In ESSAY on October 25, 2010 at 8:54 am

The lure of lucre has drawn many Nigerians, not to the fabled greener pasture, but to the dingy cells of foreign prisons.

Bayo Akinloye

With blaring noise from a recorded tape, a voice booms repeatedly from a loud-speaker: “Hurry now! Come and register for American VISA Lottery. Direct online at Winners Café. Hurry now to beat endtime server traffic,” the advertisement teased. “We go fill your VISA Lottery form online for your korokoro eyes and give you instant letter of confirmation!” It is just a cyber-café –decrepit and without any trappings of modernity except for a few computers in the rented space, huddled in a nondescript building along the hustle and bustle street of oriyomi in Ikeja, Lagos. There are not a few hands obtaining a form that costs only N500. Away from Ikeja, along Acme Road, Ogba-Lagos is Jonathan King Travels, also making stupendous claims to be experts in travel arrangements, especially emigration to Canada. Asserting its authenticity, Jonathan King Travels says it is affiliated to Jonathan King Incorporated in America; the travel agency claims 99 percent success rate in helping its teeming clients achieve their travel dreams to Canada and other developed countries.


But a few scary headlines would suffice. More Nigerians deported from Spain; 734 Nigerians deported from Libya; 732 Nigerians languishing in Chinese prison; Indonesia Hangs Three Nigerians. Beware of a false dawn.


Yet, in the most accomplished Hollywood stunt-action style, two Nigerians, Ndubisi Ohaneme and Emmanuel Okoro, jumped out of the window of a six-storey building in a bid to escape arrest by Chinese policemen in the province of Guangzhou. The daring escape attempt hit the headlines but left the duo bruised and broken. These are not the only Nigerian casualties in foreign prisons. With more than 23, 584 of its productive citizens in foreign prisons, the re-branding mantra – good people, great nation- does not seem to be working for Nigeria. From India to Britain; from Libya to Singapore; from Thailand to America, hundreds of Nigerians are being hounded down like ferocious animals that can only be consigned to the dungeons. The pride Nigerians take in themselves as being great travellers –with the claim that there is no where in the world one will not find a Nigerian- is fast turning into a nightmare.

In August this year, the Nigerian foreign affairs minister, Ojo Maduekwe expressed his angst of frustration over what he described as “noticeable and considerable increase in the incidence of consular problems of diverse nature posed by Nigerians to the nation’s various diplomatic missions abroad.” That would be a phrasal euphemism for the unenviable records of Nigerian citizens imprisoned for various offences all over the world. According to Maduekwe, “reports from our missions abroad and other agencies show that there are too many of our young people in prisons abroad arising mostly from their status as irregular immigrants.” Demonstrating the disturbing nuisance some Nigerians in foreign lands are constituting themselves to, the foreign affairs minister wrote the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to “immediately” begin to make plans for evacuation of more than 3,719 “Nigerians awaiting deportation in several parts of the world”, and also asking for an annual budgetary allocation in the sum of N200 million to be made for the ministry to enable its various missions abroad effectively meet their consular obligations.

He put the number of Nigerians in European prisons at 20,000; with 1,491 of them in Britain. Maduekwe also disclosed that 47 Nigerians were recently held in New York for credit card fraud. This brings to mind the ongoing manhunt for Tobechi Enyinna Onwuhara, a convicted felon (according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI), wanted for his alleged involvement in an elaborate scheme that defrauded the American financial industry of tens of millions of dollars. Onwuhara, according to the FBI, is a key member of a group of Nigerians who allegedly have been conducting fraudulent banking activities from Florida and Texas, since 2005. The FBI alleged that the group has been using online Internet databases to steal victims’ identities. Once acquired, they allegedly use the victims’ information to gain access to their credit accounts and wire the money to accounts mainly located overseas.

In view of this, not a few Nigerians are wondering whether the re-branding project by the federal government is not a silly effort. Some have argued that no PR stunts will bail out an organization reputed for bad products and lousy customer care service. Obviously then, in the face of daunting economic environment, political instability and breakdown of education, health and manufacturing sectors, re-branding the nation should not come to mind. Till date many Nigerians presume that the roads abroad are paved with gold and that currencies like dollars, euros and pound sterling float freely in the air. Many soon find out- often too late- that their new environment is much more demanding physically, mentally and morally. They have to joggle jobs like balls in the hands of a circus entertainer. They have inclement, freezing weather with frost bites to contend with and the uncertainties of breaking through. In their fight against all these elements, their hopes begin to thin out and become entrapped in a frustration to “make it” by hook or by crook thus going into petty stealing and high-tech robbery. Like Majek Fashek sang, what these Nigerians see in foreign lands is “illusion”. “There cannot just be an excuse for the illegality and criminality of these Nigerians imprisoned abroad,” said Jumoke, an accountant with a medical engineering company. While admitting the nation’s failure to cater for its own, she added that “each citizen’s destiny is in his own hands”.

