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Story of a Nigerian tourist in America (I)

This first appeared on May 12, 2007 in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper. By Farooq A. Kperogi Sometime in January this year at 3...

This first appeared on May 12, 2007 in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Sometime in January this year at 3: 00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (that is, 5 or 6 hours behind Nigerian time), a shrill phone call rudely disrupted my incipient sleep. I’d retired for the night only about an hour earlier because I stayed up late in order to catch up with my perpetually expanding reading list. I wondered who could be calling me at that time of the day.

I knew the call couldn’t have originated from the United States. No one here would call me at that hour. And I was sure that the call couldn’t have been from my close relations and friends in Nigeria. They all know when not to call me.

So who in the world was calling me at that awkward hour? I was both too weak and too irritated to pick the call. After some time, I went back to sleep. And just when I was in that liminal zone between wakefulness and sleep, the call came again with more vehemence—or so it seemed to me.

I got off from my bed and walked blearily to my living room to answer the phone. (For reasons I will mention sometime in the coming weeks, I have refused to own a cell phone here—at least for now).

“Farooq, guess what?” a voice thundered with the palpable excitement of a little kid who had just got his first toy.

“Could I please know whom I am speaking with?” I said in my dreamy, barely coherent and languorous voice, trying exceedingly hard to suppress my anger.

“Haba, Farooq, don’t you realize that it’s me Musa [not real name]?”

“But I know at least 10 Musas from my immediate and extended family alone, not to talk of my friends and acquaintances. How can I know which Musa is speaking?”

The caller quickly realized that I was in no mood for his air-headed raillery. It turned out that he was my neighbor, my friendly, good-natured neighbor, when I used to live in some state in the far North. I hadn’t been in touch with him since I came here. He got my phone number from one of our mutual friends, he told me.

So why did he call me? And why was he beside himself with so much contagious and wide-eyed excitement? Well, it’s because he had just been given a tourist visa to America. It had always been his dream, he said, to “come and settle my life there,” to quote his hilariously broken grammar. The news that he got a tourist visa to visit the United States excited me, but the bit about “coming to settle my life there” confused, even worried, me.

Because I hadn’t spoken with him in a long while, I thought he had hit some jackpot somewhere and could therefore afford the luxury to spend some time here on vacation. But then I wondered what business a tourist has “settling his life” in another man’s country without the proper documentation. To be sure, I asked again what class of visa he had been issued. He assured me that it was a three-month, single-entry tourist visa. I was speechless.

A tourist visa does not entitle anyone to work legally in the United States. So how could he relocate here permanently on the strength of that class of visa? I expressed my reservations to him and advised him to think through his decision.

He said he called me precisely because he wanted me to help him. Deep breath. How? He wanted me to accommodate him, find him a temporary job and possibly arrange for him to marry an American woman so that he could become an American citizen after some time. (And this man is married with two kids!). I took an even deeper breath. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. As we were talking, his units ran out.

I called him back. I said to myself that I had a duty to tell this pleasant gentleman some unpleasant, inconvenient truths about life in this country. I told him his requests were impossible to grant because I would never be an accomplice in the violation of the laws of my country of sojourn.

But most importantly, even if someone else agreed to accommodate him, I said, it would be impossible for him to get a temporary job that would be legal and that would pay him enough money that would make any difference to his life.

For starters, to be eligible to work in the United States, you must have a social security number, and you cannot have a social security number unless you are citizen, a legal permanent resident, a guest worker, a student visa holder (which limits you to work only in the school in which you’re enrolled) or a holder of other categories of immigrant and non-immigrant visa.

In the absence of legal documentation to work, I told him, the best deal he could get here would be to be condemned to menial, denigrating drudgeries like cutting grasses, harvesting tomatoes in some desolate farm or, if he is lucky, washing plates and serving food in a restaurant.

And he would most certainly be severely underpaid because he is an illegal alien, as Americans call such people. The wages he would get from such jobs would not be sufficient to pay his bills. Most importantly, not many people—certainly not me—would be prepared to bear the burden of his upkeep while he works illegally and earns peanuts that condemn him to live below the breadline.

