By Maxmilian Wechsler
DESPITE the vast geographical and cultural differences, Thailand and Nigeria have much in common, having similar political views of the world and substantial economic links with huge potential growth. In doesn’t stop there either, for the two nations share many of the same natural products, rely heavily on rice for food, and boast rich mineral deposits. Both also enjoy a tropical climate.
These were among the many topics covered during an interview with the Nigerian Ambassador to Thailand, His Excellency Chudi Okafor, a seasoned diplomat with a deep knowledge of Southeast Asia and Thailand.
Speaking in his office in the large embassy compound on Sukhumvit Soi 71, Mr Okafor, who was accompanied by two colleagues from the Nigerian diplomatic corps, was also keen to highlight his country’s phenomenal economic growth rate of more than seven percent over the past few years and its vision to become one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020.
“In the area of trade, Nigeria is the largest African market and importer of Thai rice, while Thailand imports crude oil from Nigeria. We are the biggest producer of oil and natural gas in Africa and home to 34 strategic solid minerals of which gemstones are of interest to Thailand.
“We share many of the same fruits, although there is more variety here. Of course, rice is also a staple food in Nigeria. There are other similarities, for example Thailand is also rich in minerals, including precious stones.” At this point the Ambassador said he was proud that when he visited the Gems & Jewelry Fair in Bangkok last year, the precious stones from Nigeria were among the best showcased.
He went on: “Thailand has indicated interest in participating in Nigeria’s ongoing power sector reform, and efforts are being made to expand contacts in other sectors of the economy like tourism, as well as sports and culture. As you may be aware, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of tapioca. There are certainly a lot of opportunities for collaboration and joint venture partnerships between our two countries.”
The ambassador talked briefly of his childhood and family background, saying his parents were “happily married” and that his father was in the medical profession and his mother was a housewife who was also involved in a trading business. He then turned the focus to the Nigerian diplomatic mission in Thailand and his role in furthering bilateral relations.
“Thailand and Nigeria established diplomatic ties in July 1962 and since then our relationship has been excellent, with friendship and cooperation growing from strength to strength. The Thai embassy opened in the former Nigerian capital of Lagos in 1972 and has now moved to the new capital city, Abuja. We opened our embassy in Bangkok in 2000 on Sukhumvit Soi 38 and have a staff of about 25, both Nigerians and Thais.
“Arrangements for official visits are ongoing by both governments to take advantage of these opportunities and promote the bilateral relationship. In 2010 former Deputy Prime Minister Trairong Suwankhiri visited Nigeria during our golden anniversary celebration marking 50 years of independence from British rule,” said the Ambassador.
Mr Okafor arrived in Thailand for the first time in July 2012 when he took up his official duties at the embassy. He says he immediately felt at home here as there are many similarities between the two countries. “When I wake up, it is always warm with the sun shining. Nigeria is a tropical country like Thailand and has a lot of the same vegetation and agricultural products.”
As Nigeria has a wide variety of natural attractions, including hundreds of kilometers of sandy beaches, forests, mountains, rivers, plateaus and valleys, Mr Okafor hopes the country will be able to develop its tourist industry as Thailand has done.
His duties here include heading the diplomatic mission, promoting and protecting Nigeria’s interests in Thailand, preparing reports for the government back home on relevant developments and ensuring the welfare of Nigerians in Thailand and other consular responsibilities.
He enjoys travelling outside Bangkok, whether officially or privately. “Since beginning my term as Ambassador, I have visited Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Pattaya, Songkhla, Surin and Sukhothai,” said Mr Okafor, whose term as Ambassador is three years at the pleasure of his President.
Following his visit to Chiang Mai in October 2012, Mr Okafor called on the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to establish a regional office in Nigeria to take advantage of opportunities in the largely untapped tourism industry there.
While visiting Surin province on the invitation of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) last November, Mr Okafor took part in the Isan Thai Hom Mali Rice Festival held in honor of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s 80th birthday.
In Bangkok, the Ambassador engages regularly with Thai government officials in order to promote bilateral relations and the welfare of Nigerians in Thailand. Mr Okafor was granted an audience with the director general of consular affairs of the MFA, Thongchai Chasaworth, last November.
Other meetings have been aimed at enhancing interaction between members of parliaments of the two countries. These have included a meeting with the President of Thai Senate, Nikom Wairatpanij, late last year and with the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Yukol Limlamthong; Minister of Commerce, Boonsong Teriyapirom; Vice Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Pithaya Pookaman; and of course the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Surapong Tovichakchaikul in March this year.
Despite his busy schedule, Mr Okafor finds time to enjoy and appreciate his host country. “I don’t have any complaints [about Thailand] so far. On the contrary, I have had many memorable moments, particularly the 85th birthday celebration of His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej on December 5, 2012.
“It was truly an unforgettable experience for me to witness leadership by example and genuine outpouring of affection and reverence of the Thai people for His Majesty. I have strong admiration for the traditional vow of the Thai monarchy to reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people. On a personal note, I have found that Thai people are very hospitable and accommodating to foreigners.”
Mr Okafor said there are more than 2,000 Nigerian nationals living in Thailand. “We have here the Nigeria Community Association of Thailand, which is an umbrella association. Under this association are, for example, the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO), a global organization with a chapter in many countries. Its members are mostly Nigerian professionals prominent in the fields of science, technology, business, medicine, engineering and so forth.
“Many of these are ready to come home to make contributions to the development of Nigeria. Thailand’s chapter of NIDO was officially launched on March 23 this year.
“Other associations include the Thai-Nigerian Friendship Association and the Thai-Nigerian Chamber of Commerce,” said Mr Okafor. It is hoped that the Nigeria-Thailand Business Council will soon be inaugurated to drive investment initiatives between both countries.
