The violent destruction of government and visitor vehicles parked in front of Nigeria’s High Commission in London last week by an obviously disgruntled citizen marks a new dimension in the long-running stream of ill feelings and exchange of angry words between that diplomatic mission and passport/visa applicants. It was never meant to be a master-servant relationship but that is precisely the picture that has emerged in the public sphere following the incident at the high commission.
Embassies and high commissions represent the public face of every government. That picture gets disfigured the moment diplomats and consular officials are consistently charged with treating passport and visa applicants disrespectfully as second-rate citizens. Ever since that incident, Nigerians resident in the UK and other countries who have had some kind of business to do with the high commission have spoken angrily and adversely about officials who work in that diplomatic post. In such a tense situation, it is difficult to know who is feeding the public and social media with truthful and inaccurate accounts of events that led to the explosion of anger that eventually resulted in the destruction of vehicles.
Whatever might have provoked the man who smashed the luxury vehicles will never justify the use of violence to draw attention to his dispute with the high commission staff in London. Violence does not solve any problem. That act of aggression has now distracted from public discussion of the more serious problems that our diplomatic missions are causing to people they are supposed to serve. Now, all the talk has been dominated by the wilful damage done to government vehicles, including vehicles belonging to visitors to the high commission.
It is deeply concerning that passport and/or visa applicants should engage in fisticuffs with diplomatic and consular officials. Where is the mutual respect? Where is the sense of responsibility and maturity that we expect from our diplomats? In business, it is often said that the customer is never wrong, even if that customer triggered an argument or a fight. That spirit ought to inform the relationship between Nigerians in the Diaspora and diplomatic officials who are expected to serve them promptly, efficiently, and diligently without prejudice.
It is important that diplomatic posts should engage very good, understanding staff because it is those officials who will deal with their citizens and foreigners who approach the diplomatic offices for a range of services such as application for issuance/renewal of passports, application for visa, travel documents, and so on. That is why the diplomatic staff must be competent, sympathetic, cool-headed, polite, efficient, prompt and, above all, they must possess a high degree of people-to-people skill.
Any diplomatic office that treats its own citizens and visitors with disrespect and abusive language can expect to receive the same level of hostility and contempt from their citizens and visitors. Courtesy, I was taught in my secondary school days, costs nothing but buys everything. Diplomatic officials must be polite, polished, and civil in their attitude, behaviour, and mode of communication.
The treatment that consular officials mete out to passport and visa applicants shapes the image the public has about each foreign mission. In light of the ugly incident at the high commission in London, the Federal Government must start an urgent reform of Nigeria’s diplomatic posts. That restructuring is long overdue. It has been ignored by previous governments, an indication of how the country treats and relates with its citizens in the Diaspora.
The right calibre of staff with the right temperament must be deployed to serve in our embassies and high commissions. If the Federal Government is concerned about the diminishing image of the country owing to poor services provided by our foreign missions, government must accord priority to restructuring the diplomatic posts.
Months after his election in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari issued a directive in September that year, which stated that the number and size of Nigeria’s foreign missions should be reviewed. Buhari also flagged in the same year that his government would endeavour to infuse more discipline and a sense of duty into our diplomatic staff.
He said: “Something has to be done so that we can get back our respectability as a country. Some people carry official passports and get involved in all sorts of negative acts. We need to do something about it.”
This suggests that Buhari is fully aware of the damage that has been done to Nigeria’s international image by the country’s foreign missions.
It was obvious to Buhari four years ago, as it must be clear to him today, that Nigeria cannot afford to operate foreign missions in which staff are regularly owed salaries and allowances, or foreign missions that can hardly afford basic office supplies such as pens, pencils, papers, markers and highlighters. A visit to some of the diplomatic posts will shock you. They are not fit to serve as the official face of a decent country. Staff morale is at the lowest level. There is little or no support from the government that maintains the foreign missions. Diplomatic posts starved of funds and critical human resources can never advance effective relations with overseas countries.
Despite Buhari’s initial views about the need to restructure our diplomatic missions, it is disgraceful that, in his first four years in office, he did little or indeed nothing significant to enhance the country’s image that has been on a free fall. While everyone is outraged because of the scandal that erupted in the high commission in London last week, it must be said the image of our foreign missions has been sullied for many years not only by the unfriendly behaviour of some diplomats and consular officials but also by their involvement in corrupt practices, nepotism, cronyism, illegal issuance of passports to non-citizens, and other fraudulent behaviour.
If the government wants quality foreign missions, if the government wants effective foreign missions that will implement the country’s foreign policy to the letter, it must be prepared to pay for those foreign missions. You cannot expect a diplomat who is owed months of salaries and allowances, or a diplomat who has little or no money to provide basic consular services to generate money from a rock.
We hear tales of frustration by diplomatic staff. We hear about how our foreign missions are receiving little or no support from the ministry in Abuja. We hear about how hardworking and diligent diplomats are threatened with recall because they are serving as exemplars of what our diplomatic staff ought to be. Yet the ability of the foreign missions to perform is incapacitated by official policy blunders.
If we want to change the way the world views us or the way the world conducts business with us, it is imperative our government must map out new and sound foreign policy objectives.
We are fortunate in Australia to have had high commissioners and consular officers who took the interests of Nigerians as priority. Previous High Commissioner Ayo Olukanni remains one of the shining examples. So too is the current high commissioner, Bello Kazaure Husseini, who has responded impressively to the needs of Nigerians in Australia, New Zealand, and other countries that fall within the responsibility of the mission in Australia.