In this interview with KEMI YESUFU, chairperson of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Nnenna Elendu -Ukeje speaks on what United States President-elect, Donald Trump’s victory means to Nigeria and how the Federal Government as well as the Nigerian parliament can reposition the country’s foreign policy to benefit from his presidency. The lawmaker who is in the forefront of pushing for gender equality and better opportunities for women, also, spoke on what Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s defeat means for gender activism in Nigeria.
She also shared her views on Africans assessment of eight years of President Barak Obama on the continent.
Do you share the fear among Nigerians, that our country doesn’t have much to cheer about with Donald Trump taking over the White House, judging by his policy pronouncements on trade, immigration, climate change and foreign policy?
Well, the election in the United States was a threshold for some, yet again for some the elections were existential, many observed the election keenly because they believed the outcome would affect them considering the central role America plays in global affairs. Of course, the pundits, the media placed bets, but the outcome was unexpected and largely surprising. The American presidential election has shown that democracy is what it is, no matter how shocking the results are, that the majority will always have their way, while the minority have their say. And in spite of the outcomes of a democratic process, what legitimises the process is the result and shocking as the result may be to many people, this is democracy for you.
The American democratic system threw up President-elect Donald Trump. Waking up from the outcome of the election, we had knee-jerk reactions, people were gasping, they were shocked. But over and beyond these reactions, we have to start to look at the highlights in the areas we can have deeper collaborations between the United States and Nigeria. It is on record that Nigeria and the United States have a long history of being close trading partners, we are partners in the fight against global terrorism and insurgency here in Nigeria. We have partnered the United States in rolling back diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDs. We also partnered on the Light Up Africa project. You talk about the US-Nigeria Bi-National Commission which is a platform for collaboration and engagement in key areas like governance, trade, healthcare, counter-terrorism, combating human trafficking, anti-money laundering policies and all. So, I do not believe that a Trump presidency is going to change what is institutionalised. It was President Barak Obama that said that Africa needs strong institution, not strong men. What it is that holds up the United States democracy is the fact that they have very strong institutions. The (US) congress is strong on its own, the State Department is strong. It (America) is a country that has institutions that signed agreements with other countries. We therefore cannot personalise the presidency of the United States-to this end, agreements that have been entered into by America and Nigeria are still going to be relevant today.
Having said this, I did listen to President-elect Trump during the debates and he was very passionate about the counter-terrorism fight. He was very particular about fighting ISIS even in the countries from which they operate. He spoke about stopping ISIS funding and of course with Nigeria under the vice-like gripe of Boko-Haram, with the group mutating into factions with some of them pledging allegiance to ISIS, with somebody in the White House who says he is going to tackle terrorism wherever it is in the world can only be good news for Nigeria. Yes, there are fears within Nigeria of his stance on international trade especially with regard to America taking back its position in the committee of nations. But when you look at China’s incursion into Africa, I think it (Trump stand on trade) provides Nigeria an opportunity. The reason why people think China’s has made inroads into Africa is because China’s agreements with the continent’s leaders are done with greater engagement with the Chinese in Africa. They have engaged African countries in their quest to develop infrastructure, like when you remember the building of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. This wasn’t the American model and this gives us another opportunity to re-jig trade agreements between African countries and America in a way that it adds more fillip to Africa’s agenda. Still talking trade, I think there is also an opportunity for us with Nigeria thinking of diversifying to exploit the fact that with Trump coming from that huge entrepreneurial background, we can be looking towards creating a market that is wider for Nigerian companies. Most importantly when you think of his (Trump’s) position on other issues such as repealing Obama Care, and other policies that would have effects within the United States, you begin to understand that they won’t be of any effect internationally.
Some in media and even keen watchers of global events have tagged Trump’s victory as re-jigging of the world order. People have even go far as saying Nostradamus’ prediction of power shifting to different empires could also be used to explain Trump’s emergence to mean that America’s time as super power is over and a new country will take its place. Do you think such people are right?
I won’t go as far as talking about Nostradamus. But I believe that when you look at what happened in England with the Brexit votes, how Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged in India and even how the presidential elections played out here in Nigeria, you will see that people are suddenly voting against establishment.
Here in Nigeria people argued that the result in 2015 was about voting against the establishment, than it was about voting for the candidate that won. I would say people are probably tired of the status quo, they want to be part of re-jigging the world order where the people in government are too far removed from the governed. A lot of people are starting to say that the divide between the first and third world even the divide within the first world between the rich and the poor is too wide. The current situation has thrown up so much anger and fear, therefore people are reacting by rebelling against establishment. I think that our takeaway as a country, especially for us as people who form the leadership is simply that, we must start to listen to the voices of the people at who’s pleasure we serve. We must start to listen to the agitations of people in every sphere. We have to engage more with people, so that when we present ourselves to serve the people, they see us as individuals who truly understand their plight.
Not only did Trump win the presidential election, the Republican Party also recorded many victories, taking over congress. How prepared is the Nigerian parliament to handle a new look US congress at the level of inter-parliamentary relations?
