Nigeria's image: Is the fault in our passport?
Whenever I travel overseas, I observe carefully how passengers arriving in the countries are treated by customs and immigration officials. The first time I arrived at Oslo Airport in Norway in January 2005, I was stunned by the amiable nature of the passport control officer. As soon as I presented my passport and arrival card, the officer looked at me calmly, took my passport and examined it, perhaps to ensure I was not the holder of a fake travel document. He stamped it and then said something that surprised me. He said I was not required to complete the arrival card because Australian passport holders were not obligated to do so. He tossed my arrival card in a bin.
Astonished by the officer's polite conduct which appeared to me to be extraordinary, I wondered quietly to myself: What if I had presented the Nigerian passport? Would I have received the same warm treatment? Or would I have been subjected to embarrassing queries, the type of questions that are usually popped at suspected illegal immigrants?
The officer asked how long I planned to stay in Norway. I told him I would be in Oslo for five days. He appeared to be puzzled. You couldn't visit my country and stay for just five days, he muttered silently. You've come a long way from Australia, he said, looking at me. Why don't you stay longer? I smiled back and explained that I was on an official assignment for my university. He asked what the assignment was about. I told him I was in the country to deliver an orientation programme to undergraduate exchange students at Bjorknes College.
At that time, the college had a formal exchange agreement with the University of Queensland (my university). It involved about 30 students from the college coming to my university every year to study for two years. The agreement stipulated that students from the college, who were expected to commence their studies in the university in July of every year, had to undergo an orientation programme. In my capacity as the coordinator of the Bjorknes College exchange programme, I travelled on behalf of my university to Norway every January to familiarise the students with what they should expect at the university and in the country. This was the context in which I found myself at the Oslo Airport in January 2005.
At the customs desk and outside the airport, I was surprised by the high regard that was accorded to me. I couldn't understand it all. Did they think I was a senior United Nations diplomat on an official visit to their country? Based on the surprisingly courteous treatment I received, I pondered the following questions: could the passport explain the warm treatment I received in Norway? Or could the immigration and customs officials whom I met on arrival be on an exceptionally good mood on that day in January 2005? The question is appropriate because Nigerians are usually the subject of harassment, ill-treatment, verbal abuse and criminal suspicion at overseas airports.
I must state that throughout the years that I visited Norway on official assignment, I was treated very well at the Oslo Airport. I found the customs and immigration officials to be nice, polite, and helpful. I asked myself whether the treatment I received had something to do with my Australian passport. Perhaps that could be the reason. Perhaps it may not be.
Prior to my trip to Norway, every other country I had visited with my Nigerian passport (including South Africa), had left me with maximum embarrassment and sad experiences. In fact, every time I presented my Nigerian passport to immigration officials at overseas airports, something unusual always seems to occur. I have therefore concluded that, it is either that the Nigerian passport triggers suspicion, irrational behaviour and alarm in immigration officials at overseas airports or there must be something about me that makes immigration officials feel uneasy.
Consider this horrible experience I had in Bangkok (Thailand) in 1992. I wrote about it in a previous article entitled 'Pleasure and pain of overseas travel'. The article was published on Friday, 6 February 2009. In company of my university colleagues, I arrived in Bangkok in August 1992 to attend a UNESCO-sponsored conference. I travelled with my Nigerian passport. And that seemed to be the source of the humiliation to which I was subjected because no sooner did I present my Nigerian passport to the passport control officer at Bangkok's international airport than the official began to yell wildly: 'Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria'. Naturally, the shouting attracted other officials who raced toward the officer.
I couldn't comprehend the reason for the hysteria. Was it my presence or the sight of the Nigerian passport that set off the alarm? Within a few minutes, I found the answer. It was the Nigerian passport. It looked like the mere possession of a Nigerian passport in Bangkok in 1992 amounted to suspicion of crime. This did not happen to me alone. A Nigerian professor, indeed a dean of faculty at the University of Ibadan who arrived for the same conference was subjected to humiliation in Bangkok. The treatment gets even worse if you did not carry the international yellow fever vaccination card.
Nigerians who travel overseas have recounted many times the ugly treatment they received from immigration and customs officials at foreign airports. They were victims of discrimination, maltreatment, and disgraceful behaviour. Why would immigration and customs officials at overseas airports single out Nigerian passport holders for disdainful treatment? Why are citizens of other African countries not subjected (in general) to the same treatment which Nigerian passport holders receive? There are many reasons why we are treated contemptuously and suspiciously in overseas countries. The first is poor leadership and the associated lack of respect for Nigerian leaders in overseas countries. So, if Nigerian leaders count for nothing in the eyes of western and non-western people, then the travel document issued by Nigeria will receive the same level of disrespect.
As I argued in a previous essay, Nigeria, like every other country, has a good face and an ugly face. But it is the ugly face that defines the treatment we receive when we visit other countries. Other countries (including those with worse blemishes) tend to see more of our hideous face and therefore respond to that image because negative events about Nigeria are given prominence in foreign and local news media. The ugly face that Nigeria sends out to the rest of the world is shaped mostly by the infamous and dishonest practices of our people.
What are those activities for which Nigerians are known notoriously across the world? They include involvement in domestic and international advance fee fraud, corrupt practices by senior public servants and government officials, drug trafficking, credit card scams, import and export deception, as well as prostitution and other forms of human trafficking. Add to all these the worsening security situation across the country, such as the haphazard abduction of everyone - the young and the old, men and women, foreigners and citizens - and the latest indiscriminate bomb explosions by Boko Haram. Of course, some of these activities take place in other countries but Nigeria has been singled out as an exceptional case perhaps because of the magnitude of our involvement in these criminal activities.
Essentially, the bad image which we emit to the rest of the world has been sustained for many years because of these and other problems such as the stupidity of our leaders, the upsurge in criminal activities, as well as unwillingness by the so-called leaders to engage in moral reorientation of the society. The enviable image that Nigeria cultivated in the international community in the 1960s and 1970s has been sullied by these sharp practices for which the nation is widely known. As bad as the situation might be, it is important to clarify that not all Nigerians are criminals. Like every other country, there are good guys and bad guys. And, unfortunately, it is the bad guys who have tainted the image of Nigeria at home and abroad.
In his first term as president, Olusegun Obasanjo traversed the world in his desperate attempt to overturn Nigeria's damaged image. He failed partly because the countries he visited saw the hypocrisy in his mission; they saw Nigeria as a country in which the leaders preached moral uprightness but led the way in violating the spirit and principles of their sermons. So, the more Obasanjo pleaded with foreign countries to adopt a policy shift on Nigeria, the more those countries produced unflattering evidence about the growing involvement of our people in all manner of criminal activities.
During the time she served as Information and Communication Minister, Dora Akunyili tried to reinvent a new image for Nigeria. She launched the 'Re-branding Nigeria Project', obviously a difficult and challenging project that many Nigerians and indeed overseas countries received with a great deal of scepticism.
As we prepare to hug a new year, serious challenges still stand before us and our leaders. For President Goodluck Jonathan, the clock is ticking fast and he must not wait till 2015 to do a last minute dash to the exit line. If, in the past 12 months he lost direction or a sense of commitment to his obligations as president, he must start now to do something practical and positive that would serve as his legacy to a nation long deprived of committed and visionary leaders.
By Levi Obijiofor