" ITREALMS: 'Why Nigeria matters in Indian diplomacy'

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

'Why Nigeria matters in Indian diplomacy'

"Nigeria is India's largest trading partner in Africa, with $16.67 billion in direct bilateral trade in the year 2012-13"
A violent clash on October 30 in a Goa village resulted in the murder of Obodo Simeon Uzoma, and injury to six people, all of them Nigerians. The next day, around 200 Nigerians protested by blocking a national highway and clashing with Goa police and locals; 53 of them were arrested, most subsequently released. In the month since then, the Goa police have detained nine suspects. 

Reactions in Nigeria have been predictably sharp: ranging from extensive media coverage to a unanimous adoption of a motion in the country's House of Representatives condemning the incident as "racist", asking its Committees of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora for an "investigation", and directing the Nigerian government to seek compensation from India. Last Monday, Nigeria's acting foreign minister received the deceased's family and assured them of support.

Thus, the Goa incident has triggered an avalanche of reactions straddling multiple domains: law and order, diplomacy, people-to-people ties and media. Unless contained, this rare incident has the potential to disrupt a successful bilateral partnership which has benefited both countries and their peoples.

An objective look at current India-Nigerian ties brings out some surprises - and breaks some shibboleths. Today, Nigeria is our largest trading partner in Africa with $16.67 billion in direct bilateral trade in 2012-13. And India is in fact Nigeria's largest trading partner. During past five years, bilateral trade has doubled, and Indian exports tripled. Nigeria has emerged as India's second largest supplier of crude oil outside the Gulf. Nigeria has also become a large market for our cereals, vehicles, machinery and pharmaceuticals. Despite a surge in Indian exports, Nigeria enjoys an annual bilateral trade surplus of nearly $11 billion. Over 100 Indian companies have footprints in Nigeria, with cumulative investments of over $10 billion, creating capacity and jobs - priorities for Nigeria.

As the pyrotechnics after the Goa incident demonstrated, any narrative on Indo-Nigerian people-to-people contacts needs to be cautious. These two are among world's most populous countries and hard data is difficult to come by. Though Indians have lived in Nigeria for over a century, their number is nowhere near a million - a figure recently put out by a Nigerian diplomat. According to the best Indian estimates, they number only around 35,000. In fact, the corresponding official Nigerian figure is roughly half of even this number. The inflated number is intended to suit the argument. The number of Nigerians living in India is also uncertain, due to many Nigerians overstaying illegally on expired or faked visas. However, here the figure of 50,000 cited by the Nigerian High Commission appears believable. Nearly 37,000 Indian visas were issued to Nigerians in 2012. Although nearly half of these were for medical tourism, business and education have also spurred visits to India.

This rapid growth in Indo-Nigerian ties is despite infrequent high-level political and business contacts and the global economic headwinds. It shows that this synergy is based on intrinsic bilateral synergies, as the two countries increasingly leverage their similarities and complementarities. There is also considerable potential for further growth in such areas as hydrocarbons, agriculture, health-care, vocational training, education, and IT.

All this evidence as to the robustness of Indo-Nigerian ties and their potential puts the Goa incident in correct perspective. However, we still need to prioritise people-to-people contacts as continuous strain on them can engender prejudices and negativism. To this end, both sides should avoid playing to their respective galleries. While transgressions of local laws should be dealt with firmly, this should be done without profiling or stereotyping. Any intemperate talk of reciprocity and retaliation must be abjured, as it goes against the traditional bilateral cordiality. It would be counterproductive to convert a win-win relationship into a zero sum game.

While most Nigerians in India are here legally, there are still conspicuous exceptions. It is futile to pretend to have, as some Nigerian diplomats have done recently, the sole ownership of truth and virtue. Instead of a posture of injured innocence and living in denial, they should accept that some of the Nigerians may have violated Indian laws. 

They do have an image problem - and not only in India. A few months ago, the Nigerian Foreign Minister stated that over 9,500 Nigerians were in foreign prisons. The Sun, a Nigerian daily, commented: "Most of them were reportedly arrested and convicted for offences such as drug trafficking, credit card fraud and infractions of immigration laws." The director-general of NDLEA, the Nigerian anti-narcotics agency, recently put the number of Nigerians convicted abroad of drug related crimes at "over 6,000." Recent British data stated that Nigerians account for five per cent of all foreign prisoners. Closer home, last year the Indian capital witnessed a case of Nigerian killing Nigerian and their nationals being unruly in the Nigerian High Commission's premises.

These hard facts should put the Goa incident in the proper context. Instead of engaging in either a blame game or bland diplomatic statements, the two authorities should collaborate to curb such stray incidents. The investigation into the Goa crime should be taken to its logical conclusion soon. Also, the two governments should speed up the signing of enabling bilateral agreements on extradition, the transfer of convicted persons and on mutual legal assistance. The Nigerian initiative this week to send a negotiating team to India for this purpose is, therefore, welcome. Meanwhile, the Goa incident should also prompt India to put in place a regime for regular vetting of all foreigners in a non-discriminatory, dignified and transparent manner. Media and opinion-makers, too, must resist the temptation to publish incendiary material; allegations need to be verified before publication. The spread of the English language and of the internet in both countries can enable scurrilous coverage to instantly ricochet to the other end, feeding a vicious cycle.

Above everything, all stakeholders should appreciate that even as people-to-people ties are an important component of overall Indo-Nigerian relations, the latter are far more important and must not become a hostage to the former. There is an imperative need for concerted joint action to insulate the win-win paradigm of Indo-Nigerian ties from stray consular cases, which are bound to occur as our two friendly countries and their peoples engage more extensively.

ITREALMS Online ... delivering news for ICT4D
Pix of the contributor: Mahesh Sachdev recently retired as Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria

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