Living in Jamaica is like staying in Nigeria — Janet Olisa –...

Living in Jamaica is like staying in Nigeria — Janet Olisa – Punch Newspapers

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The immediate past Nigeria High Commissioner to Jamaica, Janet Olisa, tells TOFARATI IGE about her love for both countries, her highlights in office and other interesting issues

As Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Jamaica, what was your typical day like?

We usually start work at 9am and as I settled in, I would attend to mails from Nigeria, within the host country (Jamaica) or countries of concurrent accreditation. The mails could be from the government, private sector or Nigerians. It is also important to note that the Nigerian High Commission is the only high commission in the Caribbean. We are the only ones that provide passport services, so from all the 34 Caribbean countries, Nigerians have to come to us, or we go out to them to provide immigration services such as issuance of passports. There are three embassies in the Caribbean― Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba

When it comes to visas, any three of the missions could issue them but only the High Commission in Jamaica issues passports. So, those were the day-to-day activities I was involved in. Also, if the host government, private institutions or Nigerians invited us for events such as seminars, birthdays, funerals or receptions, I would attend.

What were the highlights of your time in the office?

There were a couple of events that formed my highlights. One of them was the cultural exchange programmes we had. Jamaica has a shared cultural heritage with Nigeria, precisely the Igbos and part of the Yorubas. This was reflected in some of their activities such as revivals, which is similar to the Yoruba way of worship but with a twist of Christianity.

I have been able to educate them more about Africa because some of them think it is a country and not a continent. I am proud to say that Nigeria is now a household name there. It would be difficult for you to meet anyone in Jamaica who does not have an idea of Nigeria. We had a range of cultural activities that revolved around fashion, food and music. I also went to schools, educating them about Nigeria.

Secondly, I would talk about the Technical Aids Corps Programme, which is one of the agencies under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We sent out volunteers to African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to help out in any of their areas of need. In 2017, Jamaica requested for experts in tie and dye and metalwork, and we gave them two people who trained their entrepreneurs in those areas. They needed those experts because they were trying to build the crafts section of their tourism industry. They wanted to be able to provide authentic made in Jamaica crafts, so that they can sell to tourists. That has helped their tourism industry to blossom. They opened a new port― Port Royal― for a cruise line and the people who sell things there are mostly those who were taught by the Nigerian experts.

Thirdly, we had a Nollywood event in 2018. It was a collaboration with the National Film and Video Censors Board, and we were able to showcase Nigerian movies. The Director General of NFVCB, Adedayo Thomas, came to Jamaica with actors and producers. Right now, there are collaborations with the Jamaican film industry because they want to understand how Nollywood got to where it is. Being a small country, budget is a big issue for them. They actually teach about Nollywood in the University of the West Indies, which is one of the top schools in the West Indies.

What were the challenges you faced in the course of discharging your duties?

The first challenge was for the people, especially the youths, to understand that Africa is not a country but a continent. In order to tackle that challenge, I had to do a lot of media work through television and radio stations, and newspapers.

Secondly, the issue of trade was a major challenge I had. It is actually one of the areas in which I did not succeed as much as I would have wanted to. Nigeria is very far away and there are no direct flights from anywhere in Africa into the Caribbean. If one wants to do business, accessibility would be an issue. However, I believe we are getting there. There is a plan with Air Peace for chartered flights. I and the Jamaica High Commissioner to Nigeria, Esmond Reid, worked together to ensure that. There would be a flight in December from Lagos (Nigeria) to Montego Bay (which is the commercial centre of Jamaica). There is a paper-making company that is already talking about coming to Jamaica in February 2021 and there is a Nigerian that has signified interest in partnering with them.

In what ways did the COVID-19 pandemic impact on the High Commission’s activities?

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and Jamaica. From last year, we had mapped out a wide range of events. I sought for audience with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Permanent Secretary of the ministry, so I was in Nigeria in March to look for sponsors for the events. All of a sudden, everywhere was locked down and we were not able to do anything. The only thing we succeeded in doing was in April when the Jamaican High Commissioner exchanged letters with the Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Because I was not in Jamaica, I was not able to do the same with the Jamaican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.

Diplomacy is no longer what it used to be. We are supposed to have interactions with the government but now, we do more of virtual meetings. Shortly after this interview, I would be bidding farewell to the Jamaican Governor General virtually. COVID-19 has restricted over 80 per cent of our activities to the Internet. However, because it is a small mission, we are still able to work physically every day with the complement of all our staff members. People book appointments well ahead of time and we accommodate them in a safe manner.

Some Nigerian embassies are said to be inefficiently run and they delay in carrying out basic activities such as issuance of passports. How did you run a different system in Jamaica?

Before we left Nigeria, all the ambassadors and high commissioners got a station charter from the president. In the station charter, the welfare of Nigerians was number one. It was clearly stated that the priority of the president is the welfare of Nigerians. The second was improving bilateral relations.

