Must read: Nigerians, foreign jails and citizens’ reactions

I was opportuned recently to read the report on Nigerians in foreign jails. I catalogued the number of Nigerians in jails worldwide – from Brazil to China, from South Africa to Nepal, from Ghana to United States of America. The report highlights the fact that there are over 6000 Nigerians who are inhabitants of various foreign jails. It is pathetic that in every country of this world, a Nigerian is occupying a dingy room, with just the basics to survive on. Is it not worrisome that the conditions in which these Nigerians live in will be determined by the economy of their host countries?  On a lighter side, my first impression of this report was to pity some of the prisoners who are “unfortunate” to be in third world jails. A Nigerian prisoner in Togo cannot enjoy same basic amenities as one behind bars in the United States as these are two extreme economies.

We are Nigerians. We love to make “noise” out of the smallest of issues.  By our nature, we can exaggerate and “enlarge” a rather small issue. In this wise, the “Nigerians in Foreign Jail” report issue came out of the “blues” as if somebody somewhere just realised that some Nigerians are in foreign jail. And trust we Nigerians, it was a proper avenue for everybody to make a few bucks out of the situation. From government officials, to armchair analysts, money must be made. And the louder you are, the better you are heard.

So in the week immediately after the report was consciously or otherwise made public, the stories of these men and women in jail headlined many newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations. There were simultaneous reports on most Nigerian news websites, blogs and social media on the fate of these Nigerians. And for many weeks unending we were bombarded with various analyses, both from the government officials, paid government publicists, arm chair analysts and self appointed “jail analysts”.  We have been regaled with analysis, from the mundane to the most ridiculous.

In a country where issues of discourse are never scarce, the “Nigerians in Foreign Jails” report was all we were discussing every second.  In motor parks, on BRT buses, churches, mosques etc, we must be heard contributing our share to the “tower of Babel” discussions. And like Nigerians we are, we started asking various questions that addresses no solution to the problems on grounds. While the 6000 Nigerians were still languishing in jail, we (government officials and ordinary Nigerians) asked how they got in jail. No one asked what should be done to stop Nigerians “walking” into foreign prisons.

The arguments increased by the day and at night on news. They came in different forms, just like the different Nigerian ethnic groups that inhabit the various jails all over the world. They spoke in different tongues as we have in jails where Nigerians are languishing. The analysts with three button suits were all out trying to outdo each other on reasons why Nigerians populate foreign jails. Government officials with pot bellies labour to justify reasons why they have to visit the Nigerians in foreign jails – to make money. They have been campaigning in their hundreds and telling us that despite the “good intentions” and planning of the government, some Nigerians still have the “audacity” to walk their ways into foreign jails.

But wait a minute. There were no contributions from any top government official. To them the issue was a non-issue. What do we care about the Nigerians who despite the robust and good economy at home have decided to “walk” into jails in faraway lands?  I am sure the minister of Foreign Affairs might be wondering why all the cacophonies of noises on “Nigerians in Foreign Jails”. Nigerians in years past have been known to occupy some choice prisons all over the world. So why the buzz now?

However, give kudos to the National Assembly, especially the Diaspora Committee of the House of Representatives. The members immediately swung into action. They resolved to visit the Nigerians in jail to find out “what really went wrong” for them to be jailed. Mark it, the visits are to “find” out, and not to assist in getting these poor Nigerians out of jails. So from Brazil to South Africa, the members toured, lodged in choice hotels and visited the jail houses to make contacts with some of the prisoners.  Note: Some, not all. It will take the National Assembly 4-year term to make contact with all the prisoners. What an ingenuous way to bring justice to the Nigerians in jail.

It is gratifying to note that there have been results coming up from the visits. In one of their visits, members of the committee discovered in far away Brazilian jail a 72 year old woman.  The grandmother is reported to be cooling her heels in the dingy jail charged with drug offences. A grandmother who got greedy.

Trust our leaders not to be outdone. The Senate president, David Mark added his voice to the “analysis” when he said Nigerians who are charged with drug related offences are on their own because “if they break the laws there they should face the consequences. This is a warning to other Nigerians abroad. They cannot continue to tarnish our image.” And you shake your head and wonder what was going on in Mark’s head when he said this.

In all our analysis of this “Nigerians in Foreign Jails” scenario, not anybody has considered the role of the Nigerian government in pushing these Nigerians to foreign jails. How Nigerians run helter skelter to make ends meet, while our leaders are busy at home mismanaging and messing our economy.  We know in every society, there are career criminals, who live their lives in and out of the prison systems. However, looking at Nigerians in foreign jails, one is tempted to conclude that a sizeable percentage of the citizens may be behind bars for one avoidable reason or the other.

And the above brings us to the type of support systems the Nigerian government have in place for her citizens abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be compelled to release to the public how the various embassies all over the world offer support to citizens in distress abroad. It is pathetic to know that most Nigerians abroad do not know the ambassadors in their respective countries. Most have no idea where the consulate offices are located. This is not unusual because as Nigerians we know that rather than offer help, the staff at these consular offices may complicate issues by their demands for bribes.

Analysing this report, we need to examine the role of Nigeria embassies. According to the report of the Chairman of the Diaspora Committee of the House of Representative, Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa most of these citizens are in jail for two reasons, among others. These are:  [1] Being Nigerians – they are condemned even before being heard. [2] Some of the prisoners had no good legal representation.  According to Dabiri-Erewa some of them are getting double years for their crime.
Back to the Nigerian embassies. These embassies are known to carry on in these countries as if they are there to “hurt” the interests of Nigerians. I am aware that for every British citizen arrested outside UK, there is diplomatic agreement that the UK Consular office in the ‘arresting’ country must be informed, so they can provide legal assistance. Do we have something like this in place in our embassies? I doubt.

So the reorientation should start, not from Nigerians at home or diaspora [in prison or free] but with the Nigerian embassies. The tolerance of fellow Nigerians by the Nigeria embassies is disgraceful. If there is good relationship between the embassies and citizens with the understanding that offenders can at least get basic legal support from the embassies, there may be a slight reduction in the number of Nigerians thrown to jail abroad on daily basis.

And to the career Nigerian criminals, listen now and listen good, reference to the Gospel according to David Mark, you either change your ways, or you make the foreign jails your permanent domicile.

This article was written by Babajide Morakinyo Alabi for GistUs

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