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America doesn’t know where Chibok girls are — Hawkins

Past United States Consul General, Jeffrey Hawkins, tells BAYO AKINLOYE before leaving Nigeria that the US did not have any preference between Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari during the presidential election, among other issues

Looking at the last general elections, do you think Nigeria is ready for true democracy?

I don’t think it’s a question of Nigeria being ready. Nigeria is already practising true democracy. And like all true democracies, there is no stasis –that’s not a place you arrive and you stay at without moving on. True democracy is an ongoing process; it’s an ongoing process in the United States. We have seen a lot of changes even in recent years in our political system. Therefore, true democracy is an ongoing process in Nigeria. And I think that even though the elections were not perfect, they certainly reflected the will of the Nigerian people and demonstrated that Nigeria is a democracy and has a democratic system. There are flaws; there are things that need to be worked on; like corruption in the system. There are technical issues with the conduct of the elections. Problems here and there but at the end of the day Nigeria has a democratic culture. It has a free, vibrant and independent media and press; and it has an electoral system –the Independent National Electoral Commission –that is capable of conducting elections. Apparently, Nigeria is a democracy.

Prior to the March 28 presidential election, not a few people said that the body language of the US tilted towards a change in government. Is that true?

No, that is no true. Two things were important to us and we ran like a broken record for many months with these things. The first was the issue of non-violence. The US ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, talked about it and that was the focus of Washington trying to convince Nigerians that non-violence was crucial and obviously most people shared that outlook. But there were a few people out there, I think, who were inclined to use violence if they did not get what they wanted electorally or they were afraid they would not get what they wanted. We were very interested in getting to them exactly and convincing them that violence is not the right approach. That was certainly one of the messages (that the US will deny visa to any Nigerian politician guilty of electoral violence) that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, gave right before the election in January. The second was transparency in the electoral process. The election was conducted in a way that reflected the will of the Nigerian people. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as long as the process worked and it was democratic and it was peaceful, we could care less who won the (presidential) election. It really does not make any difference to us at all. And we knew that if President Goodluck Jonathan won or now President Muhammadu Buhari won, we knew that the relationship between the US and Nigeria was strong indeed and that was going to continue. Therefore, who won wasn’t a point to us but how they won was what was important to us.

In the build up to that election, Washington warned that it would deny visa to any Nigerian politicians who got involved in violence before, during and after the election. Does the US government have a list to that effect?

I think that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made it clear that we would not welcome to the United States people that interfere with the electoral process; people that engage in violence and that is something that we look at constantly and we want to make sure that the real offenders are not welcomed in the United States.

So, there is no list of these people who might have perpetrated violence during the general elections?

You are not going to go on the Internet and find any list.

Take for instance, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s wife, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, who was accused of making an inciting comment during an election campaign; is the US not going to do anything about that?

One of the things about our laws –and our laws do permit us to render ineligible for visas people who are involved in corruption, violence and gross violations of human rights. These are decisions covered by policy of privacy and it is not something that we announce.

We will like to confirm if it is true that the United States is seeking the extradition of Senator Buruji Kashamu for an indictment on drug trafficking?

Generally speaking, we don’t discuss ongoing law enforcement issues like this.

Does the United States know where the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram are?

No. I will like to say that the Nigerian government is trying very hard to generate information and tell us where they are. But when people ask, ‘Do you know where these girls are?’ I do not think they quite get the dynamics of the Chibok girls’ situation. First of all, we are talking about a large number of individuals (group of girls) who are sitting in one location waiting to be rescued. I don’t think all the girls are held together in one place. We are working hard with our Nigerian partners to find the Chibok girls. Even if at one point we discover where one or two groups of the girls are does not necessarily mean that we can go in there and rescue them; it is not that quite simple. They are really an iconic part of the struggle and the American people I think their trauma really resonated in the United States with Michelle Obama holding up Bringbackourgirls sign. It is truly important that we do all we can to help bring back the girls but it is much more important to move the wider struggle forward (by bringing the Boko Haram insurgency to an end) so that such kind of a thing does not repeat itself. We are trying to achieve that with Nigeria and our partners across the West African region.

What efforts is the US government making in blocking Boko Haram’s source of financing?

Obviously, we are concerned about Boko Haram and what is encouraging it to have the longevity it has is connected to its sources of revenue. That is what Nigeria and its international partners are working on and I do not think I can go into details of that.

Like the United Kingdom, does the US have any prisoner exchange agreement with Nigeria?

I do not think the US has any such arrangement. I am not sure.

Despite several allegations of human rights violations against the Nigerian security forces –particularly the military – the Nigerian Army has repeatedly denied any rights abuses. Is there any likelihood that the United States will now sell weapons to Nigeria so as to effectively combat Boko Haram?

This is something we look at all the time. I mean you have got to step back for a minute and acknowledge that in a conflict situation where people are dying and there are a lot of stress and strains, it is not unusual to have abuses by the military forces. But, that has been true everywhere –and it has been true in the United States. And so, it is not necessarily an indictment on Nigeria. But if credible allegations were brought forward, it is absolutely imperative that the Nigerian authorities look into those allegations. It is imperative to do that because Nigerian laws require them to do that. It is imperative to do that because it is the right thing to do. It is imperative to do that because it is good to counter the insurgency –the people feel like the security forces are predatory and are not there to protect them (in the North-East, for example). Therefore, the military are not likely to get cooperation from the people in fighting Boko Haram. It is vital that Nigeria looks into that. The United States’ laws –there is something called the Leahy Amendment which requires us to review the human rights records of any individual or any unit that we are engaging with concerning our equipment; and we will do that. It is not personal about Nigeria. We do that with every country we engage with. Therefore, if there are credible allegations out there; we have to look at them to decide as a matter of fact our decision to supply such assistance.

Recently, the US’ Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage in the country while Nigeria’s laws are seen to be hostile to homosexuality. How does the US intend to assist Nigeria in that regard?

I think one thing to keep in mind is that just because somebody comes from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community like Nigeria, for example, does not mean the person should give up his rights to be a Nigerian. And that is a basic approach to the issue. We are not trying to impose same-sex marriage on other countries –that is for Nigerians to decide. But we are strongly saying that people from the LGBT community have rights as human beings and human rights. Therefore, if there is any legislation that punishes people for being who they are or legislation that prevents people from talking about this issue or joining associations on this issue like same-sex marriage, for us that is quite problematic –not because we are trying to push a certain agenda on anybody because we believe deeply in equality and human rights. And we feel in that instance that human rights are not being respected.

The US President Barack Obama has not visited Nigeria. Is this a deliberate action as many Nigerians feel he is snubbing the most populous black nation on earth?

I would have been so happy to have been part of the Obama visit to Nigeria –that would have been so much fun for me. And it would have been so much celebration about the relationship between Nigeria and the US. I do regret that during my tenure that it didn’t happen. You know he is a busy man; he has other priorities and things that have come up for him. I do not think Nigerians should take it (Obama’s not having visited Nigeria) personally. I think that in the short term they should focus on the Washington visit (President Buhari is scheduled to visit the White House in July). It is going to be a great celebration of the relationship between both countries; a wonderful opportunity for the two heads of state to meet and discuss the relationship.

Punch

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