Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard: Closing Chapters of A Career in Foreign Service

She is an ambassador extraordinaire, whose  dedication and commitment to duty in discharging her responsibilities as an envoy of the United States to Nigeria shines through her remarkable diplomatic exploits. During her tenure, Nigeria witnessed an improvement in her bilateral relationship, particularly, the extended visa from two years to five years, as well as the new consulate, which is the largest in the world. These and many more are achievements of a Massachusetts native who has served the US department for 35 years. As she departed Nigeria as an envoy and retired from US Foreign Service, Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard, in an exclusive interview with Funke Olaode, said she is grateful for having had the opportunity to have Nigeria as her last chapter in Foreign Service.

Looking resplendent in her beautiful native attire, she mingled freely with all the invited guests. She exuded confidence, commanding attention and admiration. It was her second appearance that evening having changed from the smart blue adire jacket earlier worn during the interview session inside the United States Consul-General’s residence in Ikoyi.

The breeze blew relentlessly across the sprawling Lagoon view at the residence where top echelons from multinational, media, diplomatic community and private sector gathered. Veteran jazz musicians, Tee Mac and Yinka Davies were on ground to serenade all invited guests. It was a farewell reception for the outgoing United States Ambassador, Mary Beth Leonard whose tenure ended in Nigeria as US envoy and her retirement from the US Foreign Service.

Since she assumed office in Nigeria three years ago and plunged herself into her duties, Leonard has wormed herself into the hearts of many Nigerians.  Prior to her foray in Nigeria, she had served in Cameroon, Namibia, Togo, South Africa, Suriname (the only country she had served outside Africa), twice in Bamako, Mali and Ethiopia. In all of this, she immersed herself as a US representative,  making her impact felt.

What was it like working in Nigeria?  I asked.

“I did have a great time in Nigeria,” she said. “People here are so wonderful, welcoming and friendly.  So, besides just the fun and living in Nigeria, it is such an honour to be a representative of the United States to Africa’s giant.”

Leonard has been in the US Foreign Service for nearly 35 years where she received tremendous support to function in Foreign Service. Over the years, she has carved out a successful diplomatic career by being true to herself.  She is loved in Nigeria because of her accommodating nature.

A great deal of her major achievements include experiencing Nigeria but the ongoing new consulate office and the visa extension from two years to five years will remain unforgettable.

“I have been to different parts of Nigeria.  But programmatically, since we are sitting here in Lagos, we need to talk about the new consulate compound which is a project that is going to employ 2,500 people and it is going to cost about USD95 million and eventually be the largest U.S. Consulate in the world. It is a good physical representation of the importance of the relationship that we are building a bigger consulate.

“But policy wise, I think that most of your citizens and readers will probably say the most important thing that happened under my watch is the extended visa to five years, which is important for the ease of travel. But also because of COVID, we recognised that we had a bit of a backlog in visas. And so, between extending the visa validity and making it so that you can participate in the interview waiver programme as long as you had a visa that expired in the last four years. We are working hard at digging ourselves out of that hole. We are so grateful to the travelling public for their understanding, and we are getting closer.

“Some of our biggest achievements in health that I will tell people, maybe the U.S. taxpayers, is that before our shutdown happened, we celebrated the end of the wild polio virus in Nigeria and we worked on HIV issues under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to the point where we can credibly say that we are on the verge of epidemic control with 1.7 million beneficiaries. A lot of expertise and infrastructure that we built up from that turned out to be incredibly useful when COVID happened. Whether you are moving bed nets or HIV tests, there is a logistic angle that is just as important when you are moving from COVID test to COVID vaccine. And we are very proud to have participated in the COVID vaccine effort. Sixty percent of Nigerians are now fully vaccinated. And now, one realises that you can put those things together to help make health structures and systems better for people. These are some of the things that I am particularly fond of doing and proud of during my time.”

While many Nigerians think about the United States in terms of oil, holiday visits and business ties, she thinks otherwise especially with regards to bilateral relationships. 

“I think it is important to remember that while talking about the U S Nigeria relations, there is a part that comes from the official view of the U S government in our relationship with the government of Nigeria. But because of people-to-people relations, it goes even beyond that.

“The ties between Nigeria and the American people are really important. Nigeria is our most important partner on the continent. Nigerians are the biggest African immigrant community in the United States. Nigerians are probably half a million legal permanent residents and citizens there. We spent well over 350 million dollars in key humanitarian assistance last year. There are a lot of connections.”

Nigeria’s enviable cultural landscape and exports in art, music, films constitute other areas of interest to the American diplomat.

“I remember the return of the Benin bronzes, which I went to see myself. It is a very rich relationship between the American and Nigerian film and music industries. Nigerian artists winning Grammys, Headies happening in Atlanta — that is really something! Did you know that Nigeria is the number one country that sends students to the United States? That is 10 per cent of student’s population worldwide. And we are proud of all of the exchanges that have been achieved through this.

“Another thing that people don’t really think so much about, is the Alchemist support, which is about how to leverage the commercial uses of space, and Nigeria was one of the first two African countries that financed that.

“Everybody knows about our security corporation, the A-29 Super Tucano aircrafts that arrived in Nigeria. But it is more than just the hardware arriving. It is also about what you do with them — knowing the doctrines that make security operatives more effective in using them to take care of the threats that are here in Nigeria and how to ensure civilians are not hurt accidentally. It is an entire process of security cooperation.

“And climate is, of course, the topic that is on everybody’s mind. And during the recent floods in Nigeria, we gave a significant amount of money to address that. But beyond that is how Nigeria and the United States and the world worked together to address the parallel problems of being responsible contributors to climate change, while also recognising that there are legitimate energy needs for the development of Nigeria and the welfare of its citizens and how you balance those out.  So, those are some of the subjects that have engrossed me in my nearly three and half years here.”

The U.S. government sponsored cultural, educational and professional exchange programmes very often. The relationship she explained has been beneficial.

“It is quite a long list of programs. We have tech women, a five-week program, where people have mentorship in Silicon Valley, San Francisco. We have the Fulbright program that brings both U.S. students and professors to Nigeria and sends Nigerian students to the United States. We also have the Hubert Humphrey programme, a one-year graduate fellowship in the United States. We have a program for high school students and educators as well.

“And then, every year, we have the International Visitors Leadership Programme, with about 175 participants. Over time, the number grows to an alumni network of 8,000 people. People who participate in these programmes go to the United States to learn and hear about how the U.S. addresses their particular topic of interest. And when they come back, they have all kinds of post-exchange activities to help people further develop their ideas on recycling, cleanup, youth development, political participation, and so on. We work hard to follow up with our visitors who have gone through our assistance programs and activities when they return.

“In 2022, the US helped Nigerians get some 30 million dollars in scholarships. We also give out small grants to people and good students from the lower end of the income spectrum to cover things like the application fees, travel costs and the cost of visa. It is our pleasure to help facilitate that for people who want to have that wonderful experience.”

Leonard is excited that women are shattering the glass ceiling. Her home country leads by example by electing the first female Vice-President. 

“Well, it feels exciting and it is important for women and girls to see examples of women that are succeeding so that they can have something to strive for and emulate. She is the first woman Vice President as well as the first African-American and first Asian-American Vice-President of the United States. I think it is a reminder to people that they can dream big and not let their and other people’s preconceived notions of what they can achieve stand in their way. That is also why we engage them in some of the programmes to encourage people to aspire high by identifying what they can do.”

While returning the conversation to the culinary, she recounted how she relished some Nigerian delicacies.

“Nobody ever believes me when I say I like spicy food and a bit of pepper soup. But of course, you can’t be a Nigerian and not appreciate suya and jollof rice. I can say I had fun eating amala at Amala Sky in Ibadan with our visiting pianist who came last year. It was lovely. In fashion, I like to incorporate African and Nigerian fabric into my wardrobe. And the art is just incredible. I have boxes of artworks from Mama Nike Okundaye of Nike Arts Gallery, Tony Owere and Osi Audu. And of course, music, we have so much engagement on Afrobeat. We had a pre-Headies concert in the residence garden, did a lot of dancing and, of course, I had to go with the Headies in Atlanta where I heard many performers like Asake. It was also a real thrill to see the U.S. Naval Forces band who visited Nigeria recently play Ayra Starr’s Rush. And of course, I play the flute and Tee Mac is a big highlight for me in the arts.”

The burgeoning popular culture scene in Nigeria has been a huge attraction to American investors. The retiring diplomat noted how the United States has been forging stronger economic ties with Nigerian creatives to promote the unique cultural offerings.

“There are so many natural and obvious ties in the art particularly. You look at the incredible ties between our creative industries on Films and TV. In the last seven years, we have had a partnership with the African International Film Festival. The film industry has great ties, we have programmes to send young filmmakers to California to learn about film techniques. And the Nigerian film industry really tempted the big ones in the U.S. to come here, Netflix, Amazon, Prime and Paramount, all come here. And you saw Tems winning the Grammy this year. It is a really natural area of collaboration because we both have such a rich creative industry presence. What’s next?

“I tell people that I am going to take a gap here, I have been a federal government employee for 38 years, the State Department employee for 34 years. I am looking forward to sitting back for a little while and thinking about what comes next and do some nesting in my home in Massachusetts and think about the next chapter of America’s letter. But I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to have Nigeria be my last chapter in Foreign Service.”

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