Battered national image: Step aside, please…The many troubles of green passport holders - THE GUARDIAN
AUGUST 25, 2023
By Femi Adekoya
From arbitrary airport screenings to lengthy security questioning, the plight of the Nigerian passport holder is unending, so much that even the bourgeoisie can relate when Bosun Tijani, the minister of communications, innovation, and digital economy narrated how he felt embarrassed with the way officials at the Chinese Embassy treated him for holding a Nigerian passport during the ministerial screening. Will Nigerian passport holders ever become proud or earn some respect again? It would take more than nation branding to an intentional foreign policy that puts value on the life of every Nigerian. FEMI ADEKOYA writes.
Bosun Tijani’s experience is not an isolated case. It is the daily reality of an average Nigerian that has been denied opportunities for being a green passport holder. The situation is even compounded by the recent visa restrictions placed on Nigerians by different countries, even from Africa.
In a typical case of when it rains it pours, the rich and ruling class are equally not exempted from the terrible experience meted out to Nigerians. As if the stress of securing a Nigerian passport is not enough, the problems of securing a visa and even affordable travel tickets remain daunting.
Recently, the Chairman and chief executive of Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote, at the June Afreximbank meeting, recalled his experience of traveling to another African country with a Nigerian carrying a British passport. He said the British passport carrier was granted entry, while the immigration authorities were arguing about granting him entry, whereas he had the money.
Dangote in 2018, also noted that he needs 38 visas to travel within the continent on his Nigerian passport. Many European nationals, meanwhile, waltz into most African countries visa-free. Has the situation changed? The reality is worse with new red tapes being unveiled every other day, with Nigerian passport holders mostly being the target. Seychelles, the only nation where visa-free travel was open to all Africans in 2018- as well as to citizens of every nation, has placed a restriction on Nigerian passport holders visiting for short stays.
Despite the ideals of a United Africa, there are more restrictions than usual. Indeed, freedom of movement has been a longstanding priority among member states, as enshrined in previous agreements such as the 1991 Abuja Treaty. Common passports have already been adopted for several regions, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
In 2017, the African Union (AU) launched an African passport, a signature project of former chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. However, the passport is currently available only to senior diplomats and top officials of AU’s 55-member states.
The idea of an African passport dates back a quarter of a century but has failed to fascinate countries that fear an increase in smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism, and the spread of disease as well as a negative impact on local job markets. With migration, legal and illegal, blamed for recent outbreaks of xenophobia in South Africa, some of these fears seem credible.
Visa-free travel for Africans in Africa could be a logistical nightmare given that some citizens do not have travel documents and others lead nomadic lives. Individual countries may need to enact legislation to adopt the African passport. Few African nations use the biometric data that an African passport requires.
The 2022 Africa Visa Openness Index (AVOI), which measures the extent to which African countries are open to visitors from other African countries, shows that 10 countries have improved their visa openness score over the past year, even as 47 per cent of intra-Africa travel, requires that African citizens must secure a visa.
The report further showed that 32 countries still require the nationals of at least half of the continent’s countries to obtain a visa before travelling.
Reality, however, has shown that a visa-free continent is far from being a norm, especially as many countries battle socio-economic and political crises. But for many Nigerians, it is worse as the present challenges in the country are often used to assess an average Nigerian traveller.
Countries grant visa waivers by considering several factors, most of which border on security, openness to data sharing, socio-economic markers among others. For Nigerians to enjoy visa-free trips, more needs to be done in fixing the identified issues.
Step aside, please!
Racial and religious profiling at airports or during the visa process has become an experience many Nigerians share. But it doesn’t end there. Unfortunately, the unfair and often baseless treatment extends over to foreign students, artists and professionals residing in the western countries as well.
For many Nigerians, the traveling experience was a bit better until Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to bring down a Northwest flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with an underwear bomb. Since then, it has been a downhill for the Nigerian brand and almost everyone that adorns the colour or passport.
The tag that has now been put on the country is a new one for Nigeria. Money laundering? Sadly, yes. Internet scamming? Another sad yes. Drug trafficking? Unfortunately, yes. But suicide bombing? Nigerians are not known to be suicidal, but the reality of recent years appears to defy such a notion.
