Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images.
Christchurch, New Zealand was the location. (Yes, the same Christchurch hit by a devastating earthquake in February 2011 in which over 180 people were killed.) From here you can peer and almost touch the International Date Line so to say. It was a very cold Wednesday evening in June. There we were at the meeting of the Nigerian Association in Canterbury, huddled around the table, trying to keep warm, seeping coffee, thousands of miles away from home where, unlike here, the sun is always shining.
As High Commissioner to New Zealand, I had gone to present my letter of Credence at the capital Wellington. Of course after the event I muttered to myself, I will overfly earthquake-prone Christchurch and head for Auckland the next location with a sizeable Nigerian population and where the ground is firmer! But on proper reflection I thought, if I dare scurry out of town for fear of earth tremors, I would be shirking my responsibility. After all, after the last earthquake, I had called to make sure all was well with the Nigerian community. How then can I be within shouting distance of Christchurch and not see my brothers and sisters at the very end of the earth? The president of the association, Oluwaseun Fasheun, made a passionate plea that I come to Christchurch. So off we went to Christchurch.
Truly, here is the end of the world. It takes you almost 23 hours to fly from Nigeria to Sydney, Australia and another three hours to hop across to New Zealand. Yet here I was with fellow Nigerians. Most of the men came along with our in-laws, “Niger wives” and lovely toddlers in tow.
A thousand questions raced through my mind as we engaged ourselves. Facing the president of the association my first question was “What on earth are you people doing in this place where the earth is always shaking every minute and threatening to swallow everything in sight? Why on earth did you choose to come to this place, a place where reportedly there has since been about 10,000 earth tremors since the last fatal earthquake? Taiwo Afisi a PhD student from LASU shrugged his shoulder and said High Commissioner “Ah we are used to it o! What can we do”? We are here to study for our doctorate degrees and the conditions are good so why not”.
Danladi Umar from Gombe State University also undergoing his Ph.D. in Biological Sciences with special focus on Biodiversity of the Mambilla Plateau echoed the same sentiments. Ditto Ralph Adewoye, another postgraduate student. I learnt my lessons that natural disasters cannot be an excuse for not pursuing personal development.
Let me digress a bit. In far-away Christchurch, I was reminded of another well-known fact: the inestimable value of Nigerian forest and its bio-diversity in local and global ecological context. Apparently, the University of Canterbury whose researchers had followed up findings on Nigeria’s North East Montane flora had developed Nigerian Montane Forest Project. The university is working closely with Gombe State University to strengthen its Department of Biological Sciences in the field of biodiversity, environmental science and ecology. This was through appropriate postgraduate training of GSU lecturers/students. I visited the university and met Dr Hazel Chapman in the Department of Biological Sciences. In the footsteps of her father, she is engaged in research work in close cooperation with the Taraba State government and Gombe State University. She shuttles between Christchurch and the Mambilla Plateau to promote national and international commitment to the conservation of Nigeria’s Montane forest by inspiring excellence in research by postgraduate students and empowering local communities through employment, development of small businesses and working with schools to develop conservation awareness.
For me the collaboration between the universities, thousands of miles apart, was a powerful symbol of the importance of bilateral diplomatic ties and that academic research need not necessarily be a mere esoteric adventure. It can truly be rewarding. This time here is a project which holds a lot of potentials for commercialisation of research findings of inestimable value and our forest; a veritable forest resources waiting to be tapped for development of pharmaceutical drugs and employment for the local communities. I was grateful to Danladi Umar, Ralph Adewoye and Taiwo Afis – all PhD students of Canterbury University for dragging me to the university to hear more about a project which deserve more support of our environment ministry.
To the meeting with the Nigerian community. I discovered that so many Nigerians in New Zealand just like Australia are skilled migrants: Doctors, nurses, IT consultants, university lecturers: all are here contributing to the growth and development of Christchurch. Sheun Fasheun, the President of the Nigerian Association of Canterbury, a Social worker himself married to a New-Zealander confirmed that Nigerians are indeed a respectable group within Christchurch and adjoining areas. In rebuilding Christchurch, which was evident from the construction work going all around, they have not been found wanting. They have been there for the city and the people.
Auckland, the commercial capital of New Zealand, of course has a larger population of Nigerians. They responded to our call for a Town Meeting, through their Association, the Nigerian Association in New Zealand Inc headed by Dr Evans Nwaomah. When you face Nigerian professionals as a principal representative of your country, you must be prepared for hard questions. We had however been proactive with a draft programme of cooperation with the Nigerian community across Australia and New Zealand – our Roadmap for engagement with our people. Elements of the roadmap include issues such as Migration and Development and the role of Nigerian Professionals in development at home; Economic Diplomacy; Cultural Diplomacy to harness our rich cultural heritage and tackling the problem of negative stereotyping of Nigeria and Nigerians.
Trust us Nigerians, ever animated and passionate about our country. We quickly converted the meeting hall to a mini National Assembly to dissect and discuss the problems of our dear country. As usual my Diaspora brothers and sisters heaped the blame on “those at home”; the catchphrase is always “Why can’t they do things right”? When you ask them to explain, they glibly retort “I mean let there be light, water, roads security; Let everything work like here!”. When you probe further and ask them to give specific policy recommendations they usually respond by saying…” but they know what to do!
In our meetings with the Nigerian Community we always stress that Lenin’s famous question “what is to be done?” must be answered clearly. “Give us your specific and clear recommendations.” Options should also include returning home to participate in the political process! We have thus learnt to challenge the loudest among the critics at these meetings that it is not enough to criticise, it was important to proffer solutions which must be written and encapsulated in a document. The objective is to engage the community through an Outcome Document which can serve as reference point to galvanise them into action in all areas such as community development activities at home to rebuild that old primary or secondary school, support for their former universities, primary health care clinic in their local government back home, donation of used books and magazines to public libraries in their towns etc. That was what we did in Christchurch and Auckland respectively and ended up with the “Christchurch Declaration and Programme of Action”and “Auckland Declaration and Programme of Action” respectively which included agreement for the establishment of a NIDO Chapter since there are none at these locations.
As our aircraft taxied down the runway and finally took to the air, I peered out from my window seat. The crystal clear aquamarine waters of the Tasmania seas which sweeps Auckland was visible below. My thoughts went back to Christchurch and that cold meeting hall in Auckland. I thought oh yes the Nigerian Diaspora has truly multiplied and populated the earth doing great deeds. Behold our people “at home, away from home”, this time around, at the very end of the earth!.
• Ambassador Olukanni is the High Commissioner of Nigeria to Australia and New Zealand.