These are not the best of times for the average Nigerian citizen. At home the dire straits of the economy impose hardship hitherto unknown in our documented history. The social climate is akin to that of a season of war and anomie.
Recent reports have shown evidence that Nigerians who seek greener pastures abroad are treated with ignominy by the embassies in Lagos and Abuja and are further brutalised in the course of their journeys through ports of entry. Some who travel through illegal routes often suffer a worse fate in some North African countries or lose their lives in the high seas.
Visa processing fees paid to foreign embassies by Nigerians are about the highest in the world with these embassies making fantastic sums in an immoral manner from desperate Nigerians. Yet Nigerians are denied simple courtesies by most of the embassies.
Abroad, most Nigerian embassies, managed by fellow Nigerians treat diaspora citizens with disdain and contempt: they offer no solace to Nigerians who are in distress. Where do Nigerians turn to for help if the weather at home is inclement and life abroad is hostile? This is the dilemma of Nigerians about which the federal and state governments remain obtuse.
The effect is that Nigerians abroad would rather avoid their own nation’s embassies because the notorious bureaucratic inefficiencies at home have been transferred to those mini-representatives of the Nigerian state.
To compound an already chaotic and desperate situation, the Nigerian government hardly ever comes through for the average citizen whose rights are trampled upon in foreign countries. How else do we account for the deaths of over 100 Nigerians in 30 months in xenophobic attacks in South Africa? When some Nigerians suffered a similar fate in India some three odd years ago, the Nigerian High Commissioner did not rise high in defence of the rights of the affected citizens.
Recently, a Nigerian professor on sabbatical in a Ghanaian university was dismissed from service because he availed himself of the universally recognised right to free speech on the vexatious issue of treatment meted out to Nigerians in that country.
Back at home, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has hardly ever issued a statement condemning negative actions against Nigerians nor have there been reprisals or reciprocities. Nigerians are often on their own once they step out of the shores of Nigeria. If objections or clarifications emanate from Nigeria, they are often issued by Hon Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairman/CEO, Nigeria Diaspora Commission. How did the nation descend into such an abyss of neglect and insouciance? Where is Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, in this connection? When does tail begin to wag its dog in Africa’s most populous nation?
All of this came to the fore again recently when an apparently frustrated Nigerian citizen, Mr. Ewohime Akpovweta, who is resident in the United Kingdom resorted to violence to protest his dissatisfaction with the passport issuing or reissuing process in the High Commission in London. He has been reported for allegedly destroying about five cars in the premises of the High Commission.
While we totally condemn violence as a means of self-expression we must draw attention to the harrowing experiences of Nigerians each time they need to seek help from our Missions abroad or obtain the Nigerian passport.
What provoked Mr. Akpovweta into such a condemnable act? Was the High Commission complicit in any way? Sadly, this kind of reaction happens both here in Nigeria and in the embassies abroad.
When embassy officials do not see it as an obligation to render assistance to distressed Nigerians, there is a challenge. Such courtesies as informing citizens about public holidays should be respected through emails or text messages.
A citizen who travels hundreds of kilometres to London or New York only to be told that the embassy is on holidays will certainly not be happy. The discretion of embassy staff is required in such a circumstance.
Indeed the embassies often treat Nigerians as pests or intrusive guests. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations invariably makes the Embassy or High Commission a place of refuge for distressed citizens because of its special status.
Nigerians in London and New York complain about long delays in getting their passports because the embassies never seem to have enough booklets. Some citizens wait for months to obtain the passports and often have to beg or ask for the intervention of highly-placed officials to intercede on their behalf. This is not acceptable. Passports should be routinely issued once citizenship is confirmed.
If Nigerian citizens who live abroad complain, those at home have not been spared the effects of bureaucracy, inadequacies and incompetence of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS). Between 2012 and 2015 obtaining the Nigerian passport became easy. The NIS made it possible for all state offices to have booklets and the process was eased.
In those years, one could walk into the immigration office and obtain a passport within the day or within three days. These days, the nightmare of the previous years has returned. Bottlenecks in the process have been created giving rise to the re-emergence of official touts who often work hand in hand with some unscrupulous Immigration officials.
Some citizens wait for as long as three to six weeks to secure the passport while the highly-connected could get the same service in three days. Why do public service providers always make life difficult for the average Nigerian?
The Nigerian missions abroad – consulates, embassies and high commissions – should put their act together and ensure best practices at all times in rendering services to citizens. The Vienna Convention states inter alia that the functions of a diplomatic mission include ‘‘protecting in the receiving state the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by law.” We are first to acknowledge the huge number of Nigerians who get into different infractions in foreign countries.
Yet, no Nigerian should be thrown under the bus for any reason. Such routine services as passport issuance or renewal should be efficiently rendered. Service delivery initiative, known as ‘Service Compact’ (SERVICOM) was launched in Nigeria in 2003 – to improve service delivery quality at all levels. The gains should continue to be part of dividends of 20 years of unbroken democracy, in this connection.
The government and its agencies should endeavour to give hope and succour to Nigerians at all times. That is the least Nigerians expect in these days of uncertainty and fear.