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EXCLUSIVE: As Benin Republic clocks 53

Over 6m Nigerians live in former Dahomey, 200 in jails but Amb Obisakin says ‘Nigeria is a power here, there’s no doubt about it’

Prologue

Although we had planned to launch Decade Two of Travels in Daily Sun with the premiere of a groundbreaking 10-part series on foods and eateries, in commemoration of 10 years of Travels, this week; that debut was postponed because today, August 1, coincides with Benin Republic’s National Day.

So, what’s our business with that? Only one way to find out: by perusing today’s Travels, dear reader. Moreover, we were also swayed by the enquiries from numerous readers, following my special report on Nigerian students studying abroad.

Aside from a lengthy post on www.mauricearchibongtravels.blogspot.com, that special study was serialised in three editions of the Sun Education Review, and the ever-rising number of visits to this site because of that report is proof of the relevance of the subject covered. One of these reactions, boxed as sidebar, should clue one in as to the urgent need of an expose such as we have here, today.

While looking forward to having you with us next week, here is wishing you, Happy reading…

On this day, August 1, 53 years ago; then Dahomey, today’s Republique du Benin (Republic of Benin) attained independence from France. At the political level, Benin has recorded enviable strides; for, it was one of the first post-colonial African nations to jettison military dictatorship/autocracy for democratic rule.

Moreover, Benin Republic must be an icon of pride for the entire black race because an African traditional religion, Vothoun aka Voodoo, is State Religion in this country of barely 10 million inhabitants. Interestingly, January 10 is an annual National Holiday in honour of Vothoun in these climes.

On this public holiday, countless foreign tourists could be seen savouring the charms of Vodounsi as well as the sights and sounds of Vodouno (adherents) on street procession in many a local settlement. Wow! You should come to Ouidah or Cotonou next January 10! Believe it or not, when it comes to commonsense, size counts for little. Welcome to the small, yet great nation called Benin.

6.5m Nigerians in Benin

Did you know that Nigerians and people of Nigerian ancestry account for more than 6 million, of the barely 10 million population of Benin Republic? According to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to Cotonou, Ambassador Lawrence Olufemi Obisakin, this revelation came from no-less a personality than President of Benin Republic, Dr Thomas Boni Yayi.

Speaking during an exclusive chat with Travels at the Residence of the Nigerian Ambassador in Cotonou, Amb Obisakin, further revealed that about 200 Nigerians were in different prisons across that neighbouring country. Although some of these inmates are convicts, many others are in detention awaiting trial.

Painfully, akin to the situation in Nigeria, many of those undergoing trial have been in detention for a long, long time. Expatiating, the Nigerian ambassador added that, officials of his mission had toured some of the jailhouses and he was also planning to personally visit these inmates to see things for himself.

“Some of them may have issues that need looking into and a few days ago, we facilitated the release of a Nigerian woman that had been in incarceration for some time. We don’t just want to see the inmates, we have made requests for a list of all Nigerians in prison in this country, their personal data and the offences they allegedly commited. With that, it would be easier to tell, whose case needs to be reviewed. Thus far, we are yet to be furnished with this list. However, we are not giving up on this issue”, Amb Obisakin stressed.

One of the 16 countries of West Africa, Benin is a strategic gateway to the sub-region and is important, among others, because countless Nigerians daily commute between their country’s western frontiers and places as far away as Senegal. Benin is also an important trading partner of Nigeria, even though the bulk of the commercial activities is informal and, therefore, goes largely undocumented.

Porous border and national security

Porous border and improper documentation of business transactions between Beninese and Nigerian merchants could be exploitated by money launderers as well as drug and weapons traffickers, with consequent unpalatable impact on the security of either nation. What is Obisakin’s take on this? “You may not be wrong. It’s one of the challenges and it is being tackled. But, it is principally a political issue. And, the border is important here.

“Proper management of the border is crucial, especially Seme Border. Once the construction is completed and the people supposed to be there, are there; then we would begin to address the security issue. There are two major groups you need at the border: Immigration and Customs. These are the people we really need. The others could be in the background. And, I’m glad to hear that the Minister Cordinating the Economy, Prof. Ngozi-Iweala, has said that she has started implementing that at Murtala Mohammed International Airport.

