A visit to the Nigerian High Commission

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In a recent posting about the annual MANSAG dinner, I promised to share with you the promise made by the High Commissioner of our Federal Republic, His Excellency Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, OFR, MBBS, MRCP, FNMCP, FWACP, former Honourable Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In his usual calm, collected and eloquent nature Dr Tafida spoke passionately about how he tracked down the producers of a film that aired on Channel 4 in the UK “Saving Africa’s Witch Children“. He described his initial skepticism of this film, set in Nigeria, it evolved as he met the producers and understood that their motivation was nothing other than the best interests of our children. (viewing this movie is not for the faint hearted!)


To end his address, he offered his colleagues the opportunity to phone him whenever we needed the services of the consular section of the Nigerian High Commission in order to ease the process for us.

I had an appointment with my family at the Nigerian Consular section a few days later so I thought hard about the High Commisioner’s offer. But in the end….I remembered the words in Achebe’s book, “The Trouble with Nigeria”, which I had coincidentally re-read recently-

“…that precisely is the view which Nigerian elite groups foster in their private and public behaviour. The queue is for the little man, the big man has no use for it”


So…no…I will not take advantage of the privilege of being acquainted to His Excellency, I gathered courage, packed my family and we headed to
9 Northumberland Avenue.

But before that we went to the website – http://www.nigeriahc.org.uk/ Now... this website is a complete disgrace. There is no politically correct way to put it. There are more flying objects on it than you will find airplanes over the skies of Heathrow. Compare this to the excellent website of the Nigerian Immigration Service. Now if you really want to weep, look up the website of the Ghanain High Commision in London. What does it take to put up a decent website in 2009?

When I did manage to navigate my way through the site, and hit the usual stumbling blocks, I decided to call the High Commission on their advertised number of 0207 839 8746. Try it yourself…and enjoy the soothing voice of a prerecorded message giving directions to the High Commission, and opening times. Nothing else. Nothing.
What does it take to answer a phone in 2009?

So..off to # 9 Northumberland Avenue. On the previous day, I had gone physically to the High Commission to find out what documentation I needed before I packed my family for the journey. Then we arrived the next day, bright and early and joined the long queue that forms from 6 am every morning. Not of tourists,businessmen etc, but of Nigerians…Nigerians of all manners, and walks of life looking sad at the prospects of a day of pain.

In the High Commission itself, we were faced with officials, completely out of their depths on how to manage the crowd. Confusion prevailed. “Officials” shouting at the top of their voices. People wondering what queue to join. Toddlers crying, children running around. A TV blaring in the corner, showing a Nigerian production with its volume set at the loudest. We look at each other and seek mutual support. Nobody is smiling. Every single person in the room is looking upset. Upset at a country that treats it citizens like they were irrelevant. Upset that there is apparently nothing we can do about it. We collect our emotions, endure the pain and hang in there. The pictures below tell the story.

Having said all this, it is obvious that those at the embassy are actually working hard to serve to the best of their capacity. BUT the world has moved on, and Nigerians expect that its High Commission moves on too.

Until the new generation banks came on the scene in Nigeria, we thought that getting your money normally required a full day at the bank. Until MTN came to Nigeria, we planned a full day to visit NITEL. We need someone/group with the competence on managing processes to support our High Commission. We also need a few Nigerians that understand what customer service is. It is a pity that the High Commission has a monopoly on the issuance of visas and passports…else we would long have moved on.

Having said this too, I know that Dr Tafida means well. I know he wants the High Commission to work. But he really needs to focus on this issue. Nigerians’ deserve better in the one place they can call home in the UK. For now…all I can think about, are the mothers and their children that struggled up and down the stairs, with their prams and children as they moved from one queue to the next. As I finally got out of the embassy at 3 pm on the day with my family, we made the sign of the cross and thanked God things money can’t buy….the Green Kpale!

But for the website and phone…there is no excuse!

We can do better! We definitely can. Accepting the status quo is accepting that there is something inherently wrong with us. I thought back to my recent experience at the Embassy of Tanzania and how efficiently I was served…

So this is obviously not a resource issue. So if we cannot get our High Commission in London to work, then how can we get our health sector in Nigeria to work. The general feeling at the High Commission amongst the various visa and passport applicants was that there was nothing anyone could do, well this is mirrored in people’s attitudes to the various failures our health sector………..WE CAN DO BETTER….Yes…we can do better Dr Tafida.


http://www.nigeriahealthwatch.com/

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (www.epiafric.com), which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. Most interesting. I started visiting the NHC in 2006, when I first returned to NGR. It was somewhat chaotic as it still is but I hear that prior to that time, it was far worse. What you see now is apparently the aftermath of a cleanup which happened in 2006 0r 2007.

    The website as you mentioned is shameful, the attitude of the staff is even more disgraceful. I don’t believe these guys have ever been trained on customer service. The last time I was there the lady who attended to me was chewing noisily on what appeared to be a scorch egg. I was appalled. The one in charge of payment, when I asked a question, barked a ‘are you paying or not’ to me. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something wrong with me.

    This place is a portal for both Nigerians and non-Nigerians and if the idea was to give people a taste of Nigeria, then I can make bold to say, it is most effective. It left me feeling so sad.

    In all of this, I must say some nigerians that use their services didn’t help matters because they exasperate the staff to no end, seeking shortcuts and asking redundant question BUT it still remains the duty of the staff to remain courteous at all times.

    I like that you noticed how inaccesible it is for people with families, considering it’s hard or impossible to park around that area, you think there’d be a toddlerdisable friendly entrance but oh no!

    Anyway, I am tired of complaining. There must be solutions. Why not get a group of friends to look into their activities and processes and then write a recommendation for improvement. I am interested. It can then be passed on to the high commissioner, that’s a connection well-used. If the government won’t do it, let us start doing it. We want change, let us make change happen.

  2. I really should commend you for this report on the state of affairs at the High Commission- It re-enforces the notion of Hirschman’s exit,voice and loyalty. People must voice their displeasure if we want any organisational changes. You can say the same thing for our High commissions in other big cities like New York and Johannesburg. The staff seem to thrive on the chaos to cook up their own schemes. Why cant we ever organised anything in a civilized fashion. Maybe one needs to take a crash course on organizing to be a liberated Nigerian- no pun intended.

    Dr Umunna

  3. It is really a thing of pity about what we nigerians face abroad in the hands of officials from other developed and developing countries. But it beats my imagination that nigerians also face the same lackadasical attitudes from their fellow nigerians. I would not not have sent in this response, if this incidence happened in nigeria but faraway in UK; it is a pitiable situation.

    Seeing the chaotic lines remind of my working days as a client executive in a custom liecenced agency- where i was interfacing with govt agencies, clients and my firm. Shocking experiences are abound on daily basis. It was a situation where clients [whether agents or importers] are treated with so much arrogance and disdained by NPA AND Custom officials [thank God for the revolution powers of privatisation….NPA is off the big picture]. Having so much crowd in front of them [govt officials] creates an impressing in their sense of judgement, that they working. Forgetting the fact that the global space of ICT provides a client the convince of such service from their comfort zones in other countries.

    You would be surprised that despite all these sufferings of nigerians seeking services from the embassy, the same embassy officials will kick against using modern technology to process services for clients as a measure to ease tension.

    I wonder why we [nigerians] can not embrace dynamism of the contemporary world?!

  4. Where do we start the cleanup?

    Would it be from the general environment? The dirty walls of the damp basement that everyone has to descend into? The dinky, unlit stairs leading into a damp basement of organised chaos? The general disorder of the cramped space that will never pass a health and safety inspection? The airless cauldron in the height of winter that will remind the religious of what hell might be like? Or the dirty toilets that even the professional Nigerian toilet cleaners that are an essential fixture in many a busy club would condemn?

    Maybe we could start with the staff? The rude, abrasive and offhanded manner that you are treated? The condescending manner you are chastised when you have not ‘printed the form from the internet’. Or the way that you are glared at when you are given the option to pay by card or ‘did you not know that you have to but a postal order? Please go away and come back later..? Or might it be with the lack of discrimination when it comes to treating the more vulnerable or giving special consideration to nursing mothers or pregnant women?

    Perhaps we start with ourselves (i.e. the man in the mirror ala MJ). The way that we all seem to revert to our natural state of impatience, jostling to get served quickly and get out alive? The willingness to exploit man-know-man; display our acute sense of self preservation or unearth our petty tribal sentiments. The continuing stoic acceptance of the unpleasant status quo time after time? Or our pre occupation with sorting ourselves out?’ ‘Everyman for himself, God for us all’?

