Professor Iyorwuese Hagher, Senator, and former two-time Minister and former Ambassador of Nigeria to Mexico and High Commissioner to Canada

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The Citizens Center for International Relations Research (RICC), and the Embassy of Israel in Nigeria played host to a One-Day Symposium on “Nigeria-Israeli Relations: Focus on SMEs, Agriculture and Solid Minerals,” on Thursday, 3rd March, 2016 at the NICON Luxury Hotel, Abuja. Professor Iyorwuese Hagher, Senator, and former two-time Minister and former Ambassador of Nigeria to Mexico and High Commissioner to Canada, chaired the occasion. The lead speakers, presenters and discussants, included Professor Peter Akper of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and Dr. Ike Willie-Nwobu of the Nigeria-Israeli Chamber of Commerce, Ambassador Chive Kaave, Princess Ebun Oladunni, and Senator JKN Kyaku.

The symposium, which Dr. Cletus Akwaya, the Director General of the RICC, says is meant to contribute to national economic development, is noteworthy for four main reasons: timeliness, because of current efforts aimed at how to diversify the economy; topicality of the issue, because the subject matter is what the global community has been prescribing to developing countries to consider as a possible instrument for national development; quality of attendance, because of the high-level technocrats, seasoned farmers, leading scholars and representatives of SMEs that attended; and concrete expression of Citizen Diplomacy as defined by Chief Ojo Maduekwe.
The RICC has not only given expression to Nigeria’s Citizen Diplomacy, but has also gone beyond with the organization of the symposium. As explained by Professor Iyorwuese Hagher, who is also the Chairman of Council of the (RICC), ‘the Center’s cardinal objective is to make the citizens the ‘chief drivers’ of the nation’s foreign policy. This entails giving the citizens a voice (on) how our foreign policy is formulated and executed.’ This objective, without jot of doubt, is a componential factor of Nigeria’s citizen diplomacy. The symposium is commendable.

The Dynamics
Without doubt, Israelo-Nigerian relations are warm. The epicentral dynamic on which the relations since 1960 has been predicated is the readiness of Israel to relate with Nigeria and share her development experiences with Africa, in general, and particularly Nigeria. A second dynamic is the factor of Israelo-Arab dispute over the Palestinian question. A review of Nigeria’s relations with the Arab world and the State of Israel since 1960 has shown much of political partisanship on the side of the Arab world, and therefore necessarily to the detriment of Nigeria’s economic interests in Israel. Even when Nigeria had to strain her diplomatic ties with Israel because of the Palestinian cause in 1973, Egypt, who was championing the struggle in Africa, went to Camp David in the US in 1978 to sign an agreement settling the dispute with Israel, but without any due regard or reference to Nigeria before embarking on the action.

In fact, Nigeria has voted more than 90% on the side of the Arabs at the United Nations, majorly because of the belief in fairness and justice. Nigeria considers that it is fundamentally wrong to have provided a place for the Jews by creating the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 as a follow up to the 1917 William Balfour Declaration, and none, up till the present time, to the Palestinians, who actually have a legitimate claim to the land from which the State of Israel has been carved out. It was only of recent that, at the UN Security Council, when the State of Palestine was to be unilaterally declared that Nigeria abstained from voting for or against the resolution that would have enhanced the status of the Palestinian struggle.

A third dynamic is the Annual Christian Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As at today, over 20,000 Nigerian pilgrims go to Jerusalem. This largely enhances in a positive manner the perception of Israel in Nigeria. This raises a fourth dynamic which is related, economic and technological perception of Israel in Nigeria: Israel has the highest engineer per capita worldwide, the highest ratio of mobile telephone per head, and the second Silicon Valley (chief elementary constituent of the earth’s crust) after that of the US. In this regard, Mr. Yair Frommer noted when Nigeria and Israel embarked on a multibillion naira Desert Feed Programme in 2007 that Israelis did not ‘have oil or other resources but … have shown the world that desert is not a threat but an opportunity and today many farmers back home are reaping the benefits..’ As he further put it, ‘if this can work in Israel, there is no way it cannot work in Nigeria that is naturally blessed with (good) climatic conditions and human resources.’ (The Guardian, 13-06-2007, p.1).

A fifth dynamic is consultative briefing. Prof. Naomi Chazan, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (National Parliament) came to commend the democratic reforms in Nigeria, reinforce ties with the new administration and set in motion mechanism for establishing parliamentary diplomacy, as well as brief the authorities on the situation in the Middle East. Another instance is the visit of the Israeli Deputy Head of Mission, Yair Frommer to the director General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Mr. Olusegun Runsewe in February 2007. Mr. Frommer said ‘Nigerians are some of the most hospitable people in the world and this attitude is always good in the promotion of tourism.’ (The Guardian, 11-05-2000, p.11 and 27-02-2007, p.39). In fact, in the past three years, the incumbent Ambassador of Israel in Nigeria, H.E. Mr. Uriel Palti, visited the NIIA thrice for diplomatic briefing, consultative briefing and lecture on Nigeria-Israeli relations. A sixth dynamic is the factor of science and technology to promote agriculture. About 3 to 4% of the Israelis actually feed the whole country and are still able to provide for export, thanks to technology.

The Cooperation
All these dynamics combine, under a willing attitudinal disposition of Israel to share her knowledge and experience with others, to explain the political entente, the economic and technico-technological cooperation between the two countries. For instance, a joint venture integration farming agreement was signed in 2002. The project’s cost was $10 million and the government of Nigeria had 85% equity participation. The project was to cover 400,000 hectares of land. Nigeria’s belief was that the project would stem the annual food wastage of more than 40% of agricultural produce lost to inadequate storage facilities.

In March 2004, the Federal Government and the Hovev Agriculture Limited agreed on the establishment of a joint agricultural development venture aimed at setting up export-orieted farms and agro-processing outlets in all the geo-political zones in Nigeria. As explained by the then Minister of State for Agriculture and rural development, Chief Bamidele Dada, the farms in the South West, located in Saki, would be producing quality and high quality uield vegetables like tomatoes, bazil and chive potatoes, bell pepper and high yield fruits such as mangoes, citrus, pine apples and cashew (Nigerian Tribune, 10-03-2004, p.17). It was also in 2004 that the Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Noam Katz, pledged the assistance of his country in regaining Nigeria’s lost glory in the area of agriculture through training and re-training programmes (The Guardian, 25-11-2004, p.61).

In 2005, Israel offered assistance to Nigeria in the area of beekeeping as a possible major revenue earner for Nigeria in the foreseeable future. The Israeli Centre for International Cooperation (MASHAV), in collaboration with Maizuble Farms in Nigeria, commenced the pilot project in 2005. As noted by Ambassador Noam Katz, ‘ad big business, we should look at the hive’s products-honey for export, especially since Nigeria has the potential to produce organic honey which is highly valued in the foreign markets. We should look at wax and propolis as important commodities for industry and with a special value to the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.’ (The Guardian, 19-09-2005, p.80).

In 2006, at the technical and technological levels, both countries began initial talks aimed at establishing an African Resource Satellite Constellation. Nigeria, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa were to coordinate the project. In this particular regard, Israel pledged support for the Nigerian Space Project, especially in terms of training engineers in Israel and exchanging information on satellite building and manufacture.

It was only in 2008 that both countries initiated talks on the possibility of Israeli esperts training Nigerian SMEs on relevant skills when Israeli ambassador, Mr. Moshe Ram paid a courtesy visit to Prof. Longmas Wapmuk, the DG of the Industrial Training Fund. On October 28, 2013 both countries signed a Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA). This was historic (Nigerian Tribune, 20-11-2013, p.20). An MOU to boost knowledge transfer in micro irrigation farming, horticulture, livestock production, aquaculture mechanization and sustainable land management was done on March 14, 2015 in Abuja. From the foregoing, it is clear that little attention has been given to the development of SMEs.

The symposium
Ike Willie-Nwobu said Nigeria’s definition, model and operation of SMEs are not only wrong but also that agriculture is misunderstood and solid minerals are abused and terrorised. Additionally, he said ‘our SME is academic, religious, bureaucratized, limited on the visible and productive process/projects … Our solid mineral sector is an embarrassment. We are extremely lucky that we are just limited to issues of abuse, economic crime, sabotage, and stealing.’

More disturbingly, he also had it that there is a lack of vibrate SME, ‘our solid mineral is a bazaar without appropriate prize’ and therefore, there is ‘no documentation, research and projection which creates environment health security.’ In light of this, he recommended an Israeli model of development: industrial park/agro-processing zone; innovation relay centre; export village; incubation centre; small business development centre; entrepreneurship centre; and technology parks. By so doing, Nigerians cannot but have the benefit of population management, new town development, employment creation, poverty reduction, skill development, resource mobilisation, housing recreation, and assurances of security and defence.

Even though the Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, Hajia Aisha Abubakar, represented at the symposium by Engineer Mrs. Omotanwa Awobokun, Director at the Industrial Development and Inspectorate Department, described the importance of SMEs as ‘relative,’ she actually provided alternative views to the position of Willie-Nwobu by reminding us of the 2013 report on the MSMEs sector survey, according to which ‘there are over 37 million MSMEs employing over 59.7 million persons (representing 84.02% of the workforce), contributing 48.47% to the GDP and 7.27% to exports. MSMEs constitute over 97% of businesses in Nigeria. Therefore, special attention is given to the sector by way of providing the enabling environment and addressing the challenges besetting their operation in the country.’

In fact, she also reminded of the SMEDAN (Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria) established in 2003, which collaborates with local and international development partners within the public and private sectors. She mentioned the NCMSMEs (National Council on MSMEs) which guides and coordinates the establishment of strategies and policies for the wholesome support of MSMEs development in Nigeria and the NEDEP (National Enterprise Development Programme) which was launched in February 2014.

She reminded of the revised National Policy of Government on MSMEs which has been produced to ensure the institution of a robust policy framework for the creation of an enabling environment and the commencement of the redevelopment of the 23 Industrial Development Centres (IDCs) to MSME Clusters to be implemented on Public Private Partnership (PPP) basis.

On solid minerals, she also reminded of Nigeria’s ‘vibrant population of over 170 million; land mass of 923,768 sq km of which 33% is arable and Nigeria’s diversified solid minerals, 35 of which are of commercial quantities: limestone, iron ore, gypsum, phosphate rock, bauxite and kaolin. Consequently, in light of the foregoing, considering Nigeria’s oil and gas with a proven natural gas reserve of over 185 trillion cubic feet; and petroleum oil reserves of about 37.2 billion barrels, thus making Nigeria the 8th in the world in the order of ranking, the position of the Minister necessarily negates the viewpoint of Willie-Nwobu. The conflict in position may be traceable to communication gap between Government and the Nigeria-Israeli Chamber of Commerce. However, why is it so?

In fact, the regulatory dimension is another issue. Barrister P.T. Akper, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, provided an overview of the regulatory regime for mining investments in Nigeria. In terms of environment, he noted that there has been increased awareness of the potential of the solid minerals sub-sector, especially by Government, as a viable alternative source of foreign exchange and revenue earnings. He noted that the role of Government is to regulate and that ownership and control of minerals is vested in the Government of the Federation Section 1(1) NMMA, 2007, state mineral rights system, under which the duration of reconnaissance permit is one year, duration of exploration license is 3 years but renewable for two further terms of two years and under which the maximum area allowed does not exceed 200 sq km.

For small scale mining lease, the duration is 5 years but renewable for a further duration not exceeding 5 years at a time and the area must not exceed 3 sq km. Mining lease has a duration of 25 years renewable every 24 years and the area covered must not exceed 50 sq km. For quarry license, the duration is 5 years maximum and the area must not exceed 5 sq km while the water use permit has its duration tied to the validity of other titles.

Barrister Akper also reminded of the many incentives in the mining sector: a capital allowance of 95% of the qualifying expenditure incurred; exemption from customs duties and other benefits, especially in terms of plants, machinery and other equipment and accessories imported for mining operation; retention and the use of earned foreign exchange; free transferability of funds; tax relief period for 3 years from the time of commencement of business; deductibility of environmental cost; as well as application of Foreign Exchange Miscellaneous Act and the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission Act.

But beyond SMEs and Solid Minerals, little emphasis is placed on the development of SMEs and solid minerals to grow and develop Israelo-Nigerian relations, especially in light of the serious gaps in skills acquisition in the development of national resources. This is a missing link that should be addressed. There is the need to also bring the political and the economic relations to the same level, in which case there will not be management of one to the detriment of the other. This reminds one of what Professor George A. Obiozor, former Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and former Nigeria’s Ambassador to the State of Israel (1999-2003), said in 2011 about Israel’s relations with Africa: ‘African leaders allow themselves to be victims of sentiments and conduct international relations as if they were attending Red Cross conventions or playing the Good Samaritan. They lose themselves and their goals getting involved in other people’s problems, often coming out like Aaron: empty handed, no gratitude and no reward for their efforts.’ When will this be stopped?