Opinion

Stranded In Ukraine: The Agony Of Nigerians 

By Reuben Abati

For Nigerians, the crisis in Ukraine is not far away at all. It is next door, in fact it may be said that the war is having a major effect in many Nigerian homes and families. This is not about crude oil, the spot price of which has gone beyond $100 per barrel, and the same government that relies on crude oil receipts is now saying this is tragic for the country.

This is not even about the geo-politics of the Russia-Ukrainian conflict. Russia does not want the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) setting up a military base at its door step – in Ukraine, Sweden or Finland, or anywhere near Russia. The more urgent concern and this is our departure point, is the humanitarian crisis that the failure of diplomacy and the inequity in international relations has generated in the Eastern border of Europe. Since the crisis began, I have listened with great concern to the anguish of friends, former colleagues and their family relations calling, sending messages, to report how they are affected by the war in Ukraine. A former colleague during my tour of duty at the Presidential Villa has three children in Ukraine. His sister’s son is also there. They are all hunkered down in a shelter.

My friend says he and his wife and sister are permanently on the phone trying to monitor the welfare of their children. All four – my friend’s 3 and his sister’s only son- are all studying Medicine in Ukraine. Many Nigerian families send their children to Ukraine to study Medicine, Computer Engineering, and the Sciences. Out of the 10, 000 medical doctors produced by Ukraine annually, about a third are Nigerians.  The fees are affordable compared to the arm and a leg that Western Universities demand. Ukraine is also developed with strong education, science, agriculture, and engineering sectors. Historically, it was the strongest of the units that made up the Soviet Union. In contemporary times, it remains a very resourceful country with enormous strength in minerals, agriculture and science. Apart from the medical students from Nigeria, there are others studying in other fields. There is even a Nigerian church in Kiev, led by Pastor Sunday Adelaja. In total, there is probably close to 20, 000 Nigerians or more in Ukraine. Pastor Sunday Adelaja has managed to abandon the congregation and escape (he says Putin is looking for him as a target!), but the majority of Nigerians, and other Africans, are stranded. Their agony and the frustration of their families should constitute an important part of the review.

In the age of globalization, democracy and free choice, it would make no sense to query why some people leave their countries and travel to other places to find meaning and fulfilment. The history of humanity is based on migrations across geography and seasons. Nigerians in particular are extremely peripatetic. In the most remote places of the world, you are bound to find a Nigerian, studying, teaching, driving a cab, doing security work, serving in an international capacity, running a corner shop, playing football, or comfortably married with a family. But in the case of Ukraine, most of the Nigerian nationals out there are students or religious workers. Whereas it is a status symbol for an average Nigerian family to send their children abroad for studies, it is also the truth  that despite the fact that Nigeria has over 100 universities, many families send their children abroad because it is easier to get admissions into foreign universities if you can afford the fees, and you are at least sure that the university calendar will not be disrupted by teachers and other university staff who are perpetually on strike here in Nigeria, over unpaid salaries and allowances.

University students in Nigeria are also forever subjected to all forms of harassment: dirty halls of residence, the menace of oppressive lecturers who sell handouts, and torment female students for sex, and a general community outside the campus that inflicts mental torture on everyone. Parents therefore try to insulate their children from the psychosis in the land, at least for a period in their lives. To keep their children in good schools, many parents sell property, take loans, or save towards the same investment and if that option is not achievable, they look for other means. I doubt if any Nigerian parent would ever imagine that with all that, their child or children would end up in a war zone. But that is what has happened in Ukraine. Many Nigerian parents took their cue from the 12 countries, including the UK, Egypt, Morocco, US, and India, that issued early travel advisories and asked their nationals to leave Ukraine immediately because it would only be a matter of days before Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine, and hence, they pulled their children and families out. But then, it is not every family that is equally circumstanced. Air fares shot through the roof. And it is natural for a largely religious community to think that a miracle would happen. Ironically, one of the men preaching such miracles was the first to flee to safety! Fact: thousands of Nigerians are stranded in Ukraine.

They are victims not just of the confusion that the war has brought, but also racism, which worsens their plight. In the wake of the Russian invasion, the people of Ukraine began to flee towards safer neighbouring countries, especially Poland, Romania, Hungary and Moldova. Persons trooped to the train stations hoping to get a place on one of the vacation trains ferrying people to safety. Nobody knows when or for how long the trains would come. But when a train then shows up, there is gross discrimination. The co-ordinators of the flight from the turbulence insist that Ukrainians must board first, then children and women in that order! But the arrangement is not colour-blind. Africans are told to wait, and so there are many of them, sheltered in nearby buildings who do not know when it would be their turn. I saw a video showing a Nigerian whose pregnant wife managed to get onto the train, and he was disallowed from getting on board. It was painful watching him screaming: “Give me my wife! Give me my wife!” 

War may be the legacy that past ages bequeath to us, as Wole Soyinka points out in A Dance of the Forests, humanity being in a perpetual state of conflict across the ages, but as we have seen in the writings of Sun-Tzu (The Art Of War), Carl von Clausewitz (About War) and Raymond Aron (Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations) on the subject, and as the experience of previous wars show (World War I, II, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Nigerian Civil War etc), there is simply nothing good about war. Nobody wins, everyone loses; it is only the degree that differs.  The crisis in Ukraine has thus thrown up all the key divisions in international relations at both the person to person levels and at the bilateral, multilateral, geo-political levels to remind us all that whereas there is a body called the United Nations, created after World War II to bind the world together, the world remains divided, the people in it do not like each other and that international relations based on the principles of jus cogens, including the sovereign equality of states, enshrined in Article 2(1) of the United Nations Charter (1945), is at best a myth in reality.

