Guest Columnist By Dr Bisi Olawunmi
The Presidency on September 2, 2023, announced worldwide recall of Nigerian ambassadors in its diplomatic missions, except for those at the United Nations in New York and Geneva. Presidential spokesman, Ajuri Ngelale, who announced this, said the two UN ambassadors were excluded to allow them to prepare for the president’s attendance at the UN General Assembly ( UNGA ) later in the month.
The recalled ambassadors, appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari and deployed in January 2021, were given a grace period of two months, for a proper disengagement, till October 31, 2023 when they are all expected to be back in the country. The total recall is apparently to allow the president set a new foreign policy thrust reflective of his administration’s objectives. Nigeria has 109 diplomatic missions, worldwide, comprising 76 Embassies, 22 High Commissions and 11 Consulates.
‘’ The president is determined to ensure that world class efficiency and quality, will henceforth, characterize foreign and domestic service delivery to citizens, residents and prospective visitors alike’’, Ngelale stated. He explained that ‘’the president’s directive is sequel to his careful study of the present state of affairs at Nigerian Consulate Offices and Embassies worldwide’’ and in line with his renewed hope agenda.
Communication from The Presidency sounded grandiose in its rationale for the immediate recall of the ambassadors. The question is : What are the highlights of the findings from the “study of the state of affairs at Nigerian embassies worldwide “ which warranted this tsunami of total recall of ALL the ambassadors with immediate effect ? Secondly, the recall appears rather precipitate. This, therefore, does not give the impression of a well thought out process. Thirdly, the recall signals continuing policy tumbles which have emerged as the trademark of the Tinubu presidency – from the cavalier statement of ‘subsidy is gone’ in his inaugural address; the delayed and eventual summersaults on ministerial nominations ; ethical deficit of the corper-minister appointment and lingering untidiness in palliative management.
This set of ambassadors had faced trauma in their posting. The diplomats, 95 of them, made up of 52 non-career and 43 career ambassadors, appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari, had been screened and ratified by the senate in July 2020 but were not deployed till January 2021. They were appointed for four year tenure but the mass recall less than three years was justified on the basis that they serve at the pleasure of Mr. President. However, you wonder : What is the urgency of the moment for a fledgling administration, buffeted by political turbulence and requiring some stability, to embark on this mass recall of ambassadors, worldwide ?
What is particularly confounding is that no lesson seemed to have been learnt from the president’s disastrous outing in his first foray on the foreign policy front in leading ECOWAS to the precipitate threat of military invasion of Niger Republic to restore democracy and reinstate toppled President Mohammed Barzoum. Up to this point in time, it is the force of unanimous public opinion, opposed to military invasion as first option, that has restrained and rescued Tinubu from a headlong rush into a catastrophic war in Niger Republic.
However, it is not enough to just recall all ambassadors, perhaps only for the hurried purpose of giving patronage appointments to the president’s men and women. The word, ‘’ hurried ‘’, is used advisedly, given the rather impulsive tendencies of the administration.
So, the posers for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amb. Yusuf Tuggar are : What are those modalities being put in place to ‘’ ensure world class efficiency and quality service delivery‘’ by the country’s diplomatic missions ? What are those core foreign policy values the ambassadors are to implement ? To what extent should Africa remain centric to the nation’s foreign policy, given the minister’s ‘’ Strategic Autonomy ‘’ doctrine ?
From personal experience as a Foreign Correspondent in Washington, D.C. United States, from 1985 to 1989, and on several visits thereafter, three major issues can be identified with our diplomatic missions. . These are inadequate funding of the embassies, laid back attitude of many diplomats and their hostile relationship with Diaspora Nigerians in their host countries.
