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In London, a hard, cold reform for Nigerian High Commission

A Nigerian who will dutifully obey traffic lights in mid-night and queue up for hours to obtain services abroad will not hesitate to threaten anyone…

A Nigerian who will dutifully obey traffic lights in mid-night and queue up for hours to obtain services abroad will not hesitate to threaten anyone with his “importance” and “connection” if asked to do same in his country. “Do you know who I am?” and “I will deal with you!” are some of the phrases used by the average educated Nigerians to threaten people who will not let them have things the way they want.

In apparent conformity with the dictum that people get the type of leadership they deserve, Nigerians in position of leadership are always too quick to demonstrate the power of their position and cut down to size anyone who dares or challenges them.

They see themselves as masters rather than as servants of the people. Unfortunately, these unbecoming attitudes are exhibited by even Nigerian diplomats to their fellow citizens abroad.

It is when viewed from this perspective that one can appreciate the cat-and-mouse relationship between Nigerian embassies and Nigerians across the world. It is a sort of a face-off that no side is willing or ready to back-off or relent. The embassies’ officials always feel that as representatives of the leadership back home, they deserve total respect from the people they are sent to serve. On the other hand, Nigerians abroad argue that as people sent to serve and protect their interests, the officials should treat them with respect and perhaps serve them they way they (citizens) want.

At the height of what one commentator described as “hostilities” between the two sides, many Nigerians in the UK would rather patronize the services of touts to obtain consular and other services at the Nigeria High Commission in London than go in person. The situation becomes more glaring in view of the fact that patronizing touts may mean paying up to ten times the normal cost of such services.

For those brave enough to go through the unpleasant rigours of seeking and obtaining services in person, they must brace themselves to possible verbal (and sometimes physical) embarrassment, harassment, intimidation and insults from the staff of the commission.

Successive high commissioners have tried their best to change or at least improve on the situation but achieved very limited success because the unpleasant relationship persisted. The efforts made by Prince Bola Ajibola during his short stint as high commissioner attracted some positive comments from a cross-section of Nigerians in the UK then. But the “uneasy” relationship between the commission and Nigerians in the UK lingered on, perhaps because his agenda did not place much emphasis on internal re-organization and re-orientation of the commission’s personnel towards dealing with customers with respect and in polite and civil way ways.

It is against this backdrop that one will appreciate the efforts of Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, Nigeria’s current High Commissioner to the Court of St. James’s (UK) in transforming the commission from a place that Nigerians dreaded to visit, to a place where visitors are now welcome with courtesy by staff wearing a human face.

Generally regarded as simple and unassuming, the high commissioner has surprised even the most ardent critics on how he was able to make such a positive impact not only on the way the commission deals with the public, but also on the physical structures of the mission within a period of less than two years.  

Not surprisingly, the impetus for his “comprehensive programme of reforms” at the commission came from his medical background. During a recent chat with a sister publication in London, Dr Tafida revealed that shortly after assuming duties, each time he went to office in the morning, he was greeted with foul smell oozing from the commission. On investigation, he discovered that only two out of more than 40 toilets and urinals in the building were functional. Roofs of many offices were leaking while the floors of many others had come off. The atmosphere was obviously not safe and conducive for the staffers to put in their best performance. He resolved to do something to change the situation and the result is the ongoing reforms.

As with all changes, the reforms initially hit the brick wall as some beneficiaries of the old system did all they could to maintain the status quo. “I had to remove some people, including those that were considered sacred cows”, he said. “Things were happening uncontrollably.  Agents (touts) and staff were engaged in shady deals. Nigerians had to pay fortunes to get passports”, he lamented.

He also spoke to Nigerians in the UK, using words and sentences they were not used to hearing from people at the commission. He told them that officials at the commission, including him, were the servants of Nigerians in the country. “We are not your masters”, he always tells a gathering of Nigerians. “We are here to serve you and we owe it a duty to render quality services in the name of our country. This is our duty and responsibility as a mission”.  

The change of tone, coupled with internal re-organisation and training of staff with emphasis on standard customer service seem to have done the trick. After initial scepticism, many Nigerians in the UK now believe that Dr Tafida’s on-going reforms are real. And the introduction of the electronic passport (e- passport) last year in place of the machine readable passport (MRP) came in handy for his reforms.   

“The e-passport system solved more than 70 per cent of our passport problems”, he said, adding that with the other changes introduced, more than 90 per cent of touting at the commission was eliminated. And with his team of senior officials who are apparently dedicated to playing their part to achieve the desired results, Dr Tafida could achieve whatever plausible goals he sets to achieve.

At the unveiling of the renovated Visa Section last month, which is equipped with up-to-date facilities, together with the renovation of the reception hall, rehabilitation of the chancery building and the replacement of more than 40 toilets and urinals amongst others, Dr Tafida expressed delight that the commission now ranks in parity with other African and developing countries’ embassies in London.

Passports and visas are now obtainable within 24 hours at official rates, and the applicants don’t have to “see” any official in advance to make it happen. To cap it, those outside London will soon start enjoying the services of the commission without having to travel out as the commission has acquired a mobile passport production machine to serve Nigerians in major cities outside London.

But the big question is how deep are the reforms and changes at the commission? Is it the usual case of eye-service and pretensions loyalty where subordinates do the bidding of those at the helm only to discard their agenda as soon as there is a leadership change?  As things stand out now, only time has the answer to the big question.

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