David Greene: Economic Dislocations Causing Nigerians Lots of Pains

David Greene, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, joined the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria as Deputy Chief of Mission in August 2022. On March 31, 2023, he assumed the role of Chargé d’Affaires ad interim for the U.S. Mission in Nigeria. In this capacity, he provides leadership for the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Abuja and Consulate General in Lagos. Before his assignment in Nigeria, Mr. Greene served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in Rabat, Morrocco from 2019-2022 and previously served as political counsellor in Rabat, Morocco from 2012 to 2015. He speaks Arabic and French and his other Foreign Service assignments include postings in Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, and Vietnam and tours in Washington. In this interview with Bayo Akinloye, he discusses the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Nigeria bilateral relationship including the burgeoning trade and investment ties, security cooperation, people-to-people connections and described Nigeria a strong ally of the United States in the region and force to reckon with on the African continent. Greene also talked about the need to strengthen democratic systems, tackle corruption, and ensure that democracies deliver tangible benefits to citizens in the region.

You arrived in Nigeria a while ago. How would you describe your experience so far?
It’s been great. I have gotten a warm welcome from everybody that I’ve encountered. You know, I chose this position because of what I’d heard about the importance of Nigeria to the US and about the vibrance of the country and about its potential and, also about its really warm people and the interest in the United States here.
Let’s touch on your opinion piece published penultimate Monday. Would you to speak about the US relationship with Nigeria regarding health, economy, and technology? In your opinion piece, you also spoke on the six months of the present administration and how the US and the Bola Tinubu government intend to work together.

 Yeah, of course. Thanks for asking. Well, you know, there was – a little bit less than a year ago – the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, and the main message that President Biden was delivering there was that of our commitment, our determination to really deepen our engagement with the entire continent, across every sector you can imagine, but with a special focus on the energy transition, creative industries, diaspora voices, food security and health. And in so many areas, those are the top priorities for the US-Nigeria relationship as well. At the time, the president said that Africa’s success is the world’s success. Africa is that important to the future of the globe.

And he subsequently said Nigeria’s success is the world’s success because, without Nigeria, you are not going to be able to achieve the goals that we have globally –  whether it’s health, whether it’s security, whether it’s economic growth or job creation. So, in that sense, Nigeria is just an absolutely critical partner for the United States. You’re our number one commercial relationship on the continent. We do so much together. Nigeria is not just a major energy producer; a country that is in desperate need of power and also a country that is very, very impacted by the climate crisis. So sort of any direction you look, you see an area in which the United States and Nigeria can work together to try and advance shared, regional, bilateral, global goals.

And I think the editorial was intended to sort of articulate our view and to talk a little bit about what we’re doing and talk about all the great things that we’re going to be doing going forward; and to express support for some of the tough choices that the Tinubu administration has made in its effort to put the country on a more sound economic footing. We know a lot of Nigerians are feeling a lot of pain right now because of the economic dislocation, but it’s our belief that if you get those fundamentals right, they will create the environment that draws in investment, creates jobs, and improves people’s lives.
A couple of months ago, we had our Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo, a very illustrious Nigerian-American. And he said while he was here, you know, Nigeria’s oil and gas reserves are not its strength, it’s its people. And a lot of our cooperation’s intent is to help unleash and support the very vibrant business culture and help Nigerians achieve their aspirations.

You talked about the bourgeoning youth population in Nigeria reaching a higher figure by 2050. Does the rising number of unemployed youths bother the US government?
 Well, what I would say is that the youth are the future. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s also real. That’s your opportunity. And going back to what U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said about Nigeria’s people being its potential, that youth bulge is an opportunity, a golden moment for Nigeria to really drive ahead and create economic growth and a better future for all of its people. And with tremendous cascading effects across all of West Africa and beyond – that, we’ll see. So, I think it’s important that we see the youth not as a problem but as an opportunity. And that means, of course, you’re going to have to invest in education. You’re going to certainly make some provision for power because electricity is vital; and better health and better nutrition for all Nigerians. These are all important areas and areas that we’re working on very closely together.

The Nigerian government has always raised concerns that the US travel advisory often de-markets the country. Is there a way for the embassy to balance the safety and protection of its citizens and not necessarily offend the host country?
 It’s a good question. Well, with regard to that specific warning, we’re no longer, obviously, standing with that warning. But as a general matter, I think, for the United States government, and I think this is true for any government, the protection of our citizens is our number one priority. That is, that is the first job of any government. So, when we become aware of a threat, we have an obligation to make our citizens aware.
But we do think very, very carefully about how we’re going to share that information. I can assure you that if we’re putting out a notification like that in Nigeria, to US citizens, we have certainly shared everything that we can with Nigerian security partners. And if there’s any way to counter that threat, we are working with our Nigerian partners to try and do so. And so, we take these things very seriously; we take our responsibility to our citizens and security partners very seriously. And I wanted to take this opportunity to commend those partners on the Nigerian side. We work very closely together on all kinds of challenges, which have the impact not just of making more secure the Americans that may be living in Nigeria but all Nigerians.

