Each time I get to read about the plight of Nigerians in foreign lands, I feel greatly saddened, depressed and burn with anger within me. Why? I am perturbed that my fellow countrymen and women suffer endlessly, and in most cases, they are simply marked-down for offences they really knew nothing about. It is regrettable that many Nigerians are routinely thrown into jail for offences they may not even have committed.
No doubt, there are several Nigerians living abroad. According to a recent report by the World Bank these people remitted more than $10 Billion Dollars into the global economy, in 2009 alone.
The government has the constitutional obligation to its citizens whenever they have been accused of any illegality - whether they are innocent or guilty as charged – it has a duty to ensure that they are accorded due process and their fundamental human rights not denied.
Regrettably, the government has arguably not done much in protecting its citizens from such vagaries in foreign lands. This posturing is both unacceptable and indefensible.
These fellow citizens have all left the country with great hopes, frustrated by lack of jobs at home. For many, it was virtually a lifelong desire. Nothing else mattered to them. Life in itself is literally suspended until they eventually made their way abroad. Not a few of them took loans, sold houses, cars, left lucrative jobs and even threw a lavish send-forth party before embarking on the search for the Golden Fleece.
What do they get? These Nigerians end up being worse-off than their counterparts that choose to remain at home. Reports of racist attacks against foreigners, inclusive of Nigerians mostly, in the United States of America, Europe and lately, South Africa have continued unabated.
A few examples suffice. The recent deportation of 125 Nigerians by the South African government, for allegedly carrying fake yellow fever vaccination certificates, is only one of the many abuses being suffered regularly by citizens who travel abroad, legally or not.
Nigeria’s renowned playwright and Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, was once denied entry into the country in 1995, despite visiting as a guest speaker at Dr. Nelson Mandela’s birthday.
Similarly, Kema Chikwe, a former Aviation Minister needed the intervention of top South African Government officials to save her from the hands of the immigration officials.
Much of South African’s hostilities against Nigerian have been attributed to xenophobia, which once sparked a riot, leading to the death of 62 Africans, some years ago.
The height of the face-off was the deportation of 125 South Africa-bound Nigerian travellers at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for allegedly attempting to enter the country without the vaccination cards.
Nigeria, like many other sub-Saharan African countries, falls within the Yellow Fever Belt but the acute viral hemorrhagic disease, transmitted by infected mosquitoes, has not been recorded in the country in the last 15 years, according to the World
While many countries in the world no longer require evidence of yellow fever vaccination for visitors from the endemic zone, South Africa still insists on such evidence and for those who cannot provide convincing evidence of vaccination, they are usually quarantined and vaccinated, at the visitors’ expense, before being allowed into the country, where they are labeled as ‘amakwerekwere’, derogatory term for foreigners who have come south in search of a better life, or who are fleeing political strife and economic hardship in their own countries.
According to the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on the Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, there are at least 40,000 Nigerians in prisons in different parts of the world, for different reasons.
Nigerians have been executed in Saudi Arabia, Singapore and China for drug offences. The Chinese police in particular have reportedly beaten at least one
Nigerian immigrant to death while more than 700 Nigerians are said to be in
Chinese prisons, mostly convicted of serious offences, like robbery and dealing in hard drugs.
A former Minister of Youth Development, Bolaji Abdullahi disclosed recently that a large number of Nigerians are currently languishing in Chinese prisons as records from the Nigerian Embassy in China show that many Nigerians are serving various jail terms, with their sentences ranging between 10 years and suspended death sentence for drug-related offences, fraud, kidnapping, armed robbery and rape.
Apart from China, there is the pathetic case of Fausat Abosede, 72-year-old Nigerian, who was discovered in Brazilian prisons when the House committee, led by Dabiri-Erewa visited the country. She was said to have come to Brazil early 2011 as a result of a promised medical help by a Nigerian who later abandoned her in the country.
With help coming from no quarters she decided to return home but was arrested at the Brazilian airport when hard drugs were found in a bag someone allegedly gave her to help deliver in Nigeria.
A similar case is that of Lara Salami, 62, who was said to own a shop in Lagos and had 10 children before getting lured to Brazil by a friend. She was arrested at Sao Paulo Airport when drugs stuffed in candles were discovered in her luggage. She has since been in prison.
There is also Amaka Isilabo, 28, who allegedly went to Brazil after graduating from the university and joined the drug peddling business to raise money for her impending wedding. She is currently serving the first of her seven-year jail term.
In another development, Nigerians in Ukraine protested against the arrest of a Nigerian student for allegedly defending himself against six teenagers who attacked him at the entrance to his apartment.
The African Outlook reported that the student, Olaolu Femi, is currently languishing in jail and may be facing life imprisonment in the Eastern European country.
Femi was allegedly remanded in custody by the Ukrainian police, who refused to take the case to court, claiming that they had not been able to get an interpreter for him after spending close to one year in jail without trial.
In 1991, Femi Oladipupo, a graduate student of Mechanical Engineering in one of Manila’s top universities disappeared without a trace. Femi, a son of a former Head of Chancery of the Embassy of Nigeria in Manila was said to be a part-time businessman dealing in jewelry. His lifeless body was found in another city a few kilometers from Manila. His murder was never unraveled till date.
On November 14, 1995, a gunman was reported to have walked out of his car on a busy Philippine roadway, took a few short steps to another car caught up in the busy afternoon traffic, pumped lead into a black driver, casually walked back to his car and fled the scene.
The unfortunate driver was a Nigerian, Lewis Akenzua, a salesman at a Manila auto dealership, having arrived in the Philippines a few months before his assassination.
In September 2010, 14-year old Godspower Okirie, who hailed from Rivers State was brutally murdered by stabbing not far from his home in Sampaloc, a neighborhood of Manila City, Philippines. His killer, a teenaged street urchin and drug dealer, allegedly known to the local police was never arrested and prosecuted.
