We cannot, and shall not, as a nation, condone foreign governments shortchanging our nationals and at the same time making a pretentious public show of friendship towards us. That aggregates to adding salt to an injury.

Why President Buhari and NASS must act quickly to save Nigerians in Niger Republic.

Five years ago, President Buhari promised Nigerians a country they could be proud of. It is a matter of pride that so early into his second term of office, he is in theory and practice living up to that promise.

It is therefore apt to start this piece by congratulating Nigerians for the air of freedom and sense of nationalism creeping back into our psyche. The image of Chief Allen Onyema, the patriotic owner of Air Peace getting emotional when he heard Nigerians in unison singing the National Anthem on their way back from South Africa to Nigeria is one that should not be forgotten in a hurry.

For the first time in the life of most Nigerians, they now know they have a country that can protect them. President Muhammadu Buhari has made this possible with his intervention in South Africa, a country whose nationals (or many of them) are taking Nigerians for granted, and who have been shortchanging and killing Nigerians, obviously because they felt the authorities in Nigeria would hardly bat an eyelid.

Successive administrations have sadly left Nigerians in South Africa to suffer all sorts of degradations, to the extent that they have been reduced to slaves or something worse in that country.

But it is not only South Africa that is guilty. Some of Nigeria’s next-door neighbours, especially Niger Republic, are guilty of even worse form of xenophobia against Nigerians, more so our business men and women. What makes the case of Niger Republic even worse is the fact that the xenophobic tendencies are being exhibited by the authorities, led by no less a person than the president of that country, Mahamadou Issoufou, ironically a man who makes a public show of love for Nigeria.

The relationship between Niger Republic and Nigeria dates back through the ages. In Nigeria, especially the northern plank, inter-marriages between nationals of the two nations are common place. Except for a few instances, administrations before the current one of Issoufou have played their part very responsibly, so much that the nationals of the two countries see themselves as one and the same. The level of integration was that deep.

But the story has changed since the advent of the Issoufou administration, which has been taking advantage of the fact that first, not many people would believe the story that Niger Republic is antagonistic to Nigeria (given the depth of the relationship between the two nations), and secondly, knowing that most of the people being cheated would hardly take their case to Nigerian authorities or the media.

But there comes a time in the life of pretenders when their cup runs full. Gradually, the Nigerian media is getting to know what is happening, and the authorities here are coming to grasp with the heavy damage being perpetrated against Nigerians in Niger Republic. It is important to reiterate here that the relationship between most citizens of Niger Republic and Nigerians is still very cordial. The problem is mostly restricted to the government of the day in that country, in sharp contrast to South Africa where the citizens are the ones exhibiting unprecedented hatred on Nigerians, with their government watching idly by.

God so kind, the Nigerian media has always come to the aid of anyone that is cheated. On January 11, for example, one of the most respected newspapers in Nigeria, The Nation, published a story entitled “How Niger Republic Can Influence Nigeria’s Presidential Election.” On the same day, the respected Daily Trust published its own version, entitled “How Niger Republic Undermines Nigeria’s Interest.” A day earlier, Blueprint newspaper did the same. And a day later, another influential newspaper, Leadership, came up with a strong Editorial in which it drew the attention of Nigerian authorities to the reality of how our people are being cheated by the authorities of Niger Republic. It is obviously to ward off the suspicion that the Issoufou administration was set to play a negative role against the re-election of President Buhari (who ensures accountability in monies granted to Niger Republic) that the governors of Maradi and Zander were, against diplomatic protocol, dispatched to Kano to partake in the presidential campaign of President Buhari just a few days to the election.

Excerpts from the Leadership editorial, entitled, “Niger’s Treat of Nigeria;s Businessmen” are as follows:

“Recent reports in the media indicating that authorities in Nigeria’s neighbour, Niger, are shortchanging Nigerians doing business in its shores are, to say the least, disturbing.

“Several reports have been cited of this unexpected behaviour, but the one that readily comes to mind, and which has been most reported about, is that of a Nigerian company, Architeam Group Niaport SA, which was assigned the contract of airport expansion in Niamey, the capital of Niger Republic.

“The company, believing the government of Niger Republic was acting in good faith, spent millions of dollars in feasibility studies, environmental impact analysis, soil tests, payment of technical partners from Germany, salaries, air tickets, etc.

“No sooner had it accomplished that major task than the administration of Mahamadou Issoufou suddenly, and without prior notice, revoked the contract and awarded it to another company.

“Although the terms of the contract clearly stated that three letters of warning must be served the Nigerian company in the event of any breach of the contract on its part, no such letter was served. Even when such letters are written, the agreement clearly states that compensation must be paid to the Nigerian company, but none of that was adhered to by the government of Niger Republic.

“A clear indication that all is not well in the way and manner the country treats Nigeria is the seeming disdain with which the current government of the country holds the Buhari administration.

“Thus far, all entreaties on the part of the ministers of justice and foreign affairs of Nigeria since last year have fallen on deaf ears. At one time around July last year, even President Muhammad’s Buhari personally intervened and appealed to his Nigerien counterpart, but to no avail.

“Though President Buhari has almost always honoured all invitations extended to him by the Issoufou administration and has been very forthcoming in extending all diplomatic courtesies and assistance to that nation, there are elements within that government who feel Nigeria under Buhari is not being as generous as it used to be under its predecessors in terms of financial assistance to their country.

