An eight member U.S Congress Delegation recently visited Nigeria as part of a tour of West Africa. CNBC Africa’s Esther Ugbodaga spoke to the head of the delegation Christopher Coons the United States Senator for Delaware.
Now you’ve been to quite a number of places. You’ve been to Borno in the North East, and you have met with some of the top law makers in the country. Tell me what you are taking away from this experience?
Well the goal that our congressional delegation with 8 members had in coming here was to strengthen and reiterate the relationship between Nigeria and the United States, and we have had very positive and constructive conversations with National elected leaders in Abuja, and we also got to see some of the very real challenges facing the people of Borno State and North Eastern Nigeria, and here in Lagos we got to have some exciting conversations with established business leaders and budding entrepreneurs. All in all we have got to get an appreciation for both the challenges and the opportunities facing Nigeria, and we had a chance to reinforce the fact that the United States Congress – certainly the 8 of us and many back home, intend to continue a strong US-Nigeria relationship.
Now speaking of Borno with the terrorism in the North. You got to see first hand the devastation and those who have been affected. As you go back to the U.S do you intend to change the strategy or reinforce aid and support to Nigeria.
Three of the eight of us are on the exact department that funds the USAID which provides aid relief. We worked hard for additional funding that’s meant to address concerns about hunger in four countries in Africa. It was good to see the community of aid organisations in Borno state as well as meet with the Deputy Governor to hear what the Nigerian Federal and State Government is doing and to hear what the non-profit and aid organisations are doing. We visited with refugees and got a sense of the food insecurity and the impact that the insurgency has had over the years.
Let’s move to power. You were at the Egbin Power Plant recently and I’m sure that was quite an interesting experience and I’m just going to take you back to 2014 when you passed the Electrify Act. From then until now, seeing how Nigeria still struggles with power especially in rural areas. What do you think the U.S can do to step things up?
Well let’s not give me too much credit. There were both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate who led the Electrify Act. It is a sustained relationship. It isn’t just one senator or one congressman that believes in partnering with Africa. Reliable, affordable accessible power is one of the key constraints of development in many African countries and there are many American companies that have great solutions.People who work for the United States in the USAID have helped modernise and privatise aspects of the Nigerian utilities sector. The U.S went through the same thing two decades ago as we moved from State Controlled to Free market utilities and power distribution generation and supply. It is our hope that those lessons can be a good source of inspiration for Nigeria. If Nigeria is going to attract investors from all around the world, not just the United States to build out the Power sector it has to have more transparency and it needs to address some of its fundamental challenges. We have also met some of the local investors in Nigerian Power Sector and there are a lot very capable engineers and entrepreneurs, but there are a lot of policy changes that have to be made if the power sector is going to lead to a resurgence in manufacturing, better healthcare, better education, and a more reliable power grid for millions.
Finally what are your thoughts on how Nigeria is using Entrepreneurship as a strength, and using this opportunity as a strength to enhance its economy?
Nigeria has a very large market. It’s the largest economy in Africa. One of the ways that it has more opportunity to advance than a developed country is that it can leap frog some of the development stages that other countries have gone through. You go from having no telephones in much of the country to virtually everyone in the country having a cell phone. You go from having very low access banking systems to millions and then tens of millions of Nigerians having access to banking – mostly mobile banking. If access to credit and reliable banking systems can be put in place, I think there’s no limit. In the United States the Nigerian Diaspora Community is the best educated. It is the most successful. In my own home town some of the most successful people are Nigerian Americans.
On a lighter note what was the most interesting thing about your trip?
It would be hard to pick one thing, but I met with a group of young entrepreneurs who participated in the Young African Leaders programme in the U.S and they had great exciting ideas that could solve a large number of challenges. I think Nigerians will find solutions that are not just relevant to Nigeria and Africa, but that are relevant to the rest of the world and I am excited to see what they are going to find and what they are going to solve.