Sharp practices in passports and other consular services at the Nigeria High Commission in London used to be so prevalent that a high commissioner, Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, had to take extraordinary measures to cleanse the sleaze and restore sanity at the mission.
“I had to personally cause the removal of some immigration officers from the commission back to Nigeria,” Dr Tafida had said in his valedictory speech in September 2015, adding: “They were dishonest and engaged in shady deals”.
The recent incident in which a passport applicant, Mr Ewohime Akpovweta “went berserk” and vandalised cars at the mission after failing to get his passport, capped a resurgence of complaints against the embassy in the last few years, with some critics describing it as “a place where all manners of things happen”.
The key complaints and accusations against the commission include delays in renewal of passports, mistreatment of applicants, failure to post passports to those living far from London, and demand for extra payments by some staff before certain services could be rendered, among others.
In a random sampling of opinions on how the commission treats or relates with Nigerians in the UK, many respondents mentioned lack of good customer service, and accused some of its staff of being “rude and impolite” as well as treating customers “as if they are not human beings”. A few respondents opined that the commission was doing its best under the prevailing situation, but stressed that it could do much better.
Many others, however, said the alleged poor services and mistreatment of Nigerians by their embassies across the globe was a reflection of the way Nigerians are treated at home by government officials at various levels. For such critics, things will only change at the embassies when the government and its officials change the way they treat Nigerians at home.
To balance things up, Daily Trust Saturday requested for the high commission’s comments on the various allegations, and the onus fell on the Head of Immigration, Mr Lateef Ajibade Junaid, to respond. Mr Junaid outlined three categories of reasons why there are delays in the renewal of passports at the embassy.
The first category of reasons, he said, are Abuja-based, which the embassy could do “little or nothing” to overcome because only the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) headquarters has the powers to act on them. These include shortage of passport booklets, automatic interview dates that give applicants appointments even on public holidays, inadequate equipment such as biometric machines and centralised services, among others.
He explained that the embassy, with only three biometric machines, “has the third largest number of applicants after Lagos and Abuja”, adding that 250 to 300 applicants are attended to on normal daily basis and up to 400 during festive periods at its only consular office in the UK. He stated that United States of America, which also has a high population of Nigerians, has three diplomatic missions in Washington, New York and Georgia to cater for consular and diplomatic needs of Nigerians.
The second category of reasons, he said, are caused by applicants themselves, who would then turn round to blame the high commission. These include late applications, incorrect filling of forms, incomplete documents, inaccurate data, and failure to follow laid down procedures and processes as well as disrespect, insultive and rude behaviour towards embassy staff, he said.
“Some of them would apply at the last minute or come to the mission without appointment and demand that they be attended to and provided services even when they did not follow or satisfy the laid down procedures, and if they are not obliged, they become emotional and display lack of respect to our staff”, he said.
Mr Junaid cited the recent incident in which Mr Akpovweta vandalised vehicles at the embassy as one of such erratic and unjustifiable “emotional” outbursts that add to delays in providing smooth consular services.
“His passport was ready for collection eleven days before he turned up one hour after collection services had closed for the day, and he didn’t have his collection slip. When he was asked to come back the next day for his passport, he became angry and vandalised the vehicles”, Junaid said. Mr Akpovweta could not be reached for comment.
Human error and technical hitches make up the third category of reasons passports are delayed at the high commission, he said, adding that sometimes genuine mistakes are made by staff on applicants’ data, which must usually be referred to Abuja for correction. Technical hitches such as lack of connectivity between the embassy and Abuja occur from time to time, which also contribute to delayed passport services.
On what the commission is doing to ameliorate the problems, Junaid listed the introduction of emergency travel documents given free to those who deserve them, as well as a fast-track services whereby applicants who want accelerated services (same day or at most within 48 hours) pay an additional £100 per passport.
The commission also introduced opening consular doors to customers 30 minutes before the official time of 10 am from 2017 to date, he said, emphasizing that the action eliminated the menace of touts and long queues that hitherto spiral from Great Scotland Yard unto Northumberland Avenue.
Mr Junaid, who pledged commitment of the high commission to providing better services to all, however, appealed to consular customers and all Nigerians in the UK to follow laid down procedures when they apply for services and give due respect to staff as they attend to their needs.
“Respect is reciprocal. Most of our staff who are recruited locally are not diplomats and may be rude towards applicants, but we do not hesitate in removing them once cases are established against them”, he said, adding that the embassy encourages people to make complaints against any staff on any perceived wrong doing.
Analysts on the fractious relationship between Nigerians in diaspora and their embassies across the world are of the view that if both sides do the needful, appreciate and give due respect, the perennial accusations and counter accusations would be confined to the dustbin of history.
But whatever the state of relations is between the embassies and Nigerians abroad, the Nigeria High Commission in London would do well to always remember Dr Tafida’s parting warning to his then successor, acting high commissioner, Ambassador Olakunle Bamgbose: “You must open your eyes wide. The bad eggs are still lurking around and will act if they get the chance”.