Politics

Foreign missions: Underfunding, corruption battered Nigeria’s image

Nigeria’s Foreign Missions ought to be a bastion and second home to citizens in the Diaspora, but the reverse is the case. From the United States to Germany, Canada, United Kingdom and Malaysia, it is tales of woes, disappointment, corruption, ill-treatment and poor services rendered to Nigerians by foreign missions. In this report, WALE ELEGBEDE looks at the anguish and frustrations which the country’s Diaspora citizens, whose yearly remittances average $24 billion experience to renew necessary documents in foreign lands

Alongside her five kids, she left her residence city, Munich, and headed to Berlin, the city that houses the Nigerian Embassy in Germany, with the intent of renewing her passports and validating other papers that will legalise her stay in the Western European country.

Ostensibly confident that her earlier scheduled online appointment with the Nigerian Embassy was sufficient for her to procure her passports and head back to her base, she undertook a four-hour journey with her kids via by rail for a fee of about 29 euros per seat.

On arrival in Berlin in the afternoon, she took her kids and headed straight to her country’s embassy located at Neue Jakobstrasse 4, 10179, presented her appointment letter but was allegedly told that she would not be attended to. Looking distraught in a viral video done to announce her predicament, the mother of five, who had to sleep outside the embassy premises alongside her kids, said she was helpless and feeble, as she had to spread cloths on the ground in front of the embassy’s building as she awaits Nigeria’s mission for her passports’ renewal.

“I don’t know what to do next,” was all she could mutter as she helplessly watches one of her kids cry profusely. A few months ago, a viral video made the rounds on social media where some Nigerians were seen in front of their country’s embassy in Bern, furious and claiming that the embassy called Switzerland police on its citizens seeking to renew their passports.

In the video in which the narrator claimed that the Nigerian Embassy ordered the arrest of Nigerians who wanted their passports after making payment for the travelling documents but failed to receipt of the documents.

“This is Nigeria for you, the embassy called police on their citizens because after paying for passports, they don’t want to give them their passports but rather, they called the police to arrest them. Everybody has been here since morning and there is no water or anything.

The Swiss government can’t do this to their citizens, shame on all of you,” the narrator said. Also recounting her experience to this reporter when he met her in 2019 during his visit to the United States for the International Monetary Fund/World Bank annual meeting, a Nigerian lady, who simply wanted to be identified as Mrs. Sade, spoke on alleged maltreatment and inefficiency of Nigeria’s missions abroad, stating that she got treated badly by the Nigerian Embassy in New York.

“I took my children to New York from Atlanta to get our passports issued because the consulate in Atlanta, for months, did not have passport books, so I decided to fly to New York with my children. “We had an appointment but our flight got delayed so we didn’t get there until past 1pm.

They treated us so badly, we ended up in a hotel and paid over a thousand dollars for the three nights even though I was assured over the phone before I left Atlanta that I could get same day expedited service.

Nigerian government officials are not working for their citizens, they’re working to fill their own pockets or they just don’t care. Let everyone continue to tell their stories maybe the officials will be held accountable,” she said.

The lamentation was the same in neighbouring Canada and it even breeds resentment in Miss Oluwakemi Ola, a Nigerian female student in Canada, who said: “I’ll burn my passport when I get Canadian citizenship.”

Ola recounted her horrible experience: “I spent $300 from London Ontario to come to the Nigerian High Commission here in Ottawa. I had to get a bus from my place to Toronto, then here. “The moment I get my Canadian passport, I am burning my Nigerian passport and I will never apply for it again.

I came here to Ottawa and I am returning with nothing, after spending $300. “My father back home in Nigeria doesn’t earn $300 a month. I was looking for hotel, I had to pass the night in Ottawa but which hotel will you find less than $100 in Ottawa.

Then I came this morning to the High Commission, then nothing,” she said in an interview with CBC News Canada in front of the locked Nigerian High Commission in Ottawa. Also expressing her irritation to the news medium, another Nigerian in Canada, Debby Eigbe, said: “I flew all the way from Calgary using Air Canada; I flew all night and landed at Ottawa this morning and I got here early this morning, only to see a notice that the High Commission is not open.

“I had called on Tuesday and they said I should come and that my passport will be renewed. I got here now, they said they have gone on consular duties and would be closed till 27th. What am I to do? I had paid a $1,000 for my flight tickets down here. This is very unfortunate and we just need some external interventions.

“They are very unprofessional and I know them. I work and I earn a living, I know how to treat customers. We need external intervention and we want the world to know that this embassy is a fraud. This embassy is supposed to be my home away from home but I haven’t seen one security gate there.

If there was a problem, this will be the least safe place to come into for protection.” Perhaps, excessively frustrated and allowed rage took a better part of him, a UK-based Nigerian, Jeffrey Ewohime, in 2019 lost his cool at the Nigeria High Commission in London, vandalising the vehicles of staff parked in front of the building after he was unable to obtain his passport. The reality of these tales of impunity, sadism, inefficiency and organised corruption from Nigerians in the Diaspora got driven home with the recent sacking of a security guard with the Nigerian Embassy in Germany for allegedly demanding sex from a Nigerian lady in order to help her renew her passport.

The dismissed security officer, Martins Adedeji Oni, had his employment contract terminated, following an investigation into allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct, the embassy stated in a statement. “Mr. Oni was suspended from duty on November 17 after reports emerged that he had curried sexual favours in return for help with the renewal of a passport.

“The Embassy immediately established an Investigation Committee to examine the allegations and any related issues, and to make recommendations for action. “The Embassy is grateful for the help of the public in tackling such abuses. As public servants, we pledge to follow all due process as part of our continuing commitment to deliver the highest ethical and professional standards in all our operations, also at Consular and Immigration,” it stated.

The pains that Nigerians in the Diaspora go through to obtain travel documents are palpable, either for residency, schooling, business, or in transit abroad. In fact, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for them to obtain necessary travel documents to regularise their stay in foreign lands.

With the social media waiting in the wings to hear out lamentations, different online platforms are flooded with audio clips and videos illustrating the appalling experiences of applicants in some Nigerian foreign missions. Like the Munich-based mother of five, many Nigerians are made to wait in the cold for hours.

Others who travel from far away for passport collection are told the passports are not ready and asked to come at a future date. Many Nigerians abroad who spoke to New Telegraph also accused some of the country’s missions of lacking the capacity to address their problems, just as others complained of gross incompetence exhibited by Nigerian embassy officials overseas.

Majorly, the Diaspora citizens frown at their inability to get visa or passport appointments, gain access to the missions promptly or even get assistance from them. According to them, it is never the case with missions of other countries that treat their citizens as their priority.

Some also spoke of alleged demands for gratification by Nigerian embassy officials for the simplest of requests, which also compounds the negative image of Nigeria abroad. Currently, Nigeria maintains 119 embassies and high commissions abroad as well as consulates and other representations. The embassies, expected to promote foreign interests abroad, are coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja.

The current supervising minister for the Ministry is Mr. Geofrey Onyeama. Foreign missions or diplomatic missions are representatives of a nationstate to represent the interest and people of the nation-state in another country.

The issuance of passports, visas, and such documents are essentially the responsibility of the Immigration Service which is usually attached to the Foreign Service team According to some informed analysts, the most common excuse around the laxity in service by the embassies is the scarcity of passport booklets, but often, they averred, it is downright incompetence hidden behind bureaucratic red tape.

For a foreign affairs analyst, Mr. Olufemi Lawson, the poor image of the country abroad has two sides – the disdainful manner with which Nigerian foreign missions treat the citizens and the parlous state of the missions and staff.

He said: “Who will respect you when your missions can’t pay home-based officers’ allowances, local staff salaries, rent for residences, chanceries and other official quarters and you can’t even maintain buildings housing your missions?” “I think we have only succeeded in exporting our home-grown lackadaisical attitude abroad despite the handson technology available in most of the foreign countries. In some cases, these bottlenecks in passport applications may probably be deliberate to give room for extortion.

“Go to the website of most of these foreign missions, they are full of stale and irrelevant information. Some are not updated and telephone numbers on several of the websites are either not functional or are never responded to when called, while emails are never replied to.

“I read somewhere that the website of one of the embassies still has the photograph of Goodluck Jonathan as the President of Nigeria despite leaving office since 2015. This is shameful and irritating especially for a country that prides itself as the giant of Africa.”

On the website of the Nigerian Embassy, Berlin, Germany, a notice advertised for citizens who may want to process or obtain passport from the embassy reads: “This is to inform the general public that due to temporary shortage of booklets, it is not possible to issue the passport the same day. From Monday, 23rd November, 2020 the Embassy will not be able to process applications beyond capturing.

Note, this is only a temporary situation which will change as soon as booklets are available.” Clearly, one of the inhibiting factors on the prompt efficiency of the country’s missions abroad is underfunding and this has also negatively dovetailed to the country’s foreign policy and diplomatic interests In the last five years, Nigeria budgeted less than N200 billion for its foreign missions, representing a paltry 0.5 per cent of all its budgetary proposals of N43.98 trillion in that period.

