28 July 2017 | 1:26 am
Collins Nweke is the first Nigerian, nay African, to be elected into the Belgian Parliament, a considerable feat in a country where Africans had only previously been seen, not heard, in the polity. Nweke was also president of Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO), Europe, which champions the welfare of countrymen abroad and seeks to contribute to nation building in their home country.
He tells The Interview about his road to prominence in his country of sojourn and other pertinent Diaspora issues, including the desire of Nigerians abroad to participate in building up their home country.
I guess that emerging as the first and so far the only non-Belgian person to be elected to political office in my constituency just happened. It’s hardly the sort of thing that one can go planning for. I spent my first 10 years in Belgium studying the country, its systems and its marvelous but reserved people. I loved many things and saw other things that needed to change, particularly in the area of race relations and diversity management. Meanwhile, I had become a dad to two boys to whom Belgium is home and Nigeria a country where dad and mum were born. So, for us, Belgium gradually moved from just a passive country to a home in which we had a stake, an adopted country. I could choose to sit around, complain to high heavens about things I felt could be different and do nothing, or I could join forces with like-minds and do something about those things I felt needed to change. Somehow those before my time overlooked this important responsibility. And there are quite a number of talented and driven people amongst them, but perhaps less daring than I am. My initial tool in accomplishing the desired change was through community organizing on a non-partisan basis via the non-governmental organisation, The Global Village, which I founded in 1998. I was identified by a certain Herman Lodewyck, currently a state legislator for West Flanders, who introduced me to Wouter De Vriendt, a current three-term Member of the Belgian Federal Parliament for West Flanders. We met in autumn 2006 in the run-up to the municipal elections of October that year. They proposed to me to stand for a councillor seat as an independent candidate using the Green Party platform. I was sympathetic to the Green Party but was not a member at the time. I had sympathy also for other parties, especially those on the left side of the political divide, and I must say that, directly or indirectly, they all approached me to come on board. The Greens made the most sense and their ideologies struck a better cord with my beliefs and values. After some period of reflection, I accepted and, on a lighter mood, I told Herman and Wouter that I’m going in for a win, and when I win I’d serve. We all laughed. The election was successful. We had 39 candidates out of which I had the third largest personal votes, qualifying me for a mandate as Councillor for Social Welfare. I joined the party after the elections, was elected into its Board and appointed spokesperson on Social Policy for the legislative period 2006-2012You are said to be the first and so far the only non-Belgian-born person to be elected to political office in West Flanders, Belgium; how did you achieve that?
What kind of challenges did you have to overcome to achieve this?
There were – and still are – many odds against the participation of non-Belgians in the political process, especially first generation migrants like me. Language barrier was the most obvious. If you choose to wait until all odds were tackled, like having a perfect Dutch proficiency, you’d wait forever. But if you have no problems making mistakes, even embarrassing yourself sometimes, being ridiculed and blackmailed as the case may be, well then you are game. I guess I was game because gradually I developed the thick skin to absorb all of the odds. I also learnt along the way. Like I always told myself, it can only get better. And it did get better. I recall the battle and fierce agitation that preceded the approval by the Municipal Council for us as civil society members to carry out a Needs Analysis of ethnic minority groups in my constituency. As unpopular as the notion was then, I was convinced that the structural change needed had to be thoroughly researched so that, ultimately, no one would turn around and say, ‘Well that was what Collins Nweke said.’ No, Collins didn’t say anything! It’s about objective research conclusions. Before then, there was this cliché that there are no persons of ethnic minority background qualified to participate in the research and political processes. This was in 1995/1996 and I was less than two years old in the country. Add this to the fact that before my time, my Belgian colleagues were used to doing things for ‘foreigners’ and not with them. It was kind of odd even for the liberal-minded ones amongst them to figure out this huge, black, bold guy who refused to succumb to subtle intimidation and just wanted to get things done. It was a battle but my request to be receiving briefing documents of the meeting well ahead of time to enable me take the time to study them at my tempo was accepted. At the time it was an exception, but nowadays it’s a standard practice.
Any particular reason you are so focused on social welfare and minority issues?
