By Levi Obijiofor
I met him for the first time on Wednesday, 20 February 2013. My family and I had travelled to Canberra, Australia’s federal capital, to apply for the reissue of my wife’s e-passport which was due to expire at the end of March 2013. Ahead of that, and against the background of my last unsavoury experience in 2009, I had asked a friend of mine here in Queensland (Australia) where I reside whether he knew anyone at the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra. He simply said I shouldn’t worry because, in his judgment, there is a new culture that informs the work ethic at the High Commission. Just go, he said. The flight from Brisbane to Canberra lasted for one hour and 30 minutes.
When we stepped in front of the reception desk at the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra, located at 26 Guilfoyle Street, at Yarralumla suburb of Canberra, the delectable receptionist smiled and asked whom we had come to see. I told her I had an appointment to meet with the High Commissioner. She picked up the phone, spoke for less than half a minute and asked us to follow her upstairs.
The VIP treatment was exceptional. I never expected that a Nigerian diplomat in an overseas country would be so affable, amiable, easy to reach, and accommodating to someone he has never met. As we were about to settle into the sofas in the waiting room, the High Commissioner burst out of his office and welcomed us warmly. He was unassuming. He spoke in a mixture of the Nigerian pidgin English and the Queen’s English. You felt as if you were somewhere in Nigeria, in your classmate’s office.
He introduced me to the consular and administrative staff, and showed me round the offices, including the rooms hosting the equipment for the production and capturing of data for e-passport applicants. Later, he hosted my family and I to lunch in a restaurant located atop a mountain from where you can catch a bird’s eye view of the city of Canberra. During lunch, Olukanni spoke passionately about Nigeria, how his team in the High Commission is pursuing their vision of transforming the High Commission. Building on the achievements of his predecessors, he drew attention to how the High Commission has been able to promote greater awareness among Australians of the agricultural potentials of Nigeria, including the rich mining sector.
With regard to the increased interest of Australian investors in the mining sector, he was quick to give credit to the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development in Nigeria. In this regard, he expressed gratitude to, and praise for, the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Architect Musa Sada and the officials of the various agencies of that ministry, such as the Mining Cadaster Ministry, for helping to boost the interest of Australian investors at the annual Africa-Down Under Mining Conference in Perth (Western Australia). For Olukanni, the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra is simply providing the logistic support to that ministry and implicitly the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan.
After lunch, we returned to the High Commission and waited for our evening appointment. Every month, the Nigerian High Commission in Australia nominates a date on which Nigerian citizens seeking to apply for the re-issue of their expired e-passport can visit the High Commission for that purpose. Every thing about Australia is different. It is about the only country that enjoys the status of a subcontinent. Even in the Internet age in which everyone is just a click away from reaching the country, Australia still suffers from the tyranny of distance. That means that when the rest of the world is asleep, Australia is awake. When the world is awake and actively at work, Australia is asleep. So, for the purpose of processing applications for the reissue of biometric passports, appointments kick-start after work at the local time of 6p.m. in Canberra.
Expectedly, some Nigerians have protested the after-hour appointment, which commits them to staying overnight in Canberra with the associated costs of hotel accommodation, transportation and feeding. The High Commission has pleaded for everyone’s understanding, as the after-work appointment was due to the fact that the eastern coast of Australia is 10 hours ahead of Nigeria. Olukanni explained that the 6p.m. appointment time was designed to enable applicants to come in when the Immigration Office in Abuja would be open so the consular staff in Canberra could gain access to applicants’ records held in the Immigration database in Abuja.
Based on my experiences in Canberra, the processes of applying for an e-passport re-issue is now easy, hassle-free and stress-free. Applicants who have confirmed their appointments with the High Commission are listed on a first-come-first-served basis. Before booking an appointment with the High Commission, applicants are required to log into the website of Nigeria’s Immigration Service to complete an online application form to facilitate prompt processing of the passports.
The consular staff who process and produce the new e-passport stay in the High Commission sometimes beyond 1a.m. at least once a month. On 20 February 2013 when my wife attended her appointment, two consular staff stayed in the office beyond 1a.m. It is refreshing to see a small group of consular staff of the Nigerian High Commission in Australia putting in extra energy to render commendable service to their fatherland. The staff of the High Commission deserve the highest praise and respect for the selfless service they render to Nigerians in Australia and other adjoining countries.
At Nigeria’s High Commission in Australia, the small group of consular staff works long hours and stay overtime and yet their faces are plastered with everlasting warm smiles. They hardly complain. They attend to visitors with a degree of level-headedness that is not normally associated with public servants in Nigeria. Visitors to the High Commission in Canberra are accorded the highest level of courtesy regardless of their ethnic background, religious affiliation, political ideology, and state of origin.