“As Pareto would say, ‘Once you resolve 20 per cent of the major problems, then 80 per cent of the minor ones could be considered solved. So, the 20-80 principle will apply, here”, Obisakin mused.

The equivalent of billions of dollars exchange hands annually through Nigerian importers and other merchants that use Cotonou’s Port Autonome. The bulk of goods imported through Port of Cotonou includes cars and edibles, such as rice, wines, spirits, poultry and vegetable oil. Other items are engine oil and used clothing alias okrika, like footwear, shirts, trousers, skirts, blouses and even underwear.

As a result, Cotonou Port has morphed into one of the busiest wharves in West Africa. As artery in and out of Nigeria, Benin Republic is also a factor in our nation’s security. Over the last three decades, Benin Republic has been attracting countless Nigerian merchants who flock the neighbouring country either as importers, clearing agents, traders or smugglers.

Cotonou, now academic Mecca for Nigerians

In the last 10 years, however, Benin has also evolved into an academic haven for thousands of Nigerian youngsters desparate for university admission. Such is the influx of our compatriots in Benin Republic that during a lecture on Conflict Management at Houdegbe North American University Benin (HNAUB), one of the many private universities in Cotonou, all the 28 students in that class were Nigerians!

This is no exaggeration. The lecturer happened to be the Nigerian Ambassador to Benin Republic, Dr Obisakin. Obisakin, who holds a PhD in Conflict Management, taught gratis for one semester at HNAUB. That stint, which had the blessing of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was practical demonstration of Obisakin’s desire to impart knowledge.

The top-flight diplomat also disclosed that some 8,000 Nigerians are currently enrolled at HNAUB. About 5,000 of these students are on-campus, while the remaining 3,000 are distant learners. “In fact, we believe that as many as 90 per cent of students at Houdegbe University could be Nigerians”, Amb Obisakin declared.

With over 20 private universities in Cotonou, the plenitude of Nigerians studying at HNAUB alone offers an insight into the plethora of Nigerian youngsters in Benin. But, there are worries: Are they enrolled at approved schools, and do the universities have accreditation for the courses they run?

As regards revelations that a number of Nigerians had actually spent tons of money and years of studying at Beninese universities only to discover on returning home after graduation that their degree was worthless; Obisakin revealed that,  finally; his mission has successfully drawn up a list of approved universities in Benin Republic.

There are 21 universities in that neighbouring country, where Nigerians seeking admission could apply, he said. The list was arrived at after meticulous study by Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou working in collaboration with Beninese Ministry of Tertiary Education, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education and other stakeholders, we gathered.

Nigeria is a power here

Although he arrived in Benin Republic’s economic capital, Cotonou, on July 9, 2012; to assume duty as President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to that country, Amb Obisakin got official endorsement of the host head of state about a month later.

Interestingly, even when he had not yet sealed protocol formalities by August 1, 2012; Obisakin was invited to the Beninese State House to partake in the celebration of that country’s 62nd independence anniversary. He put his invitation down to the special relationship between Benin Republic and Nigeria. “O, They were very kind to me”, he enthused.

According to Obisakin, the special ties between the two West African neighbours explains why the protocol of not having yet presented his Letter of Credence was waived as regards his invitation to Benin State House for the August 1, 2012 national day felicitations.

Twelves months ago, on August 6, 2012; Obisakin was at the Beninese State House, where he presented his Letter of Credence to President Boni Yayi. Therefore, in less than a week; on August 6, 2013, to be precise; Obisakin will clock a year as Nigerian Ambassador to Benin Republic.

“A lot has been achieved in the last one year. But, first of all; I must thank you Maurice Archibong for your keen interest in our work”, Amb Obisakin remarked. Back to what has been achieved over the last 12 months, Obisakin continued: “If you ask any Nigerian living in Benin Republic, they will tell you that they are seeing a better life. In fact, the watershed was in February, this year. On February 19, 2013; we were at Benin State House from 9am till 5pm in a meeting with His Excellency, President Thomas Boni Yayi”.

Obisakin recalled that the Beninese president had “summoned all his Service Chiefs, including Chief of the Forest Department, to that meeting with me. At the meeting, HE Dr Thomas Boni Yayi gave them (Benin Service Chiefs) some orders. One, that nobody must maltreat any Nigerian on this territory, any more.