Another case is that of Stephen Lawrence, the Nigerian boy who was murdered by some white racist gang in London. The police refused to conduct normal investigation and it has taken twenty years to convict only two of the five youth who allegedly killed him. If Stephen Lawrence was a white boy, his killers would have been arrested the same day and prosecuted within a year, as is usually the practice.
Maltreatment of Nigerians abroad also stems from unnecessary persecutions, stereotyping, false accusations, harassments and other forms of racial abuses. In many cases, these unfortunate citizens receive little assistance or protection at all from the embassies.
In what could be best described as self-inflicting or home-induced problem is the issue of the renewal of expired passports. It is a common knowledge that such Nigerians often wait in frustration for several months without succeeding in getting their passports renewed.
During this period of despair, they are forced to live like fugitives. Some end up being arrested and deported in the process. The main excuse by our embassies is that of shortage of machines that could produce the passports.
What usually happen is that these stranded Nigerians often resort into going to nearby countries to explore the possibilities of obtaining their passports at great cost, thus encouraging corruption and racketeering amongst dubious embassies staff and touts.
Just as what is obtainable at home, civil servants on diplomatic postings, as well as their underpaid non-home based staff, who are locally recruited are said to have perfected ways of demanding and receiving bribes.
This discourse will not be complete if we fail to admit that some Nigerians knowingly break the laws in foreign lands. Out of their desperation, they got themselves involved in smuggling hard drugs into countries where the punishment is very severe and their own citizens are not spared.
Take Thailand for example. The existing legal system lacks the openness and rigours of due process as the existing prison conditions are austere to the point of cruelty.
A not-too-serious offence could land an offender in outright death sentence.
This was the line of argument of the Senate President, David Mark when he said the country would no longer come to the rescue of its citizens found guilty of criminal activities in foreign countries. His comment came against the backdrop of the concerns raised by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Matthew Ifeanyi Nwaguwu, over the fate of some 18 Nigerian inmates who bagged death sentence in Indonesia, recently.
While explaining that the country would always be there for any of its maltreated citizens abroad, he declared that those who ran afoul of the law would be left to face the consequences of their actions. This, he said, would serve as strong deterrents to others with such devilish intents.
Mark said, “We will not defend any Nigerian who breaks the laws of foreign countries. If they break the laws there, they should face the consequences. This is a warning to other Nigerians abroad. They cannot continue to tarnish our image”.
This is also the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru in a media interview when he said that “there is nothing the federal government can do if you are caught with drugs on your body. If you are taken to court, our embassy officials will be there, they will watch the proceedings”.
The way Nigerians are treated abroad does not confer any seriousness on the integrity of the Federal Government. This is at variance with what obtains in any serious nation worth dying for.
The State of Israel is a good reference point. The middle-east nation is renowned for its unmatched, unapologetic protection of her citizens wherever they live in the world. The dictum is that every Israeli life is precious to the Jewish State. Even the remains of her dead in war and peace are sacred and treasured.
Taking a cue from the 1956 experience of the Suez Crisis, which led Israel into returning 5,500 Egyptian prisoners captured during the campaign and 77 nationalities, who were captured during military operations prior to the war, in exchange for just an Israeli pilot taken prisoner during the war and three other soldiers taken captive in pre-war attacks.
Serious countries like the USA, United Kingdom, France and Russian have on many occasions exhibited such absolute care for the lives of their citizens.
It is high time Nigeria changed its lack-luster diplomatic course and put a stop to the reactive strategies at the expense of proactive foreign policy.
What the country needs is proactive diplomacy that will enable our envoys anticipate problems before they develop, not the present reactionary and lame mode.
As a first measure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should begin the publishing of travel advisories. This becomes handy in the sense that some Nigerians do not really know what to expect in foreign countries. The detailed information contained in the publication would provide the necessary enlightenment.
There is also the need for a comprehensive audit and review of the nation’s Foreign Service, to prepare it for the new age of competition, whereby true patriotism and professionalism define who fails and succeeds in the fierce jostle for relevance.
The Big Brother policy of our diplomacy should be critically reviewed. It is no longer sustainable. This has lent credence to the fact that the nation has not benefitted much from such.
Many observers are of the opinion that Nigerians should not be victims of xenophobic sentiments by South Africans given the role the former played in liberating South Africa from the stranglehold of apartheid.
In those dark days, during the struggle for liberation, Nigeria was designated a frontline state because of the country’s diplomatic and financial commitments to the cause of a free South Africa as several of the nationalities enjoyed Nigerian government scholarships for their academic pursuits in our local universities, aside from the substantial financial support that went to the African National Congress, the main political party confronting the apartheid government.
Besides, South Africa has thriving investments in Nigeria that churn out hundreds of billions of naira in profits annually.The result has been high level of unemployment among the country’s youths, fuelling the urge for young Nigerians to flee the country in droves in search of greener pastures. Those at home have taken to crime such as kidnapping, armed robbery, advance fee fraud and Internet scam.
Nigeria, according to the WHO, has the second highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. The country occupies the lowest rung in the human development index.
Globally, Nigeria is reputed to have made the second highest contribution to peacekeeping forces abroad with little or nothing to show for our magnamity.
On a final note, there is the patriotic need for all to ponder on the state of our nation and tame the monster that drives people away. The rate of unemployment is daily skyrocketing, insecurity is at its peak, the cost of living is intolerably expensive and corruption is the order of the day while basic social infrastructure continue to be out of the reach of the common man.
Maybe, when the basic things are in place, the people will have less urge to leave their homes for a gloomy life abroad? Who knows?
Kupoluyi writes from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta