Friday, 27 April 2007

Open Letter to Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister

By Hakeeem Babalola

I feel constrained to write you this letter. The main reason is to focus your attention to the woeful plight of fellow Nigerians in Hungary. There are many problems but I would place special emphasis on passport issue, which is the most essential document for all travellers. It could be recalled that Nigerian government made it mandatory to be physically present when applying for Nigerian passport in order to make it authentic anywhere in the world.

On 17 July 1998 the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) introduced a new Standard Nigerian Passports called the Standard Machine Readable Passports (MRP). One of the procedures for acquisition of a Nigerian Passport is "capturing the applicant into the photographic and data collection computerised machine," which simply means the applicant must be physically present. This is commendable effort to save the country from additional humiliation among the comity of nations. Of what pride remains a nation if its international identity is not secured.
Here in Hungary however, the non-availability of such Standard Machine Readable Passports (MRP) is causing both physical and mental pains for Nigerians, and indirectly tarnishing the image of the country in general. The affected Nigerians have been pushed to result to “illegal” means of obtaining Nigerian passport. The most common way is by proxy, which of course renders such passport invalid.

Therefore, Hungarian authority randomly confiscates such "suspicious" passports in its bid to curb or reduce such illegality. In doing so, we have seen cases in which genuine passports are being seized as well. Apart from this, Hungarian immigration has launched what could simply be described as rigorous passport scrutiny when entering or leaving its territory. It does not matter whether one is a frequent traveller or not. As long as green Nigerian passport is presented, Hungarian immigration would likely consider such passport illegal pending verification.

Nigeria has maintained Diplomatic relations with Hungary since 1964 on concurrent accreditation initially from Warsaw, Poland, subsequently from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, before effective presence in Budapest in 1992. Now, Nigerians in Hungary are wondering why passport machine has not been installed in Hungary, especially when it serves other neighbouring countries (Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia). After all, Nigerian Embassy in Hungary gives “a panoramic view of the role of the Nigerian mission in Hungary as General Administration, Consular and Immigration matters especially the welfare and well being of Nigerians in our host country…”

I would use Tunde Adeosun who recently lost his Nigerian passport as illustration. He is as helpless as a baby. It seems he can get little things done without his passport. He needs it in virtually every transaction with Hungarian government. For now his Nigerian passport is basically his identification card. Although he said he would not in anyway result to obtaining passport by proxy, he asks: "What exactly is the duty of Nigerian Mission abroad, if something as important as passport cannot be provided?"

In my opinion sir, the solution is quite simple. Provide this MRP machine to the Nigerian embassy in Hungary, or alternatively provide a workable plan whereby it would be easier for Nigerians to obtain this essential travel document – without hassles. I argue for your ministry intervention on wholly pragmatic grounds. I should state that travelling to neighbouring Austria is not part of the solution. The reason is because Nigerians without passports are not officially allowed to cross borders.

Besides, the fee being charged for a lost or damaged Nigerian passport in Austria is simply ridiculous. €22 for swear affidavit; €365 as fine; another €117 when approval is received form Abuja for administrative and passport charges respectively. €504 in total – for a Nigerian passport! The same passport costs less than €100 in Nigeria. Any wonder why passport by proxy is on the rise! Is it a crime to lose one’s passport? I mean why is the need to pay fine? I remember President Obasanjo’s take on the exorbitant passport fee when he came to Hungary in 2001. He had declared it was mainly to deter Nigerians from losing their passports every now and then.

I am not sure whether such move has actually dissuaded those Nigerians who must lose their passports. I am inclined to question the rationale behind such exorbitant fee. Is it to dissuade or to generate revenue at the expense of hard working Nigerians in the Diaspora? Perhaps this is a way of making Nigerians in the Diaspora pay tax to motherland. Providing MRP machine obviously would eradicate the need to obtain Nigerian passport by proxy, which in turn would compel Hungarian authority to respect our passports without prejudice. Your ministry needs to find ways in order to procure this machine for the benefit of Nigerians in Hungary and environs. Sir, I have been a little bit appalled by the levity with which your ministry treat this issue.

To be fair on your ministry, I understand that the Internal Affairs Ministry is responsible for the issuance of passport, and that the officers at Abuja are known for their unresponsive attitude whenever Embassies send queries to them on any issue. Yet the responsibility of the Foreign Affairs Ministry as spelt out in Chapter 2, section 19, of the Nigeria constitution includes: the promotion and protection of the national interest. You need to sort things out with internal affairs ministry. Even though Nigerians abroad are considered inconsequential as observed by the Information and Communications Minister, Frank Nweke Jr., I believe Nigeria itself is consequential enough to have its image protected.

@March 2007

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