Ambassador Shehu Malami was once Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the Republic of South Africa. In this interview with MUSA AHMAD TIJJANI and ONUKOGU KANAYO JUBAL, he revisits the diplomatic row between Nigeria and South Africa, while baring his mind on other national issues.
You were once Nigeria’s ambassador to South Africa; has the relationship between both countries always been rusty?
While I was Nigeria’s ambassador to South Africa, President Obasanjo came for the swearing-in ceremony of then President Thabo Mbeki, together with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu (the then governor of Lagos State), Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of Kano State and Solomon Lar, who was then the chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
When President Obasanjo arrived at the airport and I went to receive him, the South African officials insisted that no one should be allowed to disembark from the aircraft until their yellow cards were produced in advance, as proof of their vaccination against yellow fever.
I told them that I would personally produce the cards to them, but as they still insisted that they must see the yellow cards in advance, I decided to use some element of blackmail. I said to them: “Please, don’t worry anymore about the yellow cards.”
I said what I wanted them to arrange for the re-fuelling of the aircraft, as I was going in to the aircraft to advise my president not to bother to come down, but to fly back to Nigeria. The blackmail worked and my president disembarked with the rest of the delegation.
So, the issue of yellow cards has been in existence for some time. I had another problem with the yellow card thing when Patrick Aziza, the then minister for communication, came to South Africa, the officials insisted on inoculating him against yellow fever.
He agreed in his own interest to have the inoculation, but I refused to leave him there to be quarantined. I insisted that I must take him with me. I am only trying to buttress the fact that this issue has been on ground for some time. However, I am very glad that the Nigerian government dealt with it in an appropriate manner this time.
Are you saying we have never had strained diplomatic ties with them?
No. Besides this, we have not. Another issue we had was when Nigerians were applying for visas to go to South Africa. They insisted on the applicants providing his bank statements and tax-clearing certificates. It was unnecessary, but they harped on it.
At that time, I decided not to give any South African any visa for some time, until they came apologising. I was practicing reciprocity. It is an important element of diplomacy – if the others treat you well, you do likewise. If they don’t, toe their line.
During Thabo Mbeki’s swearing-in ceremony, appropriate invitation cards were made available to every delegation.
Unfortunately, some people took away the invitation cards and on the day of the inauguration, the governors of Kano and Lagos states, as well as the PDP chairman at that time did not have the appropriate invitation cards to get into the venue.
When I realised what the issue was, I came out (after I had taken the president and his wife in first to be seated while these others had to wait, to their chagrin) to where these governors were. As ambassador, I had become known by some of the security operatives during my three to four-year sojourn in the country, so they allowed me take these dignitaries into the venue.
What was Nelson Manadela’s perception about the tense relations Nigeria was having with his country?
The elder statesman has ever been courteous to Nigeria. When he was released from prison, the first time he ever got out of South Africa, he came to thank the Nigerian government, then headed by Babangida. I was introduced to Mandela by Chief Anyaoku, who was then deputy secretary-general to the Commonwealth. I got to know Mandela more when Anyaoku became the secretary-general, during a conference in Harare.
I met him many times before he became president and when he finally did, he was ever courteous to Nigeria. Then, whenever we got to meet, he would part with the words: ‘Greet my leader, Sani Abacha’. When Abdulsalami came to power, he would say ‘please, speak to my leader, Abdulsalami’.
During a conference of African leaders in Durban, Mandela was supposed to be the chairman of the afternoon session but when it was time, he stood up and said. ‘I know I am the chairman of the conference this afternoon, but I am handing it over to my leader, Gen. Abdulsalami of Nigeria’.
When my 11-year-old son was abducted in South Africa, Mandela called me the same day he arrived from China. He encouraged me to keep hope alive. He has great respect for Nigeria and her people – this is what I am trying to say.
Let me bring you back home. The northern part of the country recently constituted committees on constitution amendment, revenue allocation, and other aspects. Do you think these bodies have the capacity to bring about a change of the situation in the region?
Well, if there is a problem, you cannot solve it unless you meet. The region is only being practical about people sitting together deliberating and bringing about lasting change. The results of these meetings and committees will now be unified and applied – this is the idea.
When we met recently in Minna, we agreed that the recommendations by the committees being organised by Maitama Sule, Abdulsalami Abubakar, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and others would be collapsed and merged, then thoroughly studied. I am sure that if we continue meeting, we’ll find solutions to all these problems.
