‘No justification for Gaza carnage’: Nigeria Foreign Minister Yusuf Tuggar

Nigeria’s FM speaks to Al Jazeera about his government’s domestic plans and global approach.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Yusuf Tuggar speaks during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, Nigeria, January 23, 2024. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
Yusuf Tuggar has been Nigeria's minister of foreign affairs since August 2023 [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via Reuters]

Doha, Qatar — Israel must stop its war on Gaza, and the world needs to drop its “double standards” over the killings in the besieged enclave, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Tuggar told Al Jazeera.

Tuggar was visiting Qatar as part of a delegation led by Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Nigeria and Qatar signed a series of memorandums of understanding and discussed potential collaboration in sectors such as energy, trade, labour, agriculture and more.

The visit came at a time when Nigeria faces mounting economic and social challenges with armed attacks proliferating and an inflation rate at 30 percent.

Yet Nigeria, with a population of more than 200 million people and Africa’s largest economy, is also eyeing a greater role in regional and global affairs.

Tinubu leads the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) established in 1975. The bloc faces an uncertain future with Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso announcing in late January they are quitting the regional grouping.

Al Jazeera sat down with Tuggar in Doha to learn more about what the government has in store for Africa’s largest economy.

Al Jazeera: Over the past week, there have been many meetings between Qatari and Nigerian officials. What are some of the key agreements and partnerships that have been made?

Yusuf Tuggar: Qatar has this Arabic concept of the word “irth” which is legacy, or inheritance. Nigeria is here to forge a common irth, legacy, inheritance with Qatar. They’re both major gas producers and if they work closely together, they can establish or expand further their market share.

We have cargo planes that go to Nigeria and come back empty. They take electronics and all sorts of other stuff from Qatar to Nigeria. They can be filled with agricultural produce because we have 12 huge river basin development authorities that we invested in during the oil boom in the 1970s, with dams ready for irrigation. Nigeria produces a lot of pineapple, a lot of mangoes that can be readily exported to Qatar.

There are so many opportunities. We want to see some of the big players here going to Nigeria and doing business. We’ve already signed several MOUs (memorandums of understanding). Even today, we signed MOUs on labour because we have huge human resources that Qatar can put to good use that we can apply to the medical sector and several others. The sky’s the limit.

And then of course, Qatar is also strong in services, airports. We have so many airports that are in existence that are underutilised that can be turned readily into cargo airports. We’ve got ports, we need more ports to be developed.

Al Jazeera: What are some of the upcoming gas projects?

Tuggar: There are several ongoing gas projects in Nigeria that we hope Qatar can invest in. We have so many opportunities for floating LNG projects. We’ve got an LNG plant that has run out of gas that is right next to us in Equatorial Guinea. All it needs is a pipeline, to pipe Nigerian gas to Equatorial Guinea and Bob’s your uncle. This is something that Qatar can take advantage of.

We have a Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline that is in the making to supply 15 African countries with gas and it can go on to Europe. I know Europe is looking to phase out gas but let’s work with the reality. The reality right now is that gas is still in demand.

We have a trans-Saharan gas pipeline. The leg of the pipeline within Nigeria has gone very far, it’s almost completed and it’s supposed to deliver gas all the way to Algeria. And you throw in Algerian gas and it can go all the way into Europe. These are all projects that are ongoing that Qatar can be a part of when it comes to gas.

But we’re not just looking at gas, we’re looking at agriculture, the health sector. All the relevant ministers are here; we’re looking at metals refining for rare earths; Nigeria is rich in lithium. This is something that can be taken advantage of.

Al Jazeera: Regarding the biggest conflict in the world right now, in Gaza more than 30,000 people have been killed. What are your thoughts on this?

Tuggar: There is no justification for the carnage that is going on in Gaza. It has to stop. There is no justification for the complete disregard for the proportionality of force that is being meted out on innocent civilians, on kids on children, on babies on women.

Nigeria has been consistent with its support for a two-state solution. The state of Palestine has every right to exist as an independent sovereign nation, the same way that Israel has a right to exist as an independent sovereign nation.

But this carnage is completely out of hand and totally unacceptable. There is no way to explain the double standards; it has to stop.

Al Jazeera: Regarding the war in Ukraine, the US and EU have been pressuring other countries to join in on sanctions against Russia. Nigeria has maintained a neutral, non-aligned stance. How difficult or easy has it been to maintain this stance?

Tuggar: [The non-aligned stance] has been the policy of the state of Nigeria since its inception, since it was created in 1960. Nigeria was part of the non-aligned movement and has remained so and at the moment we’re currently practicing what is now referred to as strategic autonomy.

We get along with all countries, and we’re not the only country that has that policy. Nigeria has always been an independent sovereign nation. So we are not compelled to follow any other country’s lead. We do what is right for our people, what’s in the interest of our people.