For a nation just embarking on a rebranding exercise, Abdulmutallab succeeded in putting a stick in the wheel of the Rebranding Nigeria Project, an ambitious image program aimed at projecting a healthy and positive face of Nigeria to the world.
The campaign had been primarily targeted at Nigerians in the interest of achieving a character reorientation and attitudinal change. Late and former Information Minister Dora Akunyili, who started the rebranding programme, was peeved and merely referred to Abdulmutallab as “a stranger” who “sneaked” in and out of the country. A statement from her office says the federal government of Nigeria received news of the bomb attempt “with dismay” and that “Nigeria as a nation abhors all forms of terrorism.”
With an unavailable President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua at the time, Nigeria sank deeper, and its image got even battered. Since then, Nigeria became an easy target for countries to test their foreign policies. Today, many Nigerians suffer unjustified rejection of visas, harassment at airports and intensified screening even for jobs and scholarships.
Guilty by association
Bosun Tijani, explaining the reason behind his controversial tweet to the Senate during his screening, said: “I was in the UK, and I was trying to apply to the Chinese embassy because I do not need a passport to other countries of the world.”
He recalled that when he got to the Chinese embassy, they told him that it would take two days to get his visa and he was very excited.
However, he stated that things went South for him the moment he mentioned that his business was based in Nigeria, and it was at that point that he made the tweet.
Tijani noted, “They asked me what I do and that I needed to provide my pay slip. I told them I run my business and they requested my bank account statement, I told them my business is fully domiciled in Nigeria.
“The moment I told them my business was domiciled in Nigeria, the young man told me they had to do a check on me which would take a minimum of two weeks.
“In anger, I tweeted what you read, which was paraphrased wrongly, and now I have a taste of what the youths do to you as well. The tweet you read is just the first part of what you read,” he noted.
He added that the second part read explicitly mentioned, “For us to lift this country, we must find a way to correct our image to project a positive image because I don’t want my two young girls to grow up to experience the same thing.”
Tijani’s scenario affirms the truism that getting a second passport or having dual citizenship does not shield one from the bias and prejudice meted out to individuals on the basis of where they are born or ‘originally from’.
It is not uncommon to see high-performing individuals, especially professionals, athletes and artists get profiled because of where they come from due to the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Recently, some Nigerian-born professionals in the United States were also at the short end of the stick with the U.S. Customs Agents at the Dulles International Airport in Washington. The harassment claims, The Guardian learnt, was not unconnected with currency declaration row, and alleged entrapment of Nigerians departing through the airport.
The United States, under the Currency and Foreign Transaction Reporting Act (or Bank Secrecy Act), makes cash reporting mandatory for currency and monetary instruments that are over $10,000.
A Nigeria-born scholar, who was a witness to the alleged harassment, described the Customs’ disposition to Nigeria-bound travellers as “demeaning and completely unacceptable”.
He narrated that it is the duty of the airline, immigration, and customs to provide the currency declaration form, and that has been the norm. The airline offers the form at their counters, but “in this case United Airline did not give travelling Africans the opportunity to declare their currency.”
“The main issue is that the security agents will wait until you are ready to board the plane, and like a Gestapo, they will come with their dogs and gloves, singling people out by psychology or looks. They pull them aside with their sniffing dogs!
“Where in the world do you see sniffer dogs rummaging travellers for currency? Have you ever heard of that? Their (Agents’) verbiage is abusive, shouting, and telling us to shut up! What! They can’t do that to any other person but Africans and Nigerians. I can bet my life on that. They are, therefore, entrapping we Africans for abuse. And this is not done to any national that we can see travelling overseas.
“What I don’t understand is the reason for this harassment. I have been travelling for 37 years. Many of us travelling back and forth are citizens and professionals – professors, doctors, lawyers, so we know the law. But regardless of our achievements, in the eyes of the racist guys and organisations over there, we are not supposed to be where we are,” he said.
Another traveller and victim of the airport harassment, Peter, vowed that both the United States’ Customs and United Airlines would be made answerable for “targeting out-bound Nigerian travellers”.
