By Maurice Archibong:
3-time winner, travel & tourism reporter of the year
Despite all the perceived social challenges, Nigerians should remain thankful to God because their country is still growing and waxing stronger; says President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to Ghana, Ambassador Ademola Oluwaseyi Onafowokan.
Speaking with Travels inside his Accra office, Amb. Onafowokan, who is Nigerian High Commissioner in the former Gold Coast, intoned that faith in our nation’s future, irrespective of the current challenges, was the reason Nigeria’s 52nd independence anniversary was celebrated there. Activities marking Nigeria’s 52nd National Day in Ghana included a reception at Efua Sutherland Park for adults as well as a cocktail at the High Commissioner’s residence on October 1.
The cocktail was a strictly formal affair at which captains of industry, political heavyweights and VIPs from sundry sectors clinked glasses and exchanged pleasanteries with top brasses of the diplomatic community from across the world. Additionally, a Children’s Party was earlier held for minors on the Tennis Courts at the High Commissioner’s compound on Saturday, September 29; apart from two art exhibitions that were also thrown into the pack. In fact, the entire exercise actually kicked off on a colourful note with a one-day art exhibition at Nigerian High Commission.
Speaking with Travels on September 27, the day the observances kicked off, Amb Onafowokan remarked: “We are celebrating, albeit in a low-key way, because Nigeria is still growing. By God’s grace, Nigeria is waxing stronger. It is true that we are facing challenges, but every challenge is a passing phase and I believe Nigeria will eventually emerge stronger from our current challenges”.
Sauntering into the premises of Nigerian High Commission, Accra; memories of yesteryear flooded one’s mind. After visiting Accra in March, 1997; to report on Ghana’s 40th independence anniversary for Sunday Times; we had returned to the old Gold Coast severally and in 2000 had to contact authorities of the local Nigerian mission regarding their efforts in arresting what seemed to be systemic hostility toward Nigeria by the local media.
It was in the course of this mission we got acquainted with Mr. Ama Kuetsea, a Tiv-born diplomat serving at this mission, those days. Sadly, a few years later, an obituary from the nation’s foreign ministry announced the transition of Mr. Kuetsea. This was one of the thoughts that engaged my mind as I walked toward the Reception within this outpost of Nigeria’s foreign service. We have been inside Nigerian High Commission Accra several times, but; our latest stop was the third at the current location since the mission relocated to the Roman Ridge neighbourhood of town; from their former address situated near Josef Broz Tito Street, close to Danquah Circle on the fringes of Osu.
Over the years, considering the number of times work had brought us this way; we had also met one or two envoys or charge d’Affairs at Nigerian High Commission, Accra. One of our most memorable encounters was with Mr. Sam Okechukwu, who served as Nigerian High Commissioner to Ghana during the first term of the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo Presidency. Prior to his assumption of duty, Nigeria suffered frequent bashing by the Ghanaian media; but, Mr. Okechukwu, an Anambra-born pharmacist, was able to redress the situation.
Interestingly, too; the last time we ate dinner at the Residence of the Nigerian high commissioner in Accra was in August 2011; while Amb Okechukwu held sway. However, on this particular begegnung, we were sitting inside the office of Nigerian High Commissioner in the Roman Ridge area of the Ghanaian capital. The security situation across Ghana is not enough to make anyone jumpy, but; for the ambassador of a nation like Nigeria and representing his country’s president at a post as important as Accra; there is always work to do. Interpretation: Time is therefore always at a premium.
This was the thought that rankled in our mind as we settled into the seat offered us by His Excellency. Clad in sokoto ati ewu made from ankara textile, Amb Onafowokan was relaxed. In some way, we found his mood infectious; for, well-appreciative of His Excellency’s tight schedule, his countenance helped to make things easier for us. Since the top-flight diplomat was busy with a phone call, we seized that break to unpack and prepare our accoutrement: tripod, camera, recorder, batteries and other tools; for work.
Through with his telephone call, Amb Onafowokan engaged us in a brief welcome and the characteristic joie de vivre; and, soon the tapes were rolling. Some 30 years ago, when he joined Nigeria’s Foreign Service; Ghana couldn’t have ranked high among his preferred posts as envoy. In deed, for more than 25 years after his appointment by Nigeria’s Ministry of External Affairs as the entity was then called; work had taken Onafowokan to numerous other African countries but never to Ghana. Perhaps out of curiosity or desire to explore a fresh destination, Onafowokan brought his wife to Ghana on holiday in 2008. That vacation was made the more remarkable because 2008 was an election year and there was no way of escaping the campaigns, which had practically saturated the local media. B
y some coincidence, the next time Onafowokan would find himself coming to Ghana; it would be in 2012, another election year. As was the situation in 2008, the Ghanaian media is again suffuxed with campaigns. But, more importantly; Onafowokan is now in Ghana in a very different capacity. Unlike his virtual incognito status in 2008, when he came this way as a tourist to unwind; this time, Onafowokan is in the old Gold Coast to work; and, as High Commissioner of Nigeria to Ghana, his work; one could rightly say, seems all cut out for him. Across the world, many officers of Nigeria’s Foreign Service find themselves overwhelmed by pleas for succour by distraught wayfarers from home. Most of these stranded sojourners are misinformed youth lured out of their country by ignorance, which human traffickers capitalise upon to take their victims from virtual fry-pan into practical fire. Onafowokan is not a stranger to this scourge. Indeed, in the few weeks since he assumed duty here, this high commissioner has been inundated by requests for assistance.
