Itinerant Nigerians

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

It is almost always true that when abroad and you sight a black man, it is well worth taking the risk that the person is Nigerian. You’d be surer if in response to polite entreaties, the passerby is deliberately snubbish. It depends on the setting though. Wait long enough, there would soon be the occasional irritation, the response to which would almost definitely confirm his origins. One out of every five blacks on planet earth is Nigerian. And no matter how much he feigns the perfect British or American accent, his archetypal Nigerian mannerisms are hard to conceal. Some argue we travel a lot because of our chaotic situation back home. Not necessarily. Yes, a lot seek the good life. Most are just curious. But a lot really travel just to show off. Take away the pictures of them at popular foreign landmarks, showing how ‘they are enjoying life,” some Nigerians might consider the trips a waste of money. Even the uber wealthy ones want to show how much ‘jollofing’ they are doing, posting pictures of themselves in their first or business class plane cabins or seats on social media. And these are the ‘small boys’. Big boys fly their private jets, with our stolen foreign exchange neatly tucked in their luggage it turns out – pictures of their vanity never include those for sure. You’d think with that much wealth they wouldn’t need the phony gratifications that soon pour afterwards. Nigerians are very curious and vain cats. We want to know: Where is it? What is it? What do they do there? Who runs things? (That curiosity, unfortunately, has not extended to science, innovation and progress. And it is not because of a lack of capacity for hard work. We are rarely slothful. In that vanity that we all seem to share perhaps lie the answer to our continued suffering, well-hidden under forced but outwardly believable smiles.)

Act, not bicker
So, imagine the anxiety of itinerant Nigerians when the nightmarish campaign promises of now American president, Donald Trump – especially on immigration – began to become reality. In the typical Nigerian fashion, our officials – when they are not busy behaving like we don’t exist – took to bickering over jurisdiction. The presidential adviser (‘senior special assistant’) on foreign affairs and the diaspora, the ever dynamic Abike Dabiri-Erewa – whose long-earned reputation for candour and palpable compassion from her days as a government-employed journalist is well-known – in her characteristic way, took to her first constituency, the media, advising Nigerians to re-consider non-essential travel to America, after a number of Nigerians were detained upon arrival at American airports and subsequently returned; even as they had valid visas.

You would think the Nigerian foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, a meek personality, would be a little pleased. He was not amused. Ordinarily, there is usually a power-play of sorts between presidential advisers and ministers. In most cases, the advisers prevail; because they often have the mandate of the chief of staff, who functionally acts for the president in most administrations. One does not know if Mrs Dabiri-Erewa consulted Mr Onyeama before going on air about her concerns. Bear in mind, the American incidents came not too long after the most recent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians by South Africans. Considering how slow the wheel of governance turns in the public service, I would not be surprised at all if what actually transpired was that the no-nonsense Mrs Dabiri-Erewa finally lost her patience. And quite frankly, she is a more credible figure. After spending an entire career exposing untruths, advice coming from her is instantly credible. By his own admission to a local radio station, Mr Onyeama did not have a conference with her before his ministry issued a counter-advisory asking Nigerians to ignore her advice. The stakes are much too high for such pettiness. Mr Onyeama is a gentleman. But leadership requires dynamism as well.

Between getting an American visa, purchasing a ticket and so on, a Nigerian would have parted with at least a million naira (more than US$3,000), never mind the unbelievable stress in between. And upon getting to the American airport, the Nigerian typically has to endure myriad questions by security officials. With the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance, however, this scrutiny has taken on gargantuan proportions. So is the Nigerian better served by being told to travel only just to be served the bitterness of the many indignities Africans tend to endure at foreign airports? Or is it better to wait till one is sure all that toil ahead of the trip would not come to naught at just the time when one was beginning to sing praises? Surely it makes more sense for Mr Onyeama to focus on addressing the latter concern.

Give more than hope
There are numerous tales of woe by Nigerians, who upon reaching a foreign airport, are made to go through all sorts of screening. And this scrutiny is even more enhanced in Asian airports. Some candour here though. It is said Asians have difficulty differentiating African faces, hence why if you land in a Chinese airport, say, they single out Africans for more ‘enlightening’ pictures. At least that was my experience at the Shanghai airport some years back. Most Nigerians would ordinarily bear this (not that we are left with much of a choice) – as did I – if at the end of it all, with their documents deemed valid, they are allowed to go about their legitimate business. The uncertainty that comes with the possibility that even after all these, one may be ‘returned’ is hard to imagine.

Could it be that Mr Onyeama, a blue-passported minister, has so soon forgotten the experience of what it feels like to be a Nigerian abroad? Perhaps it is true then that not until our leaders compulsorily experience our daily challenges, they might not be more sensitive to our plight: our undeservedly pampered government officials must now ply the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, after the forced closure of the Abuja international airport for repairs. Needless to say, the road has become virtually anew overnight. Regardless of what motivates Mrs Dabiri-Erewa, the passion with which she does her duty is refreshing. Undeterred, she gave South African politicians covertly encouraging xenophobic attacks against Nigerians a piece of her mind only this past weekend. Stars just shine. Those who can’t bear the glare should shut their eyes.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/itinerant-nigerians/

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