On arrival in Jamaica, I met with all the different groups of Nigerians and listened to what their needs were. Firstly, they did not like the way they were treated in the past, while the second issue was accessibility to the mission. Thirdly, they did not like the fact that Nigeria was not visible in Jamaica. I then put in place some measures. Firstly, no Nigerian got turned back from the mission, regardless of the day or hour they visited. The security personnel were trained to always attend to Nigerians on a 24-hour basis. We created a hotline and I made myself accessible to everybody. We made sure people got their passports within 24 hours. If any Nigerian did not get their passport within a day, it meant the person had an issue with their existing passports.

I also made sure that all enquiries were attended to, whether verbal or written.

Nigeria turned 60 recently. What are the pressing changes you would like to see in the country?

The major change I would like to see is for Nigerians to ‘own’ their country. We complain and bicker a lot but we are not doing our part as citizens. If we all play our roles properly, the country would move forward. I would like to see Nigerians more active in a positive way.

For example, when I presented my credentials to the Governor General of Jamaica in 2017, he told me something that stuck with me. He thanked the Nigerians living in Jamaica for the services they provide to his country. That was the foundation I met and I was able to leverage on it. There are a lot of thriving Nigerian professionals such as doctors, lawyers, lecturers and businessmen in Jamaica with a positive image. That is what we need in Nigeria. We all must be able to create a positive image for our country wherever we find ourselves.

Nigeria is thought to have an unsavoury image internationally. In what ways did you ‘sell’ the country to the people of Jamaica and in diplomatic circles?

I made sure I maintained my integrity. My word was my bond and I was punctual to events. Hardly was there an event by the Jamaican government I was invited to that I did not attend. Even the Jamaican ministers acknowledged me for attending their events.

Nigerians have been victims of xenophobic attacks in different countries. In what ways do you think Nigerian embassies can protect the country’s citizens all over the world?

It is a difficult question because it varies from country to country. If I am the ambassador or high commissioner in a country where such happens, I would quickly feel the tempo of the situation. I would then engage both sides of the community. In order to quickly identify the problems, I would call my citizens to discuss the issue. I would also call on the host government to find a way to dialogue, so that things don’t escalate to a point where it becomes embarrassing for both countries. I would then try to find a lasting solution. It is important to preempt such situations and in order to do that, we need to engage.

In what ways can Nigeria-Jamaica ties be strengthened to benefit both countries?

The first thing is what we are doing now, which is to provide direct flights between both countries. Nigerians travel a lot for different reasons but Jamaicans travel mostly for economic reasons, not for holidays. If we are able to sustain the flights, that would be the beginning of strengthening the ties between both countries.

We also have a joint commission coming up. It would have held but for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jamaican Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade would visit Abuja for the event. We have always been going to them, so they would come this time. They would be able to put into proper perspectives the things they have been hearing about Nigeria. We had been hearing about crimes in Jamaica but what I met on the ground was totally different from what had been on the news.

Nigeria and Jamaica both have strong music industries. What types of collaborations did you foster in that area and in what ways can this be better explored?

Even without my intervention, the business community, whether it is in music or not, has a way of solving its problems. For example, Davido has been collaborating with Jamaican artistes. He recorded some of his songs in Jamaica and has also performed in Haiti. The actor and comedian, Ayo Makun, also shot a movie in Jamaica even before I got to the country. Also, a Nigerian based in Canada has a TV channel that airs on one of the cable networks in Jamaica. One of their producers is on ground in the country to shoot a lot of videos. I also know that a Jamaica movie was premiered in Lagos and Abuja (Nigeria) in 2019. It is the story of a Jamaican who was trying to trace his roots. When many Jamaicans check their ancestral DNA, they are often from Nigeria or Ghana. There were already collaborations going on between both countries before I came in but I strengthened it further by collaboration with the NFVCB.

Also, Jamaicans love Patoranking’s music and they did not know he was from Nigeria. They thought he was Jamaican. There is no day you listen to Jamaican radio stations that they don’t play Nigerian music.

What would you miss most about Jamaica?

I would miss their tenacity. Living in Jamaica is like staying in Nigeria; there are a lot of similarities between us. I would miss their culture, music, vibrant nature and most importantly, their friendship. I never felt like a stranger. I was accepted and taken in. Now, a lot of Jamaican women copy the way I dress because for the past three years, I always appeared in African attire.

In December 2018, we were invited by the Jamaican Customs to a Christmas party to showcase Nigerian culture because the theme of the event was ‘An African Night’. We went there and stole the show. We had a Nigerian fashion show and also taught them Nigerian dances. Till today, people tell me that was the best Christmas party they had ever had. I would miss that acceptance but I know that I would still return on visits in a private capacity.

What do you consider to be the biggest moments of your career?

One I can recall was in my capacity as the spouse of a diplomat. My husband was also in the Foreign Service before he retired about 10 years ago. In order to contribute my quota towards making my husband’s tenure as the ambassador to Israel a successful one, we had a whole week of showcasing Nigerian culture. Cultural troupes from Enugu and Benue states attended. Nigerian actors were also on hand and it was a week filled with different interesting activities. Till date, people in Tel Aviv (Israel) still talk about the event.

What are the most important lessons you have learnt in the course of your career?

