Speaking to Diplomatic Vista the Finnish Ambassador to Nigeria, Pirjo Chowdhury talks about the diplomatic relations between Finland and Nigeria, how it has developed over the years and her experience in Nigeria. Excerpt:
Reflection on diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Finland over the years.
We have always had very good relations with Nigeria. Over the years, we put a lot of efforts in developing these relations. We also have investment agreement from many years ago. Last year, there was a memorandum of understanding signed between the Finnish Ministry and NAPTIP. So there is this kind of co-operation.
Reflection on Finland engagements in Nigeria, especially the business delegation that recently visited Nigeria.
That was a very good visit; I am very happy with that visit. It is something that I had wanted to have for a long time. Our deputy minister for external economic relations from the ministry of foreign affairs led the business delegation and I can say that the feedback we have had afterwards from Finland, from the business delegation has been absolutely excellent. It was a delegation of twelve Finnish companies including two funding agencies and a few sectors like the ICT, Telecommunications, Power, Education, Health and Water were represented. We met six ministers in Abuja, two ministers of states and other very important ministers. Also in Lagos, we met the Governor of Lagos State, the Housing Commissioner, and Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Health, and the Health Advisor to the Governor. Because you do not want this kind of visit to be just one-off, we have already scheduled a follow-up meeting in Finland. There is so much potential in Nigeria and of course, with the new government in place, it was just the right time to be here.
Assistance and support by Finnish Government to Nigeria.
The main focus of Finland in Nigeria is the promotion of trade and economic relations and I believe in that because it is the only way you can build sustainable relationship and partnership. Finland is also part of the European Union and through United Global Funding, we give a lot of funding to the United Nations agencies. Before my present job as Ambassador to Nigeria, I was Director for development affairs in the Foreign Ministry and my unit was in charge of Finland core funding to UN funds and programmes to agencies like UNDP, UNFP etc. We are strong contributors to the United Nations agencies and we also contribute funding to international financial institutions like the African Development Bank (ADB). There have been some NGO projects in Finland which we support with official development assistance. Some of the Finnish NGOs have been to Nigeria. For instance, we visited some school health projects in Ibadan, Oyo State.
Economic Diplomacy: In what specific areas can Finland impart Nigeria?
There are so many areas and so much potential. ICT is one, also telecommunication and power. The two big Finnish companies in Nigeria are in Power and Telecommunication. Also in Infrastructure, there are many companies that work in Nigeria through local partners like companies that produce escalators, metrological technology (which is present in many Nigerian airports). There are many companies working in area which could be in dental technology, hospital or furniture.
When I think about ICT, I think about government priorities on anti corruption. This is a wonderful opportunity because digitization is everywhere in the world now. Computerized system and ICT for instance, in government system and administration, can be a good tool against corruption. Finland is one of the least corrupt countries in the world (according to international rankings).
What makes Finland so clean and upright that corruption is at its lowest?
I think it’s a combination of many things. One is education and this makes a big difference on how people think, operate and see life. Others are institutions, rule of law, implementation and enforcement of those rule of law. Human beings are human beings thus you need to always keep them a little bit on the straight and narrow. You need to have the legislation and you need to also enforce it. You have to also foster this culture of non-corruption. People need to have confidence in the society, the law and institution and you should let them know that the way to have a good life is not through corruption but through being upright and that society supports this. It is built this way.
Records show that you are the 17th Finnish Ambassador to Nigeria and most of the ambassadors sent to Nigeria in recent times are female. Is this deliberate or coincidental?
Well, gender equality in Finland has been a very central element of the society for a long time. It is true that we have had many female ambassadors in Nigeria and that is quite interesting because in Nigeria there are not many female ambassadors. At the moment, we are five and it is easy to keep count. Many UN agencies in Nigeria are headed by women. Among the European Union, I am the only female ambassador. For some reasons, Finland has had many female ambassadors. I am not sure of the reason for this but personally I feel female diplomats know what places are interesting and important. They want to have the adventures, go to new places and places that they know are important. At the moment, 50% of Finnish Ambassadors are women.
“ The main focus of Finland in Nigeria is promotion of trade and economic relations and I believe in that because it is the way you can build sustainable relationships and partnership”
Your Nigerian experience to date.
First of all, I will like to achieve much more but my biggest challenge is that there are few hours in a day and few days in a week. Nigeria is a big country. There are so many places to see, many people to know and many potentials to tap into. These are my constant frustrations but all I can is to do my best and luckily I have very good staff in the embassy. It has been a fantastic time for the year and half that I have been here in Nigeria.
I travel to Lagos regularly. I have also been to Ibadan; I have been to Benue for an ECOWAS-UNHCR retreat, because Finland has been supporting UNHCR projects on IDPs. We travelled by road and I enjoyed it. If there was so much time, I would like to visit everywhere in Nigeria before I leave. My favorite Nigerian food is ‘suya’. I also like jollof rice and plantain. My family has been a little bit more adventurous in the food area. The last time my husband and son visited, my husband ate a giant snail while my son had goat head.
Reflection on Nigeria’s social complexity – the people, culture.
The Nigerian people always impress me. When I travelled to Finland for Christmas, I was interviewed by the local media as the face of Finland in Nigeria and one of the things I mentioned was how Nigerian people are so dynamic, active and with a great spirit of entrepreneurship. Nigerians never really have one profession – they multitask! For instance,a journalist also working as a caterer, etc. There is so much to tap into in Nigeria and they are very special kind of people. They have a good sense of humor and a nice attitude to life. It has been a very good experience and this is my first experience in Africa.
I am happy I started in Nigeria. I was very keen to come here, I requested to be posted here and things have been better than I thought.
What drives the economy of Finland?
One thing is that the economy is not detached from the society. Education is very important as I mentioned earlier. It is what I call a knowledge based economy. Our economy is based on an educative and innovative workforce. You can’t have them without education.
Also, gender equality is another thing because women are strong leaders in the workforce and also very highly educated. Finland has very strong sectors, the forest industry for instance is still a very important part of the Finnish economy, technology like mining. A couple of decades ago, ICT became a very strong part of the Finnish economy. Nokia certainly played a part in that. Health is also one of the most dynamic sectors at the moment.
What do you mean by knowledge-based economy?
Knowledge-based economy is what I see in a wide sense. You need to have an educated workforce to have innovations. For instance, in Finland, we put a lot of resources into research and development and promoting innovations. That is the kind of economy we need today. The sort of approach that can thrive in today’s world, adding values, innovation, coming up with new ideas, products and solutions. Like there is a Finnish company called Robio which deals in computer games. Now they have solutions that have to do with education. Innovation may not necessarily be technological, it could be social things like advertising.
Why is it so important that we need to have gender equality in the world today?
It is a question of human right. There is no reason why women should not have same right and same opportunities as men. Women need it for themselves and secondly, it is a waste on society not to use the potential of half of that society and this applies to every nation of the world. There is nowhere in the world that this has been fully achieved. Thus, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in this area.
One thing I like to always say, whenever I have the opportunity, is that I encourage women to support and promote each other and we need men and boys to embrace gender equality.
Is the world embracing this gender equality or do you see people embracing it in the near future?
Gender equality is what everybody yearns for, it has become a norm and it is becoming generally accepted but then you have to be able to make it a reality in many cases. There is still much to do in the world to improve this: For instance, curtailing the violence against women, encouraging economic empowerment, amongst others. It is good that it has become a mainstream issue.
Thank you for granting this interview.
Thank you and good luck.