After four years in Nigeria as the Public Affairs Officer and briefly as the Acting Consul-General of the United States Consulate General in Lagos, Dehab Ghebreab shares her experience with Davidson Iriekpen and Zacheaus Somorin. Excerpts
We can see that you are rounding up your four-year assignment in Nigeria and preparing for retirement. What has been your experience so far as a diplomat in Nigeria and other places that you have been to?
My background is in journalism. I have my first degree in Journalism and political science. My wish was to do what you do – being in the press – which I did for about seven years. I worked for Aljazeera newspaper in Washington DC. I was the head of the Bureau there then. I also worked for a magazine called The Mass Transit. I also worked for the United States Information Service where I handled exchange programmes. So at a point the US Information Service merged with the Department of State and I was at the Department of State handling exchange programmes for teachers.
Later I joined the Foreign Service for diplomatic work. So it has been diplomatic work all the way – as Consular Officer, Cultural Officer and Information Officer, among others. I feel very fortunate because I am a naturalised citizen of the United States. And you know that is one of the reasons why people perceived the US as the number one democracy in the world; just because of the diversities and opportunities and the rule of law that exist in the country. Most of the immigrants have been in the US for years, having been oppressed from where they were coming from, they were given equal opportunities to thrive, grow and become successful in the US.
That is because the US recognises and appreciates the diversity that exists in the country. So the US creates opportunity for you to become whatever you want to be. Hence, I benefited from that opportunity. And within the Department of State itself, you have the opportunity to develop yourself. I personally took the advantage of all the opportunities that came my way; so if you have the skill, potential, commitment, focus and dedication required, it would be easy to rise to the highest level you want and to grow. As at present, I am one of the five senior US diplomats in Nigeria. I feel that it has been a very wonderful journey for me.
So coming to Nigeria, my first assignment was in Abuja where I was Cultural Affairs Officer. And as Cultural Affairs Officer, I facilitated exchange programmes for Nigerians. It was a wonderful time working with women, children, empowering women and all that.
What would you consider as your most memorable moment in Nigeria?
There are many memorable moments that I would remember. Obviously, one of them is the 2015 general election. The US mission was fully involved in making sure that what the people wanted was guarded and upheld – ensuring that different forces should not be allowed to manipulate the process through violence or any other means. So from President Obama down to the working level people like me, we worked with young people, including women, to advocate for constructive engagement to say no to wherever corruption or bribery was taking place during the election. So for me, that experience was really invaluable.
Also, people coming to say they want change was also a great experience for me. In 2008, in the United States, we also had the same energy in our electoral process where people wanted change because they were moved by what was going on. So for me that was historic, especially for the fact that I was there to witness it closely, was something I would never forget. Aside that, I was involved with working day-to-day with different people. And being in Lagos, you have to understand what is going on in other states, because there are a lot of positive things going on in terms of governance. It is not an easy thing to govern.
We have seen developments in various locations across the country with over 100 universities to educate people. Where else in Africa can you have that? It doesn’t happen. I am also aware of the challenges that exist: challenges in terms of the poverty level that people face, power problem is also there. I also hear people complain that the educational standard has deteriorated compared to the past. All of these things, I think, need to be looked at. Sometimes, I have difficulty managing my time; like sometime travelling from here to Ikeja takes about two hours; and for me, that’s a lot because it takes me away from my productivity. So most times, due to all these, events and programmes start late.
Since you have been here, you must have had some practical experiences about how politics is played in Nigeria. What is your general perception of Nigerian politics?
Politics is played in different parts of the countries in different ways because of the cultural contexts of different countries. What I have observed is that politics is still at developmental stages in Nigeria. May be some of the things that exist in developed countries don’t exists here. One of the things I have seen here is the bribery that happens during elections – giving people money to buy their votes. I have not seen that happened in the United States. So in most cases, the trend has almost become acceptable and a way of life. It shouldn’t be that way.
What should happen is that the civil society should be more active. There should be civic education that would inform the people that it shouldn’t be that way. If the person that receives it is properly educated, he or she would say you are not going to buy my vote. But I believe that with time and developments, things would change.
For a short time, you acted as the head of the consular section. What was your experience in terms of many Nigerians applying for visa and the processes that are involved?
Yes, I acted as the head of the consular section here. What happens at the visa section is that we have been very proactive by reaching out to Nigerians via the media to inform those interested in travelling to the US for legitimate reasons like study, function or for tourism. We have been out there to inform people that they don’t need to hire touts to do that because it is a very simple process.
And we’ve had consular officers here and there talking on radio to inform people about this very simple process. If you have a legitimate thing to do in the United States, all you need to do is to follow the process. And there is a wrong perception out there that most of the people that apply for visa are refused. But the truth is that those that are issued visa are in the majority. If you have legitimate reason to travel, and you express yourself, why you are travelling, there shouldn’t be any problem. We are interested in people going to the US because you are going to spend money; and you’ll get to know more about our country.
What has been the level of the United States support to the Internally Displaces Persons (IDPs)?
There is a lot going on in terms of supporting the IDPs at the camps. USAID is rendering a lot of support in this area.
What is Mandela Washington Fellowship Programme all about and what has been the impact of the programme on the nation’s development?
The Mandela Washington Fellowship programme was initiated by President Barack Obama. Just after his visit to Ghana, he announced Young African Leaders Programme. I was in Liberia that time and selected young people to participate in the programme. President Obama travelled to Johanesburg, South Africa in 2012 where he announced the Mandela Washington Fellowship Programme which is in three categories: entrepreneurship, public service and civic leadership. In any society, you need to have these three tracks in order to move the community or the country forward.
You need proactive public service with good leadership to come up with policies that would help in advancing the country; you need entrepreneurs to tap the resource for the purpose of creating jobs, which all boils down to improving the economy for the general well-being of the populace.
The third part is civic leadership. Without civic leadership or the civil society, you cannot hold the government accountable; or the private sector accountable. So you need an educated citizenry to ask questions. And the media is also part of this.
When the civil society sees something wrong or illegal going on, they expose that because they are conscious of the fact such would not be beneficial to the society hence the need to challenge it. That is where Mandela Washington Fellowship comes in.
In 2014, we had 500 participants across Africa, with about 45 to 50 participants from Nigeria. Second time, the same number. Then the President announced that it should be doubled from a thousand across Africa with 100 from Nigeria. So we are having 100 Nigerians in the United States now doing their various tracks. At the end of the programme, they will be meeting with President Barack Obama where they would have opportunity to ask question about different issues including leadership. At the end of the programme, they are expected to give back to their various communities.
Just recently, the US Supreme Court blocked the Obama immigration plan. And last week about 40 Nigerians were deported from the US. Is there any link between the two incidences? And are we likely to see more deportation based on this?
I don’t think there is any link between the two because deportation takes a long process which includes serious investigation by the US immigration and customs and other law enforcement agencies. So it takes a long time for deportation to happen. But in terms of immigration in US, the issue is being hotly debated. It is a big issue; and a lot of discussion is on so that the government can come up with a comprehensive immigration plan. And it will continue because election is coming and campaign is on and that should be an issue for the American people to take a decision on.
In the United States now, we have a woman running as president. It is quite rare to have such in Nigeria. How do you think women can be more integrated politically in Nigeria and in Africa as a continent?
We have two African leaders who are women. Liberian President Sirleaf Johnson and Joyce Banda. So I think that is a good progress. So I think African women should learn from these two ladies and not to be intimidate but endeavour to move on. There are many African women here who are resilient, strong with so much energy. So with this, I am sure the situation will change soon.