Later in the evening of 20 February, 2013, just about 6.35p.m., when all offices had closed, the High Commissioner and his wife drove into the High Commission to ensure that everything was going on well. That was extraordinary. At a time you thought the High Commissioner would be in his residence enjoying dinner with his family, he drove to the office to ensure that everything was going on smoothly. This is beyond the call of duty and a service many public servants in Nigeria would be unwilling to render to their homeland. Even more astonishing is that some applicants are given their new e-passport on the spot on the same day. Some others are advised to expect the passports in the mail the following week. And the High Commission always delivers.
It must be pointed out that the Nigerian High Commission in Australia has concurrent accreditation to four Pacific Island countries namely New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. This implies that Nigerian citizens who reside in these countries must go to the High Commission of Nigeria in Australia to receive consular services such as passport issue, re-issue and visa related matters. However, the High Commission, in cooperation with members of the Nigerian community and their respective associations in the various countries and across Australia, often conducts passport intervention exercises outside Canberra to address the passport needs of Nigerians and also as a way to meet, interact and bond with members of the Nigerian community.
Perhaps the greatest surprise to me, indeed an act of magnanimity beyond compare that came from the High Commissioner, was when he gave money to my little daughter. I was stunned. I protested. He simply replied in Pidgin English saying “I know say na Australia we dey but na so we dey take care of our children for Nigeria. If I dey there the day una dey do naming for the child, at least I go put money for water. No be so? I was disarmed. Here was a man, a senior public servant, treating all visitors to the High Commission as if they were his brothers and sisters. The generosity of spirit that Olukanni showed to my family and I will remain etched in my mind forever.
At the end of the day, one of the consular staff (names withheld) drove my family and I back to our hotel accommodation. We were more than impressed. Certainly, there is a new tradition of exceptional service being rendered to Nigerians by staff of the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra. Indeed, this is one Nigerian Diplomatic Mission (and I have been across many) which has added a new dimension to the concept of customer service. When I hinted at this, the High Commissioner argued that this is indeed what happens in many Nigerian missions abroad. He said the only problem is that Nigerians in the Diaspora are quick to condemn Nigerian diplomatic missions overseas, unaware of the invaluable services the missions render to Nigerians in the Diaspora.
Nigerian senior government officials have a nasty reputation for being standoffish, snobbish, distant, cold, haughty, arrogant, self-absorbed, conceited, and full of airs. None of these character traits was evident in the way the staff of the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra approached visitors and attended to their job. This is, of course, a reflection of the leadership in the High Commission.
It is said that a people perish without a vision. No sooner did Olukanni arrive in his new post in Australia in July 2011 than he and his staff sat down to articulate what was described as “A Road Map and Operational Goals” to serve as a guide for the activities of the High Commission in accordance with the mandate of government to promote the welfare of Nigerians in Australia and embark on an aggressive drive for foreign investment. Of particular interest to me, and many Nigerians who have been here for some time, is the Draft Programme of Cooperation with the Nigerian Community, which the High Commission circulated to various associations of Nigerians in Australia and regularly gives to anyone who visits the Chancery. The document is the framework for interaction with Nigerian communities across Australia. It suggests specific areas of cooperation such as migration and development, role of Nigerians in the Diaspora in Nigeria’s development, the role of the media in promoting a positive image of Nigeria, and harnessing Nigeria’s cultural heritage strategies for improving the services provided by the High Commission.
I should point out that the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra is open to constructive criticisms. This is an innovative and intellectual approach in the way the High Commission interacts with Nigerians who reside in Australia and the other countries in the Pacific region. This has been the framework for greater cooperation between the High Commission and Nigerian communities in various Australian cities such as the Nigerian Association in Western Australia (NAWA), Perth; Nigerian Society in Victoria (NSV), Melbourne; the Nigerian Community Association in Queensland (NCAQ), Brisbane; and the Nigerian Society in Adelaide (capital of South Australia). Olukanni explained that the document was the force that inspired the reactivation of the Nigerian Community in the Australian Capital Territory (NCA-ACT) and the Nigerian Association in New South Wales (Sydney) which has the largest concentration of Nigerians in Australia.
As part of the strategy to engage young Nigerians and to keep them away from the path of illegality, the High Commission has even encouraged the formation of a football team, the Nigerian Super Eagles of Canberra!
All these innovative approaches to work, interaction with Nigerian communities, and the boost in the relationship between Australians and Nigerians have received high praises from many Nigerians who reside in Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific Island countries, including those who require consular services. Within so short a time, things have changed positively in the High Commission of Nigeria in Australia. These transformations are verifiable.