In 2021, the proposed budget earinmarked N65.1 billion for foreign missions, which is 78 per cent of the ministry’s N83.4 billion budget. When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, he ordered a review of the country’s missions overseas with the aim of pruning the number and improving the quality of services being rendered.

The President disclosed this after he was briefed on the activities of the Foreign Affairs Ministry by its Permanent Secretary, Ambassador Bulus Lolo, noting that it would be counter-productive operating missions all over the world “with dilapidated facilities and demoralised staff” when the need for some of the missions was questionable. With that said, actions were set in motion to prune down the missions.

However, it wasn’t until May 21, 2019, that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Onyeama, said operations had been shut down in Sri Lanka, Czech Republic and the Republic of Serbia while the embassy in Ukraine had been drastically downsized.

He said: “Every embassy has written to us about their huge financial demands and when we go to these embassies, we see clearly very unattractive state that does not reflect well on the country.

“Very often, the staff of the embassy really find things extremely difficult. Clearly, if we want to operate on the scale and scope in which we are at the moment with over 100 missions around the world, we need to spend a lot more.

“What I am saying is that rather than having this terrible circle of inadequate funding for missions, headquarters and so forth we have to reduce the scope. “We should have foreign missions that we can fund. We might not necessarily close the embassies per se; it might be reducing the number of staff in the embassies.” Last month, Onyeama got tongues wagging when he announced that the landlord of the building where the Nigerian Embassy in Hungary is located was threatening to evict the embassy.

The minister spoke while defending the ministry’s 2021 budget at the National Assembly. According to him, the ministry needs N1.6 billion to move ambassadors and pay officers N3.7 billion, making a total of N5.3 billion for the whole movement.

He added: “We are owing a lot and in the Federal Executive Council (FEC), there is a process to rationalise and cut down on the international organisations we belong to. “This is because we are just owing monies left and right and it is not even good for the image of the country.

“A lot of our missions are eyesores and it is just a huge embarrassment to the country that we can have missions earin such terrible conditions.” But beyond the shortage of funds for the missions, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, whose ministry supervises the Nigeria Immigration Service, said it has received several requests from both the Nigerian community and the Embassies on the need to open passport issuance centres due to the distance Nigerians have to cover in order to have their passports re-issued.

In his speech while flagging-off epassport and biometric visa issuance by Nigeria Immigration Service in Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea, the minister said the newly added countries brought to 44 foreign missions, 43 local and four front offices where Nigeria Immigration Service issues passports to the citizens of Nigeria.

A former Nigerian Ambassador to France and Monaco, Akin Fayomi, who is also a former Undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told New Telegraph that the cries and hues about issues around the renewal of passports should be directed at the Nigeria Immigration Service and not the foreign missions.

He said: “In most of our big missions abroad, we have people from the Immigration, we call them Immigration attaché. They are the ones in charge of passport renewal and all other things related to it. The passport booklet has to come all the way from Abuja to foreign missions. If you come for passport renewal and the booklets are not available from Abuja, there is nothing the embassy can do. This also applies to visa stickers.

“Most of the time, it is not the embassy that is not ready to give passports but these are security documents and they must come from the authorities. I agree there might be some hitches in appointments but from my experience, we usually keep appointments to about 90 per cent. If Nigeria declares a holiday, any previous appointments for that day are likely to be cancelled. Maybe the failure on the part of the missions is that they don’t get back to the people to let them know that their appointments have been cancelled for such and such reason.” Debunking insinuations that Nigerian missions don’t care for their citizens abroad, he said: “There is no way you won’t care for your fellow citizens because they are the reason why you are there.

As they say, blood is thicker than water. The embassy staff do care but don’t forget that some Nigerians are not just patient, they could be a bit overwhelming. I have served in about seven missions and I know that we give Nigerians priority.” For Lawson, the solution to the impasse is that the government must rise and save the country from disgrace. “The foreign policy resides with the President and he must not starve its foreign missions of funds. Our embassies should be administered as hubs for industrial and economic espionage and not missions for enjoyment. Round pegs in round holes should be brought on board to give direction on what the country represents.

“The attitudes of embassy staff should also be worked on because their handling of visa and passport issues both for Nigerians in the Diaspora and foreigners could count on the country’s image and most likely revenue generation,” he said.

When contacted on the issue, the CEO of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Mrs. Abike Dabiri- Erewa, replied with a terse WhatsApp statement that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working to sort all issues out and they will resolve all. Efforts to speak with the spokesman for the Nigeria Immigration Service, Mr. Sunday James, proved abortive as his phone lines were not reachable.

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