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In this interview with JOHN ALECHENU, the Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr. Chris Cooter, speaks about the relations between his country and Nigeria, improvements in visa processing procedures and Nigeria’s security challenges

How are trade relations between Nigeria and your country since you assumed office?

We have had remarkable improvements; the trade figures between the two countries have risen in the last two or three years to about $3bn in a two- way trade largely in favour of Nigeria. While our trade at the moment is largely in buying oil from you- which is something that goes up and down, the interesting part of the story is a variety of new companies that are taking a new interest in Nigeria.

In the two and a half years that I have been here, the altitude of Canadian companies has changed dramatically; everyone is becoming aware of the new story of Africa. It is almost the fastest growing economy in the global market these days. Within that market, they have begun to focus on Nigeria as the largest potential consumer market. There is a fresh attitude on the part of Canadian business about Nigeria; I noticed it because I go home to Canada about once a year to reach out to Canadian firms.

Another area we’ve seen a lot of Canadian interest is in the education sector. What was the response you got from the last education fair?

The education sector is one that Canada has a lot of investment. In the 1960s we were sending up to 200 teachers a year here -teaching at the village level in secondary schools. It was called Canadian Universities Service Overseas. And over the years, we probably had Canadian teachers coming in contact with hundreds of thousands of Nigerians. So today, whenever I visit a governor, an Emir, or somebody in office, they say, ‘oh I had a CUSO teacher back in the days.’ That was then, today there is a demand for vocational training for young people and there is a very strong demand across Nigeria. We are putting in motion a project that would be led by Association of Canadian Community Schools.

The length of time it takes for Nigerians to secure Canadian Visas has been a major issue over the years. What is the situation now?

I’m glad you asked. It’s always an issue. In the summer we had a huge backlog of applications. We had a 50 per cent increase in the number of students applying and a 30 per cent increase overall. We’ve cut the duration to 10 days. It doesn’t mean you are going to get a visa in 10 days but the time for processing has been reduced to two weeks at the most. We are actually very proud of the fact that we’ve managed through a lot of hard work to reduce that backlog and get service matters down to about 10 days. In Lagos, our office is there for people to apply through the Visa Application Centre and they can expect to hear from us within 10 working days. Now, for students, it’s a bit more complicated. I don’t have the figures of the number of days it will take. It always takes longer for students because you have more paperwork and medical reports to go through. Even with students it’s within the range of a few weeks. Of course, it is a rising tide because every year, more and more Nigerians want to travel. They hear more about Canada and it’s a bit of a struggle for us to keep up with the increase in demand. We are committed to doing that and we are getting the resources that we need to maintain the standard of about 10 days.

What are the usual challenges you face when dealing with visa applicants?

It’s usually paperwork issue. The paperwork needs to be right. As you know, our application forms are on- line, you fill it out and submit it to the Visa Application Centre. It’s usually rejected because the paperwork isn’t there or if it’s documentation of bank statements, it isn’t clear. It’s usually an issue of clarity and completeness of the documentation. I would say that is the main problem. The second problem is timeliness. Even with 10 days, it takes longer with students. You never know, there could be a flood of visa applications that week for some reason. It’s going to get better with the record of bio- metrics that will make it easier to verify information.

What should Nigeria do about its security challenges?

When our foreign minister was here, he said terrorism is the scourge of the generation. It’s not just a problem in Nigeria. We are worried about it in the (West African) region and Mali. We see it in other places like Somalia, and of course we’ve had more than 10 years’ experience in Afghanistan with all forms of terrorism. It is a very difficult problem and there isn’t a magic bullet for it. We pledged to develop security cooperation with Nigeria. The main focus is counter terrorism. The experience in Afghanistan is that you have to be patient; you have to go on several tracks at once. There is the political track and that has been raised a couple of times, that is, talks with Boko Haram. Definitely, the political track has to be followed. In the end, like you had with the amnesty (in the Niger Delta), it leads to more lasting peace. At one point or the other, you have to sit with people that are causing trouble. Obviously, there is a hard security element involving police, military and all that. I know you are pushing in that direction as well, they have to work closely together. They have to be prepared to work together and yield some amount of institutional sovereignty so that they can share information and that requires a lot of hard work and building the trust between the institutions. In Canada, we had to spend a lot of time doing that with our forces as well. It’s not easy to do, my previous experience was at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation prior to coming here and it’s difficult even in an alliance that has been on for about 60 years. It’s difficult to get countries to work together even with their own military. There are institutional reasons why people do not want to cooperate but you have to work together. There is nothing worse than having one (security) agency having information and not sharing it with the other one. The third element which has to work with the other two is infrastructure development because whether it’s the source of the problem or not, it tends to be used as a fuel for the insurgency. In Afghanistan for example, we worked very hard to bring development to the Kandahar area which was the most dangerous part of the country in terms of security. We built a dam which was for irrigation and we invested heavily in education especially of girls which is hugely important in the long and medium term it became the largest recipient of our development funding in the world. That from our experience is something to think about here as well because whether it’s where the insurgency began or not, it will be what the insurgency uses. Underdevelopment will be used as the reason for continuing the insurgency. I guess the fourth element is justice. You have to show the rule of law is being applied. We had many occasions where NATO including Canadian forces was accused of killing civilians. We found that it was extremely important that the stories must not rest without a reply. We investigated what really went on and told our own side of the story. And in almost every case, if there was an incident, the Taliban claims were highly exaggerated but we also had cases that we addressed and compensated families where there were victims. The main point is transparency and justice. The appearances of justice are extremely important. If you don’t get the story out, someone else will distort the truth.

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