In the view of Ayo Idowu, the lingering crisis of Nigerians littering foreign prisons is a testament to the fact that “we hate our own”. He was echoing the words of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the Edo state governor when he was confronted with a figure (10,000) of Edo indigenes languishing in jails: “We all know what the American or the British government can do when one of their citizens is suffering abroad. This is not for the state government; it is a federal responsibility and I cannot accept that the Foreign Affairs Ministry is handicapped on this matter. The Federal Government controls over 53 per cent of our national income so if they do not have the resources to take care of these people who will have it?” The Edo state governor expressed the minds of many when he said that “even though they (detained Nigerians in foreign prisons) went there illegally, they are still our citizens. And this thing is not all about bringing in two or three of them back home, it is about bringing all of them back home and additionally sustaining the campaign about people recognizing that poverty is not an excuse to send our children to slavery.”

The Nigerian government seem to be heeding this admonition when, through pleas and diplomatic meetings, wrested 19 Nigerians from the jaws of Libyan death-row through the efforts of the African Rights Commission and the House Committee on Diaspora. In September, the African Rights Commission with its headquarters in Banjul, The Gambia, had implored the Libyan Government to suspend the execution of the Nigerians, citing African Treaties on Human Rights and Death Penalty of which Libya is a signatory. Though Ms Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairperson of the House Committee on Diaspora, said that there are still 13 other prisoners on death row yet to be released, further appeals both to Libya and the Nigerian embassy officials in Libya “to step up this campaign for these hapless people to regain their freedom”.

Those yet to be released include: Stanley Okor, David Shedrack, Chidi Adam, Edmond Ojo, Chinedu Orji, Valentine Okoye, and Ismail Monday. Others are: Abdulazeez Babajide, Solomon Chukwu Francis, Ibrahim Olawale Jimoh, Adewale Adeoye and George William Emmanuel. According to National Standards checks, an estimated 700 Nigerian citizens in Libyan prisons are usually subjected to brutal beatings and torture, and in some cases, female prisoners are raped and subjected to all manners of indignities. Similar experiences were reported in other lands. It would be recalled that between September and October this year 1, 064 Nigerians were deported from Libya. In May 2008, Libya deported about 314 Nigerians classifying them as illegal immigrants, after serving jail terms in that country. These ones according to their accounts were hoping to travel to Europe. Many of them were accused of engaging in prostitution and trafficking narcotics. In June 2007, there was a stunning report that Nigerians were among the largest prisoners in India -primarily on charges of drug abuse and peddling. Also in July 2008, it was reported that 23,584 Nigerians were in prisons abroad for immigration offences. On October 28, 2008, it was reported that 20 Nigerians were on death row in Indonesia for drug trafficking.

While Nigerians may feature prominently amongst people who want to “check out”, recent polls result revealed that “700 million people worldwide want to permanently move to another country.” That figure is more than all the adults of North and South America combined. The polls conducted in 135 countries between 2007 and this year by Gallup also show that residents of sub-Saharan African countries were the “most likely to want to move abroad permanently”. Africans top the list in highest percentage of adult looking to change their homeland, if provided a chance. Around 165 Million people or 38 percent of the adult population in Africa said they will change their homeland.

Is there a way out of Nigeria’s emigration quagmire? Dr. Alabi, a consultant opined: “It is incumbent upon the government to enter into diplomatic talks with countries where its citizens are unjustly treated. It should know the status of its citizens in foreign jails and assist those awaiting deportation to come home. Besides, Nigerians travelling abroad should adhere to visa regime of their intended destination. They should stop travelling without valid and adequate travel documents. They need to know that fabled greener pasture isn’t as green as they are quick to believe.”

In spite of the emigration woes, the queues at various foreign embassies continue to elongate, while travel agencies and cyber-cafes are feasting on the frustrations of thousands of Nigerians bent on leaving the country. Will there be anything to stop these potential “Andrews” from checking out? Maybe that will be possible when the President Umaru Yar’Adua Seven-Point Agenda delivers on its promise. Till then, the current sojourn of many Nigerians to foreign lands remains largely flights to fetters.


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