“Whereas, for example, other administrations will use such aid as a pretext for self-enrichment, the era of accountability and probity enthroned by President Buhari has ensured that all such monies earmarked for assistance diplomatically extended to neighboring countries reach their destination in full, with no kickbacks. Notably too, the resource available to the Buhari administration to engage in such doleouts are incomparable to those before him, with the country not fully recovered from an economic recession. Sadly, some elements in the Issoufou administration seem to misconstrue that as meanness.”

The Editorial went on to call on the authorities in Nigeria to rise to the occasion and do everything to defend the interest of Nigerians earning their livelihood in any country, and concluded as follows:

“For Nigeria, and particularly the Buhari administration, it is time to assertively apply the full range of the nation’s diplomatic influence to protect the rights and legitimate endeavours of its citizens, especially in countries that have benefited from our generosity in the past or present.”

Presently, the Nigerian company cited in the Leadership newspaper editorial is enmeshed in deep crisis, with debts piling up, owing to the unethical act of wickedness by the authorities of Niger Republic. The German company, Faraport, has already taken the Nigerian company to court, claiming damages. So also a local company in Niger called Belt. Worse of all, they do this in a manner that tends to destroy the reputation of Nigeria, as the emphasis has always been that “NIGERIANS have cheated us” when they make reference to the matter.

What makes the whole thing one of the grandest scams of the century is that the authorities in Niger Republic took the feasibility study and other documents of Architeam and handed them over to a Turkish company that it unilaterally gave the airport construction to. It took the Nigerian company three years, using experts in our shores and other places, to develop some of the findings, particularly the technical reports. If Niger Republic had paid the company, this could be excused. But it has not done so. It rather keeps making life even more difficult for the Nigerian company, just as it does for several others. And the Turkish company is now smiling to the bank, reaping hugely from where it did not sow, on the sweat and blood of others.

Nigeria’s ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs have written countless letters asking Niger Republic to play its part by paying compensation to Architeam, but hardly does Niger Republic under Issoufou respond to letters from Nigeria. Where they do so, it is to deceive Nigeria into believing they are taking action on the matter raised.

For example, in a recent letter written and sent to Niger by Nigeria’s minister of justice and attorney general of the FFederation, Nigeria expressed her disappointment on a number of things. First, it mentioned the Niamey meeting of May 5-6, during which the Niger delegation complained that the documents and claims submitted by the company in question for consideration were not made available to it in good time. Consequently, the meeting was postponed for two months, with a view to enabling the complainants to forward, without delay, all relevant documents, as requested by the delegation of Niger Republic, on the one hand, and to afford the government of Niger to study them deeply, on the other.

All the necessary documents were submitted through diplomatic channels to the Republic of Niger. The promise was to reconvene the meeting after two months. Such is the disdain with which the current administration in Niger Republic holds Nigeria that almost five months later, it has not called for a resumption of the meeting, nor stated any reason for its blatant refusal.

Several such meetings have either held or been postponed by Niger on very flimsy grounds. The administration deploys delay tactics to buy time, and to make the authorities in Nigeria get tired and hand off the matter, clearly because it is an unethical player who has nothing with which to defend itself. And it does not have the decency to admit where it is wrong and simply pay off the agreed compensation and as well treat other business people fairly.

Such has been the attitude of Niger Republic in the way and manner it relates with Nigeria, not just in this particular case, but virtually every other matter, provided it is not to do with the vested interest of the current administration in that country.

It is heartwarming that a major newspaper in Niger Republic, L’evenement, has joined others in that country to place this matter on the front burner and to warn that the ill treatment of Nigerian businessmen by the Niger authorities is capable of causing a diplomatic row between the two countries. This is even more so now that Nigeria no longer folds its hands and allow its citizens to be cheated.

Every Nigerian should be proud seeing the comptroller general of the Nigerian Customs Service, Colonel Hamid Ali, on a visit to the Nigeria-Niger border in Maigatari, last week, reiterating the fact that Nigeria will not reopen its borders with Niger Republic unless that country and other neighbours give irrevocable assurance that it will not resume the destruction of Nigeria’s economy by allowing all manner of illegal and dangerous items to be smuggled through it.

The Buhari administration will equally do well to investigate widespread allegations that the Niger border is being used by bandits to smuggle arms and ammunition from Libya and other places, with which kidnapoing and other crimes are perpetrated in Nigeria, thereby giving the Buhari administration a bad name. Even local newspapers in Niger have been writing about arms trafficking and money laundering, with some officials of that country being fingered. The country has also opened up its shores to all manner of foreign military bases, in a manner that suggests a direct threat to Nigeria.

Nigeria is also urged to renegotiate with, especially our West African neighbours, the proposed eco currency that is likely to be taken up in 2020. No one is suggesting that our country should operate solo. But it needs to be highly watchful to ensure it does not end up being used or taken advantaged of.

With the successful intervention of the Nigeria governmentn in South Africa, the Buhari administration is strongly urged to take a strong stance against any country, no matter how weak or strong, that undermines the interest of Nigerians.

As for Niger Republic, there are several of such cases that cry for the government’s quick intervention.

The National Assembly also has a key role to play in protecting the interests of Nigerians wherever they may be. If some of our people are guilty of crimes of any sort, let them be dealt with in accordance with the laws of that country. But our compatriots doing legitimate businesses and other pursuits must be accorded protection.

We cannot, and shall not, as a nation, condone foreign governments shortchanging our nationals and at the same time making a pretentious public show of friendship towards us. That aggregates to adding salt to an injury.

Suleiman Uba Gaya is the Vice President (North) of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.