Rehabilitating Nigeria’s Image Abroad and The Closing of Embassies, By Charles Anyiam
It is common knowledge that Nigerian diplomatic missions abroad, like most of the country’s other public services, have been poorly run. And for years. The sadder aspect of this problem is that we have needlessly maintained more embassies and consulates than you can shake a stick at. The idea behind this profligacy I believe, was masterminded by those who wished the world to believe that Nigeria is a rich nation. A veritable lie, all by itself. The saddest part of this grand hype however, is that our missions abroad have been nothing short of a national calamity, in terms of the quality of services which they provide.
To me, the recent announcement that the Buhari government was considering closing some of these missions due to lack of funds from slumping oil prices finally beams the searchlight on a sector of our national life that has not only under-served Nigeria but has been a cesspool of inefficiency and executive ineptitude. For the records, Nigeria’s diplomatic service has not been spared the same malaise that have dogged other agencies – political patronage, nepotism, ethnocentrism, unprofessionalism and of course, corruption.
And for those who have had the misfortune of dealing with our officials abroad, their experiences range from the horrible to the absurd. Tales of bribery and such under-handed practices are rife. Not to talk of the rude and highly unmotivated officials who man these missions. And you begin to wonder why we keep the doors of these missions open at all, and at the tax payer’s expense.
In diplomatic circles around the world, I am told of Nigerian officials who are notorious for their tardiness and such other undiplomatic conducts. They arrive late at public functions and leave early. And in the grapevine, rumors fly all over the place about how this or that official is a product of godfatherism.
I was once told of this ambassador (name withheld) who most likely belonged to the right cabal (and with the right godfather) and whose habit of showing up in his office only when there was a dignitary visiting from home was well known. As a result, phones are left unanswered, calls are hardly returned, there are tonnes of unreplied emails, and files on matters of utmost importance that are left untreated, since his personal staff lacked proper oversight.
The distressing experiences of many Nigerian citizens living abroad in the hands of Nigerian embassy and consulate staff over the years, which I have heard, will make one weep for Nigeria. When in distress, you will expect a Nigerian overseas to seek assistance from our embassy. Right? Not so. Those who have dared approach some of our missions for the kind of help to which they are legally entitled have scars to show for the dehumanising treatments meted to them by officials. In contrast, stories of
embassy staff who jostle and run around the “Big Man” and his wife or mistress visiting from home abound in most of our missions abroad. Years ago, I was made aware of the salacious details of how these two female officers at one of our major embassies came close to blows over who should minister to a particular high-level politician during his short stay in town.
…with the beating that Nigeria’s image has taken over time, any and all of our missions abroad must be structured to function at 21st century standards. Digitalisation of all processes must be in full bloom while sceintifically-tested marketing and image-making tactics must be employed to address Nigeria’s image problems.
On their part, embassy staff have complained about working under tremendous pressure – delays in the payment of their salaries, allowances, and such other entitlements, plus other forms of indignities. Some of them are said to work under constant threats of being fired or “sent back to Nigeria” for trivialities and sometimes for fickle reasons. I am also personally aware of a career foreign service officer who was hounded for years and subjected to bouts of sexual harassments by her superiors until she could take it no more and had to quit! Today, she works for a well known international agency in one of the major cities in the world.
In announcing the plan to close some of the embassies, President Buhari said: “Let’s keep only what we can manage. We can’t afford much for now. There’s no point pretending.” He then told foreign ministry officials that there was no point keeping embassies “all over the world with dilapidated and demoralised staff.” He also announced that a committee will be set up to review all Nigerian embassies to determine those that are essential.
If that is to be, here are my thoughts on this rather crucial matter. I believe that the larger task here is how we can successfully run the existing ones. And with the beating that Nigeria’s image has taken over time, any and all of our missions abroad must be structured to function at 21st century standards. Digitalisation of all processes must be in full bloom while sceintifically-tested marketing and image-making tactics must be employed to address Nigeria’s image problems.
The era of of staffing our missions abroad with all sorts of characters, some of who are beneficiaries of the rotten system of political patronage and such other selfish connivances must stop. As we all know or may not know, some of Nigeria’s best and brightest are sojourning abroad and are daily faced with the sceptre of humiliation in board rooms, offices and workplaces because of the horrible image that Nigeria cuts abroad.
