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By Morak Babajide-Alabi
For Nigerians in the diaspora, it is not every day they have the “luxuries” of visiting their country’s diplomatic missions. Some do not even know the physical addresses of these offices that are supposed to be their sanctuary in foreign lands. Take a minute and ask those who have had relationships with them, they have disturbing tales of chaos, rejection and in some extreme cases, of loss of documents.
We cannot claim ignorance of the various unpalatable stories about these missions all over the world. It will be like playing ostrich with the fact that the country Nigeria has a good reputation abroad. There are stories ranging from allegations that the ambassadors/high commissioners and staff are too far removed from the citizens they are supposed to represent to accusing some of the staff of establishing corrupt colonies in the embassies. What about the stories of touts, and undesirable individuals allegedly hanging around the embassies and canvassing for businesses for the staff inside? There are plenty!
Most of the staff are alleged to care less about the predicament of Nigerians abroad while they are reported to feast on citizens’ misfortunes. The stories are not isolated or confined to a particular region. They are the same all over the world – from Lusaka to New York, to London, to Tripoli and Rome. Unlike what is obtained in other societies, many Nigerians are languishing in cold jails across the world and have no access to consular services that can assist them.
You would therefore not be surprised that Nigerians in the diaspora would not associate with these embassies and high commissions. I may be wrong, but I strongly believe this is probably why no Nigerian mission abroad has an official database of citizens residing under its jurisdiction. Not many citizens trust the embassy officials to the extent of registering their details with them.
Some observers blame this on the unpatriotic attitude of Nigerians. They argued that some citizens prefer not to associate with their roots while abroad for reasons best known to them, but when they find themselves in troubles they expect the embassies to come running to their aids. I do not know how true this is.
I had been hearing these negative stories for as long as I had sojourned in the United Kingdom. I never thought of the High Commission as a place of comfort or relief from anything. I had never visited but I had a negative mental view of happenings in the Northumberland Avenue offices, based on stories told by friends and relations, from past experiences. Like many in the diaspora, on the few occasions, I had to renew my passport I had always preferred doing it in Nigeria rather than in London. There was this belief that it was cheaper, straightforward and no awkward wait or repeat visit to the embassy to collect.
My Nigerian passport expired in 2014, but since I had no use of it within that period, I had been avoiding renewing at the London High Commision. Earlier this year I felt the need to renew and I became apprehensive, going by past stories, thinking of the emotional and physical demands I have to endure before I could get a new passport.
To get more information on this, I visited the high commission’s website and to my surprise, the process was detailed there. In addition, I put the query “Renewing Nigeria Passport in the UK” on Google and there were so many hits. No mark for guessing the fact that a large percentage of the content was negative. I found a YouTube video by a patriotic lady very useful as it “walked me” through the step by step process of the renewal.
To cut a long story short and to the credit of the commission, all transactions were carried out online. I got a suitable appointment date immediately I filled the form and made the payment. It was a big relief to me that I do not have to rub the itchy palms of the staffers at the high commission before I could get a date.
Arriving for my appointment a little earlier than normal, I was informed by my taxi driver that I should try the back door, as none of his past passengers had ever entered the commission offices via the front door. I was left stranded in the January morning cold, working out the “real” door to walk through. I finally saw a notice advising visitors to “use” the third door down the side of the building. It was 9:25 when I knocked on the door and I was so proud of myself for the five minutes head start as the notice on the commission website says the “official opening time” is 9:30 am.
I was wrong. When the security man swung the door open for me, there were about ten other people on the stairs with him. I smiled and mused to myself how these people got in before the “official opening time”. Nigeria, we hail thee, I said. The security man casually checked my appointment print out and directed me downstairs. I counted myself lucky and under my breath, I cursed the “haters” who had written bad reviews about the high commission.
Again, I was wrong. As I descended the few stairs to the basement, I panicked when I saw the “sea of heads” in the hall. I didn’t know if I should go ahead or run back to the security man and ask if he had directed me to the right place. What were these people doing here before the official opening times of 9.30am? Could the high commission be running two opening time schedules? Now I was totally confused as I made my way into the Waiting Hall and was directed to join a queue to pick “the real appointment number”.
I was allotted a new number based on “first come, first served” basis. Then I asked myself what was the essence of booking online but could not get an answer. I was told to sit down among the “early birds” and wait to be called. It didn’t take me too long to realise that the number I was allocated online was as bogus as the opening times on the website. As there were no vacant seats, I found a comfortable “standing position” and observed the goings-on.
This brought back memories of the waiting halls in the dying days of the defunct National Bank of Nigeria. The “crowd” here this morning were mainly blacks and presumably of Nigerian descent, visiting for visa application, to renew or obtain new passports. As I “balanced myself” in the corner of the hall, I thought to myself, it actually resembled a war bunker. Everyone in the hall, including myself, had the expression of war survivors.
I glanced around the hall again and on one side of the room was an enclosure where staff called people from. I marvelled at the sight of the staff behind this “cage” and wondered why they have to still be stuck in the past. I was soon to realise that it was not only the cage that was out-of-place, the vending machine, the air conditioners, the electric sockets and basically everything looked like they were from pre-independence Nigeria.
As published in the Sunday Vanguard of February 4, 2018.