Tolu Ogunlesi
7 min readNov 24, 2022

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My #HFX2022 Notebook

With Lassina Zerbo, former Prime Minister of Burkina Faso, and former Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), at #HISF2022

Another third weekend of November, another Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of 300 persons from around the ‘free world’ — policy makers, academics, military officers, journalists, activists — for an annual weekend in Halifax, Nova Scotia, eastern Canada, to discuss the state of the world, from a global security perspective.

Always very insightful. Last year I published my ‘musings’ from the 2021 edition, and I’ve now decided to do something similar for 2022.

One of the most interesting things is to see how the primary themes shift from year to year, from ISIS a few years ago to Trump to Covid (as with most other things, there wasn’t a physical meeting in 2020) and now to the Russia-Ukraine war. And some things never change, as strong underlying themes, actually: cyber warfare, climate change, the rise (and ambitions) of China.

It’s for me also always an interesting opportunity to situate Nigeria and Africa in the global flow of issues and ideas and trends.

America laments a lot about how its losing influence in Africa to China, but doesn’t really seem keen to do anything concrete about this, beyond the lamenting. I did ask a question about how we can convince America to put its money where its mouth is, during the Q&A session of a Saturday afternoon panel on Food Security, on which my friend and colleague (and Halifax Forum Board Member) JJ Omojuwa was a panelist.

Next month President Biden will host African Heads of State and Government in Washington, DC, for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, a follow-up to the inaugural edition hosted by President Obama in 2014 (and for which I wrote this, for the New African Magazine). There’s historically been a lot of talk about “Africa Strategies”, but not enough action — by which I mean direct investment money.

I’m always going back to the famous Kwame Nkrumah quote: “We face neither East nor West, we face forward.” It continues to be true today, for many African countries, more than sixty years after the words were first uttered.

Nigeria now has its first brand new Deep Sea Port in more than 40 years (completed last month, and starting commercial operations very soon) because a Singaporean conglomerate (that also happens to have significant footprints in Nigeria), a Chinese construction company and a Chinese Bank came together to primarily finance the construction of the Port, in a Joint Venture with the Governments of Lagos State and of Nigeria as minority shareholders: “$630m from the China Development Bank (CDB), and $470m in equity from the state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company” is how the Financial Times described it in this 2019 piece. The CDB financing won Project Finance International’s “2019 African Infrastructure Deal of the Year” Award, among others.

A game-changing, less-than-$2-billion investment, in Africa’s largest economy, sounds a lot to me like a really smart thing to do. And it’s not a great deal of money too, certainly not to the Americans. China seems far more enthusiastic, and yes, “Chinese Debt Trap” or “China’s Debt Diplomacy” is “a myth” at best, and at worst, a disinformation campaign no less dangerous than those peddled by the bad guys of the world.

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Back to HISF 2022. Annual Forum fixtures include the Builder Award (which went this year to Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Forum regular and Russian opposition activist who’s now in a Moscow prison), and the John McCain Prize (to celebrate “John McCain’s extraordinary life — a permanent reminder of the strength of the human spirit”) which this year went to “The women of Ukraine” (“for keeping their families safe, for continuing their work while bombs fall and for picking up weapons to fight the aggressor”).

Senator McCain was a regular at HFX, him and his amazing, self-deprecating sense of humour:

I did meet Senator McCain, at my first-ever Forum (2014), and I have grainy proof: (that’s me, JJ, and too-much-background-lighting, flanking him)

Another HISF fixture: the Friday night Lobster dinners, where hundreds of Halifax lobsters bid the planet a colourful farewell, to the rousing tunes of a marching military band.

On the final morning of the 3-day Forum, there’s a 5K run, which I used to enthusiastically take part in, but which I’ve now retired from, on account of age.

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Now to a few of the quotes and insights that stood out the most for me, at #HFX2022. Unattributed quotes are from off-the-record sessions.

“If we do not want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace.” — President Harry S. Truman to the UN General Assembly, April 25, 1945. [Someone cited this in a speech, or on a panel — update: I remember now, it was a direct quote from one of the plenary-opening videos. These quirky videos (sometimes funny, sometimes sobering, always compelling), played at the start of plenary sessions, are another highlight of the Forum].

