That bad news typically commands more attention than good is an observation as old as the media industry itself, and recent reports regarding the activities of Nigerians outside the country merely underscore the continued accuracy of this observation. Three weeks ago, Nigerians at home and abroad reacted with pride to international media reports on the exploits of eight-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi, who, while living with his refugee parents in a homeless shelter, won the New York State Scholastic Chess Championships. The chess prodigy’s parents had fled their home in northern Nigerian in 2017 as Boko Haram launched a spate of ferocious attacks on official and civilian targets.
Nigerians’ celebrations of the good news of master Adewumi’s exploits in New York were cut short following media reports last week that the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had executed a Nigerian woman, Kudirat Afolabi, a widow and mother of two, after a trial for drug-related crimes. Also executed on the same day in the holy city of Mecca were two Pakistani men and a Yemen national. As it happens, the shock of Afolabi’s execution had hardly subsided when reports came in of the arrest of five Nigerians (Chimuanya Emmanuel Ozoh, Benjamin Nwachukwu Ajah, Kingsley Ikenna Ngoka, Tochukwu Leonard Alisi, and Chile Micah Ndunagu) for allegedly robbing a bureau de change operator of Dhs 2.3 million (N225.4 million) in Sharjah, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) city on the Arabian Gulf. Following this incident, the UAE authorities allegedly announced that Nigerian travelers are no longer eligible for the popular three-month UAE tourist visa. This report has however been denied.
The reaction of Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa, to the execution of Afolabi by the Saudi state epitomises the general perplexity of Nigerians. In a statement signed by her Senior Assistant on Media, Abdur-Rahman Balogun, Abike-Erewa appealed to the Saudi authorities to “temper justice with mercy especially on offences that carry capital punishment,” even as she enjoined Nigerians in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to avoid criminality and “be good ambassadors” of the country.
Dabiri-Erewa is clearly hamstrung as she cannot ask another country not to implement its laws. What she can do, and something that her statement already gestures at, is insist that court cases involving Nigerians comply with international legal standards, which means, inter alia, access to legal representation for the accused. Several human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have had occasions to express reservations about the opacity of the Saudi legal process. In addition to insisting on fair and transparent trial for Nigerians, we urge Dabiri-Erewa’s office to embark on a public enlightenment campaign to educate Nigerian travellers on the need to be sensitive to the varying norms and legal cultures in different countries around the world. Such a campaign might not deter hardened criminals, but it might sow a welcome seed of doubt in the minds of young men and women whose ignorance makes them susceptible to recruitment by criminal gangs.
At all events, it doesn’t require a degree in sociology to see that these reports — the good, the bad, and the ugly — have common roots and evoke a common set of questions on the state of affairs in today’s Nigeria. A combination of widespread insecurity and a get-rich-quick mentality fostered by a dearth of social opportunity has created a generation of Nigerians who are compelled to either seek greener pastures abroad (master Adewumi and his parents in exile) or take their chances outside the law. The nation is confronted with a crisis that exists beyond the scope and capacity of the office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora. It needs to act decisively.