Recently, it was revealed that about 90 per cent of the nation’s oil blocs are owned by northerners. There is nothing wrong in that, but many believe that this wealth should translate to some economic changes in the North. The fact, however, that some northern governors have continued to accumulate personal wealth has also been considered a hindrance to the region. Don’t you think both factors have helped to derail the development, to some extent, of the region?
First, you must understand that the northerners who own these blocs got them because they expressed interest. A lot of people were allocated oil wells, not just northerners, because they indicated interest.
This wealth you are talking of can only go round if it is profitable. But how sure are we that these wells have yielded enough profits to warrant some charitable moves? You see, so much money has to be invested in these blocs and they have to recoup this before you can even talk of profits.
Consider the cost of exploration, the expertise, and the technical, as well as financial aspects. If they are, however, lucky to come across crude, settling the cost of distribution comes first before the profits. These are factors that even determine how much the owner makes before the public good is considered.
You were quoted as saying that northern governors have not been fair to the people, during the Northern Economic Summit . . .
I still maintain that good governance is lacking in northern Nigeria. I say this because in their meetings all they talk about is politics. They miss the point of governance: they don’t talk of problems related to the people, their welfare, education, economic state and all that. That was why we called for a Northern Economic Summit.
Sometime ago, the Niger State governor said northern traditional rulers were bringing poverty to the region. I castigated him and asked him to explain. Are they the ones collecting the financial allocations? No, the governors are. Are they the ones occupying the state government houses? No, the governors are. Are they the ones spending recklessly? No. The governors are. All the traditional rulers do is depend on them.
I am appealing to the governors of the states in the North; I am appealing to those who claim to be looking after constituency projects and local government chairmen all over the region to understand that these resources they are personalising belong to the people.
Whatever is economically wrong with the north is partly the fault of the governors in the region. If they use their huge allocations judiciously, there’ll be huge improvements in northern Nigeria. Therefore, they should pay more attention to the people and less to themselves.
During the launching of the Sardauna Foundation, a lot of money was pledged. Do you have any idea if those amounts have been put to judicious use?
Well, I understand that some of the governors who pledged have not been forthcoming. Besides, there are committees responsible for the running of the foundation and I am not too conversant with their activities. But this much I have gathered – the pledges are not forthcoming.
Talks about a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) are gaining momentum, but if it does become reality, will it change much, if anything?
I am aware of the position of a number of people, but what gets me wondering is this: if we have a parliament, it means the people elected them. So, if you have any ideas you want to bring about, why don’t you go through these people-elected individuals? What more superior authority can there be?
More so, who is going to convene the conference? Who will represent who? Who will select the people to represent and on what basis are we going to nominate people for that conference? My feeling is, if there are new ideas, they should be forwarded to the National Assembly.
Do you think our foreign policy needs a little ‘tweaking’?
Well, Nigeria has been extremely kind in this regard, to her own detriment. It is surprising that Nigeria was regarded as part of South Africa’s problem. She sent them aid, professionals, granted them scholarships and backed her a number of times. That is why we are always surprised when they do not pay back in kind.
Formerly, we were very good at ignoring all these things – like this yellow card issue: it has happened many, many times in the past and no one bothered – until now. Now, South Africa and all other countries will take note.
Nigeria, on the other hand, must look out. Any country which dishes out unsavoury treatment to our citizens anywhere in the world (the Britons, the Americans, the Asians) should get such back in kind. That is reciprocity.
Do you believe in the Boko Haram?
You see, everyone knows about the Boko Haram. Besides, some of our leaders are currently looking into how to resolve the debacle and going into it, for me, might not be too wise. All that has to be done now is either you defeat them or you dialogue with them.
The idea is this; dialoguing with them will be much better than trying to defeat them militarily. It is all in the interest of the nation, though most people are disappointed about the premature revelation of efforts being made to deal with the sect. Since it is all in the interest of the nation, we pray for it to go well.
What is your honest appraisal of the security situation within the country?
Not good, at all. As it is, we cannot expect any serious investor to come to Nigeria. People only come to where there is peace and stability, so that they both, themselves and the country can benefit. The bottom line is this: if there is no peace or stability, no one will come to Nigeria.
Many countries of the world are doing a lot to attract investors; we must not chase away those who have come to us to these countries who are putting their houses in order.