“Had Ukraine surrendered, as some European leaders urged, it’s not difficult to imagine where we would be now […] Our democracies are worth fighting for and worth saving.” — Peter Van Praagh, President of the Halifax Forum, the Washington-DC based organisers of the Annual Security Forum). This probably sums up the entire Forum: democracy and freedom are worth fighting for.

And it ties in to this sentiment by Hanna Hopko (Ukrainian politician, former Member of Parliament, and Chairwoman of Ukraine’s Democracy in Action Conference), that “Democracy without weapons is bla bla bla.” Sometimes the fight for democracy takes enters the arena of war, and defenders must rise up to the occasion and give it all that it takes.

Lenna Koszarny, CEO of Horizon capital, the largest Private Equity firm in Ukraine, provided some very interesting perspectives:

  1. Ukraine is the bread basket of Europe — what I find very thought-provoking is how a country of 41 million people has managed to build so much agricultural capacity, that even amidst a brutal war, it still manages to command the respect of the world, in terms of its impact on global food security.

2. 40% of World Food Programme (WFP) purchases come from Ukraine

3. Ukraine has $70B in exports annually; 40% of which are Agric exports. (If Nigeria, with five times the population, and 1.5 times the landmass, earned half as much from Agric exports as Ukraine, ours would be a vastly different story!)

4. $10B worth of exportable agricultural products sitting in Ukraine right now, held down by Russian blockades.

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In the area of disinformation (a topic I am personally passionate about, and currently researching), CEO of Jigsaw, Yasmin Green, noted the “Demand-side challenge” of disinformation, about how, she’s seeing the emergence of groups of “conspiracy-minded” people — an entire ‘industry’ where health disinformation ,election denial, false flags, 5G conspiracy theories and so on all “intersect”; with people now “primed” to believe a package of disinformation, and to self-identify and organize around it.

Saturday afternoon lunch was a replica of Ukrainian military rations— a powerful symbol of the deprivations of war, and of the solidarity with a people fighting for their right to live and to exist as a sovereign nation.

Sample Ukrainian military ration: meat stews, bread, biscuits, fruit, coffee.

As you can see, Ukraine was very much center-stage at #HFX2022, and understandably so. There was also the screening of Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary film: FREEDOM ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM

War is a terrible thing. One minute you’re living a simple middle-class life, in Europe, the next, you’re a refugee, holed up in a bomb-shelter — or something far more vulnerable — or crossing unwelcoming borders in desperation. The life you had, knew, is gone for ever. Even if and when peace returns, what is gone is gone.

The images from the documentary were truly harrowing, nowhere, it appears, has been immune to Russian shelling, not apartment blocks, not hospitals, not power plants. An unrelenting campaign of terror. Even now the people are surprised about how quickly life changed for the worse.

It reminded me of a 2016 trip to Bama in Northeastern Nigeria. A town that used to be a bustling border town, the second commercial city in Borno State, after Maiduguri, rendered desolate by Boko Haram. We drove through the town in a military convoy and there was no one in sight. Every building, every structure, bore the scars of terror: bullet-holes, burns, bomb-marks.

And yet when war comes to the doorsteps of the innocent, the most valid response has to be in kind. Which is what the people of Ukraine are now doing. No retreat, no surrender. As one of the Ukrainian panelists pointed out, “negotiations” are now off the cards.

In a video address made specially for the Forum, President Zelensky outlined Ukraine’s 10-point “Peace Formula.” The underlying premise: “Immoral compromises will lead to new blood. A truly real, longstanding and honest peace can only be the result of a complete demolition of Russian Agreement.”

In summary, Ukraine has significant implications for the rest of the world. Where Ukraine goes, other parts of the world will follow.

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In closing, these two quotes about technology:

“All innovative technology is now dual-use — military and civilian.”

“[Artificial Intelligence] do not make decisions. [AIs] can give the illusion of making a decision, but they are simply computational statistics that at best decouple decision from action. The decisions are always made by humans, never AIs. Hollywood has misleadingly anthropomorphized AI. It’s like saying landmines make decisions.”

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Some of my thoughts on US-Nigeria relations, here

My #HFX2021 Notebook, here

Forum website, here

New HFX online magazine, launched November 2022, here

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Tolu Ogunlesi

Digital Communications for Nigerian Government, Journalist on Sabbatical