One of them is the ability to listen. As human beings, we all want someone to listen to our problems, especially when outside one’s comfort zone, particularly on foreign soil. When I listen to you, I may not have the solution for you, but I may be able to guide you. As an ambassador or high commissioner, when an individual sees that one has tried, the person would appreciate one’s efforts even if one does not resolve the problem. Recently, cancer killed a Nigerian who had been working in Jamaica for over 20 years and had become a citizen of the country. His son, who was living with him, had a Higher National Diploma in Computer Science, and wanted to further his education. But with his father’s death, he could not raise funds for that. I listened to his lamentations and was thinking of how to help him. The hospital where he worked organised a funeral for him and I attended. The Chief Executive Officer of the hospital was there and in my condolence message, I called upon him to find a job for the young son. After that, the CEO told me he would help him. So, I listened to his cries and tried to help him in my own way.

Prior to being the High Commissioner to Jamaica, what was your work history?

This is my twenty-eighth year as a Foreign Service officer. The first department I worked in was the Technical Aids Corps. From there, I served in Spain, where I was in charge of economy, trade and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. Afterwards, I went to Malaysia, where I was the deputy head of the mission. I was responsible for the political desk, administrative matters and amnesty students that were studying in the country.

Because of my husband, I was a spouse in Brussels (Belgium), Philippines and Israel. While I was in those three countries, I made sure I portrayed the culture and dynamism of Nigeria. There is no country I have served that people have not come to understand more about Nigeria.

What led you to start a career in the diplomatic world?

I actually got into the Foreign Service by accident. I wanted to be a businesswoman like my mother but she did not want that. She told me that in our family, there was nobody in the federal public service. She then told me to go into the civil service and I grudgingly applied to the Federal Civil Service Commission. Prior to that time, I had no idea what a career in the civil service entailed, so I asked questions. The commissioner in charge of Delta State then educated me on what it meant to be in the Foreign Service. I liked what he said and that was how I got into the service.

Your husband was also a diplomat before he retired. Did you meet in diplomatic circles?

Yes, we did actually. We met when I joined the service in 1992 and I had to go to the Foreign Service Academy in Lagos. We returned after 12 months and I was posted to the Technical Aids Corps, which was then a directorate. He was then a level 14 officer and he was the one training all the new recruits at the directorate. One thing led to the other and here we are.

What were the qualities that endeared you to him?

The most important is his forthrightness. He is a man that speaks his mind at all times. He is also straightforward and caring. To cap it up, he has the fear of God. I was not just looking for a husband but a father figure as well― someone who would care for me. There is a 14-year age difference between us.

Diplomats often have the finesse to defuse tense situations. Do you ever quarrel as a couple?

For us, it does not have to do with our profession but our personalities. We don’t quarrel but have different opinions on certain issues. He is a man that listens and we both express what is on our minds. About four years ago, our kids said they had never heard us quarrelling or raising our voices at each other.

How were you able to balance your career and family so that none suffered?

The Federal Government has policies in place to protect the marriages within the Foreign Service.

However, because of the nature of the job and the travelling it entails, one of us had to sacrifice, particularly because of our children.  I took leaves of absence three times. The first time was when my husband was posted to Brussels (Belgium) and we actually had a baby there. The second time was when he was posted to the Philippines. Also, when he was the ambassador to Israel and Cyprus, I took another one. I do not regret those sacrifices and I would make them again because the children needed stability. I believe there is no government on earth that can compensate diplomats for the work they do. That is because as a diplomat, one is not the only one working. One’s spouse and children must conform and live in such a way that they don’t soil the image of the country. It takes a dynamic family to be uprooted from their homes to go somewhere else. It takes sacrifice and the grace of God to successfully combine a career in the Foreign Service and one’s family.

My husband is now retired and he was with me in Jamaica as a spouse. For a long time, he did not travel to Nigeria. That was his sacrifice but the good thing is that our children are all grown up. However, I needed him and he was there for me. He did not tell me that he is a man and cannot take care of the home front. Every time male ambassadors asked him how he coped as a spouse, he would ask them how they thought their wives coped as spouses. It is a give and take situation and that is what marriage is supposed to be about.

Which schools did you attend?

I started my primary education at Corona School, Yaba (Lagos). However, my parents separated and my mother moved to Kano State. Being single mother of four, she juggled a lot of things together. In Kano, I attended SIM School (which was owned by ECWA Church). When my mother’s financial situation improved, she moved me to St Thomas Primary School where I spent one year. However, the best school in Kano at the time was St Louis Primary School and I later went there and completed my elementary education.

Luckily, I got admission into the Federal Government Girls College in Kazaure (formerly in Kano but now in Jigawa). I then attended the School of Management Studies to study Accountancy for a year. From there, I went to the Federal School of Art and Science in Sokoto State. I later got admission into the then Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University) through the pre-degree programme to study Mathematics. I then switched to Economics.

After some years, I did a Master’s in Business Administration at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel. I am presently doing an online Master’s degree programme in Procurement, Logistics and Supply Chain Management.

How do you unwind?

I play online games such as Solitaire and Sudoku. I always have games on my phones and tablets because I love them so much. I also read romantic novels. I watch television a lot too; I love good movies.

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