The Washington Diplomat / July 2010
By Larry Luxner
Ade Adefuye, Nigeria’s new ambassador in Washington, has a message for the U.S. media: stop picking on us.
Barely three months on the job, Adefuye claims Africa’s most populous nation is being unfairly portrayed by American news outlets as a cesspool of violence and corruption. On the contrary, he said, Nigeria deserves Washington’s respect for sorting out its ethnic tensions, supporting tougher United Nations sanctions on Iran and aiding the global battle against terrorism.
“Nigeria has been maligned. You journalists ignore the positive, and blow the negative out of proportion,” he complained to The Washington Diplomat during a lengthy interview last month. “We have long been subjected to negative media, and we are determined to stop that.”
Adefuye, 59, is keenly aware of Africa’s image in the West, having been educated in both Nigeria and England. In fact, his thesis was on British rule in northern Uganda, and he taught at the University of Lagos for 14 years (his business card still carries the title of professor). As a Fulbright scholar, he also did stints at two Florida schools — the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and the University of Florida in Gainesville — as well as New York’s Columbia University.
In 1987, Adefuye was appointed Nigeria’s high commissioner to Jamaica — with concurrent accreditation to Belize and Haiti — then moved to London as deputy high commissioner for Nigeria. Following a 13-year assignment with the Commonwealth, the academic-turned-diplomat moved back to Nigeria and became an adviser to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 16-member regional bloc headquartered in Lagos.
Adefuye was just settling into his new assignment as ambassador to the United States in early May when he received sad news: Nigerian President Alhaji Umar Musa Yar’adua had died after a long illness that had sparked a constitutional crisis back home.
“I was an ordinary citizen working for ECOWAS at the time when the president felt ill and was admitted to hospital in Saudi Arabia,” he recalled.
“The natural thing would have been for the vice-president at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, to take over, but the president was too ill to write a letter to the National Assembly asking Jonathan to assume the presidency.”
The fact that Yar’adua never officially handed over power threw Nigeria into chaos. Nevertheless, Jonathan was named acting president, and the situation eventually resolved itself when Yar’adua died on May 5 and Jonathan — in his trademark black fedora — was sworn in as head of state the next day.
Adefuye speaks warmly of the man who now rules Nigeria — a nation of some 160 million inhabitants and the eighth most populous country on Earth (after China, India, United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh).
“I know him through mutual friends. He’s an academic like me, majoring in political science. He is a very highly principled, informed, sophisticated fellow who knows the problems of Nigeria and how best to solve them,” said the ambassador. “I’m very confident in his leadership.”
Asked how close he is to his president, Adefuye responded: “I just spoke to him last week, and as soon as this meeting ends, I’m going to speak to him again.”
In April, Goodluck — still in his capacity as acting president — met President Obama at the White House to discuss electoral reform, continuing unrest in the Niger Delta and nuclear nonproliferation. The two countries signed a “binational commission agreement” providing U.S. assistance in four critical areas: good governance; energy and investment; food security and agriculture, and regional security.
“Historically, we’ve been a love-hate relationship with the United States. We are of strategic importance to America; that no one can deny. They want us to be a bastion of democracy, a peaceful nation. If we’re not, they get very angry.”
Overall, said Adefuye, relations between Washington and Abuja have improved considerably since what he called the “unfortunate incident of Dec. 25 last year,” when a Nigerian would-be terrorist trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen was caught trying to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines jet.
As a result, Nigeria was immediately put on a list of 14 countries whose citizens were forced to undergo additional security screening — infuriating the Nigerian government. That list was quietly ditched in April.
“We thought the Americans overreacted. We are not terrorists. In addition to that, we have always supported the war against terror, both at ECOWAS and at the AU level,” Adefuye insisted. “We now have a bill in parliament that is designed to gather international support against terrorism.”
This, he said, is why Nigeria — despite its slight Muslim majority — recently voted in favor of tougher sanctions in Iran at the United Nations Security Council, where it holds one of 10 rotating seats.
“We are against nuclear proliferation,” he said. “We signed the NPT and we are not convinced that Iran has been living up to its obligations. We didn’t vote like that for nothing; we explained our reasons. The case of the U.S. was quite believable and credible.”
In March, central Nigeria was rocked by horrific religious violence when an estimated 200 Christians near the town of Jos were slaughtered by Muslims armed with guns and machetes. The attackers spared nobody; even babies were decapitated in the ensuring chaos.
The incident followed sectarian killings in January that left more than 300 dead, most of them Muslim. Similar rioting in 2001 killed over 1,000 people, while Muslim-Christian battles killed over 700 people in 2004, and more than 300 inhabitants of Nigeria’s so-called “middle belt” — where religious tensions run especially high — died during an uprising in 2008.
Yet Adefuye dismissed the continuing violence as insignificant.
