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OPED: Internationally incarcerated Nigerians need our support

By Atiku Abubakar

Scattered across the globe are hundreds of thousands of our Nigerian brothers and sisters who have left the Nigerian homeland in the hopes of building a better life. As a result of pervasive corruption, insecurity, dismal economic prospects and persecution, these Nigerians have left their homes, loved ones, and property, to find opportunities and security otherwise unattainable in Nigeria. United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, recently stated that, “Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family,” but that complications persist in protecting the human rights of all migrants.

Despite these progressive visions, migrants are viewed negatively and their plights dismissed by their home countries, as they are continually seen as defectors and deserters, despite many maintaining their national identities as well as personal and financial connections with their home countries. With remittances from our Nigerian brethren abroad reaching roughly $21billion, it is hard to justly cast aside these fellow countrymen who have risked it all for a better future. However, a comfortable life abroad does not come so easily, and many migrant Nigerians find themselves the victims of racial prejudice and innocent naivety of local laws and customs. A small, yet significant, percentage of our brethren in diaspora find themselves at the mercy of illicit trafficking as a result of unfulfilled dreams of obtaining legitimate careers abroad.

The findings by the National Assembly Diaspora Committee that over 6,000 Nigerians are languishing in foreign jails for drug-related offences and more than 20,000 in European prisons and detention centers for immigration offenses should be a cause for serious concern to the Federal Government. Nigerians living in foreign countries represent Nigeria to the world, and their ability to gracefully transition to their new homes should be a top concern for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As Nigerians represent one of the largest nationalities imprisoned in foreign countries it is time that we ask ourselves ‘what about Nigerians abroad makes them so susceptible to this incarceration?’

Chairman Abike Dabiri-Erewa of the House Committee on Diaspora recently conducted an international investigation on Nigerians in foreign prisons and came to the conclusion that, “ Nigerians are frequently imprisoned abroad for two reasons, drug-trafficking charges or racial prejudice.”

Of growing concern within Nigeria is the presence of illicit trafficking activities ranging from drugs and weapons to humans sold into prostitution or slavery. Though it is difficult to tell if Nigerians incarcerated on drug-related charges where involved with drug trafficking prior to migrating, or if their inability to find adequate work abroad lead them to illicit activities, the fact remains that Nigeria is swiftly becoming a major node in the international trafficking arena and migrants imprisoned for drugs are a part of the extensive network through which drugs are trafficked internationally.

Is this not worrying to our government?

How did we get to this point as a people? Nigerians are increasingly becoming more pessimistic about the willingness of those in authority to actually work for the interest of the ordinary citizens. Wrongfully assigning blame for the government’s own mistakes would not extricate the federal government from the current situation, a situation that could best be described as executive nonchalance with regard to issues of the welfare and wellbeing of the ordinary citizenry. Corruption is destructive and it is destroying the very fabric of our society, tearing holes in the borders of our homeland and tarnishing the reputation and identity of Nigeria. Our people are suffering because federal funding, which is vital to building and maintaining a healthy and prosperous society, has been diverted to special interests. Violence and illicit activities are the direct result of government negligence, greed and ineptitude – When a government neglects its people, the people neglect the rule of law. If this pattern continues, Nigeria may be well on its way to becoming a failed state.

In Thailand, one in five Nigerian immigrants are in prison primarily on drug-related charges. However, it has thus far been difficult to determine whether these charges are sincere or if they are trumped up due to racial prejudice.

In many of the countries with the largest numbers of incarcerated Nigerians, including Indonesia, India, China, Iran, Tanzania and Saudi Arabia to mention a few, justice is not swift or rife with sufficient evidence to support the prosecution’s case. Instead, many Nigerians are held for several years without formal charges, and are left to stand akimbo as their passports are destroyed.

Hon. Nnena Ukeje, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, recently noted that many of the incarcerated Nigerians were jailed for offences ranging from possessing illegal travel documents, shady business transactions, fraud and for trumped-up charges arising from prejudice and language barriers occasioned by the inability to speak either French or any of the local languages. A good number of the Nigerians were actually travelers on their way to Europe who were dispossessed, abandoned by human traffickers, and then picked up by the authorities of these countries.

Without mincing words, the growing insecurity and lack of employment opportunities are at the forefront of driving Nigerians abroad, especially young people, who, in their desperation to survive, fled the country because of the serial failures of successive leaderships to reverse the tide of the overwhelming youth unemployment and deteriorating standard of living of the ordinary citizens. Do we need to remind the government that most Nigerians are unimpressed by sweet-sounding positive indicators portraying a healthy economy that they do not feel?

The allegations of unfair treatment of Nigerians abroad for whatever reasons should not be treated with the commonplace levity of the federal government, but rather necessitates a thorough investigation and appropriate measures to ensure the welfare of Nigerians abroad and repair Nigeria’s international image. Several options include: 1] establishing an international protocol carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to assist Nigerians abroad through spreading cultural and legal awareness and assisting with employment; 2] arranging meetings with the leadership of foreign governments whose countries host the largest numbers of incarcerated Nigerians to determine the cause for arrest and seek justice; 3] If it is determined that many Nigerians are being held on trumped up charges, then the government must take action to secure justice for these people through diplomacy and with the deepest respect for resident laws of that country.

It is time that our government join the fight and support the livelihoods affected directly by their actions, or in this case, inaction. Nigeria needs the kind of change that brings with it an ideological shift away from the quagmires produced by corruption and greed and towards a genuine concern for the welfare of the Nigerian people.

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