I remember about 22 years ago when I sought my first visa to the United Kingdom. It was the usual hell. Trouble to get appointments., then apprehensions when one eventually gets the appointment plus anything could happen on that day or with the visa officers. Their default then, as well as today, was to deny you the visa because it was like you, as a Nigerian, would likely run away in their country or go there to work illegally. 22 years ago we had already slipped from being a ‘protected’ member of the commonwealth who could walk in and out of the UK at will (perhaps because they had come to disturb us with their colonialism or in atonement for their exploitation of our resources). We had become pariah to our colonizers and our people were traumatized at will at their embassy. In my case at the Abuja UK High Commission, there was this stern, tall woman with very blond hair who just seemed not to like my face. She kept bouncing my application and asking for all sorts. I was already a bank manager then but she will have none of it. After a number of trials during which I constantly lost money to the UK High Commission (an exploitative practice of charging poor people from poverty-ravished countries for jobs not performed, which the criminal code says this is 419), I eventually got the visa to travel to the UK. I have not attempted in 22 years to stay there illegally or to do unapproved work.
My experience with the American visa was a little less stressful even though bizarre. In 2003 I had to get to the US Embassy at the then Eleke Crescent (now Walter Carrington) at 7am, even though we didn’t get in until around 10am. For myself, my wife and two years old daughter that day, it was eight straight hours of standing. Children were hungry and crying everywhere but you dare not leave your place on the queue and the general intimidating of the environment and process meant you would rather not even let the security man know that you would risk not having that interview that day. So, we endured. Whereas the British High Commission then would interview virtually everyone, they had cubicles or small office for that purpose. This afforded applicants some privacy even though all the conversation in each room could still be heard by people sitting in the lounge, their hearts pounding in their mouths so loud the beats could be coming from a drum band. Getting a foreign visa was like sitting for God’s final judgment – maybe worse. The Americans were as usual, less subtle. You stood by the window in front of everyone’s glare as you are grilled, your shame becomes everyone’s sport and knowledge. The American interviewers use psychology. And every so often they deconstruct applicants, leaving them deflated and bewildered – often wrongly. Meanwhile, in front of the US Embassy in where must have been meant as a waiting area, a smart pastor had mounted a service for those going inside the embassy. The song that day before offering time, was ‘Today today, Jesus shall answer me, today, today’. Veteran applicants made a point to donate generously inside the offering basket, and then cast and bind all the enemies that had denied them visas over time.
That was then. The foreign embassies have made trillions of naira or perhaps even trillions of dollars, from Nigerians who apply to go to their countries. A thinking nation would have tried to research just how much our people have lost over time but not us. The rush is still there till today as a result of perennial governance failures. We are still contributing to the coffers of nations that are infinitely richer and smarter than ours and it’s like the most normal thing in the world. Imagine people from a $2,000 per capita income country giving money away freely to people from $50,000 per capita countries! This could be the greatest transfer of wealth (from the poor to the rich), in history. American or British folks that I know will NEVER lose money to any other country except they cannot totally avoid it. They know the value of money enough not to toy with it. But for Nigeria , who cares?
Then came Dubai.
A great many Nigerians had embraced the easy Dubai route before I ventured in 2011. My impression – given what I had heard from many who went, was that Dubai was a market. Someone even compared the place to Onitsha Market. Invariably those folks were too timid to explore beyond Al Sabkha Street, Naif Square and Baniyas up to the Clock Tower. That was why I was shocked the first time I visited and found that the country was even ahead of many Western nations in terms of infrastructure and international business outlook. I found that Dubai is a business hub, much cheaper than London or New York or Singapore for businesses, and one of the best places in the world for tourism – especially between November and March. Discerning people call Dubai ‘Las Vegas on steroids’. It was easy to get around, and more importantly for me, Nigerians were respected.
Dubai had set herself apart from the other six Emirates that made up the UAE and was/is a leader in innovation, tourism and business. Dubai is a city of dreams and people who travel there are a lot less constricted than anywhere else in the Emirates. The leaders of Dubai embraced Westernisation and leveraged on innovation from everywhere. It is the country you go to for the latest and best architecture and inspiration for business and tourism. I recall asking one friend who had never traveled before to go there first. He came back with an inspiration to build an amusement park, which he actioned.