On alleged criminal activities committed by Nigerian citizens in Thailand, including various scams and drug dealing reported in the media, the ambassador responded by noting that Nigeria is a country with 167 million hardworking people at home and abroad. He added that Nigeria does not condone criminality and that the few elements who involve themselves in criminal and fraudulent acts have to pay the price and be punished provided they are tried according to the law of the host country.
The ambassador said that every country has its own share of criminals and fraudsters. During meetings he always advises Nigerians in Thailand to shun criminality and respect the laws of Thailand.
On the other side of the spectrum, the ambassador pointed with obvious pride to the awarding of the 2012 Prince Mahidol Award in the field of public health to a Nigerian, Dr (Mrs.) Uche Veronica Amazigo. Her landmark research into onchocerciasis (river blindness) has led to significant control of the disease and saved countless lives worldwide. Dr Amazigo, who is in fact the second Nigerian to win the prestigious award, was selected out of a field of 75 contestants from 34 countries.
HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, acting on behalf of His Majesty the King and the Prince Mahidol Award Foundation, presented the award to Dr Amazigo in January this year, along with a check for US$100,000.
After the presentation, the Princess granted Dr Amazigo a private audience. The Nigerian scientist was also invited to a high tea reception hosted by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who warmly congratulated Dr Amazigo, with Mr Okafor on hand to extend his congratulations as well. She then visited the Ambassador’s Residence for a dinner reception attended by the Vice Minister of Health.
The first time a Nigerian received the Prince Mahidol Award, also in the field of public health, was in 1999 when it was given to Professor Adetokumbo Oluwole Lucas. The professor has been awarded the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Admirable Order of Direkgunabhorn by His Majesty the King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of his service for the country’s Prince Mahidol Foundation. The honor was conferred in Bangkok by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on February 2, 2007.
The Ambassador said that he is optimistic about the chances of Mahidol University and universities in Nigeria collaborating in the area of public health. “We have many programs already with various institutions in several countries, including China, South Korea, India, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore in Asia.
Mr Okafor said there is a lot of local interest in the Nigerian National Day reception held in Bangkok on every October 1, partly because of the many colourful styles of dress worn by the Nigerian people. “Nigerian food is also recognized globally these days. If you go to London or the US, you can find many markets with a good variety of Nigerian foods and flavourings.
“In March we had a shop at the 46th Diplomatic Red Cross Bazaar held at Siam Paragon to showcase what we have to offer. My wife, Joy, was there to represent the Embassy. This is only a small window. Nigeria has so much to show the world in terms of culture and hardwork,” Mr Okafor said.
“In fact, by end of this year, given what we are doing with the Thai MFA, a lot will be put in place to do just that. We are very optimistic that the time has truly come to enhance the basis of bilateral economic cooperation for the mutual benefit of our two peoples.”
A framed photo on the wall of the Ambassador’s office shows him with the former US President Jimmy Carter. “While I was serving in the US in Atlanta as consul-general I met with Jimmy Carter at the Carter Center,” explained Mr Okafor. “The Center is at the forefront of the promotion of democratic values and alleviation of human suffering, including the fight against the scourge of malaria.” The Ambassador added that these are values the government of Nigeria wishes to uphold and sustain.
“As I have told various Thai ministers, Thailand should not look at Nigeria through the glass of any other country, but see us as we are and what we are capable of becoming given our immense potentials. This is very true in terms of economic development and growth.
“Everyone talks about emerging markets today, like BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], but I want to talk about recent predictions from global ratings about the emerging markets of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey (MINT).
“Global and regional agencies are looking at these countries because they see their potential, and this definitely applies to Nigeria. This is no coincidence -- our economic growth rate over the past few years has consistently remained above seven percent. Our vision is for Nigeria to be one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020.
“In the past few months the presidents of Brazil and Indonesia have visited my country, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron, former US President Bill Clinton and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We are poised to achieve this because of the multi-sectoral ‘Transformation Agenda’ we have in place now. We are looking forward to contributions from countries like Thailand in the transformation in terms of agriculture, investment and other areas like energy and power. We are happy that some Thai companies are also taking notice of what is happening in Nigeria, and we are looking forward to a beautiful and enhanced bilateral relationship in the future,” Mr Okafor concluded.
Birth place: Anambra, Southeast Nigeria.
Marital status: Married with four children.
Hobbies: Reading, lawn tennis, jogging and listening to jazz.
H.E. Chudi Okafor is a Foreign Service Officer (special grade) and current Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Kingdom of Thailand and to Myanmar. He is also Permanent Observer at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok.
Before his appointment as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary by the President in November 2011, Ambassador Okafor was the Chief of Staff to the Secretary to the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Ambassador Okafor was appointed Nigeria’s Consul General to Atlanta, US, in 2006. He was Minister Counsellor, Economic and Trade Desk at the Embassy of Nigeria, Moscow, Russian Federation, in the late 1990s. In the early 1990s, he was Senior Counsellor at the Nigeria High Commission, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In addition, he was Head of Chancery at the Nigeria High Commission, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1980s.
With the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Headquarters in Nigeria since the early 1980s, Ambassador Okafor served with dedication and distinction in various departments, including Consular, Administration and Economic Affairs, and worked with three permanent secretaries at the senior management level, overseeing local and overseas missions administration.
Educational credentials include a Master of Conflict Management from Georgia State University, US; a Master Degree in International Law and Diplomacy from the University of Lagos, Nigeria; a Certificate in International Relations, Law and Diplomacy, Foreign Service Academy, Lagos, Nigeria and B.Sc. Political Science (Second Class Upper Division), University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Negotiation experience and conferences attended
Mr Okafor has attended various conferences and meetings of the United Nations, Commonwealth and World Trade Organization in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Geneva, and other countries over the past 30 years.