Ambassador of Nigeria in Cote d'lvoire, Mrs lfeoma Akabogu-Chinwuba Abiodun Ajala

The hitherto peaceful, serene and bubbly Cote d’Ivoire might have been forced to review its carefree disposition on the heels of last Sunday’s attack on Grand Bassam, a beach town, where about 18 people, including a Nigerian, Adekunle Sikiru, were reportedly killed. Were they expecting to be attacked? Yes. Were they prepared for it? Yes.

But did they have a clue it would be this soon? Maybe not! But on the whole, the Ivorian government has been generally acknowledged to have responded well as much as asserted itself against any form of external aggression. In this 22-minute interview with Okechukwu Uwaezuoke and Olawale Olaleye, Nigeria’s Ambassador to Ivory Coast, Mrs. Ifeoma Akabogu-Chinwuba gives an account of the attacks from the Nigerian perspective and how that singular development might have altered for good, the Ivorian attitude to life…

How did the Nigerian embassy receive the news of the attack?
Of course, we had more or less anticipated it and they didn’t give advance notice either that they were coming or not. We had expected it and we had beefed up security at our level. We’d also asked the host authority to help us beef up security in terms of diplomatic patrol – police patrol. We also know that Burkina Faso was recently attacked; Mali too, where a hotel was attacked.

And already, the government here had also expected that such a thing would happen too because of the high number of French people and high number of Lebanese too and the cooperation that exists between France and Cote d’Ivoire and in fact, in certain quarters, they say Abidjan is a new Paris – the African Paris. So, if attempts had been made in French Paris, you can expect that it would happen here too. So, that was how we received the news.

We have always felt that Nigeria has been at the receiving end of a lot of these terrorists attacks and people used to ask us and even make fun of it that, ‘ah, have you caught Shekau or what is his name’ and I used to tell them, ‘you are laughing; it is not a laughing matter’. What do terrorists want? Can you negotiate with them? At least, if they tell you what they want and if you cannot supply or provide it, then maybe you can react but, hey, nobody knows what they want.

It has happened here now because from nowhere, they just appeared and started shooting indiscriminately – blacks, white – it is now clear to everyone now that it is not by national boundaries and, every country has to team-up with the other and fight collectively.

President Buhari recently spoke about cooperation among ECOWAS countries on terrorism since it appears a regional problem. Do you think there is a need for a review of strategy to effectively contain the menace?

Certainly, it is widening the dragnet. There is the need to widen the dragnet now because more countries are being affected. Initially, it was concentrated in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger and so, it is normal for a nucleus of that multi-national force to be composed of. As the attacks are now widening and consuming the whole region, we have to also widen the dragnet. I read recently that Benin was willing to send some troops, of course, what does that tell you? It’s a collective and concerted action that we need.

I forgot to mention that eventually, on Monday, I was told that a Nigerian, Adekunle Sikiru, was killed in the attack. Yes, on that first day, it was not clear and we did not know who was who. Even when we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday and they told us of course, that there were four white-skinned and eight black-skinned but they did not tag their identities.

But already, we had been told that the consul was able to find out that a Nigerian was involved – lost his life in the attack and his body is still in the mortuary – he was a victim – a 25-year-old. His brother had to be led to the police station to identify his car too because he wasn’t staying at Grand Basaam but Abobo, somewhere in Abidjan here. I think he went to Grand Bassam to relax for the weekend. So far, that’s the only casualty we have from Nigeria – a 25-year-old young man, from Ejigbo Local Government in Osun State.

Do you have an idea why that particular location was attacked?
You can hazard a guess. It is a meeting point. It is a beach – sandy beach and very popular. I have also been there. When visitors come from Nigeria, weekends we take them there and get fresh fish and Ateke, this native food. There are huge number of expatriates there too, which I think they targeted – white people, French people and Europeans generally and Lebanese. And at that time, there were two or three major events in Abidjan. There was this MASA and the Children of Africa Gala by the First Lady here that took place on Friday night. Maybe there were still some people, who seized the opportunity to relax – spend another day or two or look around.

