This interview first appeared in the Saturday Nation on 23/4/2016.
Ambassador Tom Amolo leaves Nigeria after 3 years in what will be the shortest stint of his 33-year diplomatic career. He speaks here on ties between the two nations, and the need to adopt a Know Your Customer (KYC) attitude with regard to the Nigerian people. He carries back home the honorary title -UGO NDIGBO – bestowed on him by the Igbo community, which means ‘The eagle that looks after the interests of the Igbo people’.
KL: What are the 3 things that would summarize your time in Nigeria?
A: Very short, very rewarding and challenging.
There are many good things about Nigeria and its people, which mark them as the true leaders of Africa. In every engagement where African issues are being discussed, Nigeria always stands out. However there are the infrastructural challenges of water, electricity and petrol going on for many months. In many ways you wish Nigeria could better organize its homestead so it can better project and push Africa’s agenda.
KL: What is Nigeria’s perception towards Kenya?
AA: Very positive. When I began my mission in 2013, President Kenyatta had just been elected into office. Nigeria was one of the first countries to come out and congratulate us. Thereafter, when we needed their support on ICC issues they were ready to help us achieve our objectives. Former President Goodluck Jonathan once stated that he sees our relations as a fulcrum for the continent – Kenya in the East and Nigeria in the West.
President Buhari’s recent visit to Kenya was successful in many areas. He embraced us in our time of need after El Adde and shared a commitment to work towards a common cause in the fight against terrorism. Their body language towards us has always been warm.
KL: What can you say about the balance of trade between the two nations?
AA: The volume of trade is negligible; it doesn’t inspire us to say much. Our investment profile is mixed with large Nigerian institutions like GT Bank and United Bank of Africa (UBA) setting up shop in Kenya. Middle level businesses have also found openings to invest at home whether by sheer presence or in service oriented sectors, as is the case of Cellulant, a Nigerian/Kenyan business. The Dangote Group also seeks to invest $400 M in a cement plant but environment impact issues have slowed them down.
In my time we saw Kenya Airways launch its first direct flight to Abuja and we now have daily flights to this country. The national carrier has been in talks with Wakanow, Nigeria’s leading online travel portal but they are yet to conclude this.
We are working to overcome the political and economic challenges that inhibit increased trade. Our larger exports – tea, coffee and flowers have been challenged in that they appear on the list of things banned from forex in Nigeria. We had some negotiations during the Jonathan years but the new Finance Minister came in when I was already on my way out, so that dialogue needs to be reopened.
KL: Kenya has not really benefitted significantly from the partnership between the two. Why is this?
I would subscribe the lack of trade to the nervousness of Kenyan businesses as regards this country; they are too comfortable in East and Southern Africa, DRC and Rwanda. When I was coming to Nigeria my mother organized prayers for me because I was coming to work here. The prevailing psychology is that Nigeria is this hole where you go in and never come out. Our inherent cautiousness as regards West Africa impedes our ability to do business here. We need to ask why Nakumatt does not have presence here or why Bidco has not come up with a palm oil strategy for West Africa.
When President Buhari was in Kenya he urged us to make the agreements we have signed work. He wasn’t speaking to technocrats but to our businessmen and offered that we must have a special status certificate that allows us to do ease of business.
However, our business people need to be hungry and understand the Nigerian context. Our fresh flowers could bring us a lot of money if we sold even a quarter of them here. These flowers will however not be received with the same open arms as they are in the Netherlands; we have to push for and market them here. We must imbibe the business context here to survive and be more aggressive rather than retreat when faced with challenges.
KL: Nigeria has a rich, vibrant cultural heritage showcased through their art, music and more popularly, Nollywood. How can we increase and celebrate our cultural knowledge where they have succeeded?
AA: There are existing agreements with both Ministries of Culture where Nollywood is ready to help evolve content and train our people. It requires a huge dollop of faith and energy from our actors and actresses. They need to be asking where they can interface with the Nigerian actors guild to get into their programs on their own initiative. Where there is a problem we can ask the government to intervene. The creative angle needs to be enhanced to a level that works outside of government and attracts the support of business and other cultural entities. South Africa does this very well.
KL: How can we better create an interest for Kenya as a tourist destination among their big spenders?
AA: We must work on our KYC – Know Your Customer – because we have a real faulty perception of who the Nigerian tourist is. Nigerians don’t want to come to look at animals, they want a place where they can relax, have fun, shop or go to the beach. Our planes leave here full of passengers going to Zanzibar which is the’ premier choice for destination weddings today. Brand Kenya, which is in charge of this needs to engage those on the ground so we can conquer the West African market. We must also ensure Kenya Airways offers competitive advantage in terms of pricing and quality of the flights we bring.
KL: What will you miss most about Nigeria?
AA: Definitely the people and their openness, they say it like it is and you never second-guess their intentions towards you. I will miss their ability to share openly about their ambitions and energy to surmount challenges without the help of government. Here, there is no ‘serikali saidia’. Finally, their large and diverse diaspora that has been in the forefront of breaking barriers.