The visa ban is a privacy matter. However, Nigerians will want to know how many politicians have been sanctioned for inciting violence before, during and after the 2023 general election. Can you give a number?
 Well, as you know, visa records for us are confidential. We don’t release the specifics. We have announced that we have sanctioned individuals in the elections that happened this past spring and in previous elections. We take very, very seriously credible accusations that somebody has undermined the democratic process. Whether it’s ballot rigging, intimidation of voters or journalists or buying votes, we pay very close attention and we take action when we feel that the evidence is there. So again, beyond that, I’m not going to get into specifics other than to say that those people know who they are. And I am certainly aware that there are certain individuals that have sought to travel to the United States that have been unable to because of this ban.

Without mentioning specific names, can you give the total number of Nigerians barred from visiting the US for inciting violence during the 2023 elections?
I appreciate your point on that, but I don’t really think that’s the most important thing. I mean, obviously, the United States and many of Nigeria’s international partners want to support the deepening and strengthening of the democratic process. And we’ll make sure that institutions are getting stronger and that governance in Nigeria is improving. So we take the action that we take in order to show them we’re supporting that and also to penalize those that have committed those kinds of violations. And again, as I said, they know who they are. But I think it’s a much bigger and deeper question that the United States is working with Nigeria which is: how do we improve these systems and these institutions for the future? How can Nigeria have better governance and less corruption in its system?
And those are much bigger challenges than just the number of visa bans. So, I think those are areas where we also work very closely with a lot of different Nigerian partners –  strengthening electoral processes; supporting civil society organisations to monitor and observe the polls and to report on corruption; working on anti-money laundering and the capacity of Nigerian institutions to combat money laundering – because what’s really needed is systemic change to try and tackle the corruption that exists in a variety of different areas – financial but certainly electoral processes.

 There are concerns about an alarming rate of violations of human rights, including enforced disappearances. There’s also the issue of corruption. How is the US engaging with the Nigerian government on these issues?
Well, I haven’t seen the Amnesty report. But certainly, they’re reporting on human rights issues, so it is very important to take it quite seriously. Certainly, when we talk about meeting a citizen’s aspirations to achieve their best lives, economic opportunities are a huge part of that. But everywhere I’ve ever served, and anywhere in the world, security is a top priority. People can’t live full lives if they’re constantly insecure. And so we’re working and partnering very closely with Nigerian security services, military and civilian security to advance those goals. But part of that has to be making sure that you’re respecting the human rights of the individuals.
Our experience, everyone’s experience, globally in this area, is that in order for you to be able to secure your citizens and to succeed in providing security and stability, those citizens need to feel that they’re being protected by the security forces and not put at risk by them. And that’s why accountability for human rights violations is extremely important. So, we work in a lot of different areas. Within the military, we have programmes that are designed to help the military not just do targeting better, so they don’t accidentally harm civilians, but also to respect international rules and laws regarding human rights and the laws of conflict. And we’ve got programmes that are intended to enhance the capacity of military and civilian security forces to hold their officers accountable.
 And we have policies that are in place that are intended to deny training, for example, to units that may commit human rights violations. And like I said, we’ve got a lot going on; we’re working on anti-corruption. So, we work systematically and programmatically with key Nigerian partners to help them help themselves to accomplish that job, which is providing security while respecting the human rights of Nigerian citizens.

What is the US government’s assessment of how the Nigerian government has been tackling corruption and rights violations?
 Well, I can’t really offer an assessment. I think, ultimately, the assessment belongs to the Nigerian people and the beauty of [it is that] we’re both great federal republics with regular election cycles. And one of the great triumphs of Nigeria in 30 years, or this quarter century since the return of democracy, is the regular and peaceful transfer of power. And in four years, everybody gets their chance to show what they think – what their assessment is and make a decision whether they’re going to keep folks in power or kick them out. That’s the charm of democracy. So, ultimately, the decision comes down to the Nigerians.
But what I can say is, going back to my earlier point, Nigeria’s success is vital. We need a Nigeria that succeeds in achieving economic growth, improving the lives of its citizens, being a force for stability and security in this region, being part of that clean energy engine that’s going to drive growth for the entire globe in the future. So we need that Nigerian success. And the US-Nigeria partnership is intended to work across all these different areas in order to help achieve that goal.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, nearly 14,000 Nigerians pursued US graduate and undergraduate degrees, according to the US State Department factsheet. Where does the number stand in 2021-2022?
 Actually, we have the 2022-2023 number. We announced it at the International Education Week recently. And we’ve broken the record, again. Over 17,000 Nigerians are currently studying in the United States. So Nigeria consolidates its position as the number one sender of students to the United States on the continent – at number seven worldwide, up from 10 with the last amount. So, again, I think that speaks to the really positive dynamic in the US-Nigeria relationship, and to a really important area, which is both the people-to-people connection; and also, hopefully, the value of the education that Nigerians are seeking in the United States and – hopefully – bringing back to Nigeria to strengthen the country’s prospects. We’re very proud of that.