So, Grand Bassam is a very popular spot. So many small hotels and restaurants by the sea and it is Cote d’Ivoire’s first capital; Abidjan is the third because from Grand Bassam, they moved to Bingerville and Abidjan. It is also a UNESCO heritage site with very old buildings that can’t be demolished and renovated.

Again, why that particular hotel? What’ spectacular about the hotel that would have warranted the attack?

No, you don’t know what made them choose the hotel; it could have been any other place. The other beach is Assinie. Cote d’Ivoire has over two thousand waterways. Even in the city here (the centre) you see these beaches – Plateau here, Lagoon there – so, we don’t know what informed it except for maybe the expatriate community, which they like to target, like going to hotels, restaurants they are able to afford. The etoile du sud too, I have been there two or three times. I had a couple of friends, who came to spend their honeymoon here and we were there; we had lunch there and at the end, we took photos – you know, new couples taking photos by the pool and reclining bed. So, you can see.

Apart from the call you said the Nigerian president made to President Ouattara, in what other ways has the Nigerian government shown solidarity with Ivory Coast and her people?

Well, as you said, President Buhari has called his counterpart here, President Ouattara and sent the condolence of the government and people of Nigeria. I have also been to the foreign office to sign the condolence register; our flag is at half-mast and three days mourning had been declared (between last Monday and Wednesday). I have also called my friends in government – ministers, people – and also sent text messages to commiserate with them.

Would you say the relationship between Nigeria and Ivory Coast has improved because time was when there used to be this undertone of mutual suspicion between Nigeria and French-speaking countries?

You see, relations evolve – they are not static; they are always moving. Things are better now. They are on their ascendancy and still improving. We belong to so many organisations together and these are platforms for discussing issues. So, that era of mutual suspicion is gone. Now, if there is anything, you can bring it up and we’ll discuss it and sort it out. We also have a bi-national commission – it is bilateral – where you bring your ideas, I bring mine and we cooperate. We cooperate a lot now.

Before, we didn’t have direct flight to Lagos and Abuja but now we have. We have Arik Air that flies three times a week and it has helped to shorten the amount of time that we get from each other’s capital. And where there are direct flights that shorten the amount of time, it encourages interactions. That bilateral commission last met in Nigeria in 2013, August.

It was an opportunity for us to bring out all the areas we needed to cooperate and this year, the next one will be hosted by Cote d’Ivoire. It was to be hosted last year but of course, it was an election year here and they were involved in campaigns and couldn’t. But this year, they are going to host the next session of the Nigeria/Cote d’Ivoire bi-national commission.

And with these platforms, Preisdent Ouattara was in Nigeria twice last year. First was when President Buhari was elected, he went to congratulate him. In fact, three times last year. The second time when President Buhari called a mini-summit on Burkina Faso last year September, he was also there and then, for the ECOWAS 40th anniversary in December. Even at the emergence of AU meetings, they meet, they exchange ideas and talk. So, if there had been areas of suspicions, they would have ironed them out.

You have such suspicions when there are no meetings – when you keep thinking what you are thinking and I am thinking what I am thinking. But if we can meet often, we’ll iron it out. The relations are very cordial now – very fraternal and they can’t be otherwise because we have close to two million Nigerians living here in Cote d’Ivoire and so many generations – four, five, six generations – and they inter-marry. It is no longer one of friendship; it is family ties. So, when you have this mingling of blood, you can quarrel but of course, you have to make up and forge on.

Earlier, you corroborated what President Ouattara too said when he claimed they had expected the attack and were prepared for it. But you still cannot reconcile that with the palpable distraught on the faces of the people?
Yes, because it was the first time it is happening to them. So, from that perspective, people were surprised and wondering ‘why did this happen?’ But at the level of government, you know governments operate at another level from the masses. Many things like that happen, government is aware and they even exchange intelligence.