Government is dynamic, the parliament is also dynamic and we are at the point of formulating a new foreign policy. Of course, Nigeria is not going to change its foreign policy because of the results from one election, but Nigeria is going to position itself in a way that we strategically engage with other countries. Now foreign policy is all about promoting and protecting self interest as well as engaging other countries. We have engaged other countries over time, we have deepened friendships. So as far as both congresses are concerned, the issues that bind us together like global peace, trade, improved engagement between both countries, the gender issue, treaties, Sustainable Development Goals, will ensure that we continue to collaborate. And I can say that we in the Nigerian parliament are well prepared to engage our American counterparts.
One issue Nigerians are worried about is Trump’s promise to deport illegal migrants. Aside from family members sitting on the edge over affected relatives, there is equally the fear that the remittances from America which illegal immigrants also contribute will be affected in a time when Nigeria is in a recession. What should we be doing about this?
The operative word is illegal. We are talking about illegal immigrants. Now, each administration in the US deported illegal immigrants, even as recent as President Obama’s and every country has the rights to make laws to govern their country. When a person is not known to law, when he is an illegal immigrant, he isn’t part of the system. This causes certain problems like their not paying taxes even when they are earning money in the same country. Here in Nigeria we are also known to have deported illegal immigrants. For people who live out of status, one day the law will catch up with them. We have renegotiated our Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on migration in the United Kingdom, this is something we can also speak to with regard to the United States, when we meet at the bi-national conference. Again, as a politician I know that there are certain things that are said during campaigns that when you get into the reality of governance, it becomes clear that it is difficult for you to carry out governance with any kind of arbitrariness. I believe that US will be stricter on migration but there will not be arbitrariness in deporting people outside Memorandums of Understanding on migration.
You regularly speak up for gender equality and that women should be given more opportunities for leadership positions. Your call is similar to that of many of those advocating for more women in positions of power. What does Hillary Clinton’s defeat mean to you and the many gender activists in Nigeria who used America as an example, as the bastion of democracy that has long recognised women as being capable of leadership at any level?
The United States has about 19 percent women in congress, this is in an indicator of the reality. The Scandinavian countries have a much higher percentage, so the United States which we always want to emulate as a 200 year old democracy and symbol of democratic freedoms, has shown that the rule of the people will supersede whatever sentiment there is.
Of course, I and millions of other women felt that having a woman in the White House would have given much fillip to the gender agenda. A female president would have given women in America a sense of achievement even if it took 200 years, it would have given gender activists all around the world much encouragement, to this extent, it (Hillary’s defeat) was very disappointing. But I remember when Hilary Clinton first won the nomination to run for presidency, in her speech she talked about her mother not being able to vote and she was being nominated as presidential candidate for one of the two major parties. I think that in this kind of set-backs as women, we need to get up, dust ourselves and continue to fight the gender fight.
Should it be a talking point that it was a woman who led Trump to victory, salvaging his campaign when it mattered the most What do you think about those who say Kellyanne Conway in a way fitted into the belief that women are their own worst enemies?
It may not necessarily be a talking point. But I think it could be a very good reference point and the reason I say this is that sometimes it does take a woman to do a man’s job. A lot of people would say, ‘oh it was a woman that sunk another woman’, but I think that beyond this, we have to recognise that what she (Conway) did was quite remarkable. I would rather look at what Kellyanne Conway did from the angle, that it was a woman that led a team through a difficult and contentious election with a result that shocked the world. It must be said that she (Conway) must be twice as good at what she does to have pulled this off. Her unpredicted success even at the expense of Hillary Clinton does show like some of us have argued that it doesn’t matter the arrangement of your chromosomes, that as women when we set our minds to do something, it doesn’t matter how tough the assignment is, we can do great things.
President Obama is on his way out of office. Some have said Africa didn’t benefit much from his presidency. Is this a fair assessment?
Perhaps the reason why people say he didn’t do much for Africa was because we weren’t realistic with our expectations. We were a little too optimistic and I say this because a lot of people felt that because he is of African descent, his policy on Africa will be a lot more robust than we saw.
But let’s not forget that presidencies are defined by the times that they operate in. People have compared what President George W Bush did with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) fund. But under Obama there was the engagement when Africa battled with the Ebola Virus. Some have argued that President Obama didn’t have much an influence in Africa especially with engaging African heads of governments. But let me say that under Obama there were collaborations in dealing with Boko Haram. People could say that President Obama’s Light Up Africa project didn’t quite take off. But power projects take time to build and President Obama had to deal with the Chinese presence in Africa. He had to deal with the wars, ISIS and the middle east crisis, Iran-there so many interests competing for policy drive. Ultimately, it is understandable that Africans expected a lot more from an Obama presidency, but like I have said campaigning and governance are quite different. And based on this, I want to relate this to what we have on hand, that we could be pleasantly surprised with the outcomes from a Trump presidency even with the expectations that rose from the rhetoric during a tough campaign.