Many deals have been lost just because the player is Nigerian. That is how bad the problem with our image abroad has become. As a far as I am concerned, the problem with the image of Nigeria is far more dire than Boko Haram and the rest of them. Arguably.
Nigerian embassies abroad must be re-positioned and armed with the tools to engage world opinion. That requires re-training. We must do away with the lazy style of always defending the indefensible. A more pro-active approach will do. That means that we must first define how we want to be seen by the rest of the world. We must formulate a national selling point (NSP) and go on a marketing offensive. In this campaign, we must emphasise image re-enforcement and the projection of what we have that others don’t. And we have lots of such.
I believe that Nigeria finally chucked up some invaluable amount of goodwill from the election of President Muhammadu Buhari which if properly exploited could lead to the reversal of the sad image of our country as we mull the idea of where and how to scale down on our diplomatic presence around the world.
This campaign must not be a rehash or a reminder of the Dora Akunyili experiment that amounted to nothing more than a storm in a tea cup. Not because Dora’s intention was not nobly conceived but that the campaign under her watch was so unprofessionally executed and primed. Dora made her mark for Nigeria as head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). Not as Information minister. Let’s get it clear. The arena for this type of campaign which I envisage should be in the global market place of ideas where images are made and unmade. It cannot be Nigeria based. On the ground, what is needful is a national re-orientation complete with a series of town hall meetings between the elected and the governed. A subject for another day.
Over the years, I have watched how countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia, Uganda, South Africa etc., with less potentials and opportunities than Nigeria, have criss-crossed the United States almost every year on road shows designed to sell their countries to Americans. The result has been an attraction of huge amounts of tourism dollars and traffic, with investment interests into the economies of these countries.
I must say that I have been fortunate to sit on the boards and committees that have worked to sell these countries to America, and I know that it is not rocket science.
While we close some of the non-viable embassies, a move that I wholeheartedly support, we must consider the opening of new ones and the re-structuring of old ones. In opening new ones, location is a hugely important factor in making these decisions. I suggest that new ones should be located in countries with potentials to bring us investments, and those with large and productive Nigerian Diaspora communities. For instance, I think it is absolutely imperative that Nigeria re-opens its consulate in America’s West Coast, which remains home to some of the largest long haul Africa travel, tourism and investment markets. For the records, Nigeria once had a presence in San Francisco with a consulate which was closed some years ago. However, I believe that in today’s business climate, it makes sound business sense to have a mission in such a metro as Los Angeles which is the second largest media market in the world after New York, and the entertainment capital of the world. Los Angeles as the epicentre of America’s West, a region that is home to at least a million Nigerians who live and work in the states of Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, and of course, California deserves an official Nigerian presence.
And when you consider that countries such as Angola, South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia maintain full service missions in Los Angeles as to underscore the importance of this city and invariably this region to their economies, it is almost preposterous that Nigeria has no official presence in that exceedingly important city, and part of the world.
Talking of Ehiopia. I still recoil in embarrasment the day – June 20 – when I joined a group of US and Ethiopian officials and community leaders to watch an Ethiopian Airlines’ 787 jumbo jet touch down at the Tom Bradley International Airport to mark the commencement of a regular thrice-a-week flight from Addis Ababa to America’s West Coast, thus making African aviation history as Ethiopian Airlines became the first African carrier to fly directly from the continent to the Western part of the United States, an honour I believe should have belonged to Nigeria. On that ocassion, I even caught myself curse at the visionless leadership that Nigeria has been so unfairly made to endure all these years, as I watched in envy my Ethiopian friends and hosts break into a song-and-dance out in jubilation.
On the sunnyside however, I believe that Nigeria finally chucked up some invaluable amount of goodwill from the election of President Muhammadu Buhari which if properly exploited could lead to the reversal of the sad image of our country as we mull the idea of where and how to scale down on our diplomatic presence around the world.
That is my story. And I stand by it.
By Charles Anyiam is Editor-In-Chief, The African Times-USA.