Certainly, the new leadership and team at the Nigerian mission in Australia has demonstrated that all it takes to transform a diplomatic mission with a history of bad image are no more than strong leadership, personal initiatives, self-determination, commitment, self-sacrifices, team spirit, and the will to succeed. Prior to Olukanni’s arrival in Australia, everyone who went to the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra for some kind of consular services had some unpleasant tales to relate. I visited the High Commission to renew my old passport sometime in 2009 and I left the High Commission seething with anger. My experiences will be the subject of another essay.
At that time, it was even harder to access the High Commission staff through telephone numbers that were hardly answered by staff who were brash, cold, inattentive, and difficult to deal with. Not anymore. Now, there is a new perception about the High Commission through an extraordinary policy of direct engagement with Nigerians in the Diaspora, informed by a commitment to the belief that direct contact with Nigerians in the Diaspora is better and more rewarding. This was my observation at the Chancery. As Olukanni explained, the policy of direct engagement with Nigerians offers the High Commission firsthand insights into the problems that confront the Nigerian community in Australia and the range of consular services the mission should provide.
While an open door policy may not satisfy everyone, and while it may not be possible to attend to everyone’s needs and requests, it must be clarified, however, that direct interaction between the High Commission and Nigerians in the Diaspora is more productive. That strategy has obvious effect on the activities of the Chancery.
For 32 years, Olukanni (the High Commissioner) has served Nigeria impressively and commendably across the world. He has acquired valuable experiences and made personal sacrifices in his service to Nigeria. He said that, indeed, the Nigerian diplomatic service is brimming with Foreign Service officers who are much more experienced than himself. He described Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Ministry as one of the unique policy articulation and operational departments of government that has served Nigeria and Nigerians creditably, quietly and “in the shadows” for over 50 years. He said the ministry, right from its beginning in 1957 up till now, is packed with brilliant and hardworking and dedicated officers who sacrifice their entire working life for the advancement of Nigeria and the wellbeing of Nigerians.
Olukanni said philosophically: “You can’t be rich in the Foreign Service. It is a case of 30 days make one salary. And when land is being allocated at home you are far away! But you get the inner satisfaction of serving your country sometimes in the most difficult circumstances, including facing the blazing end of AK-47 in war zones!” He said it was now time to accord more recognition to the role of the Foreign Service in Nigeria’s developmental aspirations dating back to pre-independence since the ministry came into being in 1957 as part of preparations for Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
Some Nigerians in the Diaspora have a mean reputation for abusing senior diplomats and other consular staff because they see them as part of a Federal Government that is widely regarded as corrupt and problematic. Olukanni explained that diplomats are bound to face such people in the course of their work. He shrugged that off and said: “The best thing to do is to overlook the offensive attitudes of these categories of Nigerians in the Diaspora and remain focused. Usually, they come round to apologise when the results show you were, indeed, pursuing their best interest.” This, he said, is what has endeared him to the Nigerian community in Australia, in addition to his personal goodwill and generosity.
Asked what motivated him to adopt a policy of direct interaction with Nigerians in the Diaspora, Olukanni said: “This is how we were trained as career diplomats.” With philosophical calmness, he added: “I am simply doing what we were trained to do. So, I have cultivated the habit of directly reaching out to the Nigerian community either by email or telephone since I arrived in Australia. It’s a habit I imbibed over the 32 years of working across our missions abroad. As a career diplomat who has served in Brussels, New York (Permanent Mission to the United Nations), Tel Aviv, Nairobi and Vienna, I have come to the conclusion that direct contact with the people is of prime importance and it’s a posture that has served me well in effectively reaching out to Diaspora Nigerians in all the countries I have served. And believe me, this is how most Nigerian diplomats are irrespective of the stereotyping. I don’t think I am special in any way in this regard.”
Olukanni studied at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, from 1975 to 1979. He joined Nigeria’s Foreign Service in July 1980 after undertaking compulsory national service (i.e. the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC) in Jos, Plateau State. Between 1982 and 1983, he served in the Nigerian Embassy in Belgium, which also doubles as the Nigerian Mission to the European Commission. In 1984, he undertook a postgraduate diploma course in international law. Thereafter, he returned to diplomatic service. Between 1986 and 1989, he served in the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations in New York where he worked with the late General Joe Garba who was then Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
In 1989, he returned to Nigeria. In Nigeria, in response to his appetite for academic studies, he went back to school and enrolled in another postgraduate programme, this time at the University of Lagos. He graduated in 1991 with a Master’s degree in International Law and Diplomacy with emphasis in International Environmental Law. Other Nigerian diplomatic missions where he had served are Tel Aviv (Israel), Nairobi (Kenya) and Vienna (Austria). The last two are Nigerian United Nations missions where matters such as environment, human habitat, control of drugs, peaceful use of atomic energy and outer space, are dealt with.
It is important to note that Olukanni once served creditably as Director of Public Communications and Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs between April 2007 and March 2010. Perhaps his disposition towards the media informed the approach he has adopted in Australia. After all, journalists are people oriented. But he is not under any illusions about the extent of the daunting challenges that confront him and his consular staff, given that Nigeria’s diplomatic posts are perceived mostly by Nigerians in the Diaspora as centres of officialdom managed by indolent officials who are generally too self-absorbed, haughty, uncaring and irresponsible. This is one of the challenges that the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra has successfully overturned.
In order to reach out to Nigerians and other migrant community groups in Australia, the High Commission has redesigned its web site and is also making effective use of social media as evident in the mission’s Facebook page. Work is also continuing to make the site more user-friendly and as a repository for information on Nigeria.
On his overall goal of improving the image and profile of Nigeria and Nigerians in the Diaspora, Olukanni said: “Through various write-ups, we also continue to use the Nigerian media as a forum to project the image of the Nigerian community in Australia as a core of professionals and people who are true ambassadors with great potentials to contribute to national development from this far end corner of the world. We also draw attention to lessons Nigeria can learn from Australia as a strong mining nation.” In this regard, he pointed to two articles he published in a Nigerian newspaper. The articles were entitled “Wealth from our dirt” and “Australia so far yet so near”. These were published respectively in The Guardian newspaper of Friday, 28 October 2011 and Sunday, 27 November 2011.
Beyond his diplomatic duties, Olukanni is also a prolific writer. He writes opinion articles in Nigerian newspapers. He said he is also encouraging members of the Nigerian community to write and send opinion articles to Australian newspapers and electronic media as part of efforts to project a positive image of Nigeria. His words: “I am always telling my compatriots here that in an ICT age replete with online newspapers, thousands of FM radio and TV stations, how many radio and TV stations can we monitor from our little corner here on Guilfoyle Street in Canberra? The task of selling the Nigerian brand as a good and combating negative stereotyping to ensure a positive narrative of Nigeria and Nigerians abroad is not for the High Commission alone. It is a joint task with the Nigerian community. That is why it is our Road Map with the community.”
To promote closer interaction between the High Commission and Nigerian community groups in Australia, the High Commission has proposed a National Forum of Nigerian Communities in Australia. The group should be able to meet at least once a year. Olukanni said: “The vastness of Australia appears to have confined us to the respective states in which we are. Rotational meetings of the national forum in cities such as Canberra, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart, and so on will provide us an opportunity to know ourselves more and, of course, our sons and daughters of marriageable age a burgeoning generation and group in Australia can also of course benefit from this, if you get my drift. It will also help to mobilise the Nigerian Diaspora in Australia to support development efforts at various levels at home.”
Newspaper reports stating that Nigeria’s foreign missions are owed huge amounts of money cannot just be dismissed as rumour or incorrect representation of facts. Nigeria’s overseas missions that are not provided with basic funds to perform consular services will continue to struggle and make a mockery of the services they are widely expected to provide. It is an unfair practice that has tarnished Nigeria’s image in the international community. Lack of funds remains one major problem that has undermined the capacity of Nigerian diplomatic missions to function effectively. Newspaper reports also show that diplomats, consular and administrative staff were being owed months of salaries and allowances, not to mention basic funds for daily operations. It is this kind of laxity on the Foreign Affairs Ministry that has made the tasks confronting senior diplomats more difficult in their overseas postings.
During my discussion with Olukanni (the High Commissioner), he never mentioned the financial difficulties facing his mission that we so often hear of and read about and how he has gone about overcoming the problems. When I raised the issue directly, he simply replied: “The Ministry under the able leadership of Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, his two Honourable Ministers of State, Onwuluri and Bala, and of course the Permanent Secretary, Ambassador Martin Uhomibhi, are indeed doing their best and deserve commendation in the drive to find a lasting solution to this issue of adequate and regular remittance of funds to the Mission. They, however, need the support of the legislative arm of government. Remember we are now in a democracy.”
In the course of our discussion, while I was in Canberra, I observed that Olukanni also spoke fondly about his immediate and extended family and their support in the course of his work. He has been married to his lovely and equally delightful wife, Yemisi, for over 30 years. They are, indeed, a pair. They are blessed with three daughters. The first daughter is married. Olukanni and his wife now have a grandson.