Hear him: “My brother, you’ll be shocked by the number of such appeals that we receive on daily basis. Because of lack of awareness and porous borders countless youths pour out of the country daily. And, majority of them do not even bother to travel with relevant documents. So, when they run into trouble; we must first of all ascertain that they are Nigerians. Within the limit of our lean purse, we struggle and help those we have confirmed are Nigerians to begin to find their way home”. In many countries we have visited, officials of local Nigerian missions seemed at sixes and sevens, when asked the figure of their compatriots in those foreign nations’ jails. But, Amb Onafowokan wasn’t shy about tackling this touchy issue.
He rued: “There are too many of them (Nigerian youth) in prisons here”. As to what his mission was doing about this, Onafowokan revealed he had since concluded arrangements to visit Nsawam, a town where dozens of Nigerians are doing time in the local jailhouse; on October 3. However, it could be recalled that the Director of Consular Service at headquarters of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja; had declared in May this year, that; “There was no vote in the 2012 Budget for Consular Service unit of our embassies.
Therefore, there is not a dime kept anywhere to assist any Nigerian that is stranded abroad”. Interestingly, virtually every Nigerian embassy chief has been grappling with how to reconcile paucity of funds with innate desire to cater to the needs of traumatised migrant Nigerians over the last two decades or more. However, Amb Onafowokan sounded nonetheless optimistic; when he declared: “After 30 years in my country’s foreign service, I believe I am equipped with enough experience to manage any situation. Of course, the challenges are there; but, we have been trained to address them.
That is one of the reasons we are here”. Some three years after his employment in Nigeria’s then Ministry of External Affairs, Onafowokan was posted to London, where he worked as Deputy Chief Protocol Officer at Nigerian High Commission. While there, he would be saddled with higher responsibilities, like Head of the Trade and Investments Promotions Desk. Aside London, Onafowokan’s other external postings included Nigerian Embassies in Cuba (Havana), Moscow (Russian Federation) and Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago).
As two-time witness of presidential poll campaigns
How do all the campaigns regarding Ghana’s forthcoming presidential election resonate with this Nigerian current high commissioner? Recall that on September 13, Onafowokan presented his letter of appointment to Ghana’s incumbent President John Dramani Mahama, who is flagbearer of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the December 7, 2012 presidential election. Interestingly, President Mahama’s strongest rival, Nana Akufo-addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), is a former Foreign Affairs Minister of Ghana.
When asked, if for technocratic affiliation or propinquity, perhaps; Onafowokan was a closet sympathiser of the NPP flagbearer, this is what this high commissioner had to say: “I’m not a politician. I am a career diplomat and Director in Nigeria’s Foreign Service. So, personally, I have no interest at stake. As a Nigerian, I wish all the candidates well and hope that the party that would best serve the interest of the Ghanaian nation; wins”.
That the rapproachment seems forever smooth is not to say that Nigeria-Ghana relationship is entirely devoid of bumps. One of the sticking areas came to the fore recently, following the forceful closure of select enterprises owned by Nigerians across Ghana. Observers believe that there are numerous other areas where both countries ought to cooperate more, apart from trade. However, the situation has not been helped by the fact, that; even though Nigeria and Ghana are former British colonies and by extrapolation anglophone, both countries have not signed a single Bilateral Agreement; in spite of being independent for over half a century, now.
How does one explain it: Two black neighbouring countries with ostensible and enviable cultural ties, both with staggering immigrants that have melted into each other’s nation; with colossal commercial transactions, albeit largely informal, taking place daily; not to talk of mutual security issues in the rising face of coalition among international terrorist groups as well as growing wave of small-arms proliferation? Evidently, the prospective areas of cooperation span from energy, trade and investment through cultural, educational, security and so on. So, why are the two giants of West Africa foot-dragging; when they have so much to gain from stronger bonding? Onafowokan again: “We have done a lot on our own part.
We have prepared all the papers and are waiting for responses from the Ghanaian authorities”. With the Nigerian population accounting for roughly 50 percent of that of the entire ECOWAS region, one can understand the fear of certain states about being overwhelmed. Lang and Ling (languages and linguistics) students are familiar with steam-roller tongues: As with languages, so with nations and states. Nonetheless, Onafowokan sounded more and more optimistic, when he observed: “Nigeria and Ghana are con-joined twins”. In other words, they are inseparable and their fortunes intertwined.