“Number two: President Boni Yayi also directed that, if the most respected citizens were the French and the Americans, all citizens of Benin should give double the respect that they grant to the Americans and the French to Nigerian citizens. And, he gave reasons …

“Number one: Nigeria is the biggest partner of Benin Republic. Number two: we are one actually. We share seven common indigenous languages with them. We share 778km border with them. We have been one from pre-colonial times. Don’t forget that the Oyo Empire was here and that the Borgu Empire also was here. So, Nigeria was a power here in the past. And, we are still a power, commercially”.

Obisakin added that another achievement of his administration as Nigerian Ambassador to Cotonou could be found in the existence of a new international market at Seme-Krake. At some point, Nigerian traders were going to have problems but we were there for them. We stood by them and now, the market near Seme-Krake border is running. Seme-Krake border is the busiest of all the land borders in Nigeria. It is also the land border that yields the greatest revenue.

“Apart from that, Nigeria is clearly visible now across Benin although I would have loved to have some concrete architectural edifice here because we have more competitors now. No doubt. China is here … and that is the reality. We are immediate neighbours: that is what is special about Nigeria and Benin Republic”.

When taken up on his idea of a Nigerian architectural icon in Benin, this is what Amb Obisakin had to say: “I have always had this dream. There should be a Nigerian Cultural Centre here. We are a power, here. There’s no doubt about it”. When we put it to His Excellency that, given his vantage position to start the process of establishing a Nigerian Cultural Centre in Benin Republic, what has he done about it; Amb Obisakin replied: “Well, we are starting. But, you will agree that some of these things cannot be achieved over-night. We are just praying that it will be accepted by the leadership and relevant authorities. But, I know that with time, this will surely come.

“That’s my dream: for Nigeria to have an educational-cum-research centre, here. There’s yearning for it. The people need it. We have initiated the process by putting in some memos and NOUN (National Open University of Nigeria) is coming. People are yearning for education, here. Don’t forget, this is where you have the highest concentration of Nigerians outside home. There are 6.5 million Nigerians here”!

As to how he came by such a staggering figure, Amb Obisakin’s response was: “The President of Benin Republic, HE Dr Thomas Boni Yayi, said so. He said that about 65 per cent of the inhabitants of Benin Republic are Nigerians or Nigerian-related”.

The enviable affinity between Benin and Nigeria, Amb Obisakin intoned, has fostered formalisation of virtually all types of useful bilateral ties, one could think of. Obisakin again: “Remember, we’ve been together long before we got independence. But, let me use my own experience as an example. Nigeria and Benin have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the exchange of teachers and lecturers”.

With regard to the year that pact was entered into, Obisakin said it was a long time ago. This ambassador, who was admitted to University of Ife in 1975, was beneficiary of this academic exchange treaty. That is how Obisakin came to have a Beninese, Prof Ige Akanni Mahmoud, among his lecturers at Ife, those days. Evidently, that MoU, he noted must have been signed more than 35 years, ago.

Nonetheless, it must be pointed out, that the much-vaunted bond between Benin and Nigeria is not bereft of challenges. We also took Nigeria’s Number One citizen in Benin on this point. “The only challenge we have, and thank God it is being resolved by our President, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan GCFR, who is interested in the very good and warm relation we have with this country, is that; in 2009, a meeting of the Benin-Nigeria Joint Commission had to end abruptly as a result of some border and boundary issues. But, now; we are meeting again.

“Remember, that our presidents have been meeting. The President of Benin, Dr Boni Yayi, is about the only foreign president that spends his vacation in Nigeria. In September, last year; he was in Nigeria for one week; from the 19th to the 26th on national vacation”.

Rules must be obeyed, nobody should leave Nigeria without travel papers

Obisakin however warned that the propinquity between Benin and Nigeria is not an excuse for anyone to disobey necessary rules. “Nigerians”, he stressed, “must realise that, though Benin may be close and they may share the same language with some Beninese, Benin Republic is, albeit, another country. Only yesterday (July 27, 2013), some people came; about 20, and they had not a single passport on them. Yet, they want to cross the border. And, not only that; they planned to go farther beyond Benin.

“I want Nigerians to know that, it is true that ECOWAS links us and there’s free movement of persons, goods and services; but, you must have a valid Nigerian passport to cross the Nigerian border. Nobody should leave his country into another without necessary documents. Nigerians need to know this because it will save us a lot of distraction. We have so much to do.

