BY PHILLIP IDEH
The Nigerian High Commissioner, His Excellency Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafida who has just completed one year of service in the Court of St. James,recently gave an exclusive interview to
Mr Philip C.M. Ideh , Deputy -Director (Retired), Federal Ministry of Information and Culture & Currently a Freelance Journalist in the UK .
Excerpts of the Interview are reproduced for readers to see what challenges he has faced and how he is tackling them.
Question 1: Your Excellency, the issuance of Visa and Passports at the high Commission has been revolutionised as applicants are now attended to within a week or so, of their application. How was this achieved?
Answer: Service delivery in the Immigration and Consular Sections of the High Commission has been prioritized for reforms because of the long standing bad image which the two Sections have earned the entire Mission. I would want to explain the transformation which you and many others have witnessed, particularly in the visa and Passport Units in the following ways.
i) On arrival in the United Kingdom on the 12th of April, 2008 and the presentation of my Letters of Credence to Her majesty the Queen on Friday, 30th May, 2008, I embarked, first, on the prioritization of the overall purposes and objectives of the High Commission as Nigeria’s Premier diplomatic Mission.
ii) Second, having identified and defined the strategic importance of the Consular and Immigration Sections against the background of the location of the Mission in a mega city such as London, with a Nigerian Diaspora population projected at about 3 million; I embarked on the diagnosis of the problems and challenges of the two Sections.
iii) The appointment of a four-man committee of senior Foreign Affairs officers of the Mission under my Chairmanship, to further study the problems and challenges of the Immigration and Consular Sections. The Committee did an extensive work and made far-reaching recommendations, which are currently being implemented. These recommendations comprised:
a) Token increases in the cost of service delivery, such as in the issuance of passports, visas and general consular services, including their administrative and related charges. The details have since been placed on our website and also released formally to the mass media.
b) Transforming the Visa Hall into a more congenial and user-friendly place.
c) The introduction of a rigorous programme of training and retraining in service delivery and public/customer relations for frontline staff, particularly in the passport and visa sections. The first phase of the training has since been concluded.
d) Continuous staff re-organisation and redeployments, the objective of which is to ensure that no staff in any Section stays longer than necessary or allowed to entrench the culture of corruption and impunity.
e) Stricter demand from staff to adhere to the policy of zero tolerance of corruption and other acts unbecoming of staff members of a diplomatic and consular Mission.
f) The placement of Feedback/Suggestion Boxes; one in the Reception/Banking Hall and another in the Visa hall of the Mission. The content of these boxes are regularly read and the feedback/suggestions therein are also brought to my attention by my Special Assistant. This measure is reinforced by the introduction of a system of appeals against official decisions made on visas, passports and other services, which applicants may find unsatisfactory.
g) The provision of a separate Information Desk to sort out categories of applicants before being sent to the Visa Hall. In addition to serving as the Mission’s Reception Hall, the Banking Hall thus serves as a “Holding Room”, thereby reducing the chances of crowding in the Visa Hall. This measure is also being implemented
h) The provision of privately-run Facilities/Services Desk, equipped with photocopying machine, computer, printer and internet facility, at a fee for the benefit of visitors to the Mission for various services. However, we are yet to receive fair offers from the public to this effect.
i) The re-designing the Mission’s website to make it more user-friendly. The contract has been awarded and action has since commenced on the part of the contractor.
I should state categorically that the nominal fee increases introduced were intended to make it possible for the High Commission to render high quality consular and immigration services. They were not intended to add unnecessary financial burden to fellow Nigerians who are already facing enormous challenges resulting from the current global economic crisis. There is also the element of reciprocity embedded in the new fees, in line with internationally recognised diplomatic/consular principles and practices.
v) The holding of regular meetings with the Executive Council of various community-based organisations organisations such as: the Central Association of Nigerians in the United Kingdom,(CANUK), Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Europe (NIDOE), UK Branch; Nigerian Council of Elders and Nigerian Association of TV and Media Practitioners, among others. I seize this opportunity to commend, once again, these organisations’ respective cooperative and patriotic instincts.
Question 2: I gather that the High Commission has to deal with an increased number of passport applicants, especially from Nigerians, on any given day with the result that some Nigerian Professionals had offered and indeed given their services in assisting the staff of the High Commission with crowd control in order to restore sanity among the applicants. Is this the situation?