Dubai visa was easy to get. There were agents all over the Emirates – travel agencies and hotels – who will facilitate your visa without seeing or knowing you. It was the easiest thing to get. But Nigerians – some would say true-to-type – started to muddy the water and disgrace themselves to the extent that Dubai gradually denied us the rights availed every other person in the world. For a country established on tourism (as a diversification from crude oil), that Emirates needs every and anybody to come. But Nigeria, of all the 200-odd countries in the world, has been singled out for this shame. One cannot blame the UAE for protecting itself, given that that country cannot allow all sorts of ne’er-do-wells to start running riot in their streets, messing up their carefully cultivated ambience, security and reputation. The way it works is that there are daily meetings of officials of all the Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujeirah, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm al Quwain), and one of the other Emirates would have told Dubai to slow down on how it attracts all these miscreants from all over the world. And why not? Several times Nigerians have organized armed robberies in the UAE. Often times, our ladies are involved in prostitution. They even advertise on social media. One wonders if in reality we are under-evolved in the human species as we tend to soil everywhere we are welcome. We take things for granted, are loud, behave anyhow, annoy our hosts, brag about our achievements or lack of it, always try to prove a non-existent point, and so on. It was in that same Dubai that Hushpuppi, a criminal fraudster lived, buying expensive new cars everyday until he was pulled into jail by the Americans.
Dubai/UAE was the last place we would be offered such blank cheque. I had written about our many atrocities there in the past. But since no governmental action was taken by Nigerian authorities, and many of our youths seem unable to understand the implication of their actions, they soon started to machete each other in broad daylight on the streets of the Emirates. Nigerian youths took their cultism from here to a foreign land together with their recklessness. Now they have been given feedback that they are worth less than zero and unworthy of interacting with civilized people in a modern, forward-looking society.
Apart from writing heartfelt articles on this matter as Nigeria drifted into the gutter, I took further action. After engaging with the Director General of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa on this painful subject and watching Nigeria’s image continually plunge, I wrote a proposal to her (on her instruction), about what I think we could do to salvage the situation. I offered to use the platform of an NGO which I founded – The Institute for Service Excellence and Good Governance – to put a private sector face to the initiative and the bottom line was to see how we could rein in some of the madness. My suggestions could be seen to be a bit militaristic as I suggested that the Nigerian Immigrations Service (NIS) be empowered to stop people traveling if they weren’t well-presented or of suspicious demeanor. This is subjective I admit. But I have seen too many Nigerians heading to other people’s countries (especially this UAE), dressed so shabbily and looking very casual and dirty. You could be a trader or musician, but if you were visiting your friend over the weekend, you don’t have to look like a tout. I mean wearing flip-flops, shorts and torn singlets. I just think it is a deliberate attempt to damage the country’s image. This is the same ‘abroad’ that was a ceremony to go to decades ago. When did our sense of respect get shattered between our parents’ time and our time? When did we start to take things for granted? Even nightclubs have dress codes. Is another man’s carefully-put-together and beautiful country not of a higher status compared with a night club? I know the human rights people and lawyers will have issues with my suggestion. That is what they do and that is why many times, nothing changes in our society. That is why we have only sunk and sunk. We can see the results now.
I also suggested that NIDCOM print a flyer, designed like an international passport which they give to every Nigerian traveler, telling them that they are Ambassadors of Nigeria. This serves as a constant reminder that you should mind your behaviors, actions and inactions as they head out to another man’s country. I also suggested that the NIDCOM should empower Nigerians to stand up to other Nigerians abroad who may be dragging the country’s image in the mud. I don’t believe we can be behaving as we like and saying it is nobody’s business. Like Plato said, nothing breeds tyranny, eventually, like unfettered freedom. It all blows back in our faces. I believed then, that Nigeria needs to show the world that we understand the problem, are worried about it and are doing something about it. I believe that it is the duty of the Nigerian government to UNDERSTAND the people it governs and do the needful to keep those people on the straight and narrow. The proposal of mine petered out. And I, being just another lowly citizen, also stopped chasing it around after a while and faced my daily bread. I believe though, that such a proposal is still important and I am representing presently. For it is better we begin to actively repair our images and prevent embarrassment abroad rather than wait until our people are being deported en masse like has been happening.
I was in Dubai on the 26th of August when a young friend alerted me that he had been held in detention alongside 50 others and would be deported except he showed that he knew someone in Dubai. I went to the airport thrice and waded through language barriers up until 7.30pm at night when I gave up. It was at that time that one of the immigrations officers (those guys who wear white jalabiyas), explained in better English to me that my guy came in on a family visa and is therefore required to travel with that family. End of story. They sent him back the next day. When I later saw my guy in Nigeria, he explained to me that the first immigrations officer he met simply told him ‘you Nigerians, you see nothing wrong in killing. You kill! You steal!’ He also told me some other guys were detained for two days before being shipped back. It was a case of a country having hit the floor. Nigeria. Will we ever rise? And how?