But at some point, we were told that the American embassy – you know sometimes they hear things and warn people or issue a travel advice and when they issue like that, government knows what it means. Two weeks ago, the Army had a simulation that if things like this happens, how do we react? This was two weeks ago and that’s why they were able to react and repel.

So, if you had that kind of simulation two weeks ago and another one last year, it means they were expecting maybe. Of course, they didn’t know the details of where it would happen, time and the terrain. But maybe because it happened in hotels in some other places, they concentrated there. But we don’t know. But here, you have the beach and so on.

You know when terrorists test the ground once, they keep coming. What is your personal safety like now, that of the embassy and Nigerians in general?
Well, terrorism is not a conventional warfare. You cannot say the enemy is coming from here, let me also wait for him here or meet him somewhere. You cannot. And they are part of us. They are in the market, on the road side and everywhere. So, I can only say that it is only the grace of God.

I lost a very good friend, Henrike Grohs, Director of the Goethe Institute. We were even planning and I was wondering because, this MASA (she was involved in MASA) and there is a Nigerian group, Adebantu with whom she had affinity. When I saw the German Ambassador on Monday, she said she (Henrike) took some artistes to stay behind after the MASA into the beach. I don’t think Adebantu was there but I lost a very good friend.

Another thing is, when I was speaking with somebody yesterday (Tuesday), the Belgian Ambassador, he was telling me, ‘thank God, it is not a simultaneous attack’, that they could have sent people to different places. I think the Chief of Assinie was saying he was also at the Beach on Sunday, in Assinie, another beach resort. He said if they had come to Assinie instead of Grand Bassam, they would have finished him.

So, we don’t know – it is the grace of God. But definitely, it means we have to curtail our movements, which is what they really want and Cote d’Ivoire is known for tourism as an important revenue generation sector of the economy and they are trying to hit at it by reducing the number of people going to the beach.

With the wave of terrorism in the region and considering the contiguity of the countries, is Nigeria particularly worried about what has happened here?
We don’t know what the terrorists are thinking; we don’t who is their next target; we don’t know how they see these things. But we realised it was not Boko Haram that struck here; it was Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. But we are not unaware that Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to ISIS, so I think we just have to be careful and we have to still further beef up our security at the embassy here. We have been writing to the foreign ministry to have a police patrol here at the embassy and the residence. We have written the foreign ministry which in turn gives it to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and nothing still.

But on Monday, when we went for the diplomatic briefing, the foreign minister said, oh yes, all the diplomatic missions, we will fortify, put police and I said, well, thank God he’s realised a need for it. But so far, we haven’t even received any yet because now policemen are all over the place. It has become a police state, really. Before, they were there just to control traffic at the peak – rush hours – and they go. But now you see them looking around and watching out for suspicious movements. We can only beef up security at our buildings and also in our personal habits now.

Lastly, what effect do you think this attack has had on the economy of the country, especially its tourism image and the psyche of the people?
Definitely, it will have an impact but we may not be able to measure it now because it is too soon to know all these economic indices from the benefit of hindsight. But really, with its effect even in other countries too, in Paris, when it happened, they felt that the economy has been affected – the tourism industry – and people were no longer coming. So, it is the same effect that it had in places where it has manifested. There was a carefree living here – people eating, drinking and going out – a lot of restaurants, even Marquee, the local restaurants that they call Marquee as against the French restaurants.

People have this outgoing lifestyle here and I suppose with this, they are going to think twice – maybe don’t go out too much or go quickly and come back.

Definitely, it will affect them but again, we are hoping the terrorists will have a rethink and be converted and come to the drawing table and state what they want. You are fighting with somebody you don’t know. You are sitting down eating your food and your neighbor comes out, hits you on the head and runs back and you don’t know what you have done to him. If he came and said, ‘why did you park your car, at least you can re-park or beg but he just comes and bombs half of your house and disappears again. It is difficult. It is not something you can negotiate.