News  Canadian diplomats to African countries talk to McGill students

McGill alumni working in Nigeria and the DRC discuss progress, challenges, and the role of Canada

On Tuesday morning the Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria and the ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo gave an informal talk to a small group of McGill students and faculty at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Professor Tim Johns from the McGill School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition hosted the event in association with the African Studies Student Association.

The diplomats – both McGill graduates – discussed the progress of the two countries, as well as Canada’s role in their futures. High Commissioners are senior diplomats who act as ambassadors between Commonwealth countries like Canada, Nigeria, and other former British colonies.

Chris Cooter, the High Commissioner in Nigeria, said that Canada characterizes Nigeria as a “strategic partner.” He praised Nigeria’s economic sector for the progress made outside of the lucrative oil industry.

“The oil sector, you could say, is the drag of the economy,” said Cooter, “It’s corrupted the politically elite [and] its prevented investment in other sectors.”

Last year in new industries, such as information technology, Nigeria saw a 9 per cent economic growth.

Cooter described Nigeria as “a crucible of regional trends,” playing an important role as an indicator in the continent, particularly in terms of urbanization and Muslim-Christian relations.

“It’s the only country I’m aware of where you have an even divide of such large Christian and Muslim populations. The way that they interact and don’t interact is really important beyond Nigeria,” he said.
Regarding the future of Nigeria, Cooter said, “As the World Bank told me the other day, it’s not a question of if, but when, it emerges as an economic and political giant.”

However despite hopes for progress, however, Cooter noted problems that still exist. “Nigeria could be a star that never quite rises,” he said. Cooter discussed the continued impunity of violence and corruption, increasing elements of fundamentalism, some of the worst socioeconomic indicators in Africa, and the existence of a political class “only interested in itself.”
Sigrid Anna Johnson, the Canadian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), focused on a single aspect that could allow the Congo to lift itself out of years of turmoil and civil war.

“Congo has enough arable land to produce for one billion people,” said Johnson, “They are a very powerful country in terms of agri-food yet they’re importing food – they cannot produce enough food for themselves. It’s illogical.”
Johnson emphasized the importance of food production, and building roads. “When you have roads built, you have traffic, you have trade, and you have security,” she said.

Johnson also spoke about the importance of stopping the impunity of rape.

Though the rate of rapes in the country is decreasing – Lieutenant-Colonel Kibibi Mutware and eight Congolese soldiers were sentenced in February for over 60 rapes in the country – the priority towards ending the impunity of rape and violence is at the forefront of Canada’s relationship with the DRC.

“The rapes are not only against women; they are against men, children, the elderly. It’s terrible,” she said, “The Canadian government is very invested in this; they are spending millions.”

Despite facing challenges of various degrees of severity, the DRC has enjoyed recent stability and success in terms of macro-economic progress. Its inflation is under 10 per cent, the country’s exchange rate stabilized, and the central bank was able to build reserve. The International Monetary Fund was “so impressed” by the DRC that in June 2010 the IMF cancelled the country’s debt to commemorate fifty years since colonial rule ended in the country and mark its recent success – though the DRC will still be required to pay interest.

The largest country in the Francophonie, the DRC will host the organization’s summit meeting in 2012, something Johnson identified as “a sign of a country trying to emerge politically, and on the international scene.”