Last week, Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President of the European Commission, was in Nigeria holding talks with the government and other stakeholders on ongoing EU projects in Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with THISDAY, she stressed the importance of Nigeria to Europe while stating that Nigerian democracy is for Nigerians to determine. Michael Olugbode brings the excerpts:
Can you tell us the reason for your visit to Nigeria?
First, I was travelling with my president, the president of the European Union, to Senegal. She wanted to announce the funding of what we call the bill gateway, which is a European proposal for partnership on solid and soft infrastructure. And the announcement was 150 billion euros over seven years. And then I thought, I want to go in order to learn in order to see what is really interesting here, the obvious choice was Nigeria. This is a giant. It’s a country of big potential.
The youth, the young generation, the talent of the young generation is so promising, and for us, for the European Union, it’s really important to partner up not only with the African Union but also with individual countries. And Nigeria is it, a running global player, just as well as, of course, already a strong regional player. So for me, it was an obvious choice to come here to discuss digitalisation, investment, facilitation, cooperation, in general, also on energy. Nigeria is a strong and long partner in the export of liquefied gas. So quite a number of important discussions were enabled by being here. And I’ve been here for four days. And obviously, the impression has been created. I think I was right to come here. This is a great country,
You must have spoken with some people while in the country. What are the responses like?
Well, I think that, as I said, there is a sense of partnership. Nigeria and Europe have been working together for a long time. There is also a sense of the talent that I see here of the ownership of the future of Nigeria. People coming back from having lived or studied abroad, people here building their businesses, I think a lot have confidence in being able to build an idea in future. And as I found out, this is really attractive for our partnership.
What challenges and opportunities do you see in the digital ecosystem of Nigeria? What is the EU doing to support this?
The interesting thing for me is to see that actually, we share both the same problems, but also the same opportunities. The first one is connectivity. The second is skill. The third is digitisation of public services and utilisation and businesses. Connectivity, in particular, it’s really interesting to see that the high level of connectivity in Nigeria, but it is highly likely that it can be improved. We also have strong investment programmes in Europe for connectivity. So we would want to partner up here, and both with a submarine cable of West Africa to connect both to Europe but also to South America and the Bella cable, which is coming out of Portugal. And also on 4G, so the mobile infrastructure for that to be enabled. So I’ve had really interesting discussions about connectivity, because without connectivity, well, obviously no digitalization, second on skills to enable people to have both basic skills and of course expert skills.
And here, we would also want to partner up. It’s part of our proposal of a programme to partner up also on skills. It’s interesting to see that as we hear, legislation on privacy is moving forward in the parliamentary processes, as well as in work on e-identity. And this is very much in parallel as to what we have been doing in Europe. We see the possibility to identify yourself as one of the things that can create trust online so that you know that the person that you’re dealing with, even if not physically present, is actually the person who says that he or she says that they are. That is also still a work in progress in Europe, but we see that strongly here. So these government services, also discussing digitisation of customer services, of course, that will pave the way for digitisation of businesses. And being in last, in particular, feeling that energy that busts of businesses being built was really impressive.
Can you share with us what you think Nigeria needs to do to be fit for the digital age?
For me, I had to think about it quite a lot when I got that assignment. Because for me, being fit is usually that you change yourself to do something. Actually, I think the most important thing is that we master technology for technology to serve us as people. Because one of my fears is that if we do not master technology, both in legislation and in skills, it will not be to the benefit of people. And that is our main focus, to make sure that it’s always with the human in the centre. It’s always the citizens who own the data. It’s the citizen who gets the site how the data should be used. And that I feel mirrored here, that fundamental respect of the individual, the integrity, the respect of the individual. I think that is key to successful digitisation.
Considering the exchange rate of euros to naira, which has made equipment from Europe expensive in Nigeria and many parts of Africa, why should Nigeria look toward Europe?
I think you are right to ask because there is a choice. There is an obvious choice. And really, these choices are being presented here. And I think the European proposal on the European approach is a package because it comes with these fundamentals of the human being at the centre, while at the same time, connectivity products. Fibre skill provision is a very high quality. And I think that is quite a unique combination that you get in that respect, then, of course, it’s a choice. But I think it’s for me. It’s really important also to present it as a choice that there is a deep-rooted policy decision to be made here as to what kind of society you would want to be.
