In this interview, Collins Nweke, a Nigerian-Belgian speaks on a number of issues bordering on Nigerian politics and development. Mr Nweke, who is currently a Belgian lawmaker, in an interview with The Voice magazine, shares his experience about growing up in Nigeria during the Civil War, moving to Europe, where he has for the most part led a successful career, becoming Chief Executive of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO) in Europe. He also talks about the Nigeria 2019 election and the events leading up to it; the suspension of the Chief Justice, and his hopes for Africa, among other issues.
Q. Introduce yourself to our worldwide readers please?
CN. I am a Belgian politician of Nigerian origin, born 53 years ago and raised in a quiet, hilly Southeastern Nigerian town called Igbuzo in Delta State. As a war-child, being a toddler during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, I belong in that generation of a lucky few survivors, who lived through the ravages of the war, missed the enemy bullets that sometimes flew over our heads as we played in the farm fields, survived kwashiorkor as a result of food shortage and emerged from the bushes, stronger and more determined to whither more and any storm.
Q. How long have you lived in Belgium?
CN. Belgium has been home for over 20 years now. Home because if after these many years, with two amazing sons born and raised here, I do not have reasons to call this place home, then something must be seriously wrong.
Q. Tell us about your education & training and the career path you have walked thus far.
CN. I have always been keen on acquiring knowledge just as continuous self- development is important to me. I’ve had various trainings in journalism, international business management, social economy and business strategy initially in Nigeria but mainly in Europe. I had real good time teaching English Literature / Literature in English in a college in my native Igbuzo and proceeded thereafter to work for 5 years for the United Bank for Africa, first in main banking and in my last years in the Human Resource department. Out here in Europe, I’ve worked as a farmhand in an organic farm. It was an exigency job, but I guess because I always apply myself fully to everything I do, I quickly discovered that being a farmer son, my job as farmhand in Belgium brought me great memories of, and held me somehow closer to, my roots. Being out in the open field, getting my hands dirty, planting a seed and watch it grow and finally the harvest, all held a circle of fulfilment and joy. I also worked in the docks loading and off-loading the ship. The pay was very good! And I needed it at that point in my life. The farm job was becoming increasingly difficult to combine with my studies especially as I got to the stage of writing my bachelor thesis. As dockworker on flexible terms, I could fix my working hours. And a week and half pay in the docks covered a month pay in the farm. My next job was joining a 13-man research team providing comparative research and analysis to the Home & Justice Directorate of the European Commission on the economic integration of Diaspora groups in Europe. Before my appointment as Chief Executive / Executive Secretary at the London Headquarters of Nigeria’s official Diaspora body, I had worked with Ostend City Council’s department for Social Welfare where I was responsible for setting up a Law Research Library for the department.
Q. You are also a commentator on several issues mostly on Nigeria. Why so much interest on Nigerian affairs when you live in Belgium?
CN. This sounds like a question from my political opponents. Meanwhile on the other hand, I get equally berated by some Nigerians who believe that I don’t wade in enough on Nigerian affairs. Not sure who is right or wrong, the truth must be somewhere in-between. Here is the thing: I feature mainly on Television Continental or TVC, broadcasting from Nigeria as Global Affairs Analyst and on TRT World, broadcasting from Turkey as African Affairs Analyst. In these capacities I get to offer thoughts, opinions and analyses on global affairs “through the African eyes” as TVC would fondly say. Given that Nigeria is a dominant force within the African continent, there is a somewhat preponderance of Nigerian affairs in the news coverage but I’d say that there is equitable coverage of other African countries. Take a quick peep at my You Tube Channel to have helicopter view of how balanced or otherwise the coverage is. That said, I must add that my interest in Africa analysis within the global contest derived from a need for Africa to tell its stories because others have been telling the African story for far too long and have often misrepresented the continent beyond recognition. This notion was perhaps what drew me to The Voice in the first place because of the way and manner it helps, not just to tell the African story but facilitates the retelling of some distorted narratives on Africa that are already there. Yes, Africa has a fair share of conflicts, corruption, weak infrastructures and thriving strongmen, poverty and so on. In equal measure there are opportunities in Africa, some even refer to the continent as the next frontier. There are unseen hands retarding the continent’s growth, helped of course by some unpatriotic, nasty African leaders. These have got to be brought to the fore, show the other side. When I decided that I wanted to contribute my bit in showing the other side, I knew that to a large extent, I will be doing this, albeit indirectly, in the interest of Belgium, my adopted country. Investment decisions are best based on objective information. Belgians wishing to invest in Nigeria or Africa have the right to objective information. I therefore see a role for myself in contributing to spreading fair and objective information. Finally you’d be surprised at how much some of the negative information about Nigeria and Africa is being sponsored by businesses and interest groups who are keen on scaring competitors away from the emerging lucrative African market.