ANSWER: You may wish to know that since my assumption of office I have always commended the organisational, cooperative and collaborative efforts of the various Nigerian Community based in the United Kingdom in the general transformation of the High Commission. Objectively, the issue of crowd control which you have just raised is not institutionalized. On the two occasions when we had the semblance of that, it was as a result of our observation of a Nigerian public holiday and a United Kingdom Bank holiday. They were not announced by Governments early enough. We cannot plan on speculated holiday dates.
QUESTION 3: How does the High Commission treat Nigerian passport applicants who come to London from cities such as Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester?
b) In the 1970s and 80s, there used to be a Nigerian Area Office in Edinburgh, Scotland but it was closed. Is there any plan to re-open it or open up another Area Office in any part of the United Kingdom?
ANSWER: The factors and conditions which necessitated Federal Government’s rationalisation of Nigeria’s Consular Posts/Missions abroad in the mid 1980s and the consequent closure of the Edinburgh and Liverpool Consular Missions on the basis of budgetary constraints and competing priorities of Government have not changed. These factors and conditions, such as inadequate Government revenue, Consular Mission viability, geographical contiguity and propinquity; personnel, administrative and other overhead costs, etc still constitute serious inhibitions on the capacity of the government to re-open old Consular Missions or new ones.
Nigerian passport applicants from cities such as Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Scotland and Manchester should please bear with Government’s present financial predicament which has worsened with the global economic and financial crisis to which the Nigerian economy is not immune. However, the present Administration is not unaware of her constitutional responsibility to promote and protect the interest of all her citizens abroad. It was in recognition of this that the Nigerian Foreign Minister, His Excellency, Ojo Madueke, CFR, on assumption of office, enunciated the principles of Citizen Diplomacy as a major plank of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy under President Musa Yar’Adua Administration.
Nigerian passport applicants who are hard pressed by time are free under our reformed passport and visa regime to opt for express or fast-track service, provided they are prepared to apply in time for minor additional cost. It is discretionary and not compulsory.
Question 4: a) You have met with Nigerian professionals in various endeavours in the United Kingdom; what particular group has impressed you most?
b) What sort of behaviour among Nigerians would you regard as most nauseating and reprehensible?
c) How did you manage such an attitude?
ANSWER: Nigerian professionals in various endeavours and groups in the United Kingdom have all been impressive, helpful and re-assuring. I have made this point at various times and places, including this very interview. None of them has been nauseating or reprehensible, attitudinally. I seize this opportunity first, to urge them again to re-intensify their disposition to nation-building which President Umaru Yar’Adua has articulated very well in the Seven-Point Agenda and the Vision 20-2020. Second, I urge them to register with the recently launched Global Data Base of Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO) to enhance ongoing engagements of the Federal and state governments, particularly with Nigerian professional organisations and bodies abroad.
Question 5: The Minister of Foreign Affairs, His Excellency Ojo Maduekwe recently proclaimed that the more affluent Western Countries should share the of African migrants in Europe instead of making life more difficult for these migrants, How do you see this problem in your back garden?
Answer: That proclamation by H.E. Ojo Maduekwe, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister deserves profound acclamation. As a realist, we all live in an inter-dependent world. This truism has been re-underlined by contemporary globalization and its attendant consequences. The reality of global interdependence has also been underlined by the current global economic meltdown.
As a Nigerian diplomatic and consular Mission, we have remained fully engaged with our host government with the view of making life for Nigerian immigrants less difficult. For example, we have recently revised our Memorandum of Understanding (M. O. U.) with the United Kingdom on consular and immigration matters. Again, President Yar’Adua has sent an Executive bill to the National Assembly, which would enable the amendment of the Nigerian law on the proposed prisoner reforms.
Question 6: Recently, one of your senior members of staff at Nigeria House, I believe he is the Head of the Consular Division, told an audience at a meeting held at King’s College, University of London at the Strand, that Nigerians generally perceive that the notion or concept of welfare as dished out from the High Commission, conveyed the impression that the High Commission would cough up funds to be given to them if they run into financial difficulties of various dimensions: Who may benefit from the High Commission’s largesse?
Answer: Despite the financial limitations of the High Commission, we assist legitimate Nigerian citizens with genuine distress cases in the United Kingdom. What the officer under reference meant on that occasion was that our consular budgetary fund was not inexhaustible. It is limited by the size, scope and content of our consular duties and responsibilities. Dishing out cash to every Nigerian in need or in distress in the United Kingdom is certainly not sustainable; neither is it realistic to do.
