Ambassador Ahmed Umar is Nigeria's Consul General in charge of the country's mission in Jeddah in the Holy Land.
In this interview with Auwalu Umar he opens up on a variety of issues ranging from Nigerians begging in the country, image of the country, Muharram, Nigeria-Saudi relations, are detainees in the country etc.
It is now almost six months since your posting to Saudi Arabia as Consul General of Nigeria in Jeddah. What challenges have you faced so far?
I give thanks and gratitude to the Almighty Allah for the opportunity, especially one such as this. One is given the singular opportunity to serve our people in the Holy land. It is by no means an easy one. However, being a career diplomat with experience spanning over three decades, I believe I am well equipped to handle these enormous responsibilities which I found on the ground and which were beyond my expectation in Jeddah. I cannot say there isn't, there are issues, rather than challenges. However, all the issues are within my competence to handle satisfactorily.
What is your take on the controversy over Muharram (an approved male relative on a trip, preferably a husband, father or brother) during the last hajj exercise that nearly marred the existing ties between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia?
You have to look at things in context. Saudi Arabia is a country that has over two million Nigerians, and secondly, it is the only country where you find the largest concentration of people, even visitors at a particular time or twice a year.For instance, during the last Umrah season in Ramadan, we had more than 60,000 Nigerian pilgrims performing their religious rites and during the hajj period, where over 90,000 Nigerians performed the hajj. You should expect that the movement of a thousand people from one end to another could be quite challenging, even within the same country. Each Hajj comes with its own peculiarities and distinct challenges, and the last one also came with its own. However, I believe there is a direct bearing on the issue of the Muharram, issue of the bad image which we have in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, things have not really changed for good, particularly as it relates to Nigeria or the perception of a Nigerian citizen. But we are interacting with our people and the Saudi authorities, with a clear understanding of the problems. We are also reporting the issues to the Federal Government, with our recommendations and measures needed to be taken in order to overcome these challenges.
Which bad image?
The problems are numerous, but I could just mention some. Definitely, one is the problem of begging. Begging is a very serious problem which is tarnishing our image, and negatively affecting our reputation in the Kingdom. You also have the issue of other crimes allegedly being committed by our people, such as petty theft or stealing and other social vices. Then, of course, the other problems are those directly affecting our people by the very virtue of their being residents in Saudi Arabia. These are just some of the problems.
Is it only Nigeria that is having this kind of problem in Saudi Arabia?
You see, unfortunately, Nigeria, being a very big country with the largest immigrant community in Saudi Arabia, has its own share of bad eggs. However, Nigerians are not the only immigrants that are involved in these bad habits. There are some other nationals, especially from Africa south of the Sahara, but most times if you see somebody from Chad, Ghana, Cameroon, Niger etc, the tendency is always for one to assume that he is a Nigerian. But, of course, that does not mean to say our people are not partaking in these deplorable acts.
Does the consulate have the statistics of Nigerians who are roaming the streets and begging?
Truly, we don't have the statistics, but from what we always see and from the reports we receive from our people in Makkah and the community itself, we have quite a good number of Nigerians involved in the bad trade.
What are you doing to avoid the repeat of the controversy?
So much has happened during the Muharam issue, and part of the solution to the problem, was that we went back to the drawing board. All the visas of the various affected pilgrims were realigned and they were assigned physical Muharams. It was not something that was completely new, but we have learnt something from it. I have also had discussions with the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, and there have been so many measures put in place to ensure that in future all female pilgrims are duly assigned real Muharams. At the same time our position on the issue has been tabled before the Saudi authorities, and we are hoping that when the opportunity arises, the matter will be further discussed.
In practical terms, what are you doing to tackle the trend?
We are having a two-pronged approach to it. One approach is internal, that is, by sensitizing our people on the dangers of the practice through regular Consular visits. In this connection, we have visited various communities and had interactive sessions with them, during which they brought up their problems and we recommended interim measures needed to be taken before the authorities step in. The issue of begging has always been highlighted even by members of the communities themselves during such visits. We are hoping that the Saudi authorities will join hands with us to fight this menace, particularly as we don't have the police or other law enforcement agencies in the kingdom. In Nigeria, based on my recommendations, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru has approved the convening of a meeting of all stakeholders responsible for issues bordering on immigrants or immigration, and particularly the Ministry of Internal Affairs, NAPTIP and other security agencies. I hope when the meeting comes up, we would participate so that we can place the issues in their proper perspective with a view to finding lasting solutions to the problems.
It has been observed that Nigerians are still facing a lot of problems, ranging from arbitrary arrests/detention without notifying the Consulate, and delay in the release of convicts who have already served their prison terms. Why is this so?
As I said earlier, most of the problems that you hear about, have arisen from the negative perception about our people. But as a government, we are continuously taking up the issues that come to our attention, whenever our people are involved. As far as we are concerned, a Nigerian is a Nigerian and we are here to protect them irrespective of their situation. Consequently, we are continuously engaging the host authorities and they have been quite cooperative, particularly the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Makkah Branch, Ambassador Mohammad Ahmad Tayeb, who has been very supportive in finding solutions to our mutual problems. I believe more will be done when we meet with them on the table during the forthcoming meeting on Migration Issues between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Just last week you organised a reception for Nigerians resident in Saudi Arabia, during which some Nigerians and other personalities were honoured for various reasons. What really informed the event?
It is part of the effort being made to tackle the image problem. Truly, we have good Nigerians here, very industrious and enterprising who are even in the majority. However, they are quite silent. You only hear about cases of the very few who are the bad eggs, who don't really portray the good image of an average Nigerian. So we came to realize that, considering the number of Nigerians in the Kingdom and the importance of Saudi Arabia, particularly to Muslims or those who frequently visit the Kingdom, it became imperative that we take steps to salvage the image and reputation of Nigerians in the kingdom. It was said in the past that if there was any problem between two people, once a Nigerian is called as a witness, whatever he says, stands, as nobody doubted his integrity then. Unfortunately, over time, things have degenerated to where we are today. With all these developments, I felt, as a first step, we have to salvage the image and encourage our people to do good deeds. We also encourage the community leaders to be role models in their various communities, in order to provide good leadership to our people, as a way of complimenting the efforts of the Mission in resolving issues at the community level. It is gratifying to note that things are getting better, particularly now that we have highly organized Nigerian communities in Makkah, Madinah and Taif. However, the Jeddah community is not as organized, but we have taken steps to unify them as we have already drafted a Constitution and inaugurated an Electoral Committee, to organize elections for them as one people, and that is what we seek to achieve within the next few weeks. The people are supporting the efforts, having realized the need for them to come together and have a unified organization to join the league of Makkah, Madinah and Taif. In Jeddah, we have quite a good number of Nigerians estimated to be between 600,000 and 700,000, so you cannot afford to have such number of people in disarray. It is therefore, our responsibility as a Mission to bring them together, and make sure they live harmoniously and behave well.
Why did it take you all this while to organise such an event?
Having realized the magnitude of the problem, we resolved to organize this unique and distinct Award Night ceremony, which I am glad to say, has been institutionalized and blessed by the Federal Government in line with Mr. President's Transformation Agenda. From now on, it is going to be an Annual event ,and I am sure Nigerians have been fully charged and motivated, and they will be looking forward to the next one. Now it has raised awareness among Nigerians, and people have come to realize that it is all about selfless service.It is all about doing good for the community, and whatever you do, one day unknown to you, government will recognize and appreciate the contributions you have made in making Nigeria look better, and indeed Nigerians are accorded respected with dignity.
Given the problems here and there, as they affect Nigerians in the kingdom, how would you describe the existing ties between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia?
There is no situation that cannot be improved upon, and right now things are getting better, and there is mutual respect between our two countries.
There is also the issue of education and healthcare services which many Nigerians resident in the kingdom are being denied. For example, even children of those with approved resident permits could not further their education beyond the secondary school level. What are you doing to tackle the situation?
It is indeed a problem and also the communities have highlighted this to us. As I have said we have brought these issues to our government, and it will form part of the discussions that will take place eventually with the Saudi authorities. We are also talking to the communities in exploring ways and means to have a Nigerian school established in the Kingdom.
What consular services does the consulate offer?