Through my civil society activism, I had made a name for myself prior to delving into party politics due to the issues I called to heart and these were naturally social justice issues, equality matters and so on. I had been instrumental in setting up the Municipal Advisory Council for Ethnic Minority and went ahead to be elected its first chairman, just as I worked with the Secretary of State for International Development and a renowned humanitarian doctor, Reginald Moreels, in setting up the first Refugee Reception Group in the City of Ostend and was again elected its founding chairman. Understandably, my party felt that having built up what you may call some field expertise in these policy areas, I’d be adding value to the party if I took them on as portfolio. Another element of the narrative is the fact that I came into the fold at a time in the party’s history when they were shedding off the image of a ‘one agenda ecology party’. I guess that some of us new faces who had equal belief in ecologic justice as well as in social justice were needed to help push the broader appeal that the party was set to achieve; I mean, an appeal beyond ecology. That said, it is worth adding that the economy, which includes labour market policies, employment and related matters are part of my portfolio. As a matter of fact, I serve on the Board of the House on the Economy which is a state-owned enterprise responsible for stimulating the local economy.
You were elected chairman of NIDO (Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation) Europe in 2011; what were the highlights of those years?
At the organisational side, it was important to instil some sense of focus and priority in the organisation through its Board if we were going to be successful in accomplishing the tasks we were elected for. There was, therefore, no alternative to a professional, strategic approach. Thus we started out with a system review. Questions like: what do we want, how do we achieve those and in which order, were very quickly tackled. So, we armed ourselves with a strategic plan and established our focus as well. Top in that plan was facilitating trade and investment, but from a devolved perspective. Abuja is the centre of power quite all right but the other federating units of the country, the states, are even more important when it comes to helping Nigeria to deepen access to global capital. It was this line of thought that birthed our trade missions to states of Nigeria. Osun State was our first port of call and there are reasons to be proud of that exercise. We assembled an army of 13 investable projects and 43 Diaspora professionals originating projects from Canada to China, Europe to Singapore, ranging from renewable energy to agriculture, mining, education, housing, tourism. We brought them in positive confrontation with the private and public partners in the state. Governor Rauf Aregbesola was a great host and the interaction was superb. Delta, Niger, Lagos and Anambra states were all lined up as next destinations. These were to run in 2012 and 2013 and we developed a banner pressing home the message: that oil is good but so, too, is the non-oil sector. We didn’t manage to run all the states as projected before our term ran out, but the take-away was that we saw the decreasing relevance of oil in good enough time and jumped in with promoting non-oil sectors and manufacturing as the future revenue generating streams for the economy. We also hosted or facilitated numerous business summits in a good number of our 19 Regional Chapters debunking misconceptions about doing business in Nigeria. There was a failed attempt to review the constitution of the organisation, but the exercise, with time, exposed the menace posed by some individuals with undemocratic tendencies who were bent on exerting undue control over the organisation and would stop at nothing to resist any change that affects their interests.
There is this general belief that the Nigerian government hardly ever does enough for its Diaspora; do you also share this view and why?
Yes, to some extent I share the view that the Nigerian government hardly ever does enough for its Diaspora. But the Diaspora isn’t the only constituency that the government is disappointing. The Nigerian government seems to be obsessed with doing things only for itself and not the people. That said, I must add that under normal circumstances, the Diaspora are meant to have been taken care of, partially at least, the moment a formal relationship was initiated with them by the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the year 2000 with the establishment of Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO). There was a genuine sincerity of purpose on the part of Chief Obasanjo, if you ask me, but a combination of factors has meant that things didn’t quite materialize as envisaged. You have government officials who have serious concerns about the danger that a formidable and organized Diaspora will pose to their personal agendas and would stop at nothing to work against the Diaspora using mainly the game of divide and rule. I don’t know about you but I find it difficult to explain, for example, why a constituency that remitted over $30 billion to the economy in 2016 still has not got the right to vote in Nigerian elections. How can I explain to my children that about a decade after the idea of a Diaspora Commission (not even a ministry as is obtained in other countries) was mooted, it is still not a reality? How can anyone explain the fact that Nigerian Diaspora caught up in problems abroad can’t confidently count on help from the embassies? The list of failures is legion, but it must be put on record that there are a few fine Foreign Service officers at some embassies but their significance and good work is overshadowed by the bad guys who are in the majority.
There are always stories of Nigerians being unduly maltreated in their host countries; what do you think is the best response to these situations?
