FOLLOWING the appalling state of Nigeria’s missions abroad, which directly impinges on its quality of diplomacy and foreign policy, the Federal Government set up a committee to review the state of those missions last week. For years, there have been complaints from the Nigerian Diaspora and foreigners seeking consular services in Nigeria’s missions about the poor services rendered to them and how frustrating doing business with the embassies and consulates is. In well-documented episodes, consular services were arbitrarily cancelled without notice or apology even after online scheduling confirmation had been made, causing applicants to waste their time and resources by coming for appointments. Many have complained of being left stranded. In other cases, diplomatic missions or consulates are closed without prior notice.
Besides, there have been allegations of corruption, nepotism and even sexual harassment levelled against Nigerian consular offices in some countries. Some years ago, there were video clips of Nigerians in the United Kingdom and Canada laying siege to the missions, protesting shabby treatment and the unethical conduct of the embassies’ staff. Going through the websites of Nigerian embassies five years ago, an independent researcher found that many of the sites, including those in western countries, had not been updated in months. Some still had the names of ambassadors or consul-generals that had been there two or more years previously. Scheduling appointment online could not be done because of the dormancy of the sites, and reaching the offices was impossible because of dated or disconnected telephone lines. Where phone calls connected, the answering machines were programmed voice notes and such calls were never returned. Sending emails was a waste of time, as neither acknowledgment nor a decent reply would be received.
The state of the missions became even more critical for a number of other unimaginable reasons. In recent times, most of the missions have been in debt and have not been able to perform their statutory roles. Apart from rendering consular services, embassies and consulates are expected to attend to the needs of Nigerians abroad. These include, among other functions, giving diplomatic shield to the citizens under their watch abroad, providing protection if there is any exposure to danger, and holding the host government accountable if there is any molestation or murder of any Nigerian. Other responsibilities include ensuring that Nigeria’s interest is protected through respect for the dignity of every Nigerian abroad and negotiating ‘soft landing’ for any citizen even when they run foul of the law of their hosts.
Poor funding has been offered as an explanation for this indebtedness and lack of performance. The resources meant for consular services are not forthcoming and even when they do, the previous huge debts are cleared before any activities. According to eyewitnesses and insiders, this trajectory has given Nigeria bad press and made its missions abroad apparently unprepared for any serious business. Among the comity of African nations, Nigerian embassies should stand out. It is a shame that the missions of smaller nations like the Rwandan, Togolese, Ghanaian, Namibian, Algerian and Kenyan embassies tower higher when considering African foreign missions. The sad reality is that Nigeria is a far cry from fellow African missions. In some consulates, the air-conditioning system or elevators have collapsed.
The struggle of the Nigerian consulate in the United Kingdom is real. Nigerians in that country once complained bitterly about how the nationals of less endowed African nations narrated or shared with them their smooth experience in their own missions, and how embarrassed they (Nigerians) often felt about their own awful buildings and services giving the impression of a big-for-nothing country. The missions are not only generally decrepit and lacking decency and dignity, they are often unable to provide even minimal consular services for Nigerian citizens and foreigners in the host countries, with complaints often of inadequate funding and staffing making them ineffective as points of reference for the country. International passports are often scarce and take months to process. And where passports are available at all, sharp practices by consular staff in some countries are the order of the day. The prices are marked up and to be issued with passports, applicants have to ‘soften’ or grease the palms of the officers in charge.
If Nigeria cannot provide the required funding for the basic consular services in the missions abroad, it can close some. It can prioritise countries according to their strategic importance and numeric strength or the business activities of Nigerians. As it is, it is neither expedient nor compulsory for Nigeria to have missions in all countries of the world. Government can save resources by running only the very-important ones, so that those to be retained are well funded. The committee set up to critically look into and review the state of Nigerian missions abroad should be a relief to many Nigerians. Against the background of the sorry and ineffective performance of many, if not most, of the missions, this is a welcome development. This perhaps signals that the government is getting set to do something meaningful and concrete about the unhealthy state of the missions.
We urge the committee to approach this assignment with utmost sense of responsibility, to be able to come up with yardsticks and recommendations that will yield more befitting and effective missions for the country. The government should also respond most readily and with promptness to the recommendations by immediate and careful implementation. That would evidently turn around Nigeria’s diplomacy and image abroad.