hope that people will participate fulsomely and in the spirit of peace. And as you know, we have on many occasions before sub-national elections, reminded people of the use of visa sanctions against people who seek to inhibit or cause violence in elections and that remains something that is always on the table for us.


Security in the Lake Chad and Sahel region, which Nigeria is part of, has been very disturbing, especially with the many coups that have taken place. What is the US is doing to ensure stability?


First of all, not only does the United States have a partnership with Nigeria, but of course with other countries in the region as well. We are also engaged with entities like the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in terms of security response. And we hope to foster not only effective practices by the military but the ability of neighbouring militaries to work together so that information that comes from the joint entity like MNJTF can be supported to take, for example, the A29 Tucano aircraft that can have surveillance and see what is going on.

So, we are very much involved in trying to make neighbours in the region work effectively together. We support the countries individually and we support their efforts more collectively. The United States, like Nigeria, has remained a very strong defender of the democratic process.

As you mentioned, there are coups in the region, I think the idea of democracy and adhering to the constitutional limits and not seeking to overturn them. I think that Nigeria agrees with the US that this is very important.


There was a call by President Muhammadu Buhari to the US to move AFRICOM headquarters to Nigeria. Does the US have such a plan?


No, they are situated in Germany, and they are not entertaining any particular discussion to do that. I take that as a signal of a willingness to work closely with us, which we certainly received with great joy. The underpinning of our security cooperation is of course not only interactions between our military and sales but it is founded very much on the bedrock of respect for human rights and respect for the rule of military law.

If you look at the security challenges that confront Nigeria, they are multiple and seem daunting and insurmountable, but I don’t actually think they are, but you can understand why people feel a little overwhelmed sometimes.

You know, terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, maritime piracy, and all other threats though different they have a common underlying thread, which is lack of opportunity, and that is why we do all the things to create opportunity; to diversify the economy, and to work in conflict mitigation through peacebuilding committees.

So we take a very broad view of what it takes to combat insecurity. I will point out to you that President Muhammadu Buhari recorded a very similar sentiment in his recent Financial Times Op-ed and then, most recently, in his remarks in Saudi Arabia. It’s a question that is broader than military and political engagement. You know, everyone has a role to play in combating insecurity in Nigeria through that multiplicity of areas.


The US has been the major donor of the COVID-19 vaccine to Nigeria and Nigeria and many other African countries are clamouring for patent rights to produce their own vaccines. Will the US allow them to give it a trial?


The US has agreed in principle with the idea of sharing patents in the important area of COVID-19 vaccines. I’m not up-to-date on the latest, but my understanding is there are currently discussions between the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the US Trade Representative to figure out what that looks like.

At the same time, we do agree that we want to see vaccines production in Africa and in fact, the head of our Development Finance Corporation made some trips to places like South Africa and India to look at places that already have human vaccine production capacity to see how that might be ramped-up, perhaps with the financial support from the DFC, but it’s not just a question of finding places where a month from now you can be making vaccines. It’s also about looking more broadly about where in Africa that capacity can be developed. Nigeria is already a producer of many veterinary vaccines. I think in the past it produced human vaccines.

So, the idea is not just to think about 2022 but to think about having to prepare for the next epidemic and make sure that capacity has been installed on the continent so that when we need the next one, that too can be produced here and distributed here.

But, yes, we have been active contributors to COVID-19 vaccines in Nigeria. By the end of 2021, we believe we would have brought over 30 million vaccines to Nigeria. We are looking for ways that we can help surge vaccination campaigns to help Nigeria meet its goals of the number of people they want to have vaccinated at the end of this year and next year.

We have so far spent over $130 million, specifically on COVID-19 response and we are looking for new resources to help multilaterally and bilaterally in all the efforts.


The United States Democracy Summit will be coming up at a time many African countries are facing challenges; do you think it will address some of these issues in Africa?


The United States Democracy Summit, which is President Biden’s summit, will come in two parts: there will be a virtual part on December 9 and 10, 2021, at which countries will come together in the spirit of aspiring for a better democracy.

You know, the United States is not claiming to be a perfect democracy; far from it. We have had significant challenges toward democracy even in the last year or so. So, the question is to come together as those who aspire to be a better democracy and talk about how we may do that.

There will be the first summit in December, in which everybody will get up and say what the big plan is to help perfect their democracies. And then, there will be an in presence summit later where people will discuss what progress they have made.

So, the particular areas in the focus of the summit on democracy are to battle against authoritarianism, to battle against corruption and to increase support and awareness on human rights. So I think it is true for Nigeria and Africa as it is for the United States and these are important areas to look out for and to figure out how we can tackle them. We look forward to seeing these conversations play out and I think it is a great initiative.