For several days before the eventual stoppage of Emirates flights into Nigeria, hundreds of Nigerians who are younger than 40 years – and some who are older – have been bounced at the airport and have quietly returned home, their hopes and dreams shattered. Some only looked forward to a nice holiday, a change of scenery from their usually drudgery. And most went on very expensive tickets (as much as N900,000 for economy). Now we hear that Emirates Airlines – in my view the best in the world – may come back into Nigeria with reduced frequencies starting from the 1st of September, snubbing Abuja (a good sub for Nigeria’s politicians).
Feedback To the Nigerian Government
A few friends tried to argue with me when I said this incidence is a failure of our government. They preferred that I simply heap it all on Nigerians who went and messed up in the UAE. That would be too one-sided. You see, you cannot depend on ‘everybody’ to do the right thing. Somebody somewhere will drop the ball. We may not expect every Nigerian traveling abroad to do the right thing. Our armed robbers went to UAE, felt that things were slack there and decided to do some hit jobs. Unfortunately for them, beneath the calmness is some serious intelligence and agility. All of them were caught within 24 hours and sentenced to death. No escape. Nigerians who say only a small fraction of us have gone there to do evil are correct. Only that it looks as if a higher proportion of us compared to other countries have the tendency for stupidity. Or perhaps we are being punished for our skin color. I believe though the black man is held to double the standard in everything. It is something I have personally embraced. It is a call to be more hardworking. We should not, as black people, expect the easy life anywhere we go. There is gain in diligence and hard work.
What the UAE has done is to give direct feedback to the Nigerian government – after many warnings. Simple. The buck stops with the Nigerian government to:
- Understand their people and do the needful to curb and prevent their excesses abroad;
- Rein in their people;
- Educate their people on what is proper behavior abroad. Teach them decorum and etiquette;
- Discipline their people;
- Take care of their people and provide jobs so that they don’t keep moving all around the world saying they are ‘hustling’, thus falling into crime or populating the informal economy selling stuff in traffic and dark street corners;
- Develop local policies that reduce and prevent illegal migration whereby we push our dregs into the furthest limits of the world to work as prostitutes or drug dealers or worse. (I have been repeating the need for Nigerians to MIGRATE RIGHT).
The Nigerian government cannot escape this responsibility. It however looks like the government is not getting the message. It is irresponsible for a government to take a stance like ‘what is our concern? It is good for those youths. Let them be deported, let them be banned’. You cannot be flying into the same countries in private jets and official airplanes and luxuriating everywhere while your youths are treated as the wretched of the earth. You are judged by your worst. A responsible government will express contrition and intervene fast. In this instance, the Nigerian government did not say anything while those young people were being traumatized. For many of the travelers it was not their fault. The rules of the game seemed to have been changed in the middle of the game and Nigerians are the target, not Ghanaians, or Togolese, or Malawians. We should be worried that countries are making laws targeting only our citizens.
The government is very significant and important in such a matter. If not for anything, it is in government that we have reposed our final trust for citizens’ defense. With government, there is a structure and the taxpayers have employed people who should think on their feet. It is unacceptable for government to dodge that responsibility or feign ignorance when their citizens get into trouble. We oughtn’t have seen this ultimate disgrace.
We could detail them as follows:
- We shall miss the inspiration that comes to thousands of our thinking youths who go to such countries and document how proper modern cities are arranged, planned and governed.
- We shall miss the opportunity for our budding architects and town planners and builders and others in the infrastructure space, or even logistics, and tourism. The Emirates Airline/Dubai experience is second-to-none in making impressions in the minds of young people.
- We shall miss work and exposure opportunities for our under-40s which was much easier in the UAE axis. Many of our young ones have gone legitimately and are doing great. Now, it is tough as hell for others to follow
- We have seen a total erosion in our image as a country and the bigger stink is on government officials/representatives. This will also affect foreign investments as everybody around the world has taken notice of the fact that we almost have no government and have not organized ourselves properly.
- We have given racists around the world justification that black people in numbers cannot organize themselves around anything for long enough to achieve anything.
- The UAE, especially Dubai, represents an optimistic positive future for global engagement, judging by the events of the last two years. We want to be part of that future, not the gloom projected by the western nations
- Nigerian businesses and others targeted at Nigerians in the UAE will suffer. Ditto, we will see a slow down in our entertainment industry which found a lot of expression in the UAE.
Below are some of my other interventions on the issue – for those who have time to read them:
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