The name Bianca Ojukwu may ring a bell to many Nigerians at home, but more among some Nigerians in Austria, and other parts of Europe, especially in the kingdom of Spain where she holds the ace as the Nigerian Ambassador and has become a household name among the Nigerian community in Spain because of the spectacular jobs she has done and achievements recorded during the period she has piloted affairs. As a result of what she has done and is doing to improve the lot of Nigerians in Spain, with the application of citizen diplomacy as her priority, she is wanted all over. Other Nigerians in diaspora in various parts of Europe and the world seem to be jealous of Spain and are craving for her to become their Ambassador. While those in Spain wish her tenure should not end. Others are saying, â€œCome over to Macedonia and help usâ€. Many wish to relocate to Spain if not for the economic down turn. Bianca has proved that the good men and women do lives with and after them.
Obtaining an appointment for an interview with this dynamic Precious woman is not an easy task because of her busy engagements within and outside Spain as Ambassador, party leader, Nigeriaâ€™s permanent representative to the United Nations on Tourism (UNWTO), mother and widow. But once you succeed, you encounter a very beautiful, humane, amiable â€“ mien personality and though behind this veil of beauty is a firm and steel structure. She exhibits a relaxed, calm and composed nature and makes you feel welcome and relaxed in her spacious diplomatic office. She is sharp and supplies answers to questions at ease and as if with ready-made answers. Interviewing her, is like interviewing what I call, a trilogy of the daughter, the father and the husband. Which simply means a composition of three unique personalities involved in one, Bianca, Onoh and Ojukwu. To any Nigerian journalist living at home or abroad, Bianca Ojukwu is a big fish to catch any time, any day. Below are the various issues covered, which center on her life as an Ambassador during her interview on January 9, 2014, with the special correspondent in Spain, Uchendu Precious Onuoha.
What was your immediate reaction the day President Goodluck Jonathan appointed you the Ambassador designate for Spain?
I must say that at the time the announcement was made, it really was a nomination, and it remained to be seen to which country I will be going. Of course I must say that I was pleased to have been given an opportunity to serve my country in that capacity especially at that time when I had experienced a tragedy in my personal life. This nomination offered a ray of hope and a degree of optimism that the future was not bleak. So I must say that I was grateful to the president and Nigerians for giving me the opportunity to serve my country.
As a non-career diplomat, what were the initial challenges you faced, and how did you surmount them?
Luckily for me, since I come from a family where diplomatic experience was something already in existence; it was not that much of a challenge because one way or another I have been exposed to that culture and had garnered a little diplomatic experience vicariously. My uncle was Nigeriaâ€™s deputy head of mission and was heading the high commission in Scotland in the eighties. My sister is also a Foreign Service officer of many years standing. And of course with the experience I garnered as a senior special assistant to the president in diaspora matters, it was not a difficult adjustment to make.
In addition to that, I inherited a mission that has seasoned officers with tremendous experience and they were very willing to offer their cooperation, and since I came to this mission, we have all been working together very well. And we refer to the mission as our family. One of the positive things about the Nigerian embassy here in Spain, is that the officers have no problems assuming roles that are not strictly their functions. They cooperate very well with each other and assist one another to ensure the smooth running of the affairs of the mission. So in this respect, I must say it has simply been a collaborative effort.
What was the state of affairs when you took over as ambassador in Spain? And what can you say are your achievements one year after?
When I came to Spain and assumed my duties one thing that was immediately glaring was the fact that the chancery building was not in a state befitting of the status of Nigeria on the international scene. The ambassadorâ€™s residence was also in a very poor state and had not been well maintained, and neither were most of the properties belonging to the embassy. As a matter of fact, when I first arrived in Madrid I had to stay in a hotel for many months before we were able to get the Ambassadorâ€™s residence in a fit and proper state.
I was also faced with many disturbing reports about the situation of Nigerians resident in Spain. And I was soon to learn that many of them felt that they were not properly taken into consideration in some of the decisions taken by the mission and that the mission ought to do more to safeguard their rights as citizens and to promote their dignity and integrity. We realized that the work done by the mission needed essentially to center around the mandate that we, as ambassadors were given prior to assuming our duties. The President had made it crystal clear that citizen diplomacy should be at the very apex of our priorities and this is something that is continuously reiterated. As a matter of fact, during the recent induction ceremony of new ambassadors, the minister of foreign affairs Prof Viola Onwuliri made it quite clear that as ambassadors, the protection and welfare of citizens in host countries should be of paramount priority.
The maltreatment of Nigerians abroad, she reiterated, should not be condoned in any shape or fashion by any Ambassador or head of mission and that we must try to ensure that Nigerians are treated with respect and dignity. And so, faced with many cases where the rights of our citizens were being infringed upon, cases involving many Nigerians in detention who felt that the embassy should be doing more to address their plight, it became imperative to intensify our efforts.
