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Nigerian envoy’s party just lost elections. Here’s why he’s happy

By Kristen Shane      

High commissioner hails democratic power handover.

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Ojo Maduekwe just spent three months campaigning for his party to win elections in Nigeria and maintain its 16-year hold on the presidency.

His party lost.

Decisively. The March 28 election saw the All Progressives Congress win enough votes to secure victory without need for a run-off, while Mr. Maduekwe’s People’s Democratic Party was punted to opposition.

Yet Mr. Maduekwe, appointed Nigeria’s high commissioner to Canada three years ago during the rule of then-PDP president Goodluck Jonathan, is celebrating.

“Not because I’m happy that I’ll soon be out of a job, or that my boss, President Jonathan, is out of a job,” he explains. “So it’s not that I wish we lost! No, I wish we won!”

But, he boasts, “I was adult enough, politically speaking, to realize that it may go the other way, and that if it went the other way, we should not stop it. We should embrace it; we should celebrate it. And I’m proud of President Jonathan, that he did precisely that.”

What Mr. Jonathan did is unprecedented in Nigeria: he immediately called his opponent, the APC’s Muhammadu Buhari, to concede defeat and congratulate him.

It’s the first time in Nigeria’s history that an opposition party has democratically unseated a sitting leader. Power transfers are more often engineered by the military or marred in fraud allegations. In 2011, more than 800 people died in election-related violence after Mr. Jonathan defeated Mr. Buhari.

Several other African countries are still struggling with peaceful and democratic power handovers. And some longtime rulers have looked to change laws to extend their terms.

Mr. Maduekwe says the Nigerian outcome could have been different. He plays up his boss’s ability to put his country’s health before his own ambitions.

“President Jonathan could have—not, I wouldn’t use the word rigged—but could have created an atmosphere that would be more conducive for results to be announced in his favour,” says the tall man, folded into a seat in his downtown high commission earlier this month.

Instead, the high commissioner points out, the president from the Christian south chose an electoral umpire from the Muslim north, a region that felt shortchanged because a previous president from that part of the country had died only three years into office and Mr. Jonathan, the southerner, took over the rest of his term.

The country is split between the Christian and animist south and Muslim north and previously had seen leaders from alternating regions.

‘Canada has every reason to be proud’

At a time when Nigeria is getting headlines in Western media for oil and gas, corruption and Boko Haram, the Islamic fundamentalist group terrorizing the northeastern part of the country, the high commissioner is eager to show his Canadian hosts a more positive side of the most-populous African nation.

“Canada has every reason to be proud of itself, that its democratic investments in Nigeria have flourished,” says the high commissioner.

It wasn’t always easy, he says. He recalls “tough love” in 1997 when Canada closed its mission to Nigeria and put pressure on other Commonwealth countries to censure the country, which was then under military rule.

Since the mission re-opened, Canada has grown closer to Nigeria. Estimated to be one of the largest economies in Africa, the country is listed on the Canadian government’s trade priority list as an emerging market with specific opportunities for Canadian business, and is a junior-level bilateral aid partner. Parliamentary Secretary to the Foreign Minister Deepak Obhrai attended Mr. Buhari’s May 29 swearing-in, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the new president on the sidelines of a G7 summit in Germany earlier this month.

While many commentators have lauded his gracious exit, Mr. Jonathan was not so highly praised while on the job. For all its economic strength, Nigeria under Mr. Jonathan was plagued by corruption allegations and critics blamed his government for bungling the fight against Boko Haram.

Fair comment, says the high commissioner.

“But we had the capacity to have a different [electoral] outcome and nothing happened. It’s happened before in many parts of Africa. The fact that we didn’t do that, we should be commended for that.”

Envoy to stay on, for now

While he didn’t vote or campaign for his new boss, President Buhari, Mr. Maduekwe’s in what might seem like an awkward position of now serving him as high commissioner.

Since the PDP came to power in 1999, Mr. Maduekwe has played a leading role in the party and in government. He served as foreign minister from 2007 to 2010 and before that as minister of both transport as well as culture and tourism. He was also once the party’s national secretary and in 2011 worked as deputy director of the PDP presidential campaign.

While he didn’t perform as high profile a role, he took leave from Ottawa for about three months to help his party in this year’s elections.

“I’m first and foremost a politician,” he says, noting that when he was appointed his boss, the foreign minister, created a deputy position in Ottawa to which a career diplomat was assigned in recognition of the high commissioner’s political role. Deputy High Commissioner Charles Onianwa is the Nigerian foreign ministry’s former director for North and Central America, and deputy in Geneva.

But despite their differing political views, Mr. Maduekwe speaks well of President Buhari. He notes his “strong reputation against corruption,” and the former military ruler’s discipline. Mr. Buhari led the country once before from 1984 to 1985 after a military coup.

“We are not just envoys of the president, we are envoys of our country. So irrespective of who is in office or who is in power, Nigeria still needs a voice in a great country like Canada,” says the high commissioner with the charm of a seasoned politician.

As a political appointee, the high commissioner expects he’ll soon be out of a job—he just doesn't know when.

Meanwhile, he says the high commission is running normally. “We continue to support the government of the day. We don’t talk party politics here. Even when President Jonathan was in office,” he says, gesturing to his minister, Oluremi Oliyide, sitting nearby. “These are civil servants.”

Trained as a lawyer 42 years ago “until politics seduced me,” he’s not sure what comes next, but expects it will involve writing, law, business and talks on the lecture circuit.

He says he expects to continue to promote Nigerian ties with Canada. While on the job, he’s seen a Canada-Nigeria investment-protection deal signed.

He’ll take with him memories of the connections he made at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and riding his bike from his Rockcliffe home into the city’s centre.

Having turned 70 on May 6, he says he’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes, 92-year-old former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and pursue “active retirement.”


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