He said: “We are Nigeria-Americans that are coming home to our families in Nigeria. Why are we being singled out for harassment on United Airlines? In my own case, the plane was delayed for some of those passengers to return. They treated them like garbage – going to the customs office, getting searched, abusing them, checking their luggage, digging through stuff, and they used insulting language.
“Imagine CEO of a company that hired over 60 workers being queried for $13,000 in her possession. But these are not criminals, but professionals, who earn in excess of $200,000 to $300,000 a year. It is very disgraceful,” Peter said.
In North African countries, the treatment meted out to Nigerians is not far from what the Western countries do. Sad stories abound everywhere.
International airports have also been accused of applying a different set of standards, with African travellers alleging they experience extra security checks and have to traipse further through terminals to reach their gates.
Many Nigerians have also shared experiences of how they were denied international job opportunities on the basis that they are Nigerians or reside in Nigeria. Most of the denials stem from the negative reputation of the country.
Nigeria’s shrinking soft power
Soft power is a country’s ability to influence the preferences and behaviours of various actors in the international arena (states, corporations, communities, publics etc.) through attraction or persuasion rather than coercion.
The Giant of Africa tag that Nigeria bandies stems from its contributions to the decolonisation in Africa, especially in Angola, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Indeed, the period covering 1975 to 1979 marked the formal articulation of Nigeria’s foreign policy, and its focus on Africa as a continent that has come of age.
Sadly, things have not remained the same since the last four decades. With Nigeria now missing in major economic alliances like BRICS (referring to Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and G20 that it should traditionally belong to given its potential, it is getting clearer that Nigeria needs to review its foreign policy.
Yesterday, leaders of the BRICS group decided to invite six more countries to join their alliance—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, ignoring Nigeria. Their membership will take effect January 1, 2024.
To be recognised and properly aligned with global powers, Nigeria needs to up her social, economic, and political ante well beyond the present below par level.
BRICS is an alternative power centre in the international system. It is an assembly of countries desirous of freeing themselves from the prevailing unjust international order in favour of one based on fairness.
Unfortunately, Nigeria has not joined this group because of obvious national fundamentals that are largely in deficit. As some informed observers have posed the question, what is Nigeria bringing to the table given the reality that most of the core countries in BRICS are industrialised? Nigeria’s singular linkage to the global economy is oil, and that has itself become a resource curse. With an OPEC allocation of about 1.8 million barrels per day, the country is barely able to meet the quota in an industry where oil theft is put daily at about 360,000 barrels.
Today, it is not clear what the thrust of Nigerian foreign policy is. What does the country need? What are its projections? it is so vacuous that observers draw on its past policies to hazard a guess about its intentions in the external environment.
This is unfortunate for a country that was once a frontline state in the fight against apartheid South Africa, and which supported the liberation struggles of many African countries that were under colonial rule. It is unfortunate for a country that played a significant role in peace-keeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations. And most spectacularly, it halted the civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone and installed democratic regimes.
Today, Nigeria is sadly saddled with domestic problems that limit its focus on international diplomacy, especially in broader terms as it affects its citizens.
According to a Nigerian Diplomat, Bola Akinterinwa, foreign policy under former President Muhammadu Buhari lacked strategic focus.
“This is evidenced in how Nigerian citizens are being badly treated globally, even by fellow African countries. Incidents reported in countries like South Africa, Dubai and America testify to this.
“During the Muhammed/Obasanjo regime, Nigeria was a force. She held her ground on several issues of national and African interest and the western world and international organisations had no choice but to succumb. However, this can no longer be said about the country. All over the news, we see stories of restrictions by other nations on Nigerians,” he said.
The argument has been that public diplomacy efforts within the realm of soft power should be treated no differently from developing a corporate and marketing strategy of a nation brand.
Sweden’s reputation as a global design capital, the precision of German engineering, and Japanese efficiency, or Italy’s reputation in luxury fashion are perceptions and associations that countries have earned and established for themselves through a history of performance in the field over the years.
Nigeria, the once known big brother and oil giant does not even meet up with its quota among global oil producers due to theft and vandalization.
Robert Ekat, a political scientist, and public commentator, noted that as a former African powerhouse, Nigeria possesses the capacity to advocate for itself and safeguard its interests.
