Will Stevens is the United States Consul General at the U.S Consulate General in Lagos. As an experienced Foreign Service Officer with overseas experience in South Africa, Russia, Turkmenistan, Israel, and Belarus, as well as experience in Washington at the Foreign Service Institute, the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and the Bureau of African Affairs, he brings to bear his years of experience to Nigeria in articulating, championing and integrating US policies and interests. In this interview with Chiemelie Ezeobi, he discussed the role of US government in the forthcoming 2023 General Elections, the issue of insecurity in Nigeria, engagement with youths and creatives, and contribution to the fight against Gender and Sexual Based Violence, as well as how the US Government needs to position itself to be Nigeria’s partner of choice over the next century
For Will Stevens, the United States Consul General, his three-year tour of duty in Nigeria, which began roughly six months ago, was a dream come through.
Initial Perception, Expectations about Nigeria
As at the last count, he has been in Nigeria for the last six months. On what his initial perception of Nigeria was, he said he always wanted to work in Nigeria, especially after seeing the success of the Nigerian diaspora in the US.
“I begged for this job. I tried so hard to get it and it’s met and exceeded my expectations.”
Portfolio in Nigeria
During his three-year tour of duty in Nigeria, his job encompasses overseeing 17 states in Nigeria for the US Government. To do this, he said he works for hand in glove with Mary Beth Leonard, the US ambassador, whom he described as an amazing mentor and one of the most experienced ambassadors in the world.
“It’s a great opportunity to work with her and under her leadership and work on engagement with Nigeria,” he added.
On what his career as a foreign service officer entails, he said they work at USA Embassies and promote US interests, adding that it that can “be everything from being an officer in the consulate section to helping American citizens, and issuing visas to people who want to travel to the USA, to working in the political economy section- understanding the political economy context of the country we are working in.
“I spend a lot of time doing public diplomacy, public affairs, exchange programmes and working in the media, articulating US policies to foreign audiences and helping people understand what we are about and why we exist.”
But also as Consul General, he works across all the USA agencies and tries to integrate them to achieve their national security objectives based on security cooperation, economic growth and development, and governance and democracy.
Priorities in Nigeria as Consul General
For him, his priorities are quite simple but slightly different from those in the North-east due to the peculiarities of the region.
On the above listed priorities he said: “Those are still our priorities here because some of the issues which my colleagues in Abuja and the North-east face, we don’t face here. So we have much more business sector based in Lagos, and tech sectors as well as the creative sector.”
Youth, Creative Engagements
Beyond the consular work, Stevens also champions engagement with the youth, creatives and even the tech sector.
On this, he said: “It’s everything from helping to bring in American investors and highlighting the things Americans are doing. We fully support the AFRIFF Film festival. We have Netflix, Disney, and Amazon all coming in and debuting American-supported films, Nigerian films or other African films here at the festival.
“That means investment. We are looking at it as a Nigerian export. They are producing content for streaming platforms but that’s not the only thing.
“We are also working hand in hand with our American centres to support things like the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs where we help young female entrepreneurs figure out how to take their businesses out of the ideation and start their business, get mentored to supporting people like girls in tech, tech women, exchange programmes like the ones you’ve been on (International Visitors Leadership Programme). We just build connections with the USA.”
Contributions to Fight against Gender and Sexual Based Violence
Laudable is the consulate’s work in championing the fight against Gender and Sexual Based Violence. During the recently commemorated 16 Days of activism against Gender and Sexual Based Violence, the Consul General personally joined a march across the Lekki bridge.
“It’s something we support greatly,” he said, adding that “gender-based Violence is an element of our health program. One of the biggest sectors of USA financing in humanitarian assistance comes to Nigeria and it’s almost half a billion a year.
“It’s about combating HIV/AIDS, some focus on preventing or responding to gender-based violence and that means making sure women and girls are empowered to prevent it or report it when it happens”.
However, he said almost all these go through the local society, and NGOs- “supporting and helping them do the work they do. So you won’t see us out there saying look what we are doing, you’ll see local organisations doing exactly that”.
African Leaders Summit
On the recently held African Leaders Summit, he said it was an opportunity for Nigerians to engage with President Biden; Vice President Harris; Secretary Blinken and a variety of cabinet officials and USA business leaders about the future of the US business.
According to him, it was a chance to highlight President Biden’s strategy in Africa, “which is a little bit of a shift in resourcing as it hasn’t changed in years but in how we talk about the partnership. We use the term African solution to African problems and what we are talking about is helping to elevate African problems to solutions.”
Ultimately, he believes that the “USA needs to figure out how we can position ourselves to be Nigeria’s partner of choice over the next century”.
To achieve this, he aligns with President Biden, who is already working on rebuilding partnerships with African nations including Nigeria to address issues like climate change, food insecurity, the brutal invasion of Ukraine and the violation of some of the basic UN ethos, as well as the decline across the continent and the world.
Controversy over US Security Alert in Nigeria
Last year, in November, to be precise, the US government issued a terror alert for Abuja, advising its citizens to exercise caution, an action that generated controversy. While some argued that the embassy shouldn’t have made it public without recourse to Nigeria’s security agencies, others also posited that the alert infringed on Nigeria’s sovereignty.
While the Consul General admits that the US Government shares the same value of protecting their respective nation’s sovereignty, he however believes they owe its citizens the duty of care, especially to share information that will be useful to their well-being.
