Not too long back, perhaps a year or two ago, I had to go to Ottawa to get my passport renewed. It was impossibly cold, and I had come unprepared. My phone was unable to connect to data and so I found my way to the Nigerian High Commission by asking passersby for directions. Upon getting there, I had to wait for several hours. The printer they said was broken, we would have to go buy Canada Post envelopes so they could mail us back our new passports. Someone next to me was at a loss as to what to do. She had come by plane from Calgary and her son only had a passport as his sole government identification. Going back now would be a hassle. The website had said that we could expect to get our passports the same day. On the television screen overhead, advertisements played, interspersed with videos detailing the accomplishments of the High Commission. What should have taken a few hours, took a full day. Thankfully, my cynical mind had planned for this and had bought a return bus ticket for much later in the day. It was a miserable, thankless trip, I hope to never have to repeat.
Almost every Nigerian living in the diaspora, both here in Canada and elsewhere has similar horror stories. Teju Cole’s opening chapter in his debut work Every Day Is for the Thief which traces the return of a Nigerian in the diaspora to Lagos from New York begins with the narrator in the consulate, finding their services lacking. These stories are so ubiquitous that they have become burnished in our popular memory. We take them as given, “na so dem go be, sha we move”. A functional and efficient High Commission has become so rare, that their commonplace dysfunction has become the butt of our private jokes.
High commissions are the variants of consulates and embassies between two countries who are both members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a practice left over from colonial times (thanks Britain!) Like all diplomatic missions, they are intended to serve two primary functions: act as a piece of home for citizens living abroad and represent the interests of their home states to foreign governments. High commissions are thus supposed to inspire pride, engender feelings of community and connection, and serve their citizens. Make their lives easier, not harder. As a character comments with incredulity in Every Day Is for the Thief, “this should be a time of joy. You know? Going home should be a thing of joy”.
It should come as no huge surprise to anyone then that the Nigerian High Commission in Ottawa has put out a memo stating that “the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has approved the immediate restoration and implementation of administrative charges at all Nigerian Missions, for effective management and efficient service delivery”. Naturally because the ostensible problem was always that these spaces were not well funded. Rather than turn to a systemic review of service delivery models, we are told that the solution lies instead in raising financial barriers for Nigerians. Never mind of course that the services provided by these diplomatic missions are fundamental to our ability to go home and maintain links with our country of citizenship. Read: needed for survival, not extraneous desires.
Nigerians in Canada should be incensed at these changes. They signal not a commitment to actually improve access, but rather an unwillingness to tackle the stories of inefficiency that are endemic to the Nigerian public service. The comments to our post on instagram point to the fact that these are issues left not to some distant past, but ones that we still have to navigate to this day. To quote one, “the same group of people that will waste your time, misplace your passport, make you wait extra because someone is one the phone chatting [and] yet there’s admin fees”. Another merely says following laughing emojis, “jokers”. To which I sigh and say same sis, same.
“Not serious at all”, comments a third. An apt judgement of the ever hilarious tv show that is the Nigerian government. Nevertheless, perhaps there is hope that these new charges will be followed by much needed changes. We shall have to wait and see.