Question 7: Recently, the former Chief of General Staff, General Victor Malu, retired, was hospitalised in a hospital in Manchester after suffering a stoke and had complained of negligence on the par of Nigerians especially the Federal Government.
a) Was the High commission notified about this presence in the United Kingdom?
b) If so, Your Excellency, is there any aspect of your welfare services which could have been extended to him?
Answer: The High Commission was duly notified last year about the admission of the former Chief of General Staff, General Victor Malu (Retired) in a Manchester Hospital, after suffering severe stroke in Nigeria. I, in the capacity of Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a select group of six very senior Foreign Affairs Officers and the Defence Adviser travelled to Manchester by road to wish him well. This was followed by series of get well visits by Brigadier General Aminu, Defence Adviser, Nigeria High Commission, and London. He accompanied on each of these visits, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Saad Abubakar, retired General Shelpide, Nigeria’s Ambassador in Moscow and General Dambazau the current Chief of Army Staff, respectively.
It is therefore important to affirm that General Victor Malu, after suffering sever stroke was evacuated using air ambulance from Lagos to Manchester on 5th October, 2008 for medical treatment, all at Federal Government expense. On arrival, he was admitted at the second best private hospital in United Kingdom, BMI Group of Hospitals- The Alexander Hospital Cheadle. Thereafter, he was transferred to Leonard Cheshire Disability Rehabilitation Centre, Oakwood, Manchester. From there he was again moved to Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, Manchester. All these again were at the expense of Federal Government of Nigeria.
The Hospital authority at Stepping Hill indicated their desire to discharge General Victor Malu on 25th March, 2009. Arrangements were made to fly him back to Lagos for further management. Consequently, Brigadier General (Dr.) Ejemba a consultant physician and cardiologist were sent to Manchester on 23rd March, 2009 by the Federal Government to escort General Malu back to Nigeria. He met with the spouse of General Malu and the consultant physician, who had been managing General maul since his arrival in the United Kingdom on 5th October, 2008. Mrs. Malu refused to allow her husband to be flown to Nigeria and opted for his management rather by a General Practitioner in a private apartment in London. General Malu was discharged from the hospital on Friday, 27th March 2009 and his wife took him to the private apartment.
Mrs. Malu, no doubt had the best of intentions in delaying the return of her husband to Nigeria. Later on and on the instance of the wife, a first class Virgin Atlantic air ticket was booked for General Malu and the wife to return to Lagos. On arrival in Lagos on 4th May, 2009, General Malu was formally received by a group of very senior Nigerian Army Medical Corp Officers led by the Director.
You can clearly see from the account I have given you so far that the combined welfare services of the Nigeria High Commission, London Nigerian Army and Federal Government of Nigeria were freely extended to retired General Victor Malu. It will be un-ethical and undiplomatic to start disclosing on the pages of newspapers Federal Government’s medical expenses on retired General Victor Malu since he suffered the severe stroke. I wish to seize this opportunity to wish retired General Malu a speedy recovery.
QUESTION 8: With the prevalence of “Knife Culture” in the United Kingdom and with the sad reflection of our young Damilola Taylor who was stabbed to death in Peckham, London, some seven or more years back. What advice would you give to Nigerians who wish to send their young children to study and live in the United Kingdom?
Answer: My advice to this group of Nigerians would comprise:
I) Inculcation in the child of a strong sense of adherence to their religious faith.
ii) Young children should remain focused on their studies.
iii) Young children should resist the pressure from their peer groups to join “anti-social gangs”, who have the penchant to propagate the knife culture and petty crimes.
iv) Young children should be effectively guided inside and outside the school or college.
v) Parents who live with their children in the United Kingdom should set exemplary behaviour inside and outside the home.
vi) Parents should teach their children the importance of refraining from girl friend and boy friend business as this is often the cause of youth knife stabbing in the United Kingdom, presently. They should be taught to wait until they are mature, in order to make the right choice of boy friend or girl friend.
vii) Finally, young children should be trained to be able to relate their worries in the school to their parents or elders. Some good instances are when a child is constantly bullied at school or threatened with violent crimes. In this regard, parents should maintain constant communication with their children and be deeply interested in the activities and behaviour of their wards.
