By SKC Ogbonnia
The change agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari has received positive reviews so far from the United States of America. Many American businesses appear ready to take a chance again on Nigeria. But some are beginning to develop cold feet so soon because many tales on Nigeria are still very emblematic of the inept shadow of the immediate past regime.
Perhaps many factors contribute to the bad image, but none has been more annoying than the case of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). For example, the process of obtaining an ordinary Nigerian visa or passport defies common sense. The primary headache is Innovate 1 Services, a maladroit company contracted during the past regime by the NIS to process passport/visa applications. Quite frankly, it is not an overstatement to quip that the old NEPA was by far more efficient. At least Nigerians could easily relate to the voices at the then NEPA. Put differently, besides the prevailing challenges at the Innovate 1 Services, the contractor also has the audacity to outsource the few jobs from a critical component of Nigerian national security to our Indian friends whose relentless brawl with the English language makes a typical Nigerian sound like an Englishman. Yet, millions of our highly qualified citizens roam the streets home and abroad in search of any kind of job.
Make no mistake about it, many would care less if the Innovate 1 Services and its “Oyinbo” staff could provide the desired service. But the reverse is obviously the case here. In fact, nothing seems to work right in that company, from web technology, applications, method of payment, customer service, and what have you. Attorney Stefano Fabeni, the Executive Director, Global Initiatives for Human Rights at Heartland Alliance in Washington, DC, had a first-hand experience and was able to tweet the matter exactly how it belongs: “Applying for #Nigerian visa with Innovate 1 services is a nightmare. They should NOT be allowed to operate in the US.”
As a foreigner, Fabeni’s harrowing account was on visa, but the passport process for our citizens in the USA is even worse. Not only do these fellow Nigerians have to grapple with the Innovate 1 Services system, those who live outside the regions where the embassies or consulates are located incur costs of an average of $1,000 to obtain a common passport. To mitigate the costs, the Nigerian Embassy designed an intelligible intervention programme, whereby passport services are entertained in major cities outside the consulates. However, apart from a potpourri of unprintable details, the intervention programme itself is fraught with two daunting challenges.
First, the exercise is extremely time-consuming in a country where time matters most. The reason offered for this failure is that each consulate office in the USA is equipped with only two Immigration bio-data capturing machines. To that end, a consulate can only afford to lend one machine for interventions, and understandably so, since the other machine must remain at the consulate for its normal operations. Second, the consulate does not seem to have the desired number of staff to contain the type of volume usually generated from the passport interventions.
A good case in point is a recent passport intervention conducted from February 19 through 22, 2016 in Houston by the Nigerian Consulate in Atlanta. Over 1,000 Nigerians applied and showed up at the venue. Although the consulate staff had to work over 15 hours per day, only less than 400 of the applications were captured by the lone machine. The majority had to go home dispirited, wondering why simple things are made difficult once associated with their native country. And you cannot fault the frustrations. In the attempt to obtain ordinary passports, these fellow Nigerians had to take off from work to queue in line for days only to end up empty-handed. Even when the passports are finally processed, it takes anywhere from four to eight weeks before they are received by the applicants.
The most mind-boggling is that Nigeria does not have a permanent consular post in the Texas/Oklahoma region. For those unfamiliar with the American geography, the area under review is similar in size to the entire Nigeria and features big cities, such as Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Oklahoma City. More notably, the area includes Houston, a city recognised by the US State Department as boasting the largest concentration of Nigerians in America. Moreover, Houston is the energy capital of the world, with a hive of Oil and Gas businesses tailor-made for Nigerian investment.
Buhari’s vision on foreign investment requires a holistic approach—targeting foreigners as well as Nigerians in the Diaspora. It does not require a clairvoyant to discern that these Diaspora-based Nigerians, who have been remitting home an average of $21 billion per year, actually hold the key to foreign investment into our country. To start with, they are highly vested in the different nations and serve as unsung ambassadors in their respective fields. Furthermore, most of them are nearing the retirement age and are pondering whether to invest at home or abroad. Best of all, their foreign-born children, most of who are also highly placed in different societies, are naturally eager to explore opportunities in the African country. Yet, while their parents might have been used to the “Nigerian factor”, the younger generation expects better.
The way forward is not too complicated. The change agenda of President Buhari must also be rooted in the government agencies that implement his policies. This case requires professionalising—without any delay—the NIS services in the United States of America in line with international best practices. Very importantly, the government should ensure that the Nigerian consulates in the USA are strategically located, easily accessible, and fully equipped with adequate and competent staff, the desired number of bio-data capturing machines, and ready passport/visa booklets. First impression truly matters. The very few who venture to explore opportunities in Nigeria ought to have good stories to tell, beginning from the processes of traveling to the country.
SKC Ogbonnia can be reached on SKCOgbonnia@firsttexasenergy.com