I continue to take offence at the fact that the acts of a few bad guys are used to judge all Nigerians, especially those in Diaspora. Now, let’s get one thing clear: bad guys are everywhere and you’d continue to have them. So, we are not going to deny the fact that some of us are bad apples that we can do without, but is that a reason for us to bury our faces in shame? Certainly not! There are enough good guys amongst us for those who are keen to know. I believe that we need a mix of education and persuasion, in the first instance, towards those countries and authorities that treat us with disdain. When needed, we must get very assertive because some of the practices towards Nigerians at embassies and airports are abhorrent, often crossing the line into abuse of our human rights. I think also that integrity and credibility go hand-in-hand. There is no doubt that the introduction of machine readable passports for Nigeria will boost international confidence in our travel documents. It also reduces the propensity for forgery and peddling of fake travel documents. I think that, over time, some of these anomalies will correct themselves because of these structural reforms. The embassies, in collaboration with NIDO, should facilitate Nigerian community and cultural organizations in organizing information sessions and town hall meetings to address the dangers of forgery and other ills such as human trafficking. Of course, civil society organizations and rights groups must also continue to stand up for Nigerians being unduly victimized anywhere, quite apart from soft sensitization of law enforcement officers out here in the Diaspora.
Did you ever have to deal with such issues when you were the NIDO Europe chairman?
Issues of maltreatment of Nigerians abroad naturally would take a prominent place in feedback sessions with the 19 chapter chairpersons that constitute the entire NIDO Europe. At Board level, we attempt to develop a common approach or policy, rather than dealing with individual cases. Of course the policies we put together are informed by individual cases. We have had to issue statements, for example, on the issue of deportation of Nigerians who commit crimes and have served their prison terms abroad. My Board took the view then that such deportation amounts to double punishment for a crime. Incarceration should be seen also from a transformative, correctional perspective. When one is doing time in jail, efforts must be expended in nurturing the individual to become a better citizen than the pre-jail time. There is also an element of discrimination here. If the individual was a European citizen, where would you be deporting him or her to? Through interactions with host country authorities, we advance these arguments, which are also rooted in the rule of law, but indirectly we are subtly passing on the message that we won’t hesitate to defend the rights of the people. Unfortunate thing though is that some corrupt African country leaders go into secret deals with Western countries to receive the deportees on arrival. Of course we spoke out against such unholy practices.
A while ago, the senior special assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, advised Nigerians to avoid travelling to the U.S. for now, unless they have very compelling reasons to do so, but the minister for foreign affairs asked that her advice be ignored. What do you think?
Abike Dabiri-Erewa most probably meant well. Indeed she may have been driven by concern for the welfare of Nigerians when she made her statement to the effect of Nigerians avoiding travel to the USA temporarily. What she certainly overlooked was the fact that such advice amounted to negative travel advice against the United States, which is a serious matter. It is a matter beyond the mandate of a senior special assistant. Not even the minister of foreign affairs could issue such a statement or advisory without due consultations; which is why the minister’s intervention was apt, measured and highly professional. I think that if Foreign Affairs Minister Onyeama hadn’t intervene in the manner that he did – urging people to ignore the statements of Dabiri-Erewa, the matter could very easily have degenerated to diplomatic wrangling between Nigeria and the United States.
Any plans to come back to Nigeria and join politics?
I joined Nigerian politics nearly two decades ago. I am not sure that I have to identify with a particular political party or group and run for elective office to effectively be regarded as having joined politics in Nigeria. One couldn’t possibly chair the European arm of Nigeria’s official Diaspora body and in that period lead a global Diaspora delegation to Abuja or serve on the Presidential Strategic Committee on Vision 2020, or play other policy advisory roles for Nigeria, both formally and informally as I continue to do, among other things, and still pretend not to be involved in Nigerian politics. One thing or the other brings me home pretty frequently to the point that though officially I am permanently resident abroad, I get to visit Ibusa, my hometown, more frequently than some of my kinsmen based in Lagos and Abuja (laughs). Above all, the social media, be it a WhatsApp forum, a Facebook group or whatever, has broken down so many barriers that we now live in a global village irrespective of our geographical locations. In any case, the fair answer to your question is that, at present, I am a Belgian left-leaning politician with Nigerian roots and a Nigerian non-state actor. And that works for me for now. If there is a need for that to change in the near future, of course I will give it due consideration.