If you are Nigerian, and you are presented with the decision of buying this rather expensive technology from Europe and the alternative of getting cheaper ones elsewhere, where would you turn?
I am not the right one to answer that question. Because for me the obvious choice is Europe. Because we are next-door neighbours. We have known each other for so long. And we share some of the fundamentals. And that is that, for me, I think the best possible foundation for something that will really work for both parties.
Looking at the huge resources the EU has invested in Nigeria’s democratic process since 1999, over €100 million, is the EU satisfied with the progress made so far?
I don’t think it’s for me to judge. I think it is for the Nigerians to judge over their own democracy. There is an election coming up, and that is what I think we should be happy about. Because the point of democracy is that the voters are in charge, I am proud that there has been this solidarity between European democracy and Nigerian democracy for so long. I am proud it is seen as helpful because for me, democracy is the way of governing that can really deliver, but it is for the Nigerian voters to decide and to judge how they see things.
One year from now, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect new leaders. What should we expect from the EU?
Well, this should be the other way round. What are the expectations from you? Of course, if asked, I think, as in any election, there is an international community. But there’s not a specific European angle to this because an election in a democracy is for the voters who participate in that election. And for the candidates who put out their candidature for the voters. Because there is a very direct relationship between those votes and those who then become elected, they have responsibilities. When I became the commissioner seven years ago, for the first time, I had to leave the Danish Parliament. I was no longer a directly elected servant of my constituency. I was indirectly elected by my government and by the European Parliament. And that was really difficult. Because the relationship between you as a politician and your voters must be direct and strong, because you are trusted, and because of that, you have a responsibility, and this is, of course, why it’s so important that there is no interference in that discussion, that lead up to the very important, I think, most crucial thing in citizenship, that you can actually cast your vote.
What should be the expectations from the EU in terms of support like financing and perhaps assistance to the female politicians to get more of them elected?
But I think here, we are in your hands. And it is glaring from all the programmes that we do, we have a special focus on women and young people, as job creators, as entrepreneurs, as business creators, as agents for change also in European businesses. So if there was something specific, then you would tell us, then we would come, you know, rolling out the programmes.
What is your take on military coups in Africa?
This should be condemned. I was really happy with the very strong reaction within the African community against the coups. And I think it’s really important that the international community supports whatever sanctions the African community themselves are imposing against those who execute the coup d’etat. Because this is not a way for prosperity. This is not a way obviously for democracy to be enabled.
But, it seems that coups are reactions to the governments not meeting the expectations of their people. What are you doing to make the leaders meet the expectations of their people and, in effect, make it hard for any military misadventure?
It’s difficult for me to answer in general. But I think as an example, you can look at the partnership that we have here. A partnership that enables young people to start their own business, to get a head start with a private business, could be a European business. Because if you want change, then you should give people opportunities. And I think, for instance, the thing we do with the Tony Elumelu Foundation, you know, it’s a grant in US dollars, it’s a business education’s mentorship. I think that kind of opportunity is very critical. What we signed yesterday, the Nigerian Jubilee Fellows Programme to enable a one year paid employment in a private or public business and some of the businesses that would sign up, they are indeed European businesses. I think that kind of opportunity should be created. And I think the partnership between Nigeria and Europe is a very good way, how we can help each other to do that.
One year after Brexit, how has it been with the EU?
Oh, is it a while being here? I haven’t thought about it for four days. It’s my colleague who’s doing all the concrete negotiations. And one can say that things are not fully settled yet. There continue to be discussions about how to put into real-life the agreements that were signed, so it remains to be seen what will be the next thing for us. It is really important that we get Brexit done in the way agreed. And the way we agreed, obviously, is a bit complex because Northern Ireland needs an open border with the rest of Ireland, which means that they have de facto direct access to the single market, and that, of course, tends to complicate matters a bit. And I think that is the reason why things are not settled, but they’re not settled for quite good reasons. I think it will still take some time.