“Importantly, joining BRICS does not entail severing connections with the West. In essence, the nation can concurrently enjoy the best of both worlds. After all, China, a pioneering BRICS member, maintains essential trade relations with the United States. Similarly, Russia, perceived as a Western European adversary, remains a crucial trade partner. In 2020, the EU emerged as Russia’s foremost trade partner, accounting for 37.3 percent of Russia’s total global trade in goods.
“Evidently, the world is undergoing a transformative phase. The West’s monolithic grip is diminishing, yielding to an emerging shift toward multipolarity. BRICS nations have officially surpassed the G7 in their share of the world’s PPP GDP—a trend anticipated to persist. This perspective is corroborated by the India-based Megh Updates platform, one of the world’s most-viewed online information platforms.
“The international landscape revolves around interests, and the time has come for Nigeria to acknowledge this reality and participate proactively. Regrettably, Nigeria’s leaders appear motivated by divergent interests—primarily self-interest. Enmeshed in multifaceted corruption and prioritising regime security, these leaders have failed to make decisions that genuinely favour the nation. This status quo demands disruption.
“A new world order is emerging, and Nigeria must formulate a foreign policy that maximises benefits for its populace. The alternative to not joining BRICS is joining Squad Alliance or G20 — an endeavour confined to wishful thinking. The West does not respect us. Perhaps, we have not behaved in a manner deserving of respect. Joining BRICS will not only present us as shifting in terms of foreign policy ideology but holds enormous potential for tangible benefits for our economy. Nigeria must join BRICS now!”, Ekat argued.
Unfortunately, BRICS appears to have ignored Nigeria going by its decision yesterday.
Charity begins at home
Respect for rule of law, sanctity of human life, poverty eradication, economic empowerment, and social justice are some of the concerns raised by Nigerians. After all, if Nigerians are not treated better at home, why should anyone offer more?
Former President Muhammadu Buhari had on the international stage, criticised the attitude of some Nigerian youth, saying they were only hustling to get on the gravy train.
Every year, Nigeria witnesses mass exodus of able-bodied men and women, some of whom are professionals across sectors, which constitutes labour loss and brain drain to the country.
Emigration of Nigerians to preferred destinations like the UK and the United States is not a new trend. However, these numbers have spiraled, rising through the roof.
Dissatisfaction with the state of the nation has continued to propel mass emigration of young Nigerians for greener pastures abroad with fear that the situation could further have dire consequences for the socio-economic wellbeing of the country.
According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, international migrants from Nigeria in 2020 totaled 1.7 million, a substantial rise from 990,000 in 2010. In 2016, Canada granted about 4,400 Nigerians permanent residence. This figure soared to over 15,000 in 2021.
The data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), show that the country recorded 10,180 Permanent Residents (PRs) from Nigeria in H1, a marginal increase of 0.74 percent from 10,105 in the same period of 2022.
Also, latest data from the British government showed that of the top five nationalities granted sponsored study visas, Nigerian nationals saw the most significant percentage increase, up 73 per cent from 33,958 in the year ending June 2022 to 58,680 in the year ending June 2023.
This means that 24,722 Nigerians were granted sponsored study visas within the period under review.
The U.S. State Department has confirmed that this year it is issuing more student visas to applicants from African countries than any time in the previous six years.
Of the 393,000+ F-1 visas issued this year to the beginning of August, 7% are for African applicants.
The State Department confirmed that student visa issuance across Africa so far, this fiscal year is up 90 per cent on the same time period in pre-pandemic 2019.
Last year, the U.S. issued over 30,000 student visas to applicants from African countries, which it also said was more than in any of the previous six years.
U.S. embassies and consulates in Nigeria and Ghana issued more student visas last year than in any year in the past two decades, the State Department said.
Higher education and work are the major principal conduits of permanent emigration. But Nigeria’s current realities such as high inflation, unemployment and fragile economic growth have now made it a major reason why its citizens emigrate to other countries for greener pastures.
According to the organised private sector, addressing the prevailing socio-economic challenges will not only stem brain drain but improve the country’s ranking in the comity of nations.