Also there were many reported incidents involving Nigerians who were subjected to a stop and search process. Many of our citizens were also affected by the economic recession in Spain and their fortunes took a down turn. A great number were out of work and had lost their jobs, many had become destitute and homeless and the only sanctuary they felt they had was the mission. Also consequent upon this recession was that many Nigerian couples were no longer able to cater for the welfare and maintenance of their children and this meant that for the benefit of these children, they were taken away from their parents and taken into protective custody, or given away to other Spanish families for adoption or families who could take better care of them.
Many Nigerian couples have lost sometimes from one child to six or even eight children. We recently secured the release of four children of the same parents from protective custody of Spanish authorities and successfully relocated them back to Nigeria. We endeavor to look at each situation on a case by case basis to determine how best to resolve it. We often made contact with their families back home to make them aware of what was happening to their relatives in Spain and get them to work with us to provide at least an environment back home where these children would be better accommodated and taken care of once we relocate them back to Nigeria. Of course, the priority for us is always how to retrieve these children from the authorities here and at the same time to ensure that they are not going into a worse situation when they are re-united with their parents and families and that there is an adequate support system in place for them back home in Nigeria.
Sadly in Spain, we have also witnessed situations of untimely deaths and murders of our nationals. The most recent painful incident was the murder of a certain Miss Ada Ortuya by a Spanish martial arts expert. The mission stepped into the matter and made it clear that this murder of our citizen would not be tolerated, that it is our responsibility to ensure that this heinous crime is not swept under the carpet and continued to intensify our demand that justice be done in this matter and the suspect brought to book to face the full wrath of the law.
In addition, we are also dealing with the human trafficking issue which is rampant here in Spain. We are looking into prostitution, exploitation of young children and young girls. And as a matter of fact, there was a recent case where we successfully rescued a young Nigerian girl who was lured to Spain by a Spaniard who visited Nigeria and got her pregnant. She was underage. The Spaniard provided false information regarding her age to process her documents for her to come here to Spain with her child. When she got here, he proceeded to abuse her physically. Faced with constant violence and abuse, the situation got so serious that the police had to be called in. The case went to court. Surprisingly the man was found not guilty. This poor girl was naturally afraid for her life ran to a shelter that was provided by an NGO to harbor victims of violence.
We were contacted by this NGO and the embassy swung into action to secure travel documents for the girl and her child since she had expressed a desire to return back to Nigeria. We got in touch with her family back home and we were able to get her and her child safely back to her family. We have also dealt with various other incidents of this nature and are working very closely with the unions and the federation of Nigerian communities as well as various Nigerian associations to ensure that cases affecting our nationals are quickly brought to our attention. And whenever our intervention is needed, we try to act in a very timely and effective manner.
Moreover, we are calling upon our nationals to join any of these associations because the association executives interact very harmoniously with the mission. They are the ones who quickly bring to our attention the plight of our citizens and incidents which we need to investigate. We are also asking them to be proactive in terms of obtaining repatriation insurance because, whereas we think that it is not important, we come from a society where it is customary to transport our remains home should we pass on in another country. This is a very expensive process, and Repatriation insurance takes care of this if the need arises.
This is very important for our families back home. So thankfully Nigerian organizations, have been doing a very good job of sensitizing their members to obtain repatriation insurance which is not very expensive and to liaise more closely with them so that by extension we are able to quickly come in and assist in situations where the fundamental human rights of Nigerians in any part of Spain is threatened.
Nigerians in Spain are looked down upon as illiterates despite their high level of education and this has accounted for their inability get decent jobs in the country, what are you doing to correct this wrong perception?
This is not a perception that is solely limited to Spain. It is of course a form of racism which Africans in general, Nigerians as well as other nationalities encounter in their host countries. First and foremost they are regarded as being different and as economic migrants. What generally happens is that subconsciously, their hosts sometimes tend to treat them like second rate citizens without giving them an opportunity to prove themselves. This perception becomes heightened in countries undergoing an economic crisis or depression.
Of course you must agree with me that this is not a perception that is general. A more recent trend is that the younger generation tend to be more accommodating and less ignorant about Africans and are no longer really subject to some of those prejudices and misconceptions that their parents have about Africans. The major challenge for Nigerians in Spain is the language barrier and attendant difficulty in integration Which means that for the average Nigerian in Spain proficiency in Spanish is vital with regards to employment opportunities.
