High commissions as touch points for the Nigerian diaspora By Rotimi Fawole

Did you know that contrary to popular belief, an embassy or high commission is actually not sovereign foreign of the sending state, and also when you enter the premises of any Nigerian High Commission abroad, you are not standing on Nigerian soil.

What the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations stipulates is that the premises of the mission shall be inviolable – agents of the host government cannot enter without the permission of the mission head; the premises of the mission and its vehicles for transportation shall be immune from search; and that the mission is immune from any taxes in respect of the premises of the mission.

It is unlikely that this distinction, between home soil and foreign soil, will be of much comfort to Nigerians resident abroad, as visits to the High Commission are still mostly undertaken with trepidation and with fasting and prayer. You just do not know if you’re going to get abroad-Nigeria or Nigeria-Nigeria when you visit.

In the past week, a video went viral on social media, of the aftermath of a dissatisfied Nigerian customer at the British High Commission, who had taken to smashing up the mission’s vehicles including the High Commissioner’s. He had been arrested at the time of the video and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently put out a statement saying he had turned up late for his passport collection, without his collection slip and lost his temper when he was told he could not collect. Of course, in completely cavalier Nigerian MDA fashion, they also egregiously breached his privacy rights by displaying his full and un-redacted passport data page with their statement, but that is another story entirely. Hopefully, we will hear the gentleman’s side of the story in due course.

The behaviour of this individual was quite rightly condemned by all but it inevitably led to the Diaspora contingent recounting their experiences at High Commissions and it was very grim reading. Like my friend, Allen, who had travelled down to London from Glasgow with his family for their passport renewals, only for them to be sent some other family’s booklets instead. Or many others who had undertaken long journeys only to learn on their arrival that appointments had been cancelled or rescheduled. Lots of old videos of Diaspora angst resurfaced as well, as well as stories of aromatic amala and various soups being sold right there in the London mission. There were accounts of services has improved over the years but making the past the benchmark for today is not necessarily saying much.

From the London mission’s website alone, the case for improvement is plain. Processes could be simplified or explained much more simply and all missions must fully embrace technology. If a previously unforeseen public holiday is declared in Nigeria and means that previously scheduled appointments will no longer hold, this is 2019 – there is absolutely no excuse for emails and text messages not being immediately sent. Because it is this singular lack of order and lack of empathy from customer-facing people that typifies the bulk of the Nigerian experience with service providers, particularly government agencies.

Virtually everyone has had that terrible experience – some more than once. It’s the reason why we all have a driving licence guy, or a passport man (who is sometimes a woman), or a lands registry guy (who is sometimes a Pastor or an Alfa) or a customs guy, or a FIRS guy, or police or MOPOL guy. If we approach the government’s customer service providers without a “guy”, we are more likely than not to be met with frustration and grief – and that usually comes only after we have waited for them to complete their morning devotion. I had the temerity to ask a uniformed officer at the passport office in Alagbon for clarification and I was promptly told: “call your agent”.

And in Nigeria, if I had a setback on Day One, I could easily find someone to recommend an agent to sort me out on Day 2. In the UK or the USA or Canada, coming back the next day or even the next week is not so simple. Finding someone who can recommend a “guy” is probably a little more complicated and there is the matter of needing to take time off work again, possibly with a hit on one’s earnings.

Authentic home cuisine might be a welcome touchpoint for some, but the primary purpose for which citizens of a country visit their embassy is not food. And yes, while embassies – though not home soil – should feel like home, I am quite sure that I speak the mind of the Diaspora when I say, Nigerian High Commission staff should not interpret that literally.


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