“What gets me annoyed is when work is not done. If you do your work, you may slap me and I won’t get annoyed”. For those who know Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, Nigeria’s outgoing High Commissioner to the Court of St. James, the above statement, which he made at a valedictory interactive meeting with journalists in London last week , is not an empty outburst. It is a personal policy statement that perhaps sums up the attitude to work of the medical doctor-turned politician cum diplomat.
It’s an open secret at the high commission that the easiest way to court the astute politician’s ‘wrath and anger’ is to fail to do your work properly and on time. Officials of the embassy, including ministers, would rather stay late or even spend a whole night in the office to meet the high commissioner’s deadline or target than fail and risk being at the receiving end of his anger, which a senior minister once described as “dreadful and ferocious”.
When Dr Tafida took over in April 2008, the situation at the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, London, was a haven of flagrant corruption and abuse of office by some of the staffers, especially in the immigration section. Harassment, intimidation and mistreatment of visitors were so prevalent that many prospective customers for services rendered at the mission would rather patronise touts than go through the horrendous and humiliating processes for the services in person.
“I had to personally cause the removal of some immigration officers from the commission back to Nigeria,” Dr Tafida recalled, adding: “They were dishonest and engaged in shady deals”. Touts were operating around the commission openly, and as soon as the got hold of a potential customer, they would disappear in nearby Charing Cross or Embankment areas to strike a deal. Applicants paid as much as £700 (seven hundred pounds) for instant passports, but a chunk of the money went into the private pockets of the “dishonest officers” and the touts, while only a fraction was paid into government coffers.
In addition to the misdemeanour of staffers, the commission’s offices and equipment were in bad shape. Many office roofs, including that of the high commissioner, were leaking. Abuja House, the official residence of the high commissioner and many residences of senior officials were having the same problems. “Only two out of more than 40 toilets and urinals in the commission’s building were functional then, while the floors of many others had come off”, said one official. And the commission’s account was in the red by more than £3 million! (three million pounds). Staff salaries and overhead cost were being owed for months. The situation was really daunting, if not demoralising.
But Dr Tafida, being dogged and tenacious and experienced in tackling daunting challenges, set about cleansing the “Augean stable” at the commission. “I sanitised the high commission gradually”, he said, one thing after the other. But the cleansing and sanitisation exercise wasn’t as easy as it may sound because he faced the obvious problems of lack of funds and the usual bureaucratic bottlenecks that held things at a standstill for quite sometime.
He had to use his good connections at the National Assembly to get funds to commence the renovations and the sanitisation, and his former colleagues obliged him. “They gave us too much money”, he stated. Perhaps because he had been one of the them, National Assembly members approved almost all that was requested for the London office then, a situation the high commissioner said “scared” staffers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With the money at hand and his avowed principle of always delivering the best service, he went about implementing the changes that restored Nigeria’s High Commission, London’s pride of place as Nigeria’s foremost diplomatic mission in the world.
Some of the achievements recorded within his seven years and four months in charge, which is the longest a Nigerian high commissioner served in the UK, included the re-orientation and training of the commission’s staff that “exorcised the demons” in their attitudes towards visitors, and inculcated good customer service and better public relations. He also eradicated touting in the commission’s services, which had become very rampant, especially in the areas of passports and visas. Applicants for these services now don’t need to “see” anyone before they are attended to or provided with the required services.
The Visa and Passport section was renovated and provided with the state-of-the-art facilities which coincidentally came in when the Electronic Passport (e-passport) replaced the Machine Readable Passport (MRP) . This ensured that applicants could receive passports within 24 hours. The Banking Hall and the Conference Room as well as other meeting places were all given befitting lifts that makes the commission comparable to all standard embassies in the UK.
At public functions, Dr Tafida started speaking to Nigerians in words and sentences that were hitherto unheard of: “We are not your masters. We are your servants. We are here to serve you”. Many Nigerians could not believe him initially, but when the new changes begun to take firm roots and the body language of staff reflected them, they started to feel a sense of belonging and went to commission and attended its events more often. Before long, events hosted by the commission were always jam-packed with Nigerians and friends of Nigeria from across various walks of life.
When he introduced a modified item seven (menu! menu!) on the agenda of the commission’s events in which sumptuous Nigerian meals, dishes and delicacies were served, the events recorded more robust attendance. Everyone could eat to their fill and perhaps cart a takeaway, all for free. The high commissioner must have thought: ‘the way to diaspora Nigerians’ hearts is through their stomachs, especially with popular dishes across the main cultures!’ The modified item became very popular at all the commission’s events.
The success of the ‘cleansing’ and sanitisation exercise restored Nigeria’s credibility and prestige at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Diplomatic Corps, and the society at large. “The reforms by Dr Tafida made Nigeria to be held in high esteem and accorded special reception at diplomatic events”, a senior official of the commission disclosed during the interactive meeting.
In the Africa Diplomatic Corps, it was reliably gathered that an event was regarded as “incomplete” if Nigeria did not attend, which explained why some embassies go to the extent of sending personalised invitations to Dr Tafida, and often getting him to commit to attending the events.
On the socio-economic front, the trade volume between Nigeria and the United Kingdom doubled to more than £8 billion during Dr Tafida’s tenure, while investments and other economic activities between the two countries increased tremendously during the period.
These success stories notwithstanding, huge problems and challenges still abound for the incoming high commissioner, and as Dr Tafida warned the acting high commissioner, Ambassador Olakunle Bamgbose: “you must open your eyes wide. The bad eggs are still lurking around and will act if they get the chance”. What the next high commissioner does would determine to a great extent, Dr Tafida’s achievements and legacies at the embassy.
But as Ambassador Tafida’s long and eventful tenure as Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK ended last week, no one would deny him the right if he chose to paraphrase Julius Caesar and said thus: “I went, I served and delivered”.