Friday, July 24, 2009

Electronic passport as Nigeria's image purifier

THE project on re-branding Nigeria has attracted so much attention that we completely forgot about an important and strategic feature of a related campaign to re-position Nigeria's image in the international community through the new electronic passport (e-passport). All commendations must go to Turai Yar'Adua, President Umaru Yar'Adua's wife, who visited Brussels in the last week of June 2009 and reminded us how our new electronic passport is quietly transforming the image of Nigeria.

This is the best idea I have read so far since the Federal Government launched its controversial project designed to change the way Nigeria and Nigerians are perceived by other countries. If not for the obvious conflict of interest implications, I would have recommended that Mrs Yar'Adua should be appointed immediately to an adjunct position as Nigeria's Roving Ambassador on Image Re-design.

What revolutionary ideas did Turai Yar'Adua raise in Brussels that we have not heard before? Well, here you have it. She told her audience: "Our international passport is now electronic and only genuine Nigerians who provide the required data get access to it. This has added to our good image and restored to Nigerians abroad the lost dignity."

Did Mrs Yar'Adua say that the new electronic passport has "restored to Nigerians abroad the lost dignity"? Where? When? How? It is absolutely nonsensical to suggest that the new electronic passport has restored to Nigerians residing overseas the dignity they lost a long time ago. It will take much more than a passport change before the world can begin to view us differently. Mrs Yar'Adua's enthusiastic comment must have been driven by an overflowing sentiment for some kind of national re-birth. More troubling is that her statement was cooked and garnished with fallacy. If Mrs Yar'Adua's objective was to make us believe that Nigeria's image has changed positively since her husband became president, she should have a quiet talk to the people who are on the receiving end of western stereotypes directed at Nigerians.

The best way to establish the truth in Mrs Yar'Adua's assertion is to subject it to a practical test. That test would involve asking all Nigerians residing overseas - especially those who hold the new electronic passport - whether they have experienced any significant change in the way they are perceived by their host country or whether they have noticed a change in the way they are treated at international airports.

Mrs Yar'Adua seems stuck on her idea about the effectiveness of the new electronic passport to override past transgressions committed by Nigerians when she argued: "Sometimes those prostitutes in Europe who claim to be Nigerians are not Nigerians; but I agree that they are Africans, but certainly not all of them are Nigerians." According to ThisDay newspaper, Mrs Yar'Adua spoke as a guest of the executive members of the "Nigerians in the Diaspora Organisation Europe (NIDOE)", as well as the Nigerian Business Group in Europe, members of some NGOs that are located in Europe and officials of the Nigerian embassy.

Mrs Yar'Adua believes that the anti-forgery features of the new electronic passport, as well as the processes that applicants have to go through before they can receive the new passport, have made it difficult for non-Nigerians to obtain the passport. Of course, non-Nigerians have no business lining up to receive Nigerian passports. Okay, now that only genuine Nigerians can access the electronic passport, should we expect a significant reduction in the number of crimes committed by genuine Nigerians? Mrs Yar'Adua must be careful not to advertise the flawed impression that only non-Nigerians are involved in criminal schemes.

While it is true that a number of convicted criminals serving time in various prisons in different parts of the world are not genuine Nigerians by birth or citizenship (even if they hold Nigerian passports which they obtained fraudulently), we must honestly admit also that Nigeria did not lose its image on the basis that many foreigners used false Nigerian passports to commit crimes.

I am not persuaded that the new electronic passport has positively transformed the image of Nigeria and Nigerians in the eyes of the rest of the world. Nigeria lost international respect a long time ago owing to a number of reasons. These include but are not limited to the involvement of Nigerians - private individuals and government officers, students and teachers, legislators and lawyers, politicians and military leaders, pastors and members of their congregation -- in so many criminal activities such as illicit drug trafficking, "419" financial fraud, insurance scams, and the manufacture of many twisted ideas designed to beat the law at home and overseas.

It is simplistic to suggest that the new electronic passport has fixed Nigeria's image problem. It hasn't. And it will not change in any considerable manner the way the world perceives Nigeria and Nigerians. If it was that easy, if all that every country had to do to change its image was to change its passport, we wouldn't be where we are today. Nigerians at home and overseas, who have been demonised and stereotyped by the international community because of the iniquitous conduct of a few other Nigerians, would have regained public respect easily by switching to a new electronic passport.

If passport change was all we needed to regain our image, a new market on passport re-design would have sprung up all over the world. And the Federal Government would not have plunged itself into the contentious enterprise officially intended to re-brand Nigeria.

Here is the fallacy in Mrs Yar'Adua's patriotic but baseless comment. The new electronic passport has not and will not make customs officers, drug law enforcement agents, quarantine and immigration officers at international airports across the world to extend to Nigerian passport holders the same privileges they accord to holders of other countries' passports. It just won't happen because the electronic passport will not change the mindset that overseas law officers have against Nigerians, the negative stereotypes that are cast on many Nigerian passport holders, and western perceptions of Nigerians as dishonest people, drug pushers and financial fraud scammers?

Nigeria's image problem is not so much about the Nigerian passport. The problem lies with the name Nigeria -- and what Nigerians have done to damage that name. When customs officers at international airports sight the name Nigeria on a passport, they become hysterical not because of the colour of the passport but because of the criminality associated with the name Nigeria.

The behaviour and attitude of western officials to Nigerian passport holders is simply a reflection of the pictures in their heads about the capacity of Nigerians to invent and implement criminal ideas with relative ease. We may not like it but that is the message that runs through the brains of western officials whenever they identify Nigerians. Westerners commit similar or worse crimes but their officers often do not express as much alarm as they do when Nigerians are involved. There is something in the mind of western officials, particularly those officers at international airports, which tells them to do any of the following when they cite Nigerians: to run for cover, to raise their level of alertness or to guard their loincloth.

To argue that mere possession of Nigeria's new electronic passport has wiped away the negativity that is associated with many things Nigerian is to stretch optimism to a new level. Mrs Yar'Adua would like that to happen but the facts on the ground are not in accord with her perceptions. To be sure, the rigorous processes required before applicants are issued with Nigeria's new electronic passport will reduce the blatant abuses that marred the image of the old passport and the holders of that passport. But it will not change the way the world reacts to the name Nigeria. Our faults are not in our passport but in our national name.

To change our image, we don't necessarily need to change our passport. We must do a lot of things. First, we must change our behaviour, the way we do things, our orientation toward obtaining goods and services through dishonest means, our inclination toward corrupt enrichment, our fondness for evading tax, our veneration of looters of public treasury, our perception of government property as nobody's property, and our acceptance of corrupt practice as the right way to do things.