Andrew Fleming, is deputy head of Political Section at the British High Commission. He has spent only three years in the country-years he describes as the best of his life. As he prepares to leave Nigeria he proves in this interview with Catherine Agbo, that he has acquired a deep knowledge of the country, its people and their ways of life.
How long have you lived in Nigeria?
I have been here in your amazing country for three years, the best three years of my life I might add. I am very soon going to leave and am dreadfully sad about that.
What was your first reaction when you got the news that you were coming to Nigeria?
Well, I applied for this job. It was the job I most wanted among those I had applied for in different parts of the world and so I was absolutely thrilled to get it. It would be a fib if I said my wife acted the same way but to be fair to her, from the moment she stepped off the plane she fell in love with the place too.
How has it been since you came?
My previous answers already allude to the fact I have had a great time. And I have. But I want to be clear, this is not to say Nigeria is perfect. Clearly it is not, clearly many people lead lives that are incomprehensible to people living in my country. Far too many people go hungry, far too many children are not in school, far too many talented young people lack employment commensurate with their education and ability, far too many young girls are forced into the marriage route too early. And I can of course go on but won’t. What I will say though, is that without playing down any of these and other challenges, if you are open and free with people they return that in abundance and in a way to be frank is not common in my own country. I can travel to work (one hour by bus and train) and not get a smile or acknowledgement from anyone. In Nigeria, it is impossible to walk on the street for two minutes without a smile and a greeting. The culture of greeting gets things off to a good start – and it is a lesson I learnt very early after I failed to greet a policeman I needed something from and was rightly given a dressing down. But that is just the start, the wonderful interactions you can have, the amazing culture, the beauty of the countryside which I have come to love, thanks to my regular hikes.
Describe a Nigerian based on your perception
Do you mean what I expected before I came? Really, I did not have a massively high level of expectation – I have spent time in 14 of the ECOWAS countries in previous work and had visited Abuja twice in 2010. I was not too keen, I remembered a lot of dust, a lot of contraction and a lot of heat. It really was not the best of my trips. So I expected it to be a lot tougher this time around, especially as there had been security issues in Nigeria immediately before my arrival in 2014. But I found that the city had matured and grown in a positive way overall. It is still not the real Nigeria but it is the Nigeria my family and I have come to call our home. Beyond Abuja and Lagos, I expected life to be hard and it clearly is for most. The disparity between the rich and poor is very visible in some places, in others, especially rural Nigeria, life is tough generally as it is across most of the sub region. But at the same time, the smiles and the genuine warmth and hospitality I found elsewhere and expected to find here is indeed here in abundance. Indeed, the warmth when you get off the beaten track is quite mind blowing. But my own perception is a far cry from many in the UK and worldwide. This saddens me and is something I have tried to set out to change in a small way in all my interactions. In the past few months, these efforts have really taken off on social media and led to the creation of the #visitNGsoon brand which many have bought into. Some think it is about tourism but it is as much about business, investment, and prompting the rich opportunities this country has. Most of my visitors have a pretty negative perception when they come for the first time and I think without fail, all have left with an improved image and some have really joined me in trying to champion Nigeria. And that is something I will continue to do once I have left.
What’s your favourite location in Nigeria?
I have been to 20 states, the overwhelming majority southern (there are only three states in the South I have not visited). So I have lots of favourites but let me pick a city, which has to be Aba and a rural location which has to be Obudu Cattle Ranch. Aba reminds me of Liverpool in the 80s. Unloved and with an awful name but if you were ‘brave’ enough to go and learn about it and engage its people a place of amazing dynamism, creativity and energy with wonderful, warm and friendly people. And in a nutshell, that is Aba. In 1960, it was a thriving port city with as many as 30 British businesses, some of the huge warehouses remain on the no longer navigable waterside. But the markets and tiny workshops continue to be a hive of industry. Leather work is especially good. In the last couple of years the #MadeInAba brand has taken off and it is great to see the Acting President is a strong advocate. So for the future I am hopeful. Obudu is simply one of the most beautiful places on earth. I am told that Taraba has even more stunning scenery but people would pay a lot of money to come and hike the hills around Obudu. When I post photos, people even Nigerians, are shocked it is in Nigeria. The ranch has been neglected in terms of maintenance, a curse that repeats all over Nigeria. The dairy farm that produced lovely cheese and yogurt has shut down. The tourist experience is not great. But it would not take a lot to turn all this around and make this an awesome place that attracts huge numbers of tourists, domestic and international. I love Lagos to visit and really think it could, should and one day will be a tourism centre. It is ideal for weekend breaks, no further from London than Dubai. The visa process just needs to be made more user-friendly and infrastructure improved to make for a better customer experience but while people say that won’t happen in my life time, I think it can and will.
What’s your favourite local meal and drink?
I am not much of a meat eater to be honest so I like fish dishes best. Fish suya (when you can find it), grilled croaker and even cat fish pepper soup (accompanied by swallow of course) are among my favourites. My wife thinks I am too fat so I do not eat a lot of rice but if I do, Nigerian Jollof is of course the best. Favourite drinks are Star, Harp, Hero, More (my favourite name if not taste is – “More Lager Beer”), Gulder, Nigerian Guinness, Castle Milk Stout (which I am quite fond of) and a brew from the South-south the name of which eludes me but I have never found outside the Delta. However, if I have a choice, I ditch the beer these days and go for Orijin.
What do you like about Nigeria and Nigerians?
I have already said a lot about this. Warmth, friendliness, openness are all qualities I admire in any human interaction and they exist in abundance in this country. I also think for the most part, and again contrary to the perception of many globally, Nigerians are very honest. I am clumsy with my things but I am always having people come running after me. There are many other parts of the world where this would not be the case.
Your most memorable moment living in Nigeria so far?
Professionally it is the elections of 2015. I was in Akwa Ibom but I led on organising the British observation teams in 13 states and I believe we made a real impact through this work. It is indeed not just a Nigerian but a career highlight. Personally, it was probably a trip I made to a village in the South-east of Anambra to attend the traditional wedding of a dear friend and colleague. My local colleagues here are awesome by the way.
What will you miss about Nigeria when you leave?
I have made many wonderful friends and believe I have at least one friend I will keep in touch with from every state in Nigeria (some many more). So I will miss each of them and people in general. For me it is always people who make a place.
What’s your opinion of the fashion sense of Nigerians?
Ah, this is something I will miss too. Nigerian dress and ladies’ hair are two big industries here and rightly so. And when it comes to dress, it is as much for men. I am a passionate believer in #DressUpFriday when many colleagues wear their finest local attires. I think it is great to join in, I have made many outfits as have my family. My dear local staff even did an Aso Ebi for my imminent departure and managed to get me into an outfit and then shock me by all appearing somewhere in the same cloth. I was deeply touched by their gesture.
You’re passionate about football, did you watch a Nigerian league game?
I am indeed. Before I answer that can I make a plea that games get better advertised? It is a shame for diplomatic fans that the capital has no top clubs but there are games played here occasionally and almost always, the first I know is when the report is in the paper. I would watch the ladies, club sides playing confederation cup ties or anything. As it is I go up Mpape Hill or out to Kubwa and scout for action – the only action I have ever seen at the old stadium is a rugby match. But yes, I went to see Rangers International of Enugu beat Gombe United 2-1 quite recently. I even took our High Commissioner, H.E. Paul Arkwright, a fellow football fan and someone who at the conclusion of this interview, I would like to personally thank for his help, support.