Upon my arrival, I think barely after a week or so, I appointed an in-house Committee that was mandated to review all our operations, and explore the possibility of making it easier for our people to obtain all the services offered by the Consulate General. I even went further to task the Committee to go round the various communities in Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah and Taif to talk to the people, hear their views on the services being rendered to them by the Consulate General and the challenges they face. The Committee has since completed its assignment , and we are now at the stage of implementing the Recommendations. Meanwhile, we have taken quite a number of measures, including the provision of Computers to the various communities to assist them, particularly in the area of passport application. The passport issuance has been quite liberalized, and we have been dealing with the issue of touts who have been extorting money from innocent Nigerians. We have also improved security measures at the Consulate General, with a view to stopping people who have nothing to do at the mission from gaining access or loitering around. We have also made people to understand that our doors are always open even after office hours when there is a genuine need. As a responsive Mission, sometimes we don't even enjoy the normal breaks, because we understand and appreciate the problems of our people, and they need to be helped beyond even the call of duty.
Apart from the annual hajj exercise, are there other areas of collaboration between the two countries?
Yes, the relations between the two countries date from time immemorial, even before the formal establishment of our Mission in the Kingdom. This Mission was one of the first to be established in the Nigerian Foreign Service. There are so many opportunities and potentials that are waiting to be tapped, and part of the mandate given to me was to ensure that we re-focus attention to the issue of trade, commerce and investment. The Consulate General is already devising strategies, part of which is collaboration and working closely with the Jeddah chamber of commerce, which is quite respected and formidable organization that can promote trade and investment between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. The Chamber has embraced us to the extent that they have invited Nigeria to the forthcoming Annual Jeddah Economic Forum scheduled to take place in March, 2013. I was told that last year the Forum attracted over 60 countries; therefore, I believe it is an opportunity for Nigeria to showcase its business and investment potentials. We have also been given the rare opportunity to have a side meeting during the Forum to discuss with other investors the business climate in Nigeria, particularly as it relates to the issue of attracting foreign investment.
When last did the Nigerian president or head of state visit Saudi Arabia as a way of fostering better relations between the two countries?
I would rather tell you what we have planned for the future, because that is what will give hope. Mr President, I am told, is very keen and interested in paying an official visit to Saudi Arabia, and we are hoping that will be soon. Apart from the visit of Mr. President, I just want to add that our Foreign Affairs Minister, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru has already instructed us to arrange a visit for him to visit his Saudi counterpart, and we are working on that. That is another good signal, we are taking this relationship very seriously, and at the end of the day, it will be for the good of our people and countries.
What do you think Nigeria stands to gain from Mr. President's visit?
There are so many benefits when you have a visit at the highest level. It usually provides a faster means by which bilateral issues are resolved. We hope that if such a visit takes place, it will pave the way for the creation of a Joint Commission or even a Bi-National Commission between the two countries, where major bilateral issues could be discussed at least twice in a year. This is a faster way to carry out modern diplomacy, as you don't allow problems to degenerate or to go out of context.
How would you advise Nigerians coming to Saudi Arabia for either the hajj or for other reasons?
My advice to anybody coming to Saudi Arabia is that he/she should try to know the dos' and don'ts. There is a compilation which we have made from this end, and forwarded to the National Hajj Commission as our contribution in the enlightenment campaign. Whenever you are coming to Saudi Arabia or any other country, don't take things for granted, because you can easily fall into trouble. Like the issue of drugs, even if you are on prescription drugs, make sure you always carry with you the Doctor's prescription, and take a reasonable quantity of the prescribed drugs, that can only last for the duration of your visit. That will save you from trouble and other avoidable inconveniences. All visitors should try to understand that it is a different society with a different culture. Each country has its own rules and regulations. Therefore, try to understand them before you start coming, and when you come here, remember the weight of Nigeria is on you too. Each Nigerian arriving here is an Ambassador in his own right, and whatever you do will reflect on the general perception of Nigerians.
What are you doing to secure the release of Nigerians who have finished serving their prison terms, but are still in detention?
We have been working with the Saudi authorities on this issue. Ordinarily, if a person completes his/her prison term, the person should be released immediately, otherwise it will amount to double punishment. In this regard, efforts are being made to ensure that such problems are resolved as quickly as possible, because we are equally concerned.
Do you have the census of those still in detention?
The last we heard some time ago is the list of Nigerian convicts in the whole of Saudi Arabia, not only in Jeddah or Makkah. They are estimated at 185.
What is your vision for future relationship between our two countries?
My vision is to see my country having a very deep relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, based on the principle of mutual respect and trust. My vision also is to see Nigerians in Saudi Arabia doing better than they are today, and to see the good image of Nigeria restored, with Nigerians being respected in Saudi Arabia, just like any other citizens of the world.