New Era of Nigeria-Belgium Relations

Nigeria and Belgium have a 56 year diplomatic relations. When the new Ambassador of Nigeria to Belgium presents her Letters of Credence to His Majesty, Phillipe I, King of the Belgians today, Wednesday 13 September 2017, the relationship will witness a new era. Ambassador Nonye Udo will make history as the first female Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Kingdom of Belgium. With this, one can say that  Belgium has a lesson to learn from Nigeria on gender equality and gender balance because unless I am mistaken, no woman has ever had the opportunity to be appointed Ambassador of Belgium to Nigeria. For a change, Belgium is therefore welcome to play the catch-up here.

That is on the lighter side. On a more serious note, Ambassador Nonye Udo was not sent by President Muhammadu Buhari to represent his Government in Belgium, with concurrent accreditation to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Mission to the European Union because he is desirous to making history. Far from it. The plain fact is that a seasoned diplomat who knows her onions was appointed on merit into one of the most strategic diplomatic posts for Nigeria. That seasoned diplomat simply happened to be a woman, one whose appointment made history!

That raises the curious question of what is Her Excellency’s story? Who is Nonye Udo? Those in the know of her person and career would, before anything else, describe her as “A fine Foreign Service Officer” Ambassador Nonye Udo is a career diplomat. Having served at different diplomatic posts worldwide including Nigeria’s Mission to the United Nations, was until her appointment the Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Abuja Headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria. The strategic nature of Brussels in the scheme of things in Nigeria’s global aspirations perhaps gives one a sense of why President Buhari made that decision to send unarguably the best to Belgium.

As I reflected on the shape of this new diplomatic era, the challenges that face the Nigeria-Belgium relations, but also the huge opportunities awaiting Nigeria and Belgium to explore, and in a funny way, what readily comes to mind was one of the trickiest media questions I’ve had to answer as Belgian of Nigerian origin. A cheeky journalist,   bent on testing my loyalty or allegiance to these two countries that mean the world to me. This was on the occasion of a football match between Nigeria and Belgium. He went: which country do you favour to win this match – Belgium or Nigeria? I paused and looking him straight in the eyes and without thinking, I responded that the better team will win and whichever it is, it’s a WIN for me all the way. I am not sure, but walking away, the mischief-maker looked disappointed. He appeared not to have gotten the answer he wanted that would create certain kind of news sensation for him.

In a note I sent earlier today to the amiable Ambassador, I opined that beyond confirmation of her formal diplomatic accreditation as Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, I am sure that I will be expressing the sentiments held deep in the hearts of many Nigerians and Belgians with interests in both countries that her historic appointment as first female Ambassador could not have come at a better time. “You must have every reason to feel a great sense of honour to be head of mission in a country with which Nigeria has such a cordial, mutually beneficial, long-standing diplomatic relations dating back to 1961, and with which there are so many opportunities for collaboration across many fields of endeavour including trade and investment, manufacturing, agriculture, machinery, energy or power production and distribution, sports and culture, to name but a few” I said this with confidence because long before Her Excellency assumed office, the Belgium Luxembourg Nigeria Chamber of Commerce, a network of business people and players, Belgians and Nigerians, of which I have the privilege to serve on the Board as Director Business Development and a number of other groups and individuals, have been working to reinforce these ties, and to forge new alliances. My personal goal, which I am sure a significant number of peers share with me, is to set the ball rolling towards taking the Nigeria-Belgium bilateral relations a notch higher, outside the multilateral sphere. Contacts with our Belgian friends and associates do confirm their favourable disposition and readiness to enhance engagement with Nigeria. My immediate constituency of West Flanders boasts of the finest industries in pharmaceutical manufacturing, food and beverage as well as tourism and agriculture, exactly the sectors that Nigeria is impatient to delve into, since the future is no longer oil. When I close my eyes, these are the industries I see and wish to get business people from both sides talking business. The Embassy could be an omissible arranger and facilitator.

I also thought of my Nigerian-Guinean Diaspora friend that works as International Civil Servant at the European Commission who once called me a “dreamer” after listening to one of my TV calls for a better balance between bilateralism and indirect international development model where the civil society organisations and the NGO’s are more involved in development projects with a lessening of Government-to-Government traditional approach. I do hope to take this dream to our new lady in town in the coming months. Who knows, we might set the ball rolling gradually.

Swapping Shoes: sofa talk between a European and an African

People treat you differently if you don’t know the language. Condescendingly, as if you’re a child. An aunt from the Flemish side of the family once even said, “I keep forgetting you have a university degree” – Chika Unigwe

When two professional women settle into the sofa for a chat, it is expected to be deep. So it was between Femke van Zeijl and Chika Unigwe. Femke grew up in a Dutch village, some 40 kilometres away from Turnhout, the Belgian town where Chika migrated to in 1995. On her part, Chika grew up in Enugu, a town in eastern Nigeria. The irony is that in 2012, the migration turn fell on Femke who settled in Lagos. The purpose of the sofa talk between the two divas was to compare notes on their migration experiences. Thereafter here is Femke’s footnote on the conversation “I confess that Lagos’ noise sometimes makes me crave silence. Chika likes the liveliness she is used to from back home. She prefers to write in a crowded café and never goes looking for quietness. For a moment I find myself longing for half an hour of silence in her Turnhout street”

 

Femke van Zeijl: You describe migrating to Belgium as ‘losing your voice in small imperceptible ways’. What do you mean by that?

Chika Unigwe: It seemed I had to learn everything all over again. All etiquette and forms of politeness, as if I was a child again. I certainly made as many mistakes as a child. It started with my first breakfast at my in-law’s house. I was still in bed when I was sent for: everyone was at the table waiting for me. My Flemish family had breakfast together at the dinner table, and I was supposed to be present. Whereas I can’t remember we ever had dinner together at the table back home in Enugu. At our place, you ate when you were hungry. With your plate on your lap, wherever you wished.

Femke van Zeijl: I on the other hand always waited here in Lagos until everyone had food on their plates, as my parents taught me. But that would invariably lead to a Nigerian inquiring whether I did not like the food.

Chika Unigwe: You have the advantage of speaking a language many people in your new country understand. I did not speak Dutch at the time. That first year in Belgium was very hard for me. I do not like to be reminded of that period. People treat you differently if you don’t know the language. Condescendingly, as if you’re a child. An aunt from the Flemish side of the family once even said, “I keep forgetting you have a university degree”.

FZ: I notice that I get away with things because I am a stranger. Nigerians figure I don’t know all the customs and sensitivities, and so they are forgiving when I make a faux pas. Is that your experience as well?

CU: No, in that sense Africa and Europe are extremely different. In Belgium you are expected to integrate, preferably assimilate. To whisk away your own culture as much as possible. You are supposed to eat chips with mayonnaise, like a proper Belgian. People prefer to hear that you like that more than your own food from home. Then you are a successful migrant. When a European comes to Africa though, nobody expects of him that he will integrate or assimilate. On the contrary: the biggest African ghettos are the compounds where white people live. You are an exception, Femke. You want to get to know the people and are living amongst them.

FZ: Sounds like I am having an easier time in Lagos. When I have amala in a local buka, the whole neighbourhood gathers to come see the miracle. And the little advantages I undeservingly get thrown for being white… The other day the personnel of a bank wanted to have me cut a very long Friday afternoon queue to be helped first. I was so embarrassed.

CU: When a white person migrates to Africa, he is going from a position of power, to power. An African coming to Europe lands from power into powerlessness. We Africans cannot do much with our diplomas here. Once I had learned Dutch and went to the job centre, they offered me a position as a cleaning lady. And in the shop it happens regularly that someone follows me around to check that I am not stealing anything. In expensive boutiques I might not even get served. The sales personnel assume I cannot afford to buy anything anyway. Whereas a white person in Nigeria, even if he has no skills whatsoever, always gets opportunities. No Nigerian would dream of offering you a job as a cleaning lady.

FZ: How did you overcome your initial powerlessness?

CU: By learning the language. The more I mastered Dutch, the less lonely I felt. I became more self-assured, which yielded me more respect. Language makes you independent and gives you a voice. And with that voice you can even change people’s views, because a stranger teaches you to look at yourself in a different way. A while ago I was interviewed on Belgian radio about classical music. Back home we never listened to that, and the first remark of the presenter was ‘So you did not have a culture of music at home?’ So I asked her: ‘Do you know highlife music? No? Well, my father always listened to that, and would consider you a barbarian because you have never heard of it.’ She had never thought of it that way. There is no absolute standard for civilisation; it is different for each culture.

FZ: Does your integration into Flemish society resonate in your work?

CU: My first novel was staged in Turnhout, close to my new home. The second was about Nigerian women in Antwerp and in my third book I returned to Nigeria. By that time I had fully regained my voice. My new book that has just been published covers an entirely different matter: a former slave in the eighteenth century.

FZ: Nigeria has taught me to add ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ to my sentences. Forms of politeness are still much more observed here then in The Netherlands. Are there things your new country has taught you?

CU: When my husband’s uncle was on his deathbed, the entire family was called to come and say goodbye. Very beautiful. That would never happen in Nigeria. Even if you are ninety, everyone keeps praying for a miracle. Death is much less of a taboo in Belgium. I find that very pleasant.

FZ: You are one of the few people who didn’t consider me nuts when I decided to move to Nigeria.

CU: Lagos is not an easy place to live in. When you told me you wanted to live there, I thought you were brave. But then again, that is what my sister said of me when I moved to Belgium with my husband nineteen years ago. We both followed our dreams. There are many too afraid to do that. Migrating is an act of courage.

hThe power is cut on my side, and all around my two-bedroom apartment generators start rumbling. I confess to Chika that Lagos’ noise sometimes makes me crave silence. She laughs. Chika likes the liveliness she is used to from back home. She prefers to write in a crowded café and never goes looking for quietness. For a moment I find myself longing for half an hour of silence in her Turnhout street.

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Chika Unigwe grew up in Enugu, a town in eastern Nigeria. There she met her Belgian husband, with whom she migrated in 1995. Her fourth novel, The Black Messiah, was recently published in Dutch. For her second book, On Black Sister’s Street, she received The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Chika lived with her husband and four sons in the Flemish town of Turnhout but has recently made another big move as she and her family migrated to the US.

Femke van Zeijl grew up in Berkel-Enschot, a village in the Dutch South about forty kilometres away from Turnhout. For the past eleven years she has traveled sub-Saharan Africa as a freelance journalist. She has written two books based on her reporting. The second, Gin-Tonic & Cholera, is about urban life in Africa. In 2012 she settled as a freelance correspondent for Dutch media in Lagos, a city that is estimated to have more inhabitants than her country of birth.

source: Brittle Paper article “Strangers in Each Other’s Countries: A Discussion with Chika Unigwe” by Femke van Zeijl