In an exclusive interview, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama spoke to DW about migration, corruption, and the current tension in the Niger Delta.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama is scheduled to meet with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeyer on Wednesday. Among the topics on the agenda is the issue of Nigerian migrants coming to Europe. Ahead of the talks, DW caught up with him in Bonn to discuss German-Nigerian relations. Onyeama also explains his government’s response to the ongoing conflict in the Niger Delta, and how Nigeria is cracking down on corruption which is preventing the country from reaching its potential.
DW: What is the German government offering your government to keep Nigerians at home?
I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily keeping Nigerian migrants from coming to Germany, but in many cases the main issue is repatriation, and how we can work on an agreeable and dignified manner of repatriating the irregular migrants.
Do you already have an idea of a concrete offer from Berlin?
One of the sticking points is documentation. Sometimes irregular migrants destroy their documentation, and in some cases might even deny their nationality. So the Nigerian government’s position is generally that we believe in the exhaustion of legal remedies, to give each individual the possibility to benefit from all the legal mechanisms available in the country in which they find themselves.
We also look at the humanitarian side. If, for instance, an individual has family here, that is a factor which might also be considered, within the framework of the law, of course. We certainly do not in any way encourage irregular migration.
In cases where there is no documentation, the German government is looking at giving European travel documents of some kind, whereas the Nigerian government is quite keen, to the extent that they are Nigerian nationals, to give them Nigerian travel documents.
What is your government doing to stop the flow of migrants to Europe?
That’s a much larger issue; it’s a question of governance and development. For many of these people, especially the younger ones, it’s the economic conditions and also security conditions [that drive them to Europe]. This particular government is focused very much on the causes of this outflow of Nigerians – especially the Nigerians who are prepared to take inordinate risks to reach Europe, and a lot of them meet their end, either in the Mediterranean, or in the desert. This is a great concern to the government, and we feel that it really requires a holistic approach.
So for instance, the three priorities of this government are security, the issue of governance – including corruption and so forth, and also job creation. We know that if we can deal with the question of security, and once we can really get the economy moving, lifting people out of poverty, providing jobs for our youth and so forth, that there should not be that ‘push’ factor to emigrate – especially irregular migration.
We understand that we really have to get our house in order. We face enormous challenges, but it’s our firm belief that it’s the job of the government to really tackle those fundamental problems. Nigeria is a country that has tremendous economic potential, and we feel that one of the main reasons for our country being in the position in which we are today is bad governance. And so [tackling those issues] are real priorities for us.
Conflict in the Niger Delta and attacks on the oil pipes in the region have caused petrol price turbulence on the global market. How is your government tackling the Niger Delta militants?
In terms of the oil pipe sabotage, an accommodation was reached with the various militant groups, and part of that accommodation was to involve them in the security and safeguarding of these pipelines. But the country is really faced with economic challenges, and does not have the financial resources really to be paying as much for that as the previous government was.
Part of the issue is paying these militants to safeguard the pipeline. There’s an ongoing process of engagement with them and hopefully it will yield positive results, because [the conflict is] not good for the community and its not good for the country – it’s a lose-lose situation for everybody concerned. But we are trying to reach a solution that is sustainable. I also think we cannot have a situation where the government is held to ransom: no government can operate with a gun to its head. So we have to look for a sustainable solution to the problem.
Critics say President Muhammadu Buhari is targeting some members of People’s Democratic Party- the party of the former president Goodluck Jonathan. Is it true that your government is using the anti-corruption commission to silence the opposition?
No, it’s not true at all. It really is a case of getting the evidence and following the evidence, and wherever it leads, the authorities will go in that direction. So there’s no case of targeting an individual before the evidence. You get information that comes to the government, and you follow it to its logical conclusion.
But to a certain extent, the ruling party had been in power for 16 years, they had been in control of the resources of the country, so its probably logical that when you are talking about public officials being involved in corrupt practices, you will invariably be tackling those who were in office, who had custody of the resources of the country. I think it’s logical that the evidence that you’ll get will usually involve people who have been in charge of the resources of the country in the last 16 years.
Has your government initiated any investigation against Goodluck Jonathan, as was reported by the press?
No, I don’t think it ever threatened to do so, I am certainly not aware of any threat. You work in the media, you certainly know that you cannot believe everything you see in the press. But it’s not a personal thing: on the contrary, the president has been effusive in his praise of his predecessor and the way he conducted the handover.
The facts are there, a lot of western countries, for instance, are giving us information about accounts in their countries, and they’re offering us assistance in restituting the money they have in their countries. So a lot of the information is actually not even coming from within the country, from Nigeria itself.
So its nothing personal at all. I think the important thing is this: the numbers, the amounts we are talking about, are huge, really huge, and would make a significant difference in the context of our present economic plight. So we have every interest in getting those resources: for us its not about personalizing it.
In fact, a lot of people are criticizing the government because we have not named the individuals who have returned a lot of the money. If it was something personal, the government would name and shame all these individuals and prosecute them also.
But what we’ve made clear is that our priority is the people, and to get their resources, their commonwealth, back to the country to help in the development process.
Geoffrey Onyeama is Nigeria’s Foreign Minister. The interview was conducted by Jane Ayeko.