But beyond this, he said each time they have leading information, they not just share with its citizens but also with Nigeria’s security agencies, as well as their NGO partners on a regular basis. He added that they have a robust partnership with Nigeria on security.
Role of US Government in 2023 Elections
On the role of the US Government in the forthcoming 2023 General Elections, he succinctly stated that they do not support any party, instead, their interest is supporting credible transparent and peaceful elections to reflect the world.
He however charged Nigerians to reject the use of violence and language before, during and after the elections. “When we say all Nigerians, we mean politicians, candidates, students, religious and traditional community leaders, youth, and social organisations.
“Everyone has a role to play because even a small number of troublemakers can cause havoc. So it’ll take a comprehensive effort to eliminate the use of violence in the elections.”
On other parts of support the US government is channeling for the election, he said though technical assistance and ICT support for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and civil society organisations, they hope to encourage voter participation.
Wielding the Big Stick for Electoral Offenders
When asked what punitive measures they will apply for defaulters, he said “any individual seeking to undermine the democratic process through violence may be found ineligible for visa movements. We’ve imposed visa restrictions in the past against those responsible for or complacent in undermining the democratic process and we are willing to do so again.
“There are a variety of tools the United States has at its disposal, one of which is visa bans. I don’t like to speculate about hypothetical or what happened but we’ve heard over and over again that the visa ban is a powerful tool for those people that want to go to the United States.”
Continuously, the US has proven to one of the places where corrupt politicians and civil servants squirrel off stolen money gotten from Nigeria’s commonwealth, especially through purchase of properties.
But Stevens said already, President Biden has made the fight against corruption a core part of their security when he released the first-ever USA strategy on Countering Corruption. This he said emphasises better understanding and taking steps of reducing the ability of these people to use the USA and others to hide assets, and launder the proceeds of corrupt acts.
He said: “We are here in Nigeria with organisations like the EFCC to bring individuals to justice. We offer technical assistance and training, and cooperate with Nigerian officials to find evidence of assets.
“Just last month we announced the return of 3.5 million dollars that’s in addition to those returned over the years. So these assets can be stolen and together through legal proceedings, we can make sure such things are stopped.”
Partnership in Tackling Security Threats
Giving the insecurity challenges faced by Nigeria, especially with terrorism, he reiterated that they have built partnership and worked robustly with Nigerian security forces in capacity building and equipment, adding that he is proud of that accomplishment.
Highlighting the fight against Maritime crimes, he pointed out the work the Nigerian Navy has done with support from the US government.
Speaking on the reduction of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea waters, he said Nigeria went from the most pirated in the world to the least, adding that it’s “an incredible testament to the Nigerian military but some of that is due to our partnership, training and technical assistance, providing sensors, radars.”
Also touching on the increasing achievements of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), he said their drug enforcement agency works with NDLEA to combat drug trafficking.
“We’ve seen that some of the recent drug burst in Nigerian history happened in the last six months. That’s a testament to our Nigerian partners and we are proud to support them because when you catch the drugs here, you are stopping drugs from going into your communities, and around the world, it’s a global fight.
“And the truth is these bad guys aren’t just traffickers, they’re trafficking wildlife, weapons, people sometimes, drugs and feeding sometimes the violent insurgency. So the more criminals you get off the street, the safer it is.
Tackling Backlog of Visas
One of the herculean task most Nigerians face is securing a US Visa. But the Consul General said they have taken specific concrete steps to reduce the visa wait time.
One of the ways they reduced the visa wait time was to ensure people are now eligible for the interview waiver program. This is for people that have had a visa that’s expired in the last four years, and extended for two years that used to be known as a drop box. Now, they don’t need to come for an appointment.
With that, he said it has led to almost 60 per cent in wait time. Also, he said they have increased staffing to full levels. This he said made them meet the need of demand for visas and it led to 12 per cent increase last year in the number of students studying in the USA.
He however said they are getting as there’s still a lot of digging out to do, adding that the improvement speaks about partnership and relationship.
About Will Stevens
Prior to arriving in Nigeria, Mr. Stevens served as the acting Consul General in Cape Town South Africa, where he directed U.S. government engagement in South Africa’s three cape provinces, expanding trade and investment by 50 per cent over two years and overseeing the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19 in the Cape.
According to further information on the US government website, in 2014, he received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy, the State Department’s highest award for public diplomacy work, for his work leading the U.S. Government’s Interagency Task Force on countering Russian propaganda during the Ukraine crisis.
In the Bureau of African Affairs, Mr. Stevens was a Senior Advisor on countering violent extremism and also served as the Bureau Spokesperson, where he directed the public affairs planning and messaging for the 2014 U.S.-Africa Heads of State Summit, which brought together 50 African leaders in Washington for the first time. Mr. Stevens was the Director of the Foreign Service Institute’s Public Diplomacy (PD) Training Division from 2017-2019, where he oversaw the training of the State Department’s entire public affairs and public diplomacy corps. He was also the Spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 2014-2016, where his team’s work was recognised in the Public Diplomacy Council’s annual “Ten Best” for the “Best Use of Social Media by an Embassy.” He has also served as Chief of Staff at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, chief of public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan, and in the press and cultural affairs offices at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
A native of Great Falls, Virginia and a graduate of Brigham Young University, Mr. Stevens is married with five children. He is an avid football fan, basketball player and bodyboarder.