FUNDING. The poor funding of Nigerian embassies is a scandal. There are instances where diplomats are ejected from their residences while many embassies suffer embarrassing deficit in running costs, a recurrent issue that seriously constrain activities of the missions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in its recalibration would need to creatively address this protracted funding problem. It is instructive that Saturday PUNCH of September 9, 2023 had this banner front page headline : ‘ NIGERIAN EMBASSIES IN FINANCIAL CRISIS AS FG DELAYS FUNDS ‘. It is an indictment of and shame on successive leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that 38 years after my 1985 report on the irresponsible operational under funding of our embassies, the problem has persisted till date. Destitute diplomats constitute a national embarrassment in their host countries. To imagine that these are the same state officials expected to project the positive face of the country abroad ! The PUNCH report showed that not only are budgeted funds to the missions drastically cut, their remittance get delayed for months. A Foreign Service Officer ( FSO), speaking on condition of anonymity, highlighted the plight of the diplomats : ‘Many of our staff members have been evicted for not paying their rent . It happened in Budapest, Hungary, in 2021 when some Nigerian staff members were evicted from their apartments for failing to pay their rent’. Continuing, the FSO had stated : ‘There are cases where diplomats borrow money to settle school fees and rents to avoid eviction. Some borrow from their friends in Nigeria and also from the Nigerian community or the local churches they attend in their country of service’. That is the extent to which diplomats are brought to ridicule. Even when they are recalled, it is usually a struggle to get paid the months of backlog foreign service allowance owed. I knew a diplomat at the Nigerian embassy in Washington D.C. in the late 1980s who got stranded in the U.S. when he was recalled prematurely after two years, against his expectation of a four-year tenure, was owed months in allowances and could not face the shame of returning to Nigeria literarily a destitute – no car, no savings. A retired diplomat, Rashid Akinkuolie, corroborated the FSO’s statement on funding crisis : “It is a perennial issue, it is not something that is just happening today “. According to him, the problem was that their “vote is converted to dollars, euros, pounds and other currencies and this causes devaluation and a lot of issues. Sometimes, they can’t pay salaries in two or three months, they can’t pay utility bills, local workers and meet other responsibilities”.
With the wholesale recall of ambassadors, to what extent is the MFA is a position to settle the outstanding and relocation entitlements of the diplomats ? Why has it been impossible to make a SPECIAL CASE for denominating budget allocation to the foreign missions in dollars, as a universal currency , to save the missions from the vagaries of a crazily declining naira value ? The government should consider reducing the number of the nation’s diplomatic missions to what it can conveniently fund. Going forward , the level of strategic importance, economic relationship and the population of resident Nigerians should determine location of the country’s diplomatic missions while some other countries can be covered, concurrently, from a neighouring country.
While the funding burden remains an albatross on government, ambassadors, on their part, should imbibe cost cutting measures in terms of cost of rent on accommodation and public school for children of diplomats in advanced countries. Ambassador Ignatius Olisemeka, Nigerian ambassador to the U.S. took such prudent measure in the mid 1980s when he got diplomats serving in the mission to withdraw their children from fee-paying private schools to free public schools. Public schools in the U.S. have top facilities, so, going to private school, particularly at elementary and high school levels, was just ego-induced status symbol for diplomats !.
LAID BACK WORK ATTITUTE. Many diplomats are not proactive in terms of working to timelines and deadlines, a carry-over from the bureaucracy they are used to in Nigeria. This lethargy applies particularly with political officers and Information Attaches, requiring performance monitoring unit at MFA headquarters.
ECONOMIC DIPLOMACY. Activities in many embassies are routinised and mainly about Protocol Diplomacy and the Cocktail Circuit ! There is need for a paradigm shift with emphasis on Economic Diplomacy, which Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi had insightfully promoted as Foreign Minister between 1985 and 1987.
EMBASSIES’ – NIGERIANS’ RELATIONSHIP. It is a notorious fact that there is a prevalent hostile relationship between many embassy staff and Nigerians in the Diaspora. This sour relationship has persisted over the years. The diplomats, generally, relate with Nigerians with aloofness and condescension. Two issues generally bring Nigerians in Diaspora in contact with embassy staff – passport/immigration matters and education/scholarship issues. I will cite three instances in Washington D.C. over the decades. In 1986, while I was still a Foreign Correspondent in Washington, my intervention got a woman and her three kids from North Carolina who got shut out of the Embassy for arriving five minutes to 1.00pm when the embassy closes to the public, got her admitted into the embassy, attended to and her problem resolved. On another occasion, a PhD doctoral student who was to be wrongly deported had sought the intervention of our diplomats but was shunned at the embassy. He came to NAN office at the National Press Building in Downtown Washington to narrate his ordeal. I filed a news report on his plight to Nigeria that attracted the intervention of the Foreign Ministry in Lagos and his deportation was stopped. That is how dismissive of Nigerian embassy officials can be. The third instance was in 2018 while I was on vacation in the U.S. I went from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington D.C with a Diaspora Nigerian who was having issue with her passport renewal only to be told that passport booklets have not been available for months !! Passport booklet scarcity is a recurrent problem in Nigerian diplomatic missions which the new Minister of Interior must tackle, head-on.
Dr. Bisi OLAWUNMI, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Adeleke University, Ede, is former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria and Fellow, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email : [email protected] PHONE : (SMS ONLY ) 0803 364 7571