Is Nigeria part of the summit?

Invitations have not been issued.


In terms of culture, is there any relationship between Nigeria and the United States, and what is the US doing to promote youth development?


Youth promotion programmes are actually also part of our job. In Nigeria, we have a lot of programmes that do that. By survey, Nigeria is ranked number one in Africa. We have over 20 US government-funded exchange programmes and we have over 400 Nigerians participating in academics, professional and cultural exchanges every year.

We had 400 Nigerians who participated in the Mandela Washington fellowship programmes, the Young African Leaders Initiative and a network associated with YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) that has 250,000 Nigerian as members.

So, we have academic exchanges: in full programmes. We have American spaces and American windows in cities across Nigeria – 22 cities I think so far. We are really very excited about the idea of youth promotion.

Also, on culture, next month, I’m going down to Lagos and I’m going to be engaging with the creative secretariat as part of our partnership with the African International Film Festival in Lagos. While I’m there we will be launching an ambassador fund for the cultural preservation project, which is going to document and conserve the rich cultural heritage of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove.

Nigeria has always been a real competitor of the Ambassador Fund For Culture Preservation for multiple years in a row in some span getting US grants.

We also have an about $4 million USAID economic opportunity competition, which is a challenge for young entrepreneurs under 30 who get the best idea on increasing agricultural production in a climate-friendly way. Nineteen small businesses were involved in finding ways to link technology with agriculture.

Finally, we are currently working on finalising a cultural preservation treaty or an agreement which would be the second one in Africa that will provide an umbrella for issues of cultural preservation.


Can we know your high point in Nigeria?

My high point in Nigeria is not a specific individual thing but is something new that got back into my life because I got in here in November of 2019. I presented my credentials on Christmas Eve of 2019.

I was in Washington twice – January, early February conference of US ambassadors and also for a binational commission with Nigeria. I came back here in February and said it’s now time to start running around and see Nigeria, and guess what?

COVID-19 happened.

So I spent a lot of time like anybody else looking at the walls inside my house instead of getting to see Nigeria.

So, it’s so great that we started to see vaccines and it is great to start getting on the road. It’s great to visit states and see many programmes in action. Since April, I have visited Akwa Ibom, Sokoto, Kebbi. I have been in the US for an extended period, for a little bit of summer and I’m looking forward to hitting the road again because to be an ambassador is a wonderful honour, and sitting in the capital is kind of no way during the foreign service and is not worthless to know what the country looks like or have the ability to see our many programmes in action on the field.

Certainly, the high point has been being liberated from the walls of my home to get out and to see Nigeria. So it’s really fun and I look forward to doing more.


What could you have done differently if there was no COVID-19?

I have been here for two years, but I have only been to nine states in Nigeria. Without COVID-19, it will have been 23 by now. So you feel how constraining it was. So it is something you couldn’t help but do differently. You know, before people were vaccinated, it is hard to think about stuffing a bunch of people in the car to breathe at each other for five hours, and of course, there was a period when travelling between the states was quite absolutely discouraged.

So, I feel like I haven’t had enough contact with Nigerians because of the constraints that have been imposed by the pandemic. That is why it’s great to talk to you but also great to get out on the road.


How adventurous are you with the Nigerian dishes? 

I like it, love jollof-rice, I love suya but I love a good pepper soup. I have been living in Africa for a very long time and I will say that the highlight of my tour was early in my career when I was in Cameroon and Togo. I lost a little bit of the tours but I’m working on building a backup here because I do like something spicy. So I’m a big fan of pepper soup in its many incarnations.


How will you like to be remembered after your mission in Nigeria?

You know it’s an interesting question. I think every ambassador wants to be remembered as being an effective representative and an effective bridge between the United States and Nigeria, and you want to be viewed as someone who prizes the relationship and was effective.

You know, the more I think about the United States and Nigeria, the more one comes to realise that our relationship is not about anyone American ambassador, it’s not about any one US administration, it’s not about any one Nigerian politician or political party or administration, it’s about two very large countries interacting with each other because of their relative significance on the African stage and the world stage.

You know, when we look at Nigeria we realise that the United States is unlikely to be able to succeed in its goals for West Africa and all of over Africa, absent of constructive and successful partners like Nigeria.

So, I think it behoves everybody, whether US policymakers, Nigerian policymakers, US citizens, and Nigeria citizens to realise that it’s not about any of us in particular, it is about the fact that we need to find a way of working together to cause the success that we need for this part of Africa and the continent.


Talking about the BW3 initiative recently introduced to Nigeria and African countries by the US, can you lead us into it?

It’s profoundly about deepening, making smarter and more effective interventions to accommodate the realities of our new world and to realise that having passed through this difficult situation, we need to get back to the basics.