We get along famously with both of them [the US and Russia]. They also don’t have a problem with us being autonomous, being an independent country, with the freedom to maintain relations with all nations.

Al Jazeera: Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have announced they’re leaving ECOWAS. Is there maybe a need to reinvent ECOWAS in any way?

Tuggar: No, there isn’t. There’s a process [for leaving] and it takes about a year. It’s one thing to pronounce that you’ve left, it’s another to really disengage from ECOWAS itself because every citizen of ECOWAS carries a passport. (An ECOWAS passport guarantees visa-free travel within the bloc). We’re waiting to see if they’re even going to print the passports which is going to cost millions of dollars.

We’re talking about 30 percent of, let’s say, Cote d’Ivoire, coming from Burkina Faso, and Mali, which means they would need new residencies or they will have to leave Cote d’Ivoire and the same thing with Nigeriens in Nigeria, in several other places. So it’s not as simple as it’s made out to be. The process of them leaving takes a lot more than just a simple pronouncement and there are certain procedures that have to be followed.

ECOWAS has shown clearly that there’s no bellicosity towards those countries because sanctions were removed out of humanitarian considerations. Fasting during Ramadan is coming up, and President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, as the Chairman of ECOWAS, heads of state and government pushed for the removal of sanctions. The ECOWAS leaders endorsed it and the sanctions have been removed, borders have been opened.

There’s no compulsion in the membership of ECOWAS, it’s up to the regimes in those countries to make a decision. ECOWAS is a union of a community of people and the emphasis is on the community, on the people, on the citizens.

Al Jazeera: In Nigeria, between 40 and 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. How does the government plan for economic growth and to address the issue of poverty?

Tuggar: We’re talking about 300,000 training centres across the country. We’re talking vast exponential job creation through ICT, information technology that is happening. we’re talking about providing fast-speed internet to the youth. We’re talking about business process outsourcing.

So these are all a lot of the opportunities but even before that, there’s a social investment programme that is ongoing, that provides directly to the poorest section of Nigeria because we can’t wait until the jobs are created. There’s a direct government intervention that has been going on so these are some of the measures that are being taken towards addressing this.

Al Jazeera: The country is seeing an exodus of youth going abroad for opportunities. What would be the consequences for Nigeria to seeing all this youth leave?

Tuggar: We have what we refer to as the 4Ds in my Ministry of Foreign Affairs – That’s democracy development, demography and diaspora. And the fourth D, the diaspora, is where we look to engage other countries that are in demand of our human resources, get them to invest in certain sectors so that we will be able to train enough skilled workers for both ourselves and the country that is demanding for that.

So doctors, nurses, and at the moment you actually even have Nigeria supplying software engineers to places like Lithuania.

We need to do it in a structured way. We’re not saying that Nigerians cannot go abroad to work. By all means they should. But at the same time, for every nurse that goes abroad, we want to be able to create many more in Nigeria that would cater for our needs. We need to partner with countries that are prepared to invest in those sectors.

Al Jazeera: We’re seeing unprecedented inflation; Nigerians are struggling with the costs. The prices of food and transport have more than tripled since President Tinubu took over and removed the fuel subsidy, even though he promised to ease an already bad situation. What are your thoughts on this? Has he failed to deliver on his promise one year in?

Tuggar: He certainly hasn’t. This is something that was anticipated. This is one of the consequences and, unfortunately, we are feeling it even more because we delayed for so many years, subsidy removal.

This is a sort of bitter pill that Nigeria has to take but there are other measures that are being taken to serve as palliatives for the situation that we’re facing.

You have to bear in mind also that Nigeria is not the only country that is facing these economic challenges; it’s almost global. Inflation is something that a lot of countries are facing, but we have to bite the bullet and do what is right now, for the future.

We’re continuing to supplement and things are getting better. Our crude oil production has gone up, so has our gas production through LNG. We’re going to be feeling the effects of a spike in foreign exchange earnings, which would serve to ameliorate the situation and we’re plugging all the leakages in our economy.

Al Jazeera: There’s also been a surge in kidnappings across the country as well. Does the government bear any responsibility for this?

Tuggar: The government is always there to tackle the challenges.

At the same time, there are so many measures being taken to address these through the three different tiers of government. Because you have to bear in mind also that the responsibility is not simply on the federal government, the government at the centre.

Nigeria’s constitution prescribes rules for the three tiers. So you’ve got the federal government headed by Mr President, you’ve got state governments headed by governors and then you’ve got local government. We have 774 local government areas that are under state governments and they need to be working so that responsibility for them to work and work efficiently rests squarely on the state governors and the state governments.

Source: Al Jazeera