The United States Consul General in Lagos, Will Stevens, speaks with TUNDE AJAJA about collaborations between the two countries, reasons for the backlog of visa applications, 2023 elections and the forthcoming US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington
There is a widespread perception that the US is no longer playing any significant role to help Nigeria fight insecurity apart from selling military hardware to Nigeria, like 12 Tucano jets and 12 Cobra Attack Helicopters. How is the US helping Nigeria?
One of the things people may not see is that our security and support systems are largely about partnerships and we put our Nigerian partners at the forefront, and I will give an example. The Drug and Enforcement Agency has an office here in Lagos and we work closely with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. We provide them with intelligence, training and we work really closely with them. Of course, you will never see a press release from the DEA. I think that is the best kind of support; helping organisations build capacity, helping with the skills they need to be successful. It’s all about partnership; learning from each other and learning together. Nigerian operatives know more about the drug traffickers than an American DEA agent coming in from Houston. One mantra I say all the time is that we don’t need African solutions to African problems, we need to get African solutions to global problems. We need to think about the security challenges because they are transnational threats and the same bad guys that deal in drugs, move wildlife products are the same people who are sometimes involved in oil theft, illegal bunkering and the likes. They are bad actors and they don’t care. So, we work together but you won’t see us saying these are the things we are doing; there is a lot of partnership on the field. For example, the US has been a key partner in Nigeria’s fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Your experience in public diplomacy work spans different countries, what are your priorities and targeted goals in your three-year tour of duty in Nigeria?
One of the things I hope to do, together with Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and of course President Joe Biden is emphasise the strength and depth of the United States’ relationship with Nigeria. I think there are tremendous opportunities for growth in trade and investment and I think a lot of that is about identifying the areas where we are already working together and building on them. Success begets success and US investors and companies see the shared prosperity in Nigeria, so it’s about working together to increase US and Nigeria trading investment. It also includes working on elections. We have been a strong advocate and supporter of the work the Independent National Electoral Commission has been doing over the years to ensure that when Nigerians vote, their votes count. We will be monitoring the elections and we have made it clear that we do not have a preferred candidate or parties in this election. We are doing everything we can to support Nigeria to ensure that there is a free, fair, peaceful and credible election, which reflects the will of the Nigerian people.
Over the years, young people do not adequately participate in elections, but this time round there seems to be a surge in youth participation. What’s the level of youthful participation in US elections and what can be done to encourage that demography of our population to show more interest in the exercise?
I think some of the challenges you have in Nigeria, we have them in the United States as well, which is that it’s hard for youths to understand the roles of government in their lives and to understand how government impacts their lives and their future, so they don’t necessarily feel the imperative to vote. Therefore, civic education is a really important element; explaining to them that even the local government administration plays key roles in what happens in their day-to-day lives, the medical services available to them or the infrastructure they use every day. Your voice matters and that is what democracy is about. Through the United States Agency for International Development, we have supported a variety of programmes, including educating people about the voting process and supporting civil society organisations. We think it’s important for people to understand how to vote and recognise that their votes will be counted. I believe that when people participate in democracy, they feel invested in it.
You once served as the senior advisor on countering violent extremism at the Bureau of African Affairs in Washington. Violent extremism is a problem in Nigeria, what would you recommend as the solution to that problem?
I think if there was a simple solution, someone would have found it. It’s a complicated problem and I think it aligns with many of the things I hear around here and our strategy on Africa and Nigeria, which is the need for a strong response that recognises and supports human rights but also goes out for the bad guys. However, you also need economic growth and development. We are really focused on trade and investment, because more trade, investment and exports can help those areas that are underserved or facing economic hardships. Through the USAID, we have a variety of programmes focused on economic development of those areas that have been hardest hit by many violent extremist organisations. It’s a four-pillar approach; security, economic growth, trade and investment and respect for human rights and democratic values, which entails ensuring that people feel they have a say, their rights are being respected and they have freedom of religion and movement. Those things are critical and you can’t do one and leave out the other. They all have to work together. Our strategy across Nigeria and the African continent has really been those pillars. In some places, we focus on security threats because if the bad guys are running amok, it’s hard to focus on economic growth.
Currently, interview appointments for fresh visa applications have extended to 2024 while we are still in 2022, is there a surge in the number of Nigerians seeking to travel to the US, or something else is responsible for this backlog?
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We have a big backlog and we are working hard to dig into it. It has dropped quite a bit in the last two months. We have increased the eligibility for people to use what we used to call Dropbox, which is interview waiver. If you have had a visa that expired in the last four years, you don’t have to come in for an interview. That window used to be two years, but now it’s four years. That means many more people don’t have to come in for an interview. We have also increased staffing by adding more people so we can deal with the surge. Covid-19 really hit us in terms of staffing; some people left and we had to conduct interviews and go through the process. But now we are back to full staffing. I am optimistic that it may take some time but we will get there. I think there is an incredible demand and interest. One of the things we have done is to prioritise key sectors, like student visas for people who want to travel on time for the September resumption and now for January. We had a 12 per cent increase this year in the number of Nigerians studying in the US after almost 15,000 Nigerians in the US, which puts Nigeria in the top 10 countries that send students to the US. It’s a wonderful thing; they go and study and they come back with deep connections to the US. Talk of the Optional Practical Training, which enables them to work for some time after they graduate. I can’t tell you how many Nigerians who spent some time in the US working or studying and they brought that experience back to Nigeria. I think it’s a really good thing and we are right to focus on that. The backlog is still there and we are working hard on it and I think we will get the figures down. But like I said, there is a decrease in the waiting time, and it has gone down quite significantly. For example, the wait time for B1/B2 has dropped from 740 days to 443 days.
