Last week, I experienced one of the worst encounters in my 15 years of international travel. I was travelling from Abuja to the Swedish city of Gothenburg to attend the 2023 Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC). As with many destinations, there was no direct flight from Nigeria to Sweden. In the world of national carriers, Nigeria has decided to take a backseat and remain there. Hadi Sirika’s “Nigeria Air” seems to have a rather exclusive preference for its owner’s favourite destination – Addis Ababa!
My best option was to go through Europe or at least the Middle East, depending on your perspective of Turkey’s geographical placement. I settled for Turkish Airlines. An 11-hour journey, however, became 32 hours for me as the airlines continuously changed the departure schedule, forcing me to opt for the next day’s connecting flight. As a result, I had to endure a 23-hour layover at the Istanbul airport without the opportunity to explore the city.
After arriving in Istanbul at 6.30 a.m. local time, I rushed to the Turkish Airlines ticketing desk to change my ticket to the next available flight to Gothenburg, but I was told the only flight for the day had already commenced boarding and that there was no space for me.
“I’m afraid you have to wait for tomorrow morning’s flight as contained in your boarding pass,” a lady at the desk told me politely.
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After exhausting all available options to change the ticket without success, I decided to get an entry visitor’s e-visa. The system was so simple. You approach an ATM-like machine and pay $50 if you have UK, US or Schengen passports or a Nigerian passport with any of the three valid visas.
It’s a system I had used before and figured I could give it another shot to enter Istanbul – a city I know fairly well having been there on five different occasions. I had planned to meet and greet a couple of ex-BBC colleagues now working with the Turkish broadcaster, TRT.
Little did I know, similar to the constant decline of the naira in my account since Bola Tinubu’s presidency began, my green passport has been rapidly devaluing. It no longer allows me to obtain a Turkish e-visa and has forfeited numerous privileges that holders once enjoyed in various countries.
I watched in dismay as the security personnel at the gate permitted a group of South Africans to pass through and access the e-visa point, informing me that the “Nigerian passport is not eligible.”
I didn’t ask why but later found out from a friend that a passenger travelling to the US through Istanbul was recently denied the opportunity to enjoy a free hotel accommodation because of his “Nigerian passport”. I gathered that they only permitted individuals with US passports to proceed and was also informed that, “Nigerians tend to frequently overstay or disappear when granted entry.”
After all the wahala and spending the night at an expensive airport hotel, I woke up very refreshed and ready for my flight. I was at the boarding gate almost 1.30 minutes before the departure. After a couple of minutes’ wait, we were called for passport screening ahead of the boarding. Two gentlemen from the Turkish Airlines were in charge. Things were going smoothly until it reached my turn.
One of the flight attendants glanced at my passport and my visa. He requested that I lift my face to allow him to verify my identity as the legitimate passport holder. Of course, it was my photo and the visa was valid. But that was not enough.
“Do you have a return ticket?”
In his mind, I was embarking on a “Japa” mission. Without hiding my displeasure, I simply told him to check their system to verify if I had a return ticket or not.
Then he started to sound apologetic, saying he just wanted my answer. “Sir, I only want you to say yes or no since I don’t have access to the computer now.”
The attendant moved over to a Filipino lady next to me. He asked her if she had a return ticket. She said yes and he moved on to the next person. At that moment, I was convinced that he had only asked her to demonstrate to me that he wasn’t profiling me.
While trying to avoid another round of profiling and passport issues, I refrained from going through the counter of the previous “racist” attendant. However, the second officer proved to be equally biased. As I approached him, he quietly confirmed from his colleague that he had already screened my passport in the local language, allowing me to board the 200-passenger plane, which had only three black passengers – I and two Somali immigrants with EU resident permits.
This annoying encounter at the Istanbul airport reminded me of another terrible incident that almost forced me to miss my return flight to New York from Tangia, Morocco. I was in Morocco in November 2019, to attend a Media Trust board retreat ahead of my resumption as editor-in-chief in January 2020. The Moroccan immigration officers allowed me to enter the country and stamped my passport knowing fully well that I was travelling from the US, only for them to ask me to wait for a few moments when I wanted to return to New York after four days of our retreat. I was left sitting in a small corner for nearly 30 minutes. Nobody asked any questions or demanded any documents or told me to do anything.
My thoughts swiftly gravitated towards the familiar culprits – my Nigerian passport and the upcoming journey to the US. After expressing my frustration to the airline staff and with the intervention of their supervisor, they extended their apologies and granted me permission to board and make my way back to New York.
I understand this isn’t a novel narrative, but why do the deeds of a handful of individuals persist in causing harm to everyone? The conduct and dispositions of Nigerians consistently cast a shadow over our nation’s reputation on a regular basis, and it appears that we have lost all hope of change.
It has led to visa bans in the UAE and restrictions in South Africa, Turkey and many other countries. The Japa syndrome has worsened the situation, but I strongly believe that we shouldn’t give up. In fact, this is the time to brace for change. The new Minister of Information and National Orientation should take the lead. It’s imperative that we restore our country’s tarnished reputation in the eyes of the world.
Naziru is the Group Executive Director, Digital & Editorial, Media Trust.