“There are many opportunities that we need to explore. For example, can you believe that people here have links with Belgium? Can’t we have a facility here to airlift such tourists to Obudu in Nigeria by helicopter, when they are through with their visit here? So, we don’t want distraction because every time you send an officer out, to go and bail someone, another duty suffers”, Obisakin stressed.

Nigerians crossing the border with firearms is another source of worry for Ambassador Obisakin. “You can’t do that … You are indirectly declaring war, the moment you cross into another man’s land with firearms without approval”, he charged.

Have we had such incidents? “O, I thank God that one of the things we have succeeded in drumming into Nigerians is that those that have authority to bear arms, now know that; that authorisation only covers Nigerian territory. It does not cover another person’s territory”, Obisakin remarked.

The weal outweighs the woes

In spite of all the challenges thrown at the Amb Obisakin-led Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou, the envoy reasoned: “Yes, there are challenges. But, considering the large body of Nigerians in this country, things could have been worse. In other words, out of every twelve, there must be a Judas. Even Jesus Christ had a Judas. So, a very tiny fraction of our population here present challenges and I have to thank God for the people I have here.

“Apart from the capable hands at the mission, there are a lot of Nigerian personalities in Benin. Most Nigerians in this country are noted for doing their duty well. For example, those in Kandi: During my visit there, the Mayor told me he thanks God for having Nigerians in their midst. Not only do Nigerians living in Kandi pay their taxes promptly, they sometimes pay ahead of time. I’m proud of Nigerians and I can tell you that others are proud of us, too”; Obisakin concluded.

Nigeria International Market opens in Benin Republic

After 40 years at what some now call wilderness, Nigerian traders in Benin Republic say they have finally got to the Promised Land. They made this declaration last Saturday, November 17, 2012; during the formal inauguration of the Nigeria International Market at Okun Seme Village in Commune de Seme-Podji (Seme-Podji Local Government Area), Departement de l’Oueme. So, less than six months after its foundation-laying ceremony on June 8, this year; the Nigeria International Market, which a few years ago would have been considered an unrealisable dream, has become a reality.

Also, November 17, 2012 has gone down in history as the day the first-ever market run by Nigerians was established in any foreign country across the globe. Speaking at the ceremony, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to Benin Republic, Ambassador Lawrence Olufemi Obisakin; remarked: “I sincerely congratulate all of you, who made this possible. I must also tell you that, I am delighted that this historic development is taking place during my tenure here”.

The polyglot Yoruba-born top-flight diplomat dug into Igbo cultural cornucopia and pulled out a Chinua Achebe adage, and got spontaneous applause; when he echoed: “The Igbo say that, the lizard that survived a fall from a tall iroko tree without breaking its back, truly deserves to applaud itself, even if no-one else would hail its feat. So, I’m happy at this development and indeed proud of you, all”. The Nigerian envoy oscillated with ease between English and French languages, official tongues of Nigeria and Benin Republic respectively. Not only that, Obisakin also interspersed his speech with Igbo chants, Yoruba adages and Sanu nku, Hausa language for Thank you all; consequently eliciting a standing ovation at the end of his rendition.

Henceforth, no more living in fear as used to be the plight of countless Nigerian traders, when they operated at Missebo Market. At Missebo aka Biafra Market, countless merchants struggled for space in an area that was never originally designated as Market Precinct in the town’s Master Plan. At Missebo, motorists had trouble getting around because vendors and hawkers had taken over everywhere: kerbs, sidewalks and the roads.

There was congestion everywhere, and because of the state of the Missebo neighbourhood, police regularly had genuine reasons to sanitise the surroundings. Moreover, speculations were also rife that undesirable elements found camouflage in the rowdy situation of Missebo and planned or launched unsavoury activities therefrom. On the other hand, however, many Nigerian traders recounted experiences of excessive taxation, even extortion at the hand of some officials. Some Nigerian merchants also claimed they were frequently harassed by local security operatives at Missebo.

The way things stood at their old base, it was no longer a question of, whether things will someday get to the breaking-point; but, when. That dreaded defining moment came more than a year ago, when numerous shops and stalls, believed to be illegal structures; were demolished by the authorities. Suddenly, countless Nigerians resident in Benin Republic and making a living as traders at Biafra Market for decades, found themselves in a lurch. With no mart to conduct their trading, hardship set-in in various ways. Children’s school fees were late in coming and many families were forced to tighten their belts as waist-lines came down from empty stomachs.