What do you think is fuelling the surge?
The demand is there for sure, but some apply for visas in advance if the date is close. Also, there are people who have somehow figured out a way to buy appointments. That has been a challenge we are working on. We definitely discourage people from using those systems. You don’t have to pay to get an appointment for a visa and for people who want to travel urgently for business, humanitarian and medical needs, they could request for an expedited appointment. For students, we are going through the system to try to get them appointments, so they don’t have to use those channels. We are aware of the problem, we definitely discourage it and we are doing our best to try to put some systematic changes in the appointment system.
However, I’m a strong believer in exchange. I’m not into the brain drain narrative; I believe that when you go to the US or an American comes here, you learn and understand the environment and you can export the new skills you have acquired back to your country. Let’s say you travel to the US for your PhD and you come back to your university and you have connections with academics in the United States, which makes your research international, making you a better professor and academic. I think it’s a good thing and there are countless stories of really successful leaders in Nigeria who have spent some time in the US. So, we are happy about it.
You played a major role in the 2014 US-Africa Leaders Summit, what were the major outcomes of that summit and what are the expected outcomes for Nigeria and others this time round?
In 2014, I worked with the then administration of President Barack Obama and Vice-President Biden and I directed the public affairs planning. There are a couple of gratifying deliverables from that summit. The first was that we launched the Mandela Washington Fellowship, and many people have probably heard of the Young African Leaders Initiative. It’s our key engagement platform with African youths and young leaders. Each year, we send a little less than 1,000 young leaders to the United States for a six-week intensive programme. Right now, Nigeria has the largest number of persons on the programme, and I have met with some of them. We had incredibly inspiring people. These are young leaders in civil society organisations who are taking personal risks to make their countries better. They work in the media, health sector and other areas. I met an amazing young female doctor from Kano State who posts social media messages for young women on their health and she faces threats to her life because of the things she talks about. So, the Mandela Washington Fellowship is about empowering young people, connecting them with their peers in the United States and building a network of young and future leaders across the continent. That programme has been widely successful. The second thing that was launched in 2014 was Power Africa, which is about addressing the energy production and distribution gap and electrifying the continent, and how can the US, through the team in Power Africa and USAID, provide technical support to local and national governments but also bring in private sector investment to help get these deals done. About a week or two ago, I interacted with Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State about the Integrated Resource Plan, which is about how Lagos will be electrified and what are the opportunities for the government and the private sector. I know that in this upcoming summit, you would see real focus on trade and investment, democracy and of course, climate change, peace and security, and we have a youth forum and business forum where business leaders from the US would meet with the attendees. I think we are going to see some exciting deliverables. I’m not allowed to talk about exactly what they are, but some interesting things would come out for Nigeria and Africa. President Biden and Secretary Blinken launched our Africa Strategy a few months ago and people always ask what it’s about. Really, it speaks to this mantra of working together to elevate those African solutions to solve global challenges. It’s recognition that we need Africa at the table when we are dealing with these tough issues. We need them to deal with the threats to democracy together with us. We need to work together to combat climate change and food insecurity and I think it’s a long overdue recognition of the importance of the continent.
Some people believe it’s an initiative to rival the incursion of China, Russia and some European countries into Africa, what do you make of that?
I believe it really is about African leaders meeting with President Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and key leaders from the private sector. We have had the most robust diplomatic presence on the continent, so we see African leaders all the time and it’s okay for entities to engage with Africa and they have for a long time, so I feel that is a wrong context to look at it from. I believe it’s much more about how the US can continue to support the continent and learn from our African partners. Nigeria is a major influencer in the United States right now. We are now putting your music in our movies and your talents are influencing the entire world using US tech solutions. Some of the biggest influencers on YouTube and Instagram are Nigerians, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be; we are supposed to learn from each other. I hope people see this conference in that context; that it’s about working together, learning from one another and sharing.
You led the US Government’s Interagency task force on countering Russian narratives on the Ukraine crisis, do you see an end to the war anytime soon, given the impact it has on other countries, including the current cost of wheat in Nigeria?
We obviously stand with the people of Ukraine. There is an internationally acceptable set of norms that we all signed up for when we joined the United Nations, part of which is that you do not invade your neighbours or try to change borders while pointing a gun. So, world leaders stand together against that. It’s not okay and we can’t accept it because if you do, it encourages further aggression. We stand with the international community and we believe Ukraine can and will win, but we empathise with the hardships Nigerian people and people around the world are suffering as a result of Russia’s brutal invasion and the impact on food security around the world. We have actually done a few things in Nigeria to mitigate the impact. In August, we announced $55m food security assistance to help address the food and nutrition crisis and we will continue to assess the situation. It’s one of the elements of the summit; how we can work together to improve food distribution. But we have to stand up to Russia. The united international community needs to say this is not okay and that borders are not bargaining chips.
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