Question 9: Recently, a United States congressionally mandated commission indicted Nigeria as one of the world’s worst abuses of religious freedom and cited Jos, in Plateau State, in late November 2008 where hundreds of people were killed and at least 10,000 displaced, when ethnic and sectarian violence erupted in that city but the Federal Government had continued to respond in an inadequate and ineffectual manner to persistent religious freedom violations and violent sectarian and communal conflicts along religious lines.
a) What is your view on this indictment of the Federal Government?
b) There was a report that Al Qaeda has a cell in Kaduna State adding that a Nigerian Muslim from that state had claimed to have gone to Pakistan for training in religious fundamentalism. How does the Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua’s Government view this involvement in terrorist activities?
a) The decision of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which you referred to above is unfortunate. The decision is flawed in the sense that the Commission had not availed itself of the official Government position on the problem and the untiring efforts of Nigeria’s Federal and State Governments in tackling violations of religious freedoms and violent sectarian and communal conflicts since 1999 to the present. Second, the alleged instances of violence had never been instigated or caused by Government. Third, the Federal Government had not been given the opportunity to defend itself. I do hope that the State Department does not automatically proceed to blacklist Nigeria and that Congress does not proceed to impose sanctions for obvious reasons as such measures would be totally premature and unnecessary.
Nigeria cherishes its existing cordial and warm relations with the United States and would leave no stone unturned to maintain and defend such relations. I would urge the United States CIRF to be more circumspect in order not jeopardise the tremendous good will which the United States already enjoys among many Nigerians and the excellent relations between the two Governments.
b) The Federal and State Governments of Nigeria are known to have long adopted a zero tolerance policy to all acts of terrorism, particularly in the wake of the events of 9/11 in the United States. Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Resolutions and Conventions against terrorism. The Federal Government has domesticated various UN Resolutions and Conventions against terrorism through the passage of the Terrorism Act 2006.
Regarding your allegation above, the two people, who were alleged then in 2007 to belong to an Al-Qaeda cell, and consequently arrested by Nigeria’s State Security Service operatives, were incontrovertible victims of a set up. This act was unfortunate and unpatriotic an should be discouraged by all peace loving Nigerians. It was clearly an isolated incident that has no support anywhere in Nigeria and should not be blown out of proportion.
Question 10: The Nigerian President, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua lamented that Nigeria was not invited to the recent G”) Meeting held at the Excel Facility Centre in London and wondered where the country had gone wrong! Your Excellency, what is your view on our exclusion from that Summit?
Answer: Like President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had stated, the exclusion of Nigeria from that April 2009 London Summit of the G-20 was indeed saddening and disappointing. There are obvious reasons for these feelings. First, as the biggest country democratically and politically in Africa, the exclusion meant that we were deemed yet to quality for membership of the G-20. Second, unlike before, we were not even considered to attend the Summit in our previous status of an observer, a pointer indeed.
However, let us all take consolation in the fact that our exclusion from that Summit was a blessing in disguise. Firsts, we were in effect told unreservedly that we needed to get all our national development acts, namely, vision, plan, budget, politics, economy, governance, reputation, image, foreign policy and relations, etc, together. Second, every Nigerian leader and follower should be prepared to bite the bullet now in order to achieve the objectives of Vision 20-2020. What we require to achieve its laudable objectives are self-discipline, strong national political will and patriotism. Having said these, I must add that the US President has the prerogative to choose which country he would like to visit. We should not belly-ache unnecessarily over that. I am confident, sooner than later, the new US President will visit Nigeria in seeking to strengthen, deepen and widen relations with our country.
Question 11: How would Your Excellency like your tenure of office at the Court of St James’s to be remembered?
Answer: With all sense of sincerity and humility, I would want my tenure of office at the Court of Saint James’s to be remembered for five important things. These are:
i) The promotion and protection of Nigeria’s national interest, including, the interest of all Nigerians in the United Kingdom, irrespective of shades of opinion, status, religion and ethnic origin.
ii) The promotion of cordial and warm diplomatic and consular relations with my host country, the United Kingdom.
iii) Immigration and Consular reforms and enhanced Service delivery in these areas.
iv) Leaving the High Commission, including the physical structures, operations and methods, better than I met it.
v) To elevate Nigeria’s economic relations with the United Kingdom to the same, if not higher level of political relations, so that Nigerians can reap greater economic benefits from our country’s relations with the United Kingdom.
Thank you for interviewing me.
Your Excellency, Thank you for your time.