Echoes of war in Nigeria's South African Mission over passport row

By Ben-Benson Okoli, Executive Editor, Johannesburg on 23/05/2021

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Ahmed addressing members of the Nigerian community in Johannesburg

If the fortune teller had prophesied to the former Consul General of the Nigeria Consulate in Johannesburg, Amb Godwin Adama, that his term was not only going to conclude successfully but that he would carry honours in addition, he probably would have rejected that, given the turbulence that characterised his arrival and tenure. It was learnt that the usual change of baton that would naturally take place between himself and the predecessor did not happen and that it almost went awry. 

The Nigerian Union South Africa (NUSA), had enjoyed a good working relationship with the then CG, Amb Ajulu Okeke, though other Nigerians saw it differently. They saw NUSA as a spoilt child, given the romance that existed between the two. It was this “spoilt child’ that Adama inherited. And because the Ambassador, who is also said to be a born-again, was unprepared to maintain the same working environment, the relationship with NUSA soured from the day one and naturally, the group made the job difficult for him or so it seemed.

It quickly drew up all the wrongs, the Ambassador must address, some of which were long in existence before his arrival. When it seemed that the Ambassador’s eardrum was sealed with a cotton wool, it’s President, Mr Olubajo Adetola secured airtime in a popular channel in Lagos, to itemise the Ambassador’s sins and insensitivities that must be stopped without delay. The appearance not only went viral but threatened to put Adama’s job on the line. 

It was then that the Ambassador, unprepared to lose the job that was said to be the dream of every Foreign Affairs staff, threw diplomacy out of the window and went for the jugular of the Union. And like a goat that a dance was carried to its doorstep, he disbanded the group, an authority that NUSA claimed he did not have. He quickly facilitated a replacement in the Nigerian Citizens Association South Africa (NICASA), a group that later spread like a wild fire across the provinces and may have won the hearts of Nigerians, especially with the successful handling of its first major assignment: the repatriation of Nigerians that the owner of Airpeace Airline facilitated. NUSA has since refused to close shop and would not accept “defunct” as an appendage and had continued to run programmes, including providing palliatives to Nigerians displaced by COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the effective use of this divisions between the two groups, that may have worked in the favor of Adama, who finished as the first diplomat to be conferred with a chieftancy title by the Igbo apex group in South Africa, Ohaneze Ndigbo for what it called exceptional performance. 

Adama may have tutored his successor, Honorable Abul Malik  Ahmed on the skills he must employ if he planned to remain afloat. It was that attitude that the new CG has continued to adopt, distancing himself from NUSA and referring to it as a “defunct group.”  So when the present CG landed, he did what diplomats do best, launch himself as a man sent to serve and who is prepared to serve like no other. He opened his doors to all manner of Nigerian groups and offered his office for the use of the Igbo apex group for their just concluded elections, where he seized the opportunity to market himself and give Nigerians lessons on the imperatives of responsible citizenship. He is always cheerful and wears smiles even when it is unprovoked.

But all that did not mean anything to NUSA, that believed that the new CG had inherited the unfinished business it had with his predecessor. So when the opportunity arrived, NUSA grabbed it with both hands and sought a pound of flesh. It was the imposition of N60,000 lost international passport deterrent fee and other fees that NUSA capitalised on. It described the fees as “diplomatic extortions” and “illegal”, and which later set the two on a coalition course. In an open letter to the CG, the head of the Secretariat NUSA, Collins Mgbo, had accused him of crimes against Nigerians. He described the imposition of N60,000 (sixty thousand naira) deterrent lost passport fee and N16,000 (sixteen thousand naira) administrative fee as unreasonable and placing additional burden on the suffocating Nigerians, demanding that they must be removed or he must be prepared to confront the wrath of Nigerians.

“You have remained adamant in inflicting excruciating pains on our compatriots whose passports were stolen, lost or misplaced,” he said accusinf the CG of facilitating the activities of the passport agents that it described as “known friends” of the CG and decried the system delays and bottlenecks he instituted.

To advance the fight further NUSA has fixed May 25, as a protest day and has extended invitation to Nigerians from all walks of life and across the length and width of South Africa, a move being vehemently opposed by the rival NICASA, through a memo signed by its Organising Secretary, Tony Ewulonu. 

