Henry Bakare is the former National Coordinator of the National Union of Nigerian Associations in Italy (NUNAI) and now the President of Nigerian Community in Lodi/Pavia. He spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA on the recent arrest of 19 Nigerians by Italian police, among other issues. Excerpts…
What was your reaction to the news of the Italian police busting and arresting 19 Nigerians in connection with mafia operation (MAPHITE) last week?
I was not surprised. This is a regular occurrence in the community of Nigerians in Italy. I only thank God that the police helped us with our work, the work we would have not be able to do without them. The story is true.
Was is your first time of hearing about the group or Nigerians being linked to mafia group in Europe?
No, absolutely no. This had been in existence since Nigerians started living of in Italy. Perhaps the most recent is the cartel of human trafficking. These were mainly women who were trading with Nigerian girls, assisted by their ‘Pure Boys’, who live with their girlfriends and do nothing other than to watch over the activities of ‘slave’ girls. Before now we were able to dismantle some of these groups before the mass exodus of the ‘Libya Mongo Park’ or Lampedusa passengers, who came in with another and more dangerous advanced cultism. However, they were not as dangerous as the ones we have now. These guys are so dangerous that people are scared of them and avoid confrontation with any of the member.
What had been the general reactions of Nigerians in Italy over the arrest?
It’s mixed reactions, depending on the social class you belong to. Those of us that had been fighting this problem are only disappointed that no matter the gospel of integration and obeying the law of the land as written and interpreted, these people refused to listen to us. For example, when I was the national coordinator of the National Union of Nigerian Associations in Italy (NUNAI), I communicated with all zonal leaders regularly to know the situation of their communities. I get reports from them and if there was an area where we need to step in somebody is sent to assist the community or sometimes we tell them what to do. Usually, we send a delegate or representative from NUNAI to assist if case the issue is beyond the regional leader. That I can attest to because I did most of the trips. Another reaction is that most Nigerians are ashamed that some miscreants are soiling the name of our country that has already been registered in the criminal book of Italy.
Has your organisation been receiving any enquiries from the Italian government over this matter?
Yes, we have been receiving enquiries and the new leadership of NUNAI is doing their best to help the law enforcement agents and the authority to see what can be done to curb this menace. Nigerian communities in the local levels are doing more to fix these people up by introducing them to different vocational courses, and that is really helping today in some areas like Milan, Verona, Rome and some other states where we have the Associations of Nigerian Communities.
Has there been any reaction from the Nigerian government or the embassy in Rome?
Nigerian embassy in Rome is doing its best to be available when contacted by the authority and NUNAI
How convinced are you of the true identity of these people as being truly Nigerians?
Though not every raid or the arrest of criminals involves only Nigerians. We know and identify them by their names published in the media or names sent to us for identification. So, the police cannot make a mistake when the people arrested have one document or the other with them. Remember that most of these people came in through the Mediterranean Sea, and took asylum with their presumed names and nationalities. So there would be little or no mistake about their identities.
Why would Nigerians get involved in mafia operation or form a mafia group in a foreign land?
That is the question I am not able to provide an answer to. My investigation revealed that these cultists or criminal cartels were hardened criminals back in Nigeria, and as we speak now some of them are wanted for one crime or another. I was also made to know that some of them were forced to join the deadly cults in Libya. The reason why Nigerians get involved in mafia operation or form a mafia group I do not know, but the Nigerian government should be able to answer that question better than me.
Is your organisation playing any role in this unfolding scenery in terms of assisting the Italian government get to the root of this matter?
Yes. We are doing our best only that the Nigeria embassy in Rome is not helping us to realise this. During the service years of Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II as the ambassador in Italy, a proposal to have a database of Nigerians in Italy was floated and as it was about to kick-off, there was a change of ambassador, and since then nothing about the database was realised. All the same, the local Association of Nigerian Communities, including cultural and tribal associations are doing their best to identify Nigerians in their respective places.
But what role do you expect the embassy in Rome or the Nigerian government play in this case?
I would suggest that the Nigerian government through the embassy in Rome make a deal with the Italian government to return anyone found guilty of any crime by a competent court of law back to Nigeria. That was the agreement Obasanjo signed with the Italian government years ago, and that Italian government should try and rescue anyone on the high sea and return them back to Nigeria instead of allowing them to die on board or drown. I said this because of some of the dead Nigerians had the possibilities of arriving at the shore of Italy alive, but because of the delay or the unwillingness of the authority to rescue them, most of them ended up drowning and dying, resulting to the mass burial of our brothers and sisters.
Do you see the Italian government taking measures against Nigerians in the country in terms of security checks and other measures?
That is a possibility but I cannot confirm that.
What is the implication of this development generally for Nigerians in Italy?
The implication is that some of the Italians who are probably ignorant and hardcore populist nationalists who believe all Nigerians are the same, especially with the killings in Nigeria today by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen, will take a hardline position on Nigerian immigrants calling for restrict rules and mass deportation of Nigerians.
Would this in any way also have an effect on tightening visa requirements for Nigerians coming to Italy?
That is a diplomatic issue between Nigeria and the Italian government. In the real sense, that is not supposed to be. That I have not really thought of asking, but I think I should do that to avoid wrong information being passed out.
What steps have been put in place before now by your organisation to forestall the occurrence of this nature?
We are doing our best, but it might not be good enough. Italian government knows best what to do and how to do it. We cannot do their work for them. They have to protect their territory against all social odds and vices. The Italian government should do the needful in order to ride their territory of criminalities. By fully engaging in constant check of the visitors they are taking in through the sea. They should also actively engaged them to ensure that they don’t have time to commit crime. If they have something to do at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day they would be tired and would have no time to hold meetings where they plan these criminal activities.
What was the image of Nigerians in Italy before now and do you think this will greatly affect the image and perception of every Nigerians in Italy?
It was getting to between 60 and 70% before the inflow of the Libya passengers but now is between 30 and 40%. Good Nigerians are enjoying their full privileges without any problem. It is he who brings home firewood full of insects that would invite the lizard for a visit. No one would be after you if you do not have any bad record.
What is your advice to Nigerians living in Italy on how they should conduct themselves and relate with other Nigerians?
They should respect the law of the land, the Italian constitution and the Nigerian constitution as written, amended and interpreted. Some of us refused to know that being in another country is a part of knowledge. Somebody bound by the laws of two countries should be able to have selfrespect.