By Muyiwa Adetiba
I own a green passport. In the days around Independence, this I was told, was a great privilege. A story was told to me—and I can vouch for its authenticity—by a man who was a student in England at the time of our Independence. He was to travel to a couple of European countries for some projects and a UK passport would have meant a visa free, and therefore a hassle free travel. But he declined.
He wanted it known that he was a Nigerian and a proud and sovereign one even if it entailed the inconvenience of having to get a couple of visas. That was what independence did to Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora. It swelled their hearts and filled them with indescribable pride. Many there were, who dumped their UK passports as soon as the Nigerian passports became available to them.
Many people who travelled abroad at that time went mainly for the Golden Fleece. Very few went for business or pleasure, and soon as the business of studying was over, they came straight home. Those who stayed behind to form the core of the first generation of Nigerian born British were those who were too ashamed to come home without the proverbial Golden Fleece: not that they were ashamed of Nigeria.
Nigeria was a decent country with a decent and a bright future. The green passport at the time represented that decency and hope. I became an adult during the oil boom and was a first hand witness to the swagger that went with it. The oil wealth meant Nigerians could now travel in droves for business and pleasure. Those who had scrimped and slaved to get through college education in Europe, especially in the UK now went back to buy houses and live big.
I was on an inaugural flight with a prominent Nigerian in the middle 70s. He was one of those who studied abroad, came back and became a major beneficiary of the oil boom and Indigenization Decree which handed foreign companies to some Nigerians on a platter of gold. I was right behind him at the point of entry and he let it be known during the course of the interview that he owned a home in an exclusive part of London.
He was asked how long he was going to stay and he said ‘until I am broke’ confidently and loudly enough for many of us to hear. The officer smiled sheepishly and stamped the passport. That was Nigeria in the 70s when the green passport meant wealth. It also unfortunately, signaled the decline of our values. We became boisterous, loud and prodigal. Each time we took over a club or a restaurant with our noise and swagger, the most often asked question was ‘where are you guys from?’
to which we answered proudly ‘we are from Nigeria’. We expected looks of envy from the waiters and onlookers; gradually, these however became sniggers of derision at our lack of taste. Those were the days when we took cabs to Oxford Street of all places and asked them to wait while we went shopping. These were some of the things we did that even the richest and most stupid Englishman would not do.
Apart from the crawling speed which made walking more sensible, Oxford Street is always so awash with cabs that there is never a need to retain one. I once witnessed a Nigerian who liked a particular pair of shoes that he bought all the colours on offer. Of course the attendant was happy and offered champagne but I cringed where I was because it was not a compliment to our taste or sensibility.
Gradually, the green passport became symbols of irresponsibility, licentiousness and even fraud as many Nigerians in an attempt to continue living big, abandoned the traditional work ethics for which our forefathers were known, for lives of crime. Places where just showing the green passport used to suffice now wanted to screen Nigerian travelers. We also became the first set of countries to require visas in order to visit other commonwealth countries.
I suffered what I consider humiliations at least twice on account of the green passport in the 80s. The first was when I was travelling on a one-hour trip from France to Germany, and was probably the only black on board. The fellow passengers hardly broke their strides as they flashed their passports and walked through immigration. When it was my turn and my green passport came out, I was asked to step aside while those behind me walked through.
I became very noticeable in a very humiliating way. The second was in Bangkok, Thailand where I was flying to Europe. My hand luggage was a pilot case which I considered to be very cute at the time. But the officer who was checking me in thought otherwise. For reasons best known to him, he thought it had a false bottom and was going to rip it apart until I pointed out that the pilot case was sitting on studs.
I also made it clear that he would bear the full cost of an immediate replacement. Ordinarily, the fact that I was travelling business class should have earned me some respect. But I had to insist on seeing a superior officer in addition to an apology. Oh! the descent of the green passport.
But the free fall of the green passport came when our leaders—military and civilian—decided on massive corruption which brought disrespect and odium to every carrier of the green passport. Some of the leaders were even placed on travel restrictions because of their untoward activities in government.
We fell from being a sleeping giant to a comatose one. Now the swagger is long gone and when people ask ‘where are you from?’ many try to avoid answering the question. Many with dual passports claim American or British citizenships.
Yet Nigerians have every reason to be proud of their country. It has abundant, and the key word is abundant, human and natural resources. It has a people with a ‘can do’ spirit. We can very easily be one of the most prosperous countries in the world. But first, we need to get rid of the class system. We need to get rid of the rent seeking elite. We need to get rid of government by patronage and run a truly inclusive government that recognizes neither religion nor tribe. Only merit.
As we celebrate another National Independence, let us as a people think of how we missed the turning. Let us remind our religious and ethnic warlords that all they have done is promote mediocrity and divisions. The task to bring our green passport to its pre-eminent positions will require the collective goodwill of every Nigerian. It can be done.