Are there existing structures to help Nigerians in the Diaspora invest back into the country?
Yes there are quite a number of both public and private investment instruments or vehicles through which Nigerians in Diaspora could invest back in Nigeria. The latest of such instruments is the Diaspora Bond and I’d limit my example to only the bond for obvious reasons. You’d recall that the Nigerian Export Promotion Council was established to promote non-oil exports as the key driver of the Nigerian economy; to re-position the export market as the growth opportunity of choice for private sector earnings and sustainable economic development. Doesn’t it make all the sense in the world that the Diaspora should be the natural bed-fellows of that agency? But that is not the case. From time to time, you hear some grand, aspirational statements from one big shot or the other about plans to launch this or that, but that’s where it stops. Some of us have long been advocates of a proactive approach captured in a well thought-through strategic plan for synergy between these bodies. Either those in charge simply don’t have any clue or they are personally benefitting from the current disarray. But as an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that the Diaspora Commission, when – or should I say if – it becomes operational, would help to create the required interface to streamline the huge potentialities inherent in the Diaspora for investment in Nigeria
Having experienced politics first-hand in Europe, what would you say are the three major factors hampering the development of Nigeria’s brand of politics as we seem to keep moving in circles?
Moving in circles is perhaps an understatement; sometimes it feels like taking one step forward and two steps backwards. For a start, I think the architecture of Nigerian politics is such that it attracts the wrong sort of people. Nigeria needs to reconstruct its politics so that it attracts individuals who are disposed to serving and not being served. Politics should be used by politicians as a means to making a difference in people’s life and the society in a structural, sustainable way. It should, therefore, be made less financially attractive. Secondly, the absence of clear, ideological lines separating the different political parties makes a mockery of party political democracy. That must change if Nigeria wants to move forward politically. Lastly, I believe that political education is an imperative of our time and it should be seen as a national emergency. Recently, I was addressing a conference of youth activists in Owerri and one of the bright young chaps asked me if it was right to accept financial incentives and other material gifts from political office seekers? In response I joked that, amongst the Igbos, it may be bad manners to turn down a gift. So to that extent, the needy, unemployed or underemployed youth should be wise to accept the financial incentives or gifts, but the cardinal question is, should such handout influence the way he votes? No. As a matter of fact, the politician that bribes him or her is the one that should not be voted for. This and other tips regarding shunning collaboration to rig elections, upholding the integrity of votes, et cetera, must be captured in a voter education package for the electorate. Won’t it be great if, from 2019, Nigerians see politics as people-centred business where those who do not feel the calling must consider other career paths? Politics is a tool to bring about changes and to impact on lives and not a self-serving venture.
Do you sometimes wish you were back home and not living in Europe?
The opportunity to experience ways of life different from ours back home and learn from them is a valuable asset to me and I try to bring it to bear on how I raise my boys and as a husband. Now, you must bear in mind that I did not, and could not, just assimilate every aspect of the European life, but I think I managed to create a cocktail of what I consider good about Europe and the valuable things in the African ways of life. Dr Christopher Kolade did tell me once that those of us who were either forced out of the shores of Nigeria by the brutality of the military era or were lucky to be resident abroad during that dark era in our history have reasons to be thankful to God. When I asked him why, he smiled and said that because we are unencumbered by the emotional scares of that period in Nigeria’s history, we are able to see things a bit more objectively. When I feel I have figured out what the sage meant, other fresh thoughts override the previous one.
What are those things, if any, you miss about Nigeria?
I would have said Jollof rice but Tonia, my wife, cooks it so well that it’s no longer an issue. I am luckier than poor Lai Mohammed because when I am in the mood for the Senegalese version of jollof rice, we’d always find a Senegalese friend to call rather than having to choose between the two. On a more serious note, I guess what I miss most is the extended family, communal living, with people caring for one another, you know, being your brother’s keeper. At least that used to be the case in Nigeria from my mind’s eyes as a post-independent Biafra war-child, growing up in rural Ibusa at the time. I’m not sure how things have evolved. If they have evolved to an individualistic society, then we have a problem. Out here in Europe, governments are doing all they can to re-create their society of yesteryears where people cared for one another; where an old, single woman will no longer have to die in her apartment undetected until the corpse begins to disintegrate. On the other hand, as councillor whose portfolio includes social policy, I am also preoccupied daily with how government could be organized such that the vast majority of the population, in fact in principle everybody in the society, is cared for by government one way or the other in keeping with respect for human dignity. Even at that, you can easily notice that lack of human contact in the society here. You see, that’s where family and community come in. It is exactly that family and communal living that we sometimes take for granted in Nigeria. Some of us out here only begin to appreciate its value when we begin to miss it.