The CG’s defence was swift and fierce.  In reaction that had all the elements of a military diplomacy, he forgot that there were also decent Nigerians who were making the country proud in their various endeavors. His defence may have copied from the script the Federal Government once wrote to justify the increase in pump prize of her petroleum products, where the government claimed that the only way to discourage the activities of smugglers from making the kill, was to escalate the prize, damning the effects on the poor masses.

Ahmed had described the open letter as a continuation of “an unending campaign of calumny targeted at distracting members of the Mission by vested interests masquerading as the members of the defunct Nigerian Union South Africa (NUSA) regarding the deterrent fee of N60,000 charged by the Mission for the re-issue of lost passports.” The CG did not see anything incongruous with the penalty for according to him, the action had become necessary in view of the “high turnover of purportedly lost passports by Nigerians” and that he was convinced that at the “rate of nearly sixty passports in a month, it is apparent that there is something sinister and untoward about the astronomically high rate of declarations.”

He continued: “Sources from the grapevine have revealed that these passports were not actually lost or stolen in most cases, but that Nigerians have devised an ingenious and illegal means of securing a second passport in furtherance of criminality, and to break immigration rules to facilitate crime, including human trafficking.”

However, this assertion is seen as a hear-say, with his traducers daring him to prove it with facts rather than throwing a wild allegation in the wind. 

The CG, obviously prepared for a street fight if it came to that, having, perhaps, seen himself as a man sent to dismantle a cartel and the illicit passport trade, which he accused NUSA as being complicit, the only reason his opponents say he is opposing a genuine effort to streamline the passport issue.

“Before now, passport agents had levied prospective applicants without recourse to the Mission, the sum in excess of N180,000 for processing lost cases. The deterrent fee was imposed following consultations as a “measure to minimise or eliminate the criminality associated with the request for the re-issue of purportedly lost passports. The antics of NUSA and ilk cannot intimidate or coerce the Mission in its desire to render selfless services to all Nigerians genuinely in need.”

Different Nigerian groups and individuals have continued to react over the matter, with most of them denouncing the move and calling the Ambassador out for unleashing more pain on an already famished Nigerian community.

Chidozie Ejimadu, a lawyer and former Secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo South Africa, described the imposition as “a clear extraction of more money from a people impoverished and dehumanised by a system of governance” and urged the Nigerian population to rise in unison “as awakened citizens and raise a formidable voice and force against the unjust fine and descend like a mighty force upon our High Commission.”

Stressing that it was a deliberate policy to suffocate a people whose back were already against the wall, the activist appealed to those who have the listening ears of the CG to tell him that this was “an imposition of additional severe stress and strain on bursting nerve and verve of a people impoverished, violated, dehumanised, neglected, exploited and dehumanized.”

He referred CG to the quality of life that South Africa government gives to Nigerians even as visitors, residents and citizens.

Frank Anagu, the former Chairman of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), South Africa, in an obvious rage gave instances where the Consulate would claim that the passport booklets were finished from one door while passports were issued to the highest bidders from another door.

Whirlwindnews, investigation confirmed such practices but found that it was not peculiar to this regime. Another who pleaded anonymous, did not see the Nigerian passports as possessing value in the marketplace, to the extent that one would want to acquire it for trade or travel purposes and wondered why the CG was just seeing the matter from a narrow angle. “What Nigerians need is sympathy and not punishment,” he said.

The former President of NUSA, Ik Anyene, a political scientist, who was fierce in the defence of the Union, while expressing the desire not to see the legacies of a body he once headed rubbished, argued that the divisions in the leadership of the Nigerian Community was being utilised fully by the mission, stressing that those taking sides with the CG were the enemies of the people.

Others who came in defence of the CG, including Tony Ewulonu, think that there is no merit in the planned protest, arguing that the attacks on the CG were more remote than immediate, and an unnecessary distraction. He argued that in comparison with what obtained elsewhere, Nigerians in South Africa were getting much better deal in terms of the lost passport fee and promised to defend the CG.

Apostle Mike Ugwu, a highly respected community leader would prefer that all avenues for peaceful resolution of the impasse be exhausted before the protest planned for May, 25 and appealed that the ongoing talks be allowed to conclude. Whether the protest will hold will be seen in the coming days.




Posted on May, 23 2021

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