However, all hopes were not lost because a few responsive Nigerian community leaders were frantically searching for a way out of the crisis. Initially, apparently due to desperation; some people were actually going to jump at an offer to relocate to another site, even when it was common knowledge that the domain would only be available for three years. To worsen matters, checks revealed there was no provision for a market in that domain, too. For these reasons, Chief Ebuka Onunkwo, Eze Igbo of Benin Republic was against the idea of going to another temporary site.

Hear him: “I was convinced that it would not help us. If we moved to that location and after three years, when we would have developed the area; we are asked to move away, again; we might even be more vulnerable then. “For how long were we going to run from pillar to post? So, I felt we needed something permanent, a place where our people shall enjoy peace of mind; and, our final decision led us here.

This is the Promised Land and it was made possible by our people’s sacrifice, patience and perseverance”, declared Onunkwo; who went on to ask Nigerians to see a template in this fruit of their cooperation. “We can achieve great things, when we work as one”, declared Chief Onunkwo, who holds the title of Odozi-obodo 1, during his address at the inauguration of the market.

The Igbo king observed that, while every Nigerian was prepared to operate as a responsible merchant by paying necessary taxes; never-the-less, it had become inevitable to implore Beninese authorities to temper justice with mercy by avoiding crippling taxation of Nigerians doing business in that country, because every Nigerian is not a money-bag. Chief Onunkwo said that, while Nigeria could be considered as very rich and blessed by God in terms of endowments; every Nigerian was not a money-bag.

He revealed that, from the difficulties that some of the traders faced; when called upon to pay certain dues, it was apparent that “most of our people here are struggling and just managing to make ends meet”. From the cheers that greeted his speech, it was glaring that Eze Igbo spoke well. Not to be outdone, Mayor of Seme-Podji, Hon. Mathias Gbedan also invoked loud cheers from the audience for his address as well as the minute-long prayer for President of Benin Republic, HE Dr Thomas Yayi Boni.

The Mayor pointedly recalled that Chief Onunkwo was the first Nigerian to meet him over the possibility of establishing a market by Nigerians at Seme-Podji. Although much has been achieved, a lot more remains to be done. Thus, amid the euphoria, key figures were still sober enough to remind that the wooden and corrugated-ironsheet roof stalls were temporary structures and that permanent blocks could only be built through more sacrifices by the traders as well as support from relevant agencies, especially financial institutions.

Indeed, photographs bearing artists’ impression of the proposed permanent structure of the market were on display for all to see during the event. Representatives of two Beninese banks with Nigerian hubs, UBA and Diamond; who spoke at the event, promised that their banks would give the welfare of traders at the market priority over institutional competition. “Normally, banks are in business for competition and the competition will continue, but; as far as this project (Nigeria International Market) is concerned, we will give priority to the traders’ welfare as long as the traders also help to make things easier for us”, declared the UBA representative at the event.

Aside Amb Obisakin, Mrs. Maureen d’Almeida, Women Leader and Hotel Proprietress; Chef de Securite d’Arrondissement (CIA, Chief Security Officer of the LGA), Mr. Medeyonwa Leopold; Tradition Ruler of Okun Seme, Majestie Gbena; and, Traditional Religion Leader, Vodouno Gbedo; were also there. Ede, Osun State-born President of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Cotonou Chapter; Past. Julius A. Aderinto as well as executive members of all of Nigeria’s regional bodies were also in attendance. Roll call: Alhaji Mounirou Garba, Seriki Hausawa, though unavoidably absent, was well-represented by Limann Abu Abubakar and Mallam Salihu Mohammed Waziri; Mr. Fatai Abimbola Oladimeji, Chairman of Yoruba Community; Chief Bruno Omoregbe, Mr. Kufre Ekanem, Mr. Promise Obulor, Mr. Wilfred Imasuen, Mr. Afeez Owonikoko, General Secretary of Nigerian Traders’ Welfare Union (NTWU) as well as two of the day’s event’s MCs; Mr. Okezie I. Jonathan and Prince Emeka Onyenweaku.