What kind of relationship do your children have with Nigeria?
I guess it’s safe to describe the relationship of my children with Nigeria in the words of the classic American Western movie, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. Raising our two boys, it was important to my wife and me that they have a good understanding of their Nigerian roots and Igbo heritage. We shared as much information with them as possible about the country, its peoples and huge cultural diversity. We remained accessible to them to objectively answer their numerous questions about one culturally conflicting issue or the other. As they grew older, they were able to say things like, ‘That’s the general information, but can you tell me your personal opinion? What do you think?’ That’s when you know that they are developing to logical reasoning beings ready to take their own independent views. Of course, they have visited Nigeria on numerous occasions, which is good because it gave them opportunity to experience things for themselves. You still hear them sometimes say, ‘I wish all major Nigerian cities are like Abuja’ or ‘The cinema screens at Silverbird, Lagos, are better than those in Europe’. In contrast, driving through the slums of Oshodi one of the boys wondered out loud years ago (he was perhaps 13 at the time) how the president of Nigeria could afford to sleep at night with this level of poverty. Now 20 and 22 years old, they seem to love and are proud of Nigeria. Yes the country is a bunch of contradictions that sometimes gets on their nerves just like any other person, but they are able to put those in the right perspective, essentially because we taught them how to think critically and not what to think.
When you were leaving Nigeria to Europe, did you have any inkling that you would be playing the roles you have played so far?
Not at all, although public service, social justice and social activism have always interested me. I grew up with the notion that it was a normal way of life to give, rather than receiving. I understood early in life that you share not just because you have surplus, but because it feels good for resources to go round. We must learn to endure necessary inconveniences so that others don’t suffer. These were the early influences from home that formed or shaped me. The things I saw happening around me when I got here in Europe, and having had the fundamentals imbibed in me from home, made me take on issues of social justice and fairness head-on. That I currently do so from a political party platform sometimes surprises me, I must confess, as I had only thought of myself as an activist, not a politician. My father embodied the saying that the day you fight injustice against someone else is the day you fight injustice against yourself. It hung with me and over the years I have given it a broader application.
Do you see Nigeria ever catching up with the rest of the developed world?
Yes the future looks very bright for Nigeria and, by extension, the rest of the sub-Sahara African region, not exactly because that is the preference of the West or the developed world, but because it is inevitable. According to a recent World Bank report, the population in Africa, Nigeria being a focal point, is rapidly expanding, and by 2060 the region will hold an estimated 2.8 billion people, 70 per cent of whom will be under 30 years. With the right policies and actions, Nigeria should lead countries in sub-Sahara Africa in reaping a tremendous demographic dividend from this growth to propel an economic take-off. Production would move more and more to places that offer competitive advantages, especially in consideration of three factors: the Western economy is at a saturation point; Nigeria and Africa still has vast development potential, and distribution/logistics network has become more sophisticated. Now, will all of these happen automatically? Certainly not! It must be driven by deliberate strategic plans of action and in the hands of purposeful leaders whose motivation is the public good as opposed to the personal gains that pervade the polity currently.
What inspires you?
All that I do is driven by an inner urge to bequeath to the generation after ours a better world than the one we inherited.
What’s your plan for the next five years?
To achieve a win-win arrangement: what I described earlier in response to your question on Nigeria ever catching up with the rest of the developed world requires several stakeholders both in the public sector and the private sector rolling up their sleeves. I wish to continue to be one of those stakeholders. The ambition for the next five years is to play a key role in trade itself or achieving equitable trade relations between Nigeria within the Africa sub-region and Belgium/Europe within the group of today’s advanced economies. Would this mean a public sector, private sector or non-state actor role? I don’t know precisely, but I do know for certain that the determination is sufficiently there; the capacity won’t be in question either. I will continue to work and hope that the wind of righteousness will propel me to the destination, maybe sooner than five years, who knows?