We are all aware that Nigerians are always in a hurry to quickly find their footing whenever they arrive at a new country. The general trend is that many of them donâ€™t even make the initial efforts to learn the language so that they can be able to communicate in the language of the host It is important also to know how the people of the country that you have chosen to live in react as well as their attitudes and cultural orientation as this will also influence more rapid integration.
I donâ€™t think Spaniards are as racist as they have been portrayed. As a matter of fact, I think that they have been quite accommodating of immigrants until quite recently as a consequence of their economic crisis. I believe that with time as the economy gets better, Nigerians will find a better environment in which to thrive. We are advising Nigerians intending to settle in Spain to be well educated with skills, so that they donâ€™t just turn up without having something to offer. If you have no qualifications and no skills, you will find that that dream of Eldorado is one that quickly disintegrates before your eyes.
What about the possibility of evaluating the documents and certificates obtained from Nigeria with the Spanish government so that qualified Nigerians can use them to work?
We have had inquiries from Spanish authorities regarding issues of authentication of documents obtained in Nigeria We can authenticate certain documents but there are some that will take a prolonged period of time to authenticate. And unfortunately there are time limits within which most certifications have been made to Spanish authorities. Regarding document validation status for Nigerians here, what we are trying to do is to liaise the agencies and relevant authorities in Nigeria for a more rapid authentication of these documents. Sometimes we make that communication directly with the institutions in Nigeria
We are trying to avoid a situation where the embassy is constrained to deal with every inquiry that is placed at its doorstep including the trivial ones .However, any assistance in this regard that will enhance the prospects of our citizens in terms of employment will be rendered whenever needed.
There is alarming rate of deportation of Nigerians in Spain and the Spanish police brutality of Nigerians during deportation, what could be done to minimize that?
This increasing rate of deportation is not limited to Spain, the U.K. deports more Nigerians. The same with Italy. What we have done here in Spain is to ensure a continued interface and engagement with the ministry of interior and the National police to ensure that all deportations carried out here comply with International standards and requirements governing deportation. . We insist that before any Nigerian is deported, it must be brought to the attention of the embassy. We also insist that the deportation must be consequent upon a court order. We have been engaging positively with the police and the relevant authorities in this respect and they are cooperating with us. Also we have an agreement with the authorities that young children should not be separated from their mothers at deportation meaning that a mother cannot be deported without her infant child.
Where, as a result of a court order our national is facing deportation, we usually make a request that he must be given reasonable time within which he can arrange for assets and properties he must have acquired during his sojourn abroad to be properly administered in his absence. We are constantly working to reduce the number of deportations and we must acknowledge that deportations actually have decreased in terms of frequency and numbers in the past one year certainly. We are given the opportunity to go to the detention centers to speak to the detainees to confirm if they are Nigerians and we also encourage Nigerians in detention in these detention centers to communicate their needs to the embassy in writing from time to time. As a general rule, we do not approve all the names presented to the embassy in a deportation list. It is our prerogative to reject certain names that may be contained in the list for want of evidence or additional information that supports the deportation measure.
You occupy two positions as an ambassador and a party leader, how do you cope with these two demanding tasks?
I am an ambassador for Nigeria, for all Nigerians here in Spain irrespective of political party affiliation, ethnicity or religion. So in that respect it has not been tasking.
Before your appointment, did you nurse the ambition for a political appointment?
Why did you not ride on the influence and popularity of your late husband to vie for elective political office?
My primary duty and commitment was to my family and to my marriage. And so being married to a personality such as Ikemba, was something that came with so many roles and functions, many of them quite demanding. He had a very busy schedule. He was involved in so many issues. For what he represented to his people it was a 24 hour function. He was always interacting with communities, solving communal and land disputes, brainstorming with executives of progressive unions, community leaders and traditional rulers, and was also involved with local government, state and national issues. It was a very hectic and busy life and my role was essentially a supporting one which did not afford any time for me to think or to nurse any political ambition although I come from a political family.
I was also running my own businesses and actively involved in so many projects in addition to being a mother tasked with the upbringing of young children that I was left with very little time to dwell on the prospects of a political role. In the aftermath of my husbandâ€™s death, I acquired a lot of responsibilities and had, like most other widows, to assume the roles of mother and father in addition to filling in the gaps in many other spheres occasioned by his demise with regards to political organizations, religious groups town unions, community development associations, Igbo cultural groups, and most importantly the Biafra war veterans. He was the grand patron of the organization and interacted quite closely with them in terms of promoting issues relating to their welfare and rehabilitation.
With the records and achievements Nigerian women like you have made in government when given the opportunity, what do you think Nigeria would be like having a female president like you in the future?
