Monday 5th Dec: It was 6pm,already pitch dark outside and most offices in Central London were closing for the day. I sat in the waiting room of the NHC as it emptied of its mostly angry clients, while its officials slowly dwindled in number. I sent frantic messages on WhatsApp to almost everyone on my contacts list who lived in the UK, asking if they knew anyone who worked at the NHC. What else could I do? My flight was the next day. Was I going to miss my sister’s wedding because of the incompetence of the NHC?
One of the NHC officials, a lady this time, came to the waiting room with a couple of TCs (Travel Certificates) and explained that unfortunately, the machine for printing TCs was acting up and the person who was in charge of printing TCs was also off sick. Double bad luck for them, but as soon as she finished her speech, I sprang up and told her that my case was different (who knew that would be a motto to hold on to in the New Year?). I told her my story in front of all the people waiting for TCs and she could not look me in the eye and deny that I had had a horrendous time so far.
Meanwhile, my phone kept buzzing in my pocket as friends and relatives replied to my frantic message with equally frantic messages of their own, everyone assuring me they were asking everyone they knew for a contact that could help me. The waiting room finally emptied and I and two other people, a couple who had travelled from Manchester with a toddler and an infant, went to the first floor of the building to wait outside the only office with signs of life within. I desperately needed to wee but at this point I couldn’t leave, incase the remaining officials left the building and I was left with the security guards.
All sorts of thoughts went through my head as I stood in front of that door that night, like a refugee seeking asylum. Why was this even happening? What kind of country pretended to be civilized but treated its own citizens like rubbish? Wasn’t there a boss here who checked to see that good service was being provided to all their clients?
After another hour, the lady came out of the office and told the three of us waiting that the machine was still faulty but…. she brought out a cream coloured paper with a red seal and an angry looking woman’s picture on it. I stared at it, not realising I was holding my breath. It finally clicked. I was the angry looking woman and that paper was the offending document, the elusive TC!
I whispered ‘thank you’ twice as I took the paper and carefully placed it in my handbag. My apple, which was supposed to be my lunch, came into view. I hadn’t eaten all day. As I walked out of the building I heard the other half of the couple waiting with me burst into a loud lament that they couldn’t return to Manchester that night. They had two little children with them. Poor woman! I knew how she felt.
I walked out of the building and got a taxi to London Marylebone station. I was surprised when the taxi driver asked me if I was alright. I didn’t realise I had been sniffing and sighing like I had just received bad news. By the time I got to the station, my bladder was bursting, but my train was also almost due. I had to decide whether to risk a quick visit to the toilet or hold it and get my train. If I missed the train I would have to wait an hour until 10pm for the next one and I was still going to work the next day before my flight at night.
I made the train (and the toilet) and calmed down enough to read all the messages I had received on my phone. One caught my eye: An aunty had sent the contact details of a staff of the HNC. I absent-mindedly saved the contact details on my phone and as I continued to reply messages, I came across the display picture of the person whose details I had just saved.
It was the same woman who gave me the TC! Small world! I immediately sent her a message thanking her for helping me to get my TC. She replied asking who I was and I told her I had just left her office about an hour earlier. She wanted to know how I got her details and I told her. I was glad I had the opportunity to thank her again, as I was too overwhelmed when I left the NHC.
I arrived at the Muritala International Airport in Lagos and the arrival hall cool and welcoming but the staff were not. I went to the desk with my TC and showed the immigration officer. He looked at it, leaned over his desk and said ‘Wetin you bring for us, aunty?’ I just smiled and waited for him to do whatever he was supposed to do. He continued ‘ You must give us something o, this your document is not your passport, na? Where is your passport?’ I must have given him a murderous look because he immediately leaned back and gave me the TC and motioned me to the next desk. Thank goodness he did not allow me to vent my NHC anger on him.
My visit to Nigeria was a very happy one. The wedding was a big success; I saw many old friends and many relatives and made new friends too. I relished the hot weather and was rather sad to leave, all thoughts of my NHC ordeal forgotten. I came back to the UK and spent the last few days before Christmas catching up on all missed work on my desk.
This is my humble advice to anyone who plans to visit the HNC London. These tips might applicable to other Nigerian embassies:
Do: Start the process at least 6 months before time of travel
Do: Take all the documents that may and may not have any relevance to immigration. The NHC will probably require all of them.
Do: Photocopy several pages of each document. There are no photocopying facilities in or around the building. Nearest photocopying centre is a good 10- 15 mins walk away.
Do: Inform your boss that your application will take several visits. Book the days as annual leave or days off without pay. It will save you having to explain how woeful the service is at the NHC each time you need to visit yet again for the same application.
Do: Inform your children’s school(s) of the same.
Do: Warn the children what to expect i.e. nothing. Set their expectations very low. Any slight improvement of services will be well appreciated.
Do: Not lose your temper at the NHC staff even when they are nasty to you. If you worked under the same conditions you would be nasty too. They work long hours with computers and systems from before Bill Gates.
Do: Not expect to understand the information on the website. It was not meant to inform. How can you explain getting two different appointment dates from the same application submission?
Do: not expect the officials to know where your application or passport is. Most of the time they don’t seem to know what is going on. You are better off asking the other visitors. Don’t stress yourself out like I did.
I know I am not the only person to have had such a deplorable experience at the NHC London or Nigeria embassies around the world. There are several videos of equally angry Nigerians sharing their experiences on Youtube.
There are a few simple things that many of us see as solutions and it irks me that no one has thought to implement them. For example, someone needs to sort out that website. It is not user-friendly and the information it gives is conflicting. It would serve all better if it was clearly laid-out and if it updated information on passport application to collection time- frames.
If the NHC was suffering a backlog of applications, all it would have to do would be toset a time frame, say 12 weeks, and anyone applying who had to travel within 12 weeks would know straight away that their passport would not be ready. They could apply for a TC instead, which should always be available for collection on the day it was applied for.
There should be expedited passport application and collection. This would obviously cost a lot more for applicants but people who needed it could collect their passports in a matter of days. This is why many countries don’t need to produce weird documents called travel certificates. If you leave your application late, you just pay a lot more but still get your passport.
All staff urgently require customer service training. Sarcastic and downright rude comments are disgraceful coming from people representing a country abroad. You get better customer service at Mcdonalds than you get at the NHC.
I have exhausted my anger and frustration at the treatment I got from the NHC, London. I hope things change for the better. We must never accept bad service and an even worse attitude to government services as the norm.
The eagle finally landed
21st Dec, 2016: Postman arrived. My Nigerian passport was issued on 19th Dec! Was I elated? No. Medicine after death. I had had to travel to my own country carrying an embarrassing piece of paper called a TC through no fault of my own. I secretly think that the lady at the NHC had something to do with its relatively quick issue, just 7 weeks. However, I deleted her number from my phone before I travelled so I may never know.
Now I have another 5 years before I need another passport so I can relax. However, my hubby just reminded me that our kids’ Nigerian passports also expired late last year.
Oh no, here we go again!!!
Writer – Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK, with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listening to her musings on everything.