By Tonnie Iredia
Following an executive order on immigration made at the beginning of the year, by the new US President, Donald Trump, the country’s immigration service allegedly became more aggressive creating anxiety for some travellers. Initially, Nigerians believed they were not likely to be hurt by the plan not just because its enforcement was blocked by federal courts but because the revised order did not include Nigeria among the seven countries on the target list. Unfortunately, some Nigerians have reportedly been refused entry without reasons. The development should ordinarily have bothered the handlers of our foreign affairs, but that was not exactly the case. It became the lot of concerned Nigerians in the Diaspora to fill the gap. Two influential Nigerian community associations in the U.S. the Nigerian Lawyers Association and the Organisation for the Advancement of Nigeria (OAN) were the first to act. Having found that some U.S. law enforcement officials had become overzealous with extreme vetting since the roll out of the travel order and were sometimes going beyond their Constitutional bound, the groups organized sensitization programmes for Nigerians who have relatives travelling to the U.S.
The programmes revealed a number of rights. First, that a security officer does not have the right to ask unnecessary questions from travelers. Second, that the law prescribes that no one can be delayed for more than six hours. So if after six hours of arrival of the relevant flight, people do not see their relatives, then they should immediately meet immigration attorneys to file for their release. Third, that some Nigerian attorneys had volunteered to be part of the Legal Aid Society who can easily come to the aid of any Nigerian stranded at the airports. The proactive Nigerian patriotic groups were neither being confrontational nor were they questioning the executive orders; instead, they were bothered by what they termed “unintended consequences of inappropriate questioning.” Meanwhile, both the Nigerian Embassy in the US and our foreign affairs ministry did not appear to be aware of the development let alone to seek to stop the humiliation of any Nigerian.
In due course, those adversely affected formally sent complaints to Abike Dabiri- Erewa, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Matters. They complained that although they had valid visas, they were denied entry to the US and sent back to Nigeria on the next available flights. Dabiri-Erewa having received no less than four cases in 2 weeks advised Nigerians who had no “compelling or essential reasons to visit the US to consider delaying their trip until there is clarity in the new immigration policy.” Less than 24 hours later, Godfrey Onyema, our foreign affairs minister fiercely faulted Erewa’s position. At a news conference on the subject, the minister said: “On the issue of Nigerians being turned back from the US, this is not the case. I have reached out to the US Ambassador to Nigeria and the country’s high level officials who said nothing of such had happened. If the Nigerian government is speaking on any external relations, you will hear it from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Office of the President. I can tell you to ignore the advice to reconsider travelling to the US because there is no basis for that.”
Nigeria in our view was worse off with the minister’s supposed clarification on the subject. To start with, he didn’t say anything substantive about the issue at stake. Instead he was more interested in the territorial defence of his ministry. When asked by the media to define the functions of the office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign affairs and Diaspora matters, he didn’t say. If so, how did he know what the office could not do? The claim that US officials also disagreed with Erewa does not prove that undue humiliation of Nigerians did not happen; the US officials were probably defending their country. Otherwise how do we explain the case of one Femi Olaniyi who was reportedly deported on the 21 of February 2017, from his point of entry in Los Angeles? Femi said he was put in a cold cell and held for 4 days and that his phones were seized making it impossible for him to have access to his family or anyone else. Another Nigerian, Francis Adekola, who narrated his own travel ordeal to Punch newspapers, said he was detained for over 10 hours before he was placed on an aircraft and returned to Abuja via Johannesburg.
The most irritating rationalization of the deportation allegations is the minister’s argument that the story could not have been true because the Nigeran Ambassador to the US was unaware of the reports. If a Nigerian was not allowed to enter the US at all, how does such a citizen reach our Ambassador? Besides, what we have in the US or anywhere else are not viable foreign missions but some proliferated structures here and there described as embassies, consulates and high commissions. Even when Nigeria was not in recession they always faced a lot of embarrassment for their inability to resolve basic challenges like settling ordinary electricity and telephone bills. At a point the irrepressible Ojo Madueke of blessed memory told our House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Policy that in New York “we have a mission where the Ambassador’s car would have to be pushed on the road in an important capital in the world.” Thus, we see as instructive, the statement by our own President, Muhammadu Buhari a few months back that “there is no point keeping embassies all over the world with dilapidated and demoralised staff.” Who can such people help?
Nigerians can therefore not relate with our foreign missions until they are transformed – a job we assumed Onyema was brought in to do instead of getting engaged in territorial squabbles. Indeed, if his ministry was proactive, there would have been no vacuum for anyone else to seek to fill. Besides, our minister should not echo such rationalization as that Nigerians deported may have had personal problems; rather he is expected to take great pains to investigate and remedy any allegation of inhuman treatment meted on any Nigeria even if it is just one citizen.