    Or it could be the unhelpful website, which looks dated and difficult to navigate. With pop-ups that would rival many websites selling dodgy get rich schemes. The irritating phone message could step aside as well. Don’t get me started on that!

    Dr Tafida has his work cut out. You could ask him (use your ‘connections’), where does he want to start? Perhaps he should just send out tenders for a contract to ‘rebrand’ the Nigerian High commission. If there are millions to be made in the process, let me know! I might be in the running too! After all, nothing do me!

  5. Where do we start the cleanup?

    Would it be from the general environment? The dirty walls of the damp basement that everyone has to descend into? The dinky, unlit stairs leading into a damp basement of organised chaos? The general disorder of the cramped space that will never pass a health and safety inspection? The airless cauldron in the height of winter that will remind the religious of what hell might be like? Or the dirty toilets that even the professional Nigerian toilet cleaners that are an essential fixture in many a busy club would condemn?

    Maybe we could start with the staff? The rude, abrasive and offhanded manner that you are treated? The condescending manner you are chastised when you have not ‘printed the form from the internet’. Or the way that you are glared at when you are given the option to pay by card or ‘did you not know that you have to but a postal order? Please go away and come back later..? Or might it be with the lack of discrimination when it comes to treating the more vulnerable or giving special consideration to nursing mothers or pregnant women?

    Perhaps we start with ourselves (i.e. the man in the mirror ala MJ). The way that we all seem to revert to our natural state of impatience, jostling to get served quickly and get out alive? The willingness to exploit man-know-man; display our acute sense of self preservation or unearth our petty tribal sentiments. The continuing stoic acceptance of the unpleasant status quo time after time? Or our pre occupation with sorting ourselves out?’ ‘Everyman for himself, God for us all’?

    Or it could be the unhelpful website, which looks dated and difficult to navigate. With pop-ups that would rival many websites selling dodgy get rich schemes. The irritating phone message could step aside as well. Don’t get me started on that!

    Dr Tafida has his work cut out. You could ask him (use your ‘connections’), where does he want to start? Perhaps he should just send out tenders for a contract to ‘rebrand’ the Nigerian High commission. If there are millions to be made in the process, let me know! I might be in the running too! After all, nothing do me!

  6. “Well done people and please keep it up. Service (EXPERIENCE!) Excellence Found. Let us export some of this service home. “ was how I ended my entry about our Embassy in Spain in 2006. That blog still receives the largest number of hits till today. However, people are not just looking for simple information (like location and how to get there?), some have accused me of being in the pay of the FGN.” A visit to the NHC” is a great humbler and as others have pointed out, this is not the branding required to attract help or investors.

    “Welcome to Immigration Central. Please join the queue: your number is 110,001…”, at least The Home Office in Croydon will give you information on where you are and what steps to take. But when you have refugees, dissidents, economic migrants, students and con artists who are none of the above, trying their luck for a better life in Britain, you would need a few phds on people management.

    But how many of our High Commissioners walked the shop floor and known to all? The lessons from NHC mismanagement is that workers matter. Treat them as disposable and they will reply in kind. OGA is supposed to be out there making sure (internal and external customers = all Nigerians abroad) people are treated as guests in our embassy in order to make OFR, MBBS, MRCP, FNMCP, FWACP meaningful.

  7. Beautiful piece…you capture it so well.
    I was visiting the commission here in Dublin a few weeks back as well…terrible. ..

    …run down, broken chairs, smeared walls, the long wait, the querulous, distant “government” officials, the grumbling and discontent of “us”, the suffering and smiling, the noise and lack of order, and yeah, most importantly the imposing, oversized pictures of ours gods – Kema achikwe, ojo maduekwe and Yar’adua hanging on the dirty wall, literally looking down on us mere mortals…
    …and you get that eerie feeling of being back home.
    …you wait, you grumble, then you quarrel, but finally give up…you can’t wait for the nightmare to end, so you can run…

    …then you start thinking…maybe it is in our genes…wondering if you might perhaps find any linkage studies to prove it…maybe cochrane…you cast your mind around our beloved continent… sudan, somalia, south africa, guinea, nigeria, togo…same everywhere.. .you hiss, “BLACK MAN”…

    …4.45pm, you’re finally on your way home, happy the ordeal is ended, wondering when next you’ll need to visit again…heartbroken . pity…

  8. See, everyone has (interesting?) stories but what about the solutions. NHB, what do you propose? What do you intend to do about this? Anyone up for volunteering to do the paint work? We have to do something!

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