Sorry state of Nigeria’s foreign missions

REFLECTING the prevalent culture of maladministration at home, reports on the dilapidated condition of Nigerian embassies and missions abroad further sully the country’s international image and deserve decisive remedial action. The sorry state of the foreign missions was graphically captured by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, who while meeting with the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, deplored their poor funding, filthy environment, poor working conditions and crumbling infrastructure. This is a challenge for the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and Onyeama to project a favorable image for the country.

An embassy or foreign mission is the main diplomatic representation of a country in another country. Serving as the main channel of communication between two countries, an embassy undertakes important government functions, which include formulating various treaties between countries, arranging visits from high-ranking government officials, and so on.

Besides, embassies or consulates are entrusted with the responsibility of promulgating their national culture and foreign policies within the host country. Sadly, the rot and deplorable governance at home is being replicated at the country’s missions abroad. Gbajabiamila said, “Even within Africa or outside of Africa, we call people ambassadors. I think the meaning of ambassador is very clear. They are a reflection of Nigeria. But when an ambassador does not have a car or his car is 15 years old and it breaks down every single time, the car has even broken down with me in it before. And they had to hurriedly roll up the Nigerian flag and put it in their pockets to avoid embarrassment. You go to an embassy, ​​the toilet is not working. You ask them why? They say there is no money. You go into an embassy the air conditioners have packed up. I can go on and on.”

Onyeama confirmed the funding gap, recalling that most of the country’s over 100 foreign missions had been complaining of poor funding. This prompted the government in 2019 to shut down three embassies, those in Prague, Czech Republic; Belgrade, Serbia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka. That of Kyiv, Ukraine, was downsized.

Ironically, in the same year, about 80 percent of the country’s foreign missions were not captured for funding in the 2019 appropriation bill submitted to the National Assembly. It was revealed that many Nigerian ambassadors were unable to pay their children school fees, rent, electricity, medical and other utility bills. The foreign affairs ministry allegedly owed both volunteers and its staff over N4.9 billion entitlements.

Aside from the uncomplimentary working conditions, many embassies reportedly lack good vehicles and other common facilities, which had given the embassy workers the cover to engage in extortion and passport racketeering. Many mission buildings and common infrastructure were said to be in terrible condition with some landlords embarrassing the country over rent.

Unpalatable outcomes have arisen. In February 2020, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Department disclosed that the Nigerian High Commission owed over £7 million arising from 58,102 unpaid charges in 2018 alone.

Last month, a former deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Shehu Sani, alleged that 60 per cent of the buildings used by Nigerian embassies abroad were rented. He said this had not only resulted in high costs for the country but had also created an avenue for diplomatic staff to fleece the treasury through inflated rent charges. Gbajabiamila agreed that the inadequate funding of the foreign missions had increased corruption and inefficiency.

Buhari and Onyeama need to act swiftly. Nigeria’s international image is at its lowest, rivaling the near-pariah status it sank to during the brutal military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, 1993-98. Its rankings on corruption, freedom, human development indices, crime and terrorism are among the worst in the world. Its economy, though the largest in Africa, is disarticulated and has lost its allure as an investment destination, falling behind Egypt, South Africa and Ghana.

With the poor state of public finances, realistically, the number of missions should be rationalized further. Countries can be grouped under one main embassy covering some foreign regions. First to go should be the missions at global religious bodies; they have little practical value for the country. Priority in staffing and funding should be accorded to Nigeria’s largest trade partners and countries that best serve Nigeria’s economic and development interests.

Beyond the lamentations, the NASS must quickly rescue the foreign missions by ensuring adequate budgetary provisions for their revival as the international face of the country. The 2022 Appropriations Act authorizes embassies to spend the capital components of their budget without approval from the ministry. This should be enforced but under strict oversight. The country must boost its revenue to be able to fund this important international assignment.

At the heart of the rot is the government’s lack of vision in articulating clear strategies in the maintenance of the nation’s foreign missions. Despite years of international diplomacy, Nigeria does not have a department that oversees embassies’ construction or maintenance. Though there is an inspectorate unit in the foreign affairs ministry, its impact is questionable. The blight on foreign policy is aggravated by the appointment of unfit politicians and cronies over career diplomats.

The United States Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, for example, provides safe, functional, resilient facilities that represent the US government to the host nation and advance US foreign policy objectives abroad. The missions’ facilities are projected to represent American values ​​and the best in American architecture, design, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution. Since the start of the US State Department’s Capital Security Construction Program in 1999, it has completed 171 new diplomatic facilities and currently has more than 50 active projects, either in design or under construction worldwide. This is the model Nigeria should aspire to emulate.

The objectives of attracting foreign investment, opening up foreign markets for Nigerian goods and services, and forging mutually beneficial cultural and political ties should be paramount. Safe, secure and functional and well-funded embassies are essential to bringing this into reality.

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