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We’ll soon conclude 5-year plan on bilateral engagement with Nigeria – Claire Ireland

In this interview with our correspondent, the Australian High Commissioner, Claire Ireland, discusses the 5-year strategic plan on Australia’s bilateral engagements with Nigeria, how Australia…

In this interview with our correspondent, the Australian High Commissioner, Claire Ireland, discusses the 5-year strategic plan on Australia’s bilateral engagements with Nigeria, how Australia is tackling the issue of violence against women and other issues.


Daily Trust: Having been in Nigeria for almost a year, what’s your impression about Nigeria?

Claire Ireland: I’m just coming up to my first year in Nigeria and during this time, I find it a really vibrant country.

It is dynamic, entrepreneurial, loud and very engaging; it is really an interesting country.

It is a country where about 60 percent of 11-year-olds attend primary school, and 10.5 million children are not in school even though primary education is free.

You have some of the most amazingly educated people in the world from the country including Wole Soyinka – the Nobel laureate, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Ben Okri etc.

All these amazing authors must have had good education at some point and when you look at the education system now, you think how challenging it must be for Nigerians coming through.

But yes, I have a lot of hope.

There are people like Amina Mohammed, she is doing an incredible job at the UN and representing Nigeria at the highest level, and even Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who was nominated for the DG of World Trade Organization (WTO).

And while there are development challenges with 90 million people living below the poverty line, Nigeria has the biggest economy in Africa.

I think it is a really inspiring place to work.

DT: How will you assess the bilateral relations between Nigeria and Australia?

Ireland: It is good; we have a modest but focused relationship with Nigeria.

We are not the size of the Brits or Americans by any means but what we do is much more focused and we are very engaged in it, so it is a good relationship.

Back in February, we had what we called the senior official talks between both governments and we kind of agreed on what the priorities are going forward.

There are focused on three areas – the mining sector, education and the multilaterals.

We talked about working more closely with the Nigeria Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NASSIMA) and also the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and we very much talked about how we can work more closely together as business chambers, going forward.

We also discussed things like counterterrorism awareness and what Australia can do to support global efforts on that.

We don’t have a bilateral aid program here; ours is a trade relationship, focused very much on trade, and working in the multilateral level.

We give our aid money to the multilateral and trust them to implement it.

I guess in Nigeria now with COVID-19, we give our money essentially to New York and we let New York decide where they allocate resources, so we are very much a firm believer in the importance of multilateral system.

DT: What’s the trade volume between both countries?

Ireland: It’s not very high at the moment.

It’s about $1bn a year and that’s a combination of oil we buy from Nigeria.

But it’s the education side of things that needs much focus.

DT: Why is the volume of trade this low?

Ireland: I think distance does play a role.

There are a lot of countries close by where it is cheaper and easier to buy commodities from.

I think in terms of Nigeria, because of the political domestic policies around agricultural production, there was less imports as well, hence the motivation to buy things externally because it is a lot more expensive and the government policy and rightly has encouraged domestic production of commodities and that is right.

It is important that Nigeria becomes self sustainable in terms of production.

You have such fantastic environment.

DT: Has the coronavirus pandemic further reduced the level of economic cooperation?

Ireland: Yes, it has and it is a huge challenge. One thing I love about Nigeria is that it is very much a relationship-based country so whether you are engaging on trade level, you need that person around for the engagement.

I know some Australians have planned to come and visit Nigeria but they have not been able to make those visits and I think that has slowed down the trade partnership because I know some of the mining companies that were going to have professional, technical experts come over and engage in some discussions of some mining opportunities but that has been put on hold right now.

I know in other places, working could be done virtually or video conferencing but the personal relationships mean so much in Nigeria.

DT: Beyond COVID-19, what do you suggest both countries should do to improve the trade volume?

Ireland: Given that the COVID-19 crisis has put a lot of things on hold, what we are doing at the High Commission is using this as an opportunity to write and develop a five-year strategic plan.

We are using opportunity of a quieter time to work and reflect on the relationship.

We were looking at what we discussed at the senior official talks back in February, and we are having a wide stakeholder consultation to see and explore areas that we might not have had in the past, so agriculture is one of those.

Australia has a phenomenal agricultural sector, we have big exports, not just in terms of agricultural produce, but also in terms of equipment technology and basically climates so adaptive for farming.

We are keen to explore that.

We are looking to see if there are any areas we have not explored yet, particularly around innovation and so yes, we are using this opportunity to have a look at broader stakeholder consultation.

I think what is most important is developing this new five-year strategic plan, we will have that by December.

DT: How many Australians are currently residing in Nigeria?

Ireland: I actually know this figure because of what is going on with the pandemic.

We set up a registration system so Australians in the country can register and find support.

At the moment, we have 99 Australian citizens that are both short and long term residents.

51 people went back to Australia.

There were close to 200 people here at the start of the coronavirus pandemic but now there are only 99 people left.

DT: You recently met with the Minister of Environment to collaborate on climate change. Tell us a bit about that meeting and the outcome.

Ireland: Because I am still relatively new, I find it really important when I start working in a new country to meet with key stakeholders who we have common interests with.

Like I mentioned earlier, Australia and Nigeria have very similar climates.

And so engaging and working closely with ministry of environment is always a key priority for us and we feel like we have a lot to offer in that sector.

When I met the Minister of State Environment, Sharon Ikeazor, we talked about a number of things. One, was the commonality between our environments.

We also talked about the World Heritage Committee and the importance of that as a UN system that organizes and supports sustainable development.

We also talked about the Commonwealth Ocean Alliance and I know the minister of state is very passionate about trying to galvanize and support West African perspective in terms of supporting the clean oceans and for Australia that is a high priority.

We also talked about how we are going to reduce the negative impacts of climate change on our environments.

DT: One of the major challenges Nigerian women faced during the lockdown was abuse. They were forced to stay with their abusers and the country witnessed an increased rate of violence against women. How do you suggest we tackle this menace?

Ireland: I was fortunate to also meet the Minister for Women Affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen, and this was one of the issues we discussed.

Nigeria is not alone; I also want to acknowledge that Australia has this problem too and our statistics are not good.

In Australia, 1 in 3 women experience physical violence over the age of 15 and that’s so alarming. 1 in 6 experience sexual violence after the age of 15 by a partner.

So, we have this exact issue and we are very worried.

When the coronavirus first hit and we realized that people are going to live at home with violent partners, what Australia did and what I recommended to the minister was that we invested very quickly and heavily in frontline workers.

So, that enabled workers to support women in their homes, help them leave their homes to where they can get respite and care.

I recognized that to stop the violence will be difficult but we need to provide avenues for women to be able to escape their abusers, and they can do so in privacy and can also do so in confidence.

It is a very sensitive difficult subject but what we found is, by capturing the data, and being explicit about how many people it affected, it enabled us with our interventions a lot better.

The message from the team at the High Commission is that we haven’t left.

We are committed to Nigeria, we are sympathetic to what is happening here in Nigeria, we stand by Nigeria and we support the multilateral system response to the crisis here.

We’re very much open for business and will support Nigeria in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

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