“There is no fighting between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria,” he claims. “It’s more of an expression of social discontent with the opposition. Politicians are trying to bill this as ethnic or religious conflict. It’s neither of those, just people who have an ax to grind with the government.”
When it comes to bloodshed, however, this conflict pales in comparison with the one that’s been raging in the Niger Delta since the early 1990s. Untold thousands have been killed as a result of tensions between foreign oil corporations and the region’s numerous minority ethnic groups who feel exploited by them. Jonathan is originally from this region, which is home to 30 million people; the armed uprising affects 2 to 5 percent of Nigeria’s total land area.
“This is purely about long-held grievances, since their area has been made to suffer the consequences of oil production, but at the same time the oil they produce is being used to develop other parts of the country,” said the ambassador.
“The Niger Delta crisis is a reaction of years of neglect by the oil-producing sector,” he told the Diplomat. “Oil resources from that part of Nigeria were used to develop other parts of the country, without social attention being paid to their needs. The oil companies have disrupted the environment. You cannot practice agriculture there because the land is polluted. There’s a lot of gas flaring, and the terrain is bad. So many people have died in this struggle, and because the government was not listening to them, so the people took up arms and cut off the oil supply.”
A number of violent resistance groups have cropped up in recent years, among them the Movement for Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), the Niger Delta Vigilante Group (NDVG) and the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
Acts of sabotage, such as the blowing up of pipelines and oil refineries, as well as the kidnapping of foreign oil workers for ransom, forced crude oil production down from 2.2 million barrels a day at the end of 2007 to 1.9 million barrels at the end of 2009.
“So many people have died fighting there,” said Adefuye, noting that the late President Yar’Adua initiatied an amnesty program asking militants to lay down their weapons in return for a serious discussion of their problems. “So far, this amnesty program has been successful. Discussions are now going on as to how to meet their demands for more federal presence, more amenities in their area, and how to integrate those who were taking up arms into the larger society, through retraining, rehabilitation and re-employment.”
Despite the crisis, Nigeria remains Africa’s largest crude oil producer; major foreign investors in this sector are Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total and Eni/Agip. Yet when the unrest forced crude oil prices through the roof in 2008 — at one point hitting $147 a barrel — Nigeria could not meet its OPEC production quota, thereby losing billions of dollars in revenues.
“We don’t claim to be a perfect country. Every country has its own challenges, and we’re doing our best to deal with it,” Adefuye said. “After the civil war of 1967-70, we tried to make a strong nation out of ethnically diverse people, and it is now clear to our people that we are determined to be one country. Secession is no longer in the cards for anybody. We’ve made up our minds to be one strong, indivisible entity.”
And that’s especially important for the United States, which ranks as the top customer for Nigerian crude.
“The Americans are interested in world peace and security, but that requires peace in Africa — which means there must be peace in Nigeria,” he said. “Anything that takes away from this angers the Americans.”
Adefuye said his new government is also determined to prevent fraud from creeping into the 2011 national elections; Nigerians still have painful memories of their 33-year military dictatorship, which ended with Olusegun Obasanjo’s ascent to the presidency in 1999 — a post he kept until 2007 through re-elections that were widely criticized as unfree and unfair.
“We are preparing for next year’s presidential election to ensure that the polls are conducted in a credible manner and that votes count,” he said.
Before ending our interview, Adefuye returned to his original gripe of how unfair the Western media portrays his nation, repeatedly telling us — in a refrain reminiscent of Richard Nixon — that “Nigerians are not crooked.”
“We are victims of selective media coverage. The media makes too much of the bad ones among us,” he said, blaming the problem on the country’s huge population. “One out of every seven Africans is a Nigerian. When you see a black man committing a crime, the first hunch is that he must be a Nigerian.”
But when a country has 160 million inhabitants, it’s bound to harbor a few rotten apples, he reasons.
“My central point is this: every country has its share of criminals. You see more Nigerian criminals simply because of our larger population,” he said. “You people ignore the positive. Go to NASA and you’ll find Nigerians working there. There’s hardly a university in the United States where you don’t find a Nigerian on the faculty. But you journalists don’t see that. You only hear about officials accused of fraud.”
Over one million Nigerians now live in the United States — more than the whole population of some African countries. In fact, Nigeria’s population is more than twice the combined population of the other 14 member states of ECOWAS.
Despite the enormous challenges, Adefuye exudes confidence that Goodluck Jonathan will indeed bring good luck to his troubled country.
“Right now, we have an ideal kind of person in power, the right person in the right place, a square peg in a square hole. He’s the best-educated leader we’ve ever had. He has a Ph.D., he was a former deputy governor, became governor, then deputy president and now president. So he learned all along,” said the ambassador. “We’ve never had the opportunity of getting it right. This time, we are going to get it right.”