There’s the coup contagion across West Africa. What’s fuelling this illegitimate overthrow of democratically elected government in Africa?
 Well, it’s a very complex situation. And even as we see this sort of regression in democracy in the region, every circumstance is different. So, I don’t want to generalise too much. But what I would say is that the United States – and I think Nigerians would agree because we’re both democracies  – believe that [democracy] is the best form of government to try and ensure the liberty and freedom and opportunity and help citizens achieve their ambitions. But democracies have to deliver for their citizens and President Biden has said this.
So we’re really committed to working very closely with Nigeria, with ECOWAS with all of our partner states in the region, to do what we can to shore up democratic systems and to help the countries where they’ve been coups to find their way back to a constitutional democratic governance. And those democracies need to really deliver for their people. And they need to achieve goals of economic development, provision of security and stability, education, health care, all those kinds of things – all the different areas where we’re working with Nigeria, trying to strengthen that in the Nigerian context. And we need to see those kinds of gains in governance across the region.

Can you speak more about the trade and investment between the US and Nigeria?
 As I said, Nigeria is our number one commercial partner on the continent and we really expect those ties to deepen tremendously. The United States has long been one of the top investors in Nigeria. Our trade relationship is about 8 billion dollars a year, bilaterally and it is very balanced. I think what’s particularly exciting about this moment is the incredible opportunity for investment and trade that exists in Nigeria. Historically, it has been dominated by the oil and gas sector. What not a lot of people realise, is that oil and gas these days contributes 7% to Nigeria’s GDP, whereas the tech sector contributes 18%.
And so you’re seeing US investors like Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Meta and Starlink coming into Nigeria. You’re seeing tremendous dynamism in the creative Nigerian industry in terms of music and movies – Netflix and Amazon. You’re seeing tremendous opportunity in clean energy and green energy; Nigeria has got tremendous resources in that regard, and tremendous demand. I should also mention agriculture in which the potential is practically limitless in Nigeria. We’re doing a lot in that area as well. So I think when you look across the different sectors, I see tremendous potential for American investment here for trade.
Now, at the end of the day, the US government can only do so much. The Nigerian government has to create an enabling environment that’s going to attract that investment, that’s going to make trade easier. And that’s how the dollars are going to flow. And that’s how jobs are going to get created and people’s lives are going to be improved.

You talked about the trade between Nigeria and the US being very balanced. How exactly did you mean?
 Well, there are some countries where, you know, you could say, oh, it’s X billion dollars, but most of that billion dollars is one country buying, and the other country selling. In the US and Nigeria, it’s a rough equivalency, where we’re buying from Nigeria, you’re buying from us at roughly the same pace. We want to see that grow. It ought to grow with Africa’s largest economy. There’s tremendous opportunity for beneficial trade between the US and Nigeria and I think that we’re just looking at a lot of potential in the years to come.

Where do you see the biggest potential win in terms of trade?
 In terms of the sector? Well, IT, I think, is certainly one which is obvious, right? The energy, as it were, in the IT sector is famous; information technology, telecoms, financial technology. Nigeria is really a huge hub for that in Africa. That’s why you see all these data cables, landing in Lagos and the environments. So I think IT is going to be a huge one. Agriculture is going to be enormous. Again, I know there’s a lot of efforts underway to strengthen the agricultural sector here. We’re contributing to it both by offering opportunities for training, and we’ve got a $20 million cocoa programme to strengthen cocoa exports.
So I think as the Nigerian agricultural sector recovers, it’s a huge part of GDP. It’s a huge employer. Vital and important. I see a lot of potential there. And then I think in the energy sector, green energy, clean energy, I think is really going to be a prospect for the future.

 Any last word?
Just that, for me, it’s a real privilege to be leading the US mission at a time of such dynamism and potential for Nigeria and for the US-Nigeria relationship. As I said, Nigeria is just an absolutely critical partner for us. As far as I’m concerned, the critical partner on the continent. And we’re going to continue to work together to advance opportunity for Nigerians, Americans, and both of our peoples.

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