Q. We are aware that an election is coming up in Nigeria. What is your take on the country’s preparation to hold such an election?
CN. There are worrying indications that all is not going well with preparations for the February 2019 general elections in Nigeria. I will underline only two instances to demonstrate or illustrate that the hands of the electoral clock in Nigeria is being turned backwards. Questionable primaries were organised in significant number of States by one of the leading political parties. This raises serious issues around the willingness or perhaps the capacity to organize free, fair and credible elections. As a consequence of this menace, Zamfara State in Northern Nigeria and Rivers State in the South-East have no Governorship candidates for the ruling All Progressives Congress party while some levels of arm-twisting was said to have taken place in Lagos State and Prof. Pat Utomi, a Governorship candidate for Delta State tells us that there was no primaries in his State. The debacle around the ongoing removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria under the pretext of fighting corruption is the second worrying sign of questionable, maybe dubious preparations for the elections that I’d like to flag off. Besides these two instances, I have remained concerned about the role of money in Nigerian politics and the tilted powers of the incumbent against its challengers. The playing field was never level for new faces in the political scene but the election of 2019 has seen a record level of the use of state apparatus to subdue and outplay other candidates than the big two. Of course as if these ills are insufficient, the same big two, particularly the current President simply told Nigerians that they don’t matter by refusing to honour invitation to the Presidential debate. When for the first time in history Muhammadu Buhari unseated a sitting president it was thought to be a significant development. Rather than consolidate that gain through credible preparations for the election, it appears all have been thrown to the winds.
Q. Is it fair therefore to say that you are unsatisfied with the preparations leading to the elections?
CN. Yes indeed I am highly dissatisfied with preparations leading up to the elections but I am hopeful that government could still mend its ways in preventing rigging but more importantly ensure that INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) is truly independent. Above all, it’s important that all grievances resulting from the primaries are duly and judiciously handled. Where deemed necessary by the competent authorities, questionable primaries result must be overturned and fresh elections organized.
Q. Do you think the Electoral body is prepared?
CN. Most of the matters in the hands of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC appear to be receiving prompt attention. Take the timetable for the elections and the timelines. These have largely been respected. We can only hope that they will be truly independent such that all machineries are put in place to resist interference and rigging of the elections.
Q. Who do you think would be victorious at the polls as political parties are concerned?
CN. It is obvious that the battle for Aso Rock Presidential Villa is between the power of the incumbent, represented by Muhammadu Buhari and moneybags represented by Abubakar Atiku, which is a shame because new entrants into the political arena, represented among others by Kingsley Moghalu, often with refreshing ideas and a past unencumbered by the vagaries of either ineptitude or corruption are, one way or the other, locked out of the system. But never say never, Nigerians may wake up the night after, to the welcoming news that voters have used their voters cards to issue Buhari a one-way ticket to Daura and Atiku sent on indefinite retirement while handing Moghalu the keys to Aso Rock.
Q. How is life in Belgium compared to your home country, Nigeria?
CN. Life, be it in Belgium or in Nigeria, is what you make of it. People are quick to base their assessment of where the better life is, on materialistic factors. If that assumption were to be held true, Nigeria would never ever have emerged a few years back as a country with the happiest people on earth. That said, I believe that if the founding fathers of Belgium were to come back to life today, they’d give a pat on the back of its leaders for accomplishing their dreams of a decent life for an average Belgian. That can’t be said of Nigeria’s founding fathers, who’d surely scold his sons and daughters for perishing their dreams. However in my conversations with young Nigerian people, I see and hear and feel hope for a greater tomorrow.
Q. Do you stay in contact with Nigeria or travel there and how often is your traveling to the country of your birth?
CN. Yes I do. Settling down and finding your bearing in Europe is not and has never been an easy task. It took a while but once reasonably settled we quickly reconnected with Nigeria and try to visit at least once a year as family, especially when our boys were younger. It’s different now that they are young adults, making their own plans, which don’t necessarily include mum and dad. Business takes me home as well. All in all, I am sufficiently in contact with Nigeria.
Q. Few years ago, you led an international organization for Nigerian Diaspora. How effective has this group been in your assessment?