I think that Nigerian women have made giant strides in virtually all areas of development. In government they have shown themselves to be capable, reliable, and effective in discharging their responsibilities. But we must not fail to give credit to the activism of the first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, who has been at the fore front ensuring an equitable share for women and in all sectors of development and has launched a successful campaign to promote full participation of women at all levels of decision making in government. And it is really a testament to her tenacity in this respect that there is now a greater degree of gender balance in nomination of women for political appointments. It is to the credit of her campaign to demand on behalf of Nigerian women, greater access to, and full participation in power structures and decision making at the national level that such key ministries as finance, petroleum, telecommunications, aviation, environment, and until recently education and defense are headed by women. The current minister of foreign affairs is also a woman. I believe that it is really a major triumph for Nigerian women. And we should realize that it was not an easy battle.
Women, when given the opportunity will not fail. In their respective communities, they have shown really that they are capable of handling the responsibilities that are assigned to them. And I think that in future, we need to continue to work as we have been doing. I donâ€™t subscribe to the school of thought that Nigerian men have not done well. I think that in every society it is a symbiotic relationship. There is no doubt that women need the support of our men folk. No matter how advanced any society claims to be and regardless of the attainment of equal rights for women, we cannot discountenance the fact that in our own culture, women are first and foremost wives and then mothers. These are badges we wear with pride. While more and more women are now assuming highly tasking roles within the work place; they will still continue to need the support of their husbands if they expect to succeed in the precarious balancing act of maintain their homes and excelling at the work place. So, Yes, Nigerian women have done well and we will yet do more.
By the time you are done as an ambassador, what would you like to be remembered for?
Well, before I can answer that question, it might be necessary to enunciate briefly what the functions of an ambassador are. As principle representatives of the President in our host countries, we should be able to consolidate the existing relationships between Nigeria and our host country. We should also able to foster new alliances with a view to promoting stronger links with the private sector. Closely linked to this is the imperative need to attract foreign direct investment as well as skills and technologies to facilitate the creation of jobs and wealth for our citizens at home, and when possible, in the diaspora. It is also our responsibility to effectively address negative perceptions about our country, and of paramount importance, as I stated earlier is Citizen Diplomacy which essentially entails the promotion of the welfare and security of our citizens in our host countries. These are the objectives that were enumerated by the minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Viola Onwuliri during the induction of new ambassadors recently, and have always constituted the ambassadorial desiderata.
At the end of my tenure I would like to be remembered for doing all within my power to come to the aid and assistance of our distressed citizens and defending their rights and interests whenever infringed upon. I would also like to be credited with having promoted stronger ties and stronger bilateral relations between Nigeria and the kingdom of Spain as well as my efforts towards enhancing the image of Nigerians here in Spain; Infrastructure wise, by the massive renovation works that we have carried out on the chancery building as well as the residence of the ambassador which has made it easier to conduct diplomatic engagements and functions within befitting structures that enhance the image and prestige of our country and which is a source of pride to our citizens here in Spain.
As a former beauty queen, you still look ageless what are your beauty routines?
Work hard, eat well, and sleep early.
What fashion item do you like most and how much can you spend on it?
Donâ€™t ask me those questions, laughsâ€¦.
Are you a perfume person and what type do you use?
What I can tell you is that my favorite perfume is an old fragrance which has been discontinued. It is no longer manufactured. It is called ZADIG by an Italian designer Emilio Pucci. As a matter of fact, the bottle which I am currently using and is one which I bought in 1982 at the duty free shop at Frankfurt Airport. Since I cannot replace it, I use it only on special occasions.
Still in use till now?
like I said I only use it on special occasionsâ€¦ on birthdays, laughsâ€¦ I intend to stretch it out for as long as I can.
Itâ€™s like it will last for eternity?
I hope so, if I live for eternity! But all good things must come to an end!
How does your typical day begin?
When I wake up, I do my meditations, Have my breakfast, respond to my mails, and prepare for the office. Most times I have engagements outside my office. An ambassador has multiple functions in a country such as Spain, with diplomatic engagements and a lot of social events that revolve round non-governmental organizations, Madrid is a conference city and routinely plays host to many international trade fairs and exhibitions in addition to the events that are traditionally hosted by the Royal Family. It is renowned as a richly cultural city and its museums and galleries are home to many priceless famous works of art. There are many foundations that promote art exhibitions and countless charities.
What is your message to the Nigerian community in the kingdom of Spain?
I would like to request that they remain law abiding, that they remain good visitors to their hosts that they try as much as possible not to infringe on their laws and regulations but continually strive towards a more harmonious relationship with their hosts. They should also avail themselves of the opportunity to learn the Spanish language so that they can be integrated into the society because this will enlarge the opportunities open to them. They must remember that the good image of our country remains our collective responsibility and therefore they should strive at all times to preserve that image and defend the integrity of Nigeria.