South Americans who work here illegally have the advantage of geographic proximity, numerical strength and a functional social network. An illegal African immigrant with an accent (which sets him apart from black Americans) will stand out like a sore thump here. Of course, such people do exist. But that’s a story for another day.

And Green Card marriage? I told him the only thing I knew about it was that, increasingly, the long arm of the American law had been catching up with perpetrators of this fraud of passion. I have heard and read of many Nigerians, Ghanaians and Kenyans who either are in American prisons or have been deported to their home countries on account of it.

(People who read this column regularly will recall that I once culled a story from the New York Times about the mass deportation of Ghanaians who were caught in the act of this fraud). So I advised him to steer clear of it if or when he eventually made his way here.

My friend was unimpressed. He said he thought the passage of time had changed me, but that I was still the same cowardly, prim and proper person who would not venture to take a risk and would discourage others from doing so.

I grinned and bore the subtle insult. Before we hung up, he assured me that he would come to America, get a decent job, be successful and prove all my dreadful predictions wrong. I wished him luck.

A few weeks after this telephone conversation, he emailed to tell me that an old friend of his who now lives in New York had agreed to “set me up.” He also said he got assurances from another old friend here who pledged to accommodate him, get him a job and arrange a Green-Card marriage for him. So he sold his N700,000 car for N500,000 to pay for his return ticket.

To be continued next week.

Nuhu Ribadu: “Fighting” corruption at home, defending it abroad

Isn’t it a tragic irony that Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) who rode to national prominence on the crest of the wave of the popularity of his anti-corruption rhetoric, is the ONLY person so far who has come out in defense of Paul Wolfowitz, the corrupt and nepotistic president of the World Bank who is under intense pressure to resign?

For people who are not familiar with what I am talking about, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has been ensnared in a progressively festering credibility crisis over his unethical authorization of astronomical pay raises for his Iranian-American girlfriend by the name of Shaha Riza.

Riza worked for the bank before Wolfowitz took over its leadership in June 2005. But because World Bank rules forbid romantically entangled people to work in the bank at the same time in order to avoid a conflict of interests, Wolfowitz transferred her to the State Department, the American equivalent of our Foreign Affairs Ministry. But her name was retained on the bank's payroll.

Her salary went from close to $133,000 to $180,000 per annum. With subsequent raises, it eventually rose to $193,590, which is higher than the salary of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Riza’s present boss. It is also light-years higher than what her contemporaries receive at the bank.

A World Bank panel that investigated this scandal found Wolfowitz guilty of culpable ethical infractions and has advised him to resign. The bank’s internal staff association has called on him to step down too, while aid agencies such as Oxfam have criticized him for detracting from the bank’s work on education and poverty reduction in the developing world.

The whole world has been unanimous in asking the man to resign. Except one person: our “anti-corruption” czar, Nuhu Ribadu.

Ribadu took out a portion of the New York Times to defend Wolfowitz. Among other sickening inanities, he said the World Bank chief should be spared because he has apologized for his “mistakes,” and has given the EFCC $5 million to fight corruption in Nigeria.

He also alleged that the man is just being victimized for “his previous role in the United States Department of Defense.” Wolfowitz is the architect of the war in Iraq and of the Bush administration’s policy of “war without end.”

This Ribadu man is clearly an overrated, empty-headed media creation. He even lacks the basic mental capacities to make a logically coherent argument. And he is supposed to be a lawyer!

How can anyone, not least someone who derives the social basis of his reputation on his putative fight against corruption, justify corruption and nepotism abroad on the grounds that the perpetrator has apologized for his corruption and that he has given money to a thoroughly compromised EFCC to “fight corruption” in Nigeria?

If corruption is wrong in Nigeria, it is also wrong elsewhere, including the World Bank.

By the way, who paid for the op-ed (I gathered that it was paid for)?

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