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Amb. Okon
Next time you go to Equatorial Guinea, try and dress as an African and you may be surprised at the respect you will be given by the locals there. The Nigerian Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, Mr. Gregory Okon, says that is one of the things Nigeria has to teach the Guineans, who still dress based on the influence of their Spanish colonial masters.

Okon, who spoke with our correspondent when a committee of his friends organised a reception for him and another friend, Mr. Ita Akpan Stephen, who has been appointed executive director in ExxonMobil, in Uyo, said African fashion is one of the things Nigeria could teach the Malabo people.

'In Equatorial Guinea, due to the Spanish influence, African dressing and African attire is not very common. People still dress like Europeans. So, I can also try to make them appreciate the value, the identity value, the cultural value of being African, dressing African and I've been trying to invite some Nigerian fashion designers to visit Equatorial Guinea and see what they can actually bring to the people of Equatorial Guinea.

I think they would like to dress like us, they see us on television and they admire our dresses. Unfortunately, they have no way of having access to these dresses. So, that's what I've been doing.' Apart from African dress sense, the ambassador picked Nigerian films as another aspect of Nigerian culture that the Equatorial Guineans are crazy about. 'What we have found out is that although people of Equatorial Guinea speak Spanish, they love our movies so much, even those who don't understand English.'

But it is not everything Nigerian that its tiny neighbour is crazy about, according to Okon, whose family compound in Uruan Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State is a few nautical miles to Malabo. He explains that some of the challenges he is facing as Nigerian ambassador to that country include Nigerians' almost complete ignorance of the culture and life of the Equatorial Guinea just as the locals there have an erroneous belief that most Nigerians are troublesome people.

'I am doing my best to surmount the challenges. First of all, one of the challenges I'm facing, perhaps, is ignorance. A lot of people don't know about Equatorial Guinea. People would rather know about the United States than their immediate neighbours here. So, ignorance is one of the challenges I'm facing in Equatorial Guinea. People don't really understand their neighbours and because of this ignorance, people don't also realise the potentials of Equatorial Guinea to the economy of Nigeria. They do not also realise the kind of impact the Equatorial Guinea could have on the national security of Nigeria because we share a maritime border and within these maritime areas, there are lots of security challenges, smuggling and bunkering. So, I want people to come to know their next neighbours, then there's likelihood that there will be no mutual suspicion, mistrust and often times hostility. So, that's one of the challenges.

'I have also, on the other side, tried to inform the Equatorial Guinean Government and the people that the Nigeria you hear about is not the real Nigeria. Of course, we are about 160 million people and there is no way a percentage of that will not have one thing or the other. So, I try to also break the misunderstanding about Nigeria. I am trying my best but beyond that, I'm trying to make the people of Equatorial Guinea appreciate the people of Nigeria and the people of Nigeria appreciate the people of Equatorial Guinea. 'When there is this mutual appreciation between people, then the government will by implication also come closer because people make government, people influence government, especially in Nigeria here, where we have a vibrant democracy. So, that is what I have been busy trying to do. So, I'm also trying to transform the bilateral relationship between Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.

'Yes, before me, there was a period of lull, a period of disengagement. We had a federal agreement between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, but nothing was actually functioning. You sign an agreement; it's as good as the paper. So, what I'm trying to do now is when we sign an agreement, both of us will have to honour the agreement. Yes, both of us have to honour the agreement. We have to implement the agreement. That is what I'm trying to do.'

He prayed that Nigerians would understand the commonalities, existing between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. 'I will start with ancestral historical relations between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, especially between this part of the country – Akwa Ibom and Cross River – with the Equatorial Guinea. A lot of our fathers went there to work on the cocoa farms. Yes, we have a lot of Nigerians there right now, most of who come from this part of the country. I see a lot of Nigerians there with dual parentage. It's either the mother is from Akwa Ibom and the father is an Equatorial Guinean or the other way round. So, to that extent, we also have a lot of commonality of culture, we have a lot of similarities and my role as an ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in that place is to bring both communities closer, not just the two governments.

'You see, if you restrict your diplomacy to government-to-government, then you're missing a very important ingredient of diplomacy – the people. Right now, my greatest challenge is to make the people of this area invest in the industries of the Equatorial Guinea and perhaps vice versa. My challenge has been to encourage the people here to participate in the economy of the Equatorial Guinea.'  But how does he feel to be posted to Equatorial Guinea while others are being sent to America, Europe and Asian countries where he had served as diplomatic official before?

He said: 'There's a popular misconception about the diplomatic postings. People think the farther you go, the more important you are. But let me tell you, for Nigeria, the contiguous neighbours are the most targets for the cultivation of bilateral relations. And so when you see some of the diplomats or ambassadors posted to our neighbours, they are actually there to take up greater challenges. Take for instance the country, Equatorial Guinea, you may think it's quite insignificant but it's one of the most strategic countries to Nigeria in so many ways I cannot explain. So, if you ask me, if I was sent to Europe, I would probably have not faced the challenges I'm facing because, of course, as we well know, Europe colonised us in Africa. So much of the relationship, bilateral diplomatic relationship between Nigeria and most of these countries were structured over the years, over the long period of our colonial past, whether it is in the UK or anywhere else.'

One experience would, however, remain indelible in the mind of Ambassador Okon as long as he heads the Nigerian mission in Equatorial Guinea. In fact, the experience would probably outlast his diplomatic assignment. It was the day the draws for the 2012 African Cup of Nations football championships were held in Malabo. Don't forget that for the first time in many years, Nigeria was not there and the Nigerian ambassador had to carry the burden which even resulted in tears.

'Well, for the Nations' Cup, it was a very lamentable situation that Nigeria did not qualify. All the ambassadors were invited to the draws by the two presidents:, the President of Gabon and the President of Equatorial Guinea, and the ambassadors sat at the front row with their presidents and everybody came to me and asked me why Nigeria was not there. It was a very emotional moment. I had to go to the toilet. They were mentioning the Nigerian footballers' by name. It was very emotional. I went to the toilet and I wept.

'And, of course, I want to tell you something that you probably don't know; wherever Africa is gathered and Nigeria is not there, there is a vacuum and that vacuum is felt by everybody there. It is true that Nigeria cannot solve Africa's entire problem but I can tell you, Africa can never solve any of its problems without Nigeria.'