There has been so much talk about human equality, a societa humana in this regard, but even human beings within the international order, do not regard themselves as equals. International law practitioners have tried to provide a linkage in terms of the alignment of sovereign equality with human equality through the UN Resolution on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P, 2005). In the situation that we are currently witnessing in Ukraine, the host community is struggling to defend itself in an unequal match against Russia. It cannot even protect its own citizens. A humanitarian crisis is afoot, with Poland, Moldova, Hungary, much smaller countries dragged into an extremely difficult situation. The Polish Ambassador to Nigeria has had to deny that Poland does not want to help stranded Nigerians. Where host communities fail to discharge their responsibilities to protect foreign nationals in their country, in the event of war and chaos, what should the home countries of the affected persons do? They are bound by the same principle. 

The Nigerian Government has been criticized heavily for its failures in terms of citizen diplomacy in the face of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the fact that many Nigerians are trapped in the crossfire. From Kiev to Abuja, the Nigeria foreign policy machinery behaved as if its carburetor had issues. It failed to fire the engine correctly.  The machinery abandoned the Nigerians in Ukraine even while other countries openly helped theirs and gave specific travel advisories. When the blow-out occurred, the Nigerian Embassy in Kiev issued a statement in which the officials told Nigerians in Ukraine, that if they find the situation “morally disturbing”, they should make private arrangements to keep safe, make sure they have their consular documents in place and should they wish to return, the Embassy would be available to assist with consular duties. What kind of talk was that? Is it possible not to find a war situation “emotionally disturbing?”

This caused some outrage and in the face of that, the Embassy in Kiev immediately circulated another statement it had issued on January 26, to the Nigerian community in Ukraine, but really there is no difference between the first and the second intervention. Nigerians in Ukraine were simply told that “they are on their own”  in the following exact words: “Nigerians are hereby further advised to take their individual and collective safety and security very seriously, avoid unnecessary travels within the country, especially to identified hotspots in Eastern Ukraine; and ensure that they carry requisite identification at all times”. The Embassy says it would make periodic announcements and offer consular services available where necessary. Both the National Association of Nigerian Students in Ukraine (NANS-Ukraine) and Nigerians students in distress have spoken up (including Anjola-Oluwa Ero-Phillips) to declare that every effort to get the Nigerian Embassy to help them failed. Ms Eunice Eleaka, President of NANS-Ukraine, whose parents managed to evacuate before the blow-out had to send an urgent SOS message to President Muhammadu Buhari. The outrage that has greeted the mishandling of the Ukrainian crisis by the Nigerian Government is in order.

It has now resulted in a flurry of last minute activities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs after expressing surprise that there was an issue in Ukraine (apparently the only government agency in the world that is surprised, even with the Western allies raising the alarm, weeks earlier, that an invasion was imminent), decided to summon G7 ambassadors in Nigeria, and the Ambassadors of Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission also woke up and started offering advice, backed by phone numbers and escape routes out of Ukraine into Poland. Nigeria also put up the equivalent of “small yansh diplomacy”, telling Russia to pull out of Ukraine and respect the international order. The best that African countries can do in this matter is spineless diplomatic twerking, to use a more decent phrase, so they should not deceive themselves, but they can do more in terms of helping their stranded citizens who are trapped in the crossfire. Nigeria’s House of Representatives did well by making the crisis a matter of urgent public importance, and resolving to send to Ukraine forthwith, the House Majority Leader and the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to bring home stranded Nigerians in Ukraine. We would like a feedback on that. Did they travel? Are they back? How did the intervention of the House help?          

It is perhaps selfish, to express concern more about the plight of our compatriots in Ukraine. Indeed, it is the whole of humanity that faces a problem. And the people of Ukraine will bear the brunt of their country being turned into the battle ground for the politics between Russia and NATO and the balance of power in the world. It would be a while before Ukraine recovers from the storm that has fallen on its roof. Its people have been displaced. The country has been thrown into turmoil. Age-old animosities between the Russian speaking Eastern parts and other groups have been re-ignited setting fire to the Minsk Agreement in Belarus, 2014. Vladimir Putin may be accused of all kinds of atrocities, and he is probably guilty, but the US and the allies are not particularly innocent either. NATO says it welcomes all countries that are interested in joining it. Putin’s Russia insists that there was a promise by NATO not to expand East-wards but since then it has added 14 new members. Putin hates the Alliance and does not want it anywhere near Russia. Those who know the story argue that the agreement of September 1990 referred to East Germany and not the whole of the East, but isn’t Putin right to argue that any further enlargement is a threat to the sovereignty of Russia? He is aggrieved because he knows that the intentions of the Allies are not necessarily holy. Has anyone thought of the Monroe Doctrine, and the 1962 US Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, the Gulf War, the attack on Libya, and the cross-current details?

The Allies have imposed sanctions, from sports to SWIFT, making Putin and Russia look like they have just walked into a trap. What is the end-game then? Could it be to cripple Russia and create rebellion inside the Kremlin and get Putin out of the way?  The Russians probably have that figured out. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov says: “The Western sanctions on Russia are hard, but our country has the necessary potential to compensate the damage”. It is the world that will suffer in the end, and as the agony of Nigerians connected with Ukraine has shown, there is a lot more beyond gas prices, higher inflationary rates, the clout of a divided UN Security Council and economic sanctions, with greater cost better measured in human terms. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: