Nigerian High Commissioner to Benin Republic, Ambassador Lawrence Obisakin is a man of many parts. He’s a diplomat and a linguist who speaks 13 international languages with residual knowledge of Latin, Greek, French and Portuguese. He is an author. Before his appointment as Nigerian envoy to Benin Republic, he served at the Nigerian Embassy in different capacities in Switzerland, Brazil, and Israel. In this interview with Ajayi Oluwapelumi, he reveals the challenges facing envoys abroad, as far as Nigerian immigrants are concerned. Excerpt
One of the major goals of Nigerian ambassadors is to attract foreign investment to Nigeria. What are the possible investment areas that Nigeria could explore in the Republic of Benin?
There are many investment opportunities Nigeria can explore. First, the Republic of Benin is unique. The only thing that’s incontrovertible and permanent is that factor of neighbourliness. Nigeria remains a neighbour to Benin Republic and as such, to the Western francophone of Nigeria, ranging from Badagary to Kebbi State.
You can change your exporter or importer, but you cannot change your neighbour. So, the best thing is to start a dialogue with them and to explore the opportunities that are available to us. The basic principle in trading is relative advantage. Nigeria has a population advantage and Benin Republic has a huge advantage there too because there’s peace and stability. They depend mostly on Nigeria because of our population and because of historical reasons – remember that Benin used to be part of Oyo Empire, that’s the Central and Southern part of Benin, reaching to the shores of Togo and Borgu Empire; covering the area of Niger State, part of Kwara to the Central part of Benin.
The question is: what attracts Republic of Benin to Nigeria in terms of investment and how can Nigeria benefit from Benin Republic? According to President Boni Yayi, Nigeria represents 90 per cent of market of Benin Republic. Out of 100 cars import to Benin, 90 find their way to Nigeria and that’s why Nigeria must know what is going on in Benin Republic and must make sure that nothing wrong takes place there because there’s a proverb that says if your neighbour is eating raw meat and you don’t caution him of the consequences, if he starts coughing severely at night, you also will not sleep.
According to your statistics, what is the population of Nigerian residents in Republic of Benin?
It’s difficult to state in specifics, but the President of Benin himself said 55 per cent of Benin people are Nigeria related, that they are either Nigerians or Nigerian descendants. You can imagine their ministers and other public office holders bearing names like Adebayo, Abimbola, Arifari, etc. These, obviously, are Yoruba names.
What are the challenges facing Nigerian residents in Benin Republic?
I can classify them into three and they are challenges every foreigner faces when you cross the border of your country. When Nigerians want to leave the shores of Nigeria to another country, they must be prepared. Many people traveling out of Nigeria always think there’s Golden Fleece somewhere so they want to go and get it, neglecting proper procedures they must follow. For example ECOWAS protocol provides that you can move freely for 90 days in any part of ECOWAS territory but you must have valid international passport. But what we experience daily is a situation whereby Nigerians are crossing the border to Benin Republic with driver’s licence this is not in anyway valid and illegal.
I always tell them that Benin Republic is another country. It may be close to Nigeria, but it is a different country which has its own laws. French is the official language. Travel document is a problem for Nigerians coming to Republic of Benin which should not be. We hope that very soon, the Nigerian immigration will come and re-instate issuance of international passport in Benin Republic, where we have got about four million Nigerians, including people who are Nigeria related. So, we want the Nigeria immigration to take up their responsibility, because we are the coordinator of Nigeria policy, and passport is an international document.
Another problem is a psychological problem. An average Nigerian believes that anytime he travels outside his country, he will make it big. Meanwhile, today in Africa, Nigeria is one of the richest, most attractive countries to do business in the world because we have the population and the market is there, and that’s one of the reasons why Benin Republic needs us more. Their population is just 9.5 million by 2012 estimate, while Nigeria population is about 170 million. Nigeria GDP per capital is $2,600, while Benin Republic is $1,600.
Another issue, we have is with Nigerians carrying huge money across the border. For those who are business people, they can transfer their money. We have about three Nigerian banks in Benin Republic.
What’s your relationship like with the Nigerian community in Benin Republic?
First and foremost, I am a people person and don’t forget that I am also a pastor, by calling. So, I am very close to the Nigerian community in Benin Republic and I try as much as possible to be physically present at their events. Some weeks ago, I went to the Northern part of the Country call Mallam V, when the Nigerians there saw me, they were astonished and said “we saw a Nigerian ambassador last 15 years ago.” It took me three days to get there. You can imagine.
Across the world and West Africa, to be specific, we have a situation whereby Nigerians are topping the list of foreigners in prisons. What’s the case like in Benin Republic?
First, we have to credit our leader for leading about 170 million people. If you are given five people to manage, you will be able to manage them and their activities perfectly, but if I give one person 5,000 people to manage, you won’t even know when they brush their teeth. So, let’s credit President Goodluck Jonathan for giving us the peace we have. About two or three weeks ago, we had about 200 Nigerians in Benin Republic prison. Offenses committed by these prisoners range from armed robbery, narcotic and most of them have forgotten that Benin is a small country and they are more than prepared against crime than ever.
But what we want is to negotiate a way of exchanging prisoners. This is a situation where Nigerian prisoners can serve their jail term in Nigeria but one also begins to ask if Nigeria also wants to add to the ones they have. But our ultimate goal is to make sure that no Nigerian goes to jail unjustly. Usually, a diplomat is not supposed to show he’s annoyed, but sometimes when I feel Nigerians in Benin are maltreated, I stand against it because I am permitted by my president to be angry at the maltreatment of Nigerians.