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In conversation: HE Nonye Rajis-Okpara

In conversation: HE Nonye Rajis-Okpara

Nigeria is one of the few African countries to have a full diplomatic mission in Singapore. Her Excellency Nonye Rajis-Okpara was appointed the High Commissioner in 2012. She is reputed to have injected new vitality and energy into her post and to have raised the level of interaction between the two countries several fold.

What is the current state of bilateral trade and diplomatic relations with Singapore?
Diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Singapore are very cordial and have continued to move forward, especially in the international fora. The volume of exports from Singapore to Nigeria in 2013 amounted to S$21.247bn ($17.1bn) while exports from Nigeria to Singapore came to S$5.4m ($4.2m). Imports from Nigeria include soya beans, sesame seeds, groundnuts, cashew, cocoa and some precious stones, all in their raw state. Exports from Singapore are mostly electronics, cars, spare parts and general services.
 
As you may be aware, Temasek Holdings, in conjunction with IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, and its subsidiary, the IFC’s African, Latin American and Caribbean Fund, have invested $150m, $75m and $30m respectively in a Nigerian firm, Seven Energy. Temasek Holdings is the principal investor. It has also bought 50% shares in Olam Nigeria.
 
You have been very active in establishing greater cooperation with Singapore since you took over your position two years ago. Can you give more examples of cooperation with Singaporean companies?
There have a number of MOUs as well as agreements. For example, SmartCity Resorts Plc has signed an MOU with Surbana International Consultants for the establishment of a smart city in the capital, Abuja; the Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) and the IE Singapore have signed an MOU to set up a framework for trade, industry and investment; the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) and Hyflux Limited have signed an MOU for water treatment and also with Surbana for the urban redevelopment of Abuja.
 
Other significant developments include the construction of a deepwater port in Nigeria by the Tolaram Group; cooperation between the Cross River State of Nigeria and Wilmar International in the area of plantations and palm oil mills; the construction of a container port by Pacific International Lines (PIL) for the Ogun State government and Vector Scorecard is working with the FCTA to provide its expertise to promote workforce development as well as stimulate micro and SMEs in Nigeria.
 
What activities has the High Commission undertaken to strengthen relationships with Singapore? 
We have been busy as a great deal needs to be done. We arrange high-level bilateral meetings to breach the gap between the two countries and arrange study tours for Nigerian government officials to visit Singapore and learn from its best practice.
 
We have managed to reduce the visa waiting period to two to three days and, in fact, we have reciprocated the visa waiver for holders of Singaporean diplomatic and official passports. This has made travel for diplomats and government officials far easier.We are also working closely with the Singapore government to conclude the Bilateral Air Services Agreement, Double Taxation Agreement and Investment Guarantee Agreement.
 
What would you say is the most important role that Singapore can play in Nigeria’s development programme? 
As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria is facing challenges in developing its infrastructure, such as access to clean water, constant power supply, affordable housing and accessible roads. Developing our infrastructure is critical in facilitating economic growth. This means that in order to develop the Nigerian economy, infrastructural development must improve. Singapore’s world-class companies, with their vast experience in emerging markets, can be of great help here.
Similarly, capacity-building programmes for the Nigerian workforce are of paramount importance. Singapore can partner with Nigeria to accurately determine the deficiencies in capacity-building programmes and put into place plans to rectify this.
 
Vocational education is just as critical as we embark on our industrialisation campaign. In this area, there is good collaboration between the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Singapore and the Education Trust Fund Nigeria and the Nasarawa and Imo state governments. In terms of port management, the Nigerian Ports Authority is working closely with Singapore’s PSA International, one of the world’s largest port operators.
The Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is working with the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency to help with the establishment of the Nigerian Maritime University in Okerenkoko, Delta state in Nigeria.
 
What are the opportunities for Singaporean companies in Nigeria, and vice versa?
Investment and business opportunities are huge in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. Singaporean companies such as Tolaram, Indorama, Olam, Temasek, Wilmar, to name just a few, will testify to the massive opportunities that Nigeria offers. There are also a number of companies owned by Nigerians here in Singapore. These include HARPS Holding, Sahara Energy International, Fortress Intelligence and Norfin Offshore. All these companies are doing well in their respective areas.
 
What are you doing to increase knowledge of Nigeria in Singapore and vice versa?
A great deal of this happens during the day-to-day interactions with Singaporeans from all walks of life. I take the opportunity to shed more light about Nigeria, its people, its culture, its potentials and investment opportunities.
Not so long ago, we organised the Nigeria-Singapore Business and Investment Forum 2013, which attracted over 800 delegates from Nigeria, Singapore and the Asia Pacific region. The Forum was the biggest bilateral event Singapore has ever seen. During the Forum, five MOUs were signed.
 
Awareness of Nigeria has now multiplied several fold in Singapore. Evidence of this is the number of visas the High Commission now issues to prospective investors seeking to enter the Nigerian market.
We also organise visits for Singaporean companies to visit Nigeria and provide linkages to the right businesses in the country.
 
What are your personal observations about Singapore and what can Africa learn from it?
Singapore is very clean and very organised. They are a reserved people but very passionate about the welfare of their people. It has been a tremendous success story over a very short period of time. A lot of this is the result of continuity in government policy. Successive governments build on what has been achieved, rather than change direction. Perhaps this is something we in Africa can learn from Singapore.  However, there is very little knowledge about Africa outside specialised sectors.
 
They tended to confuse Nigeria and Ghana – but not since I took office! Now they all know about Nigeria! But, seriously, we in Africa have to do more to spread the right kind of information about the continent. Publications like yours are doing a great job but we need a more concerted effort. Africa must sell itself – just as Singapore does.
 
The Nigeria-Singapore Forum last year, for example was an eye-opener for both Nigerians as well as Singaporeans and a number of agreements were entered into. This kind of face-to-face meeting, followed up by diplomatic and political support goes a long way to cementing relations. Part of my responsibility here is to drive more FDI into Nigeria. I tell my Singaporean counterparts that we have been boyfriend and girlfriend long enough – it is time to tie the knot and commit!
 
Africa can of course learn a great deal from Singapore – the importance of education, infrastructure, efficient, clean government, law and order, meritocracy, being united and so on. This country has no natural resources at all, yet look at how well it has done. We have huge reserves of natural resources – think how far we can get if we can put all the other aspects of developing successful nations in place.

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Written by Anver Versi

Anver Versi, is the award - winning editor of the London - based pan-African business monthlies, African Business and African Banker, was born in Kenya but has been based in London for the last two decades.

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