CN. Nigerians In Diaspora Organisaion (NIDO) Europe, of which as you pointed out, I was past Board Chairman after serving both as its Chief Executive and later as General Secretary. As a global network of Nigerian Diaspora and recognized by government as official partner on Diaspora affairs, NIDO remains an important policy instrument whose potentials are incrementally being harnessed but definitely has a long way to go in terms of arriving at what its founding fathers envisaged it to be. There are those who are impatient to see the organisation flourish beyond imagination, which is good but its effectiveness has so far been hampered by a few factors, some of which are internal but mostly external. The internal processes encourage, albeit inadvertently, ineffectiveness. This can be addressed through a purposeful constitutional review. My recommendation will be to engage independent, neutral third party to take care of this on its behalf. Why? There are just too many people involved that have vested interest and can’t be objective. The external forces, ironically are government officials tasked with supporting NIDO but again, the organisation has had the misfortune of steady supply of such officials who feel threatened by a strong and well functioning NIDO and rather work against it. And work against it, they are doing, effectively. It’s not all doomsday scenario because in the midst of these challenges, the organisation has continued to do great things supporting for instance government focus away from oil and helping to deepen Nigeria’s access to global capital and investment. Just envision the places it’d go when it’s restructured and the external enemies sent packing.
Q. You were tipped to be appointed by President Mohammadu Buhari as Director- General of the new Nigerian Diaspora Commission. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
CN. There isn’t very much to tell about that except to say that any opportunity to contribute to the growth of Nigeria as the country of my birth is one that I’d give serious consideration to; be it as D-G of the Diaspora Commission, of which indeed I helped in laying its foundation stones or in any other capacity within my competences.
Q. How best can you contribute to the advancement of Nigeria from your base in Europe?
CN. I am already contributing to Nigeria’s advancement by facilitating increase in understanding about the country and sometimes been brutally honest about the ills and challenges facing the nation. If I can do more, why not? I guess my involvement with NIDO gave me the opportunity to contribute thoughts and advise on policy matters particularly during the administration of President Obasanjo. More could be done and are being done to support any credible agenda of government without necessarily having to relocate to Nigeria but if any assignment requires relocation, why not, it’d be given consideration.
Q. Why is someone like you with political exposure and experience not willing to go and participate directly in politics in Nigeria?
CN. The same exposure and experience were gathered during my most political formative years in environments where things work differently, if not better. Which means that I suffer the disadvantages of an absent observer rather than one with both feet on the ground in Nigeria. I love the life that we have built here in Europe and the career that I have developed. That said, I believe that there are important tasks cut out for Non-State actors in Nigerian politics. We all can’t occupy elective political positions in Nigeria. In any case, I’d say: never say never but as things are currently the odds are against me packing up suddenly, destination Nigeria for the purpose of contesting election. But maybe Kingsley Moghalu, who is currently contesting to be President of Nigeria or Alistair Soyode also made this same statement in the past. So indeed, never say never.
Q. What has been your experience working with Belgian politicians?
CN. I would say pretty positive. I enjoy the politics of content here in Belgium. An average politician in Belgium is passionate about what he or she does and is driven by a deep-seated desire to hand a better world to the next generation. Belgium has helped me experience politics as a noble profession. But politics remain a hard, competitive game, be it in Belgium or in Nigeria. Like the saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat, you have no business in the kitchen.
Q. What do you plan to do in the next few years as a politician or where do you expect to see yourself?
CN. My political ambitions are modest and people-centered. My mother of blessed memory always cautioned against raising expectations for yourself and others, so that in the end nobody is disappointed. I was sworn into a new six-year term of office earlier this month as councilman for social welfare. That is the political task that enjoy my full focus as of today and in the foreseeable future. It is becoming fashionable to fight the poor when we should be fighting poverty and its causes. I want to build positive coalition to change that and focus on building opportunities for people and finding humane ways to get people to take responsibility for their lives as well. Hopefully there will be ways to foster cross-border Africa – Europe collaborations on these matters. Building on my impressive inroad as candidate Member European Parliament, I had hoped to contest the May 2019 European Parliamentary Elections but due to an unfortunate technical oversight on my part, my candidacy was not in on time. Non-State activism is something I shall be giving enhanced attention to in the coming years both by way of transfer of knowledge to Africa – I will be doing some guest lectureship in Africa annually – and facilitating trade and investment activities in Food, Beverages and Pharmaceuticals linking businesses in Flanders with Sub-Saharan Africa through my deal brokerage firm, Iroko Trade Invest. Finally I see a need to step up my mentoring of young Africans as well.
Q. You have received several awards for your work, is there any particular one that stood out for you and why?
CN. I’m not sure that so far, I have had a duplicated Award. These Awards mean different things to me and I can hardly see them in terms of one been better than the other, just different. I always feel humbled when singled out because the things I do are things I feel should be done and I do each and everyone of them with passion. To then be told by some good hearted person somewhere that it is considered exceptional and deserving of an Award is just dumbfounding. I recall the excitement I got when a few years ago, The Voice informed me of my nomination for the Award of African Political Figure of the year. That same sweet sensation came with the Award, a few years earlier, of Honorary Doctorate in Governance.