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Lumen Summer 2017 Issue
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The art of diplomacy in a conflict zone

Paul Lehmann

Paul Lehmann at Independence Day celebrations in Niger
Paul Lehmann had little notion where he might end up when he embarked on a double degree in architectural studies and law at the University of Adelaide.

Paul, 46, is Australia’s High Commissioner in Nigeria where Australia’s economic and diplomatic interests are always top of mind as he travels around the region.

“My studies at the University of Adelaide stirred my curiosity for world affairs and gave me the skill set and confidence to follow paths to destinations beyond my field of experience,” he says.

“For me it was a case of pursuing my emerging professional interests with vigour, while at the same time not feeling compelled to completely design my whole career on the first day.
“I always leave a little room for luck, trusted advice and embracing the unknown.”

After graduating in 1993, the Waikerie-born diplomat filled a number of positions in Australian Government departments before spending 10 years with the former overseas aid agency AusAID.

He then worked in Kabul for two-and-a-half years, leading Australia’s development assistance program in Afghanistan before returning to manage consular operations at the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.

The challenges of working in a conflict-affected country gave Paul a sound grounding for the job of High Commissioner.

“Unfortunately violent insurgency, conflict and insecurity are all too frequent realities for many communities across Africa,” he says.

“One of the things that motivates me every day in this environment is the opportunity to travel to places to build relationships with people from widely diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds – and to do so in such a way that Australia’s interests are enhanced.

“I am there to make a good impression, while at the same time being ready to hold a firm position if necessary – I need a friendly smile as well as a steely eye.”

While Paul’s main focus is Nigeria he also oversees Australia’s relationships with the neighbouring countries of Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Niger and The Gambia.

Nigeria is a dominant economic and political player in Africa and has been on a steep growth curve in recent years – but it is also home to the ruthless terrorist group Boko Haram and some of the world’s most deadly and protracted conflicts.

“Nigerians are truly some of the friendliest and most welcoming people one could ever hope to meet,” says Paul.

“But there is never any room for complacency when it comes to safety and security. The security environment is complex and in constant flux – locals and travellers alike are advised to avoid areas that are known to pose high risks."

Like many individuals whose work takes them overseas for long periods, leaving family and friends back in Australia is a reality of life. However, Paul says, the fulfilments of a professional life in places unknown to him have always offered an irresistible pull.

“I’ve come so far west that if I keep going I will be back in Australia any day now,” he says.

International appointments
A number of University of Adelaide alumni represent Australia as Ambassadors and in other positions overseas, and at home including:

  • Jeremy Bruer High Commissioner to Vanuatu

  • Susan Coles High Commissioner to Mauritius

  • Justin Lee Deputy Head of Mission to Indonesia

  • Suzanne McCourt Ambassador to Zimbabwe

  • Natasha Stott Despoja Ambassador for Women and Girls

Story by Ian Williams


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