I needed to see for myself. I’ve heard that it’s been more than a month since the air conditioner broke down at the Nigerian High Commission in New York. It was 93°F that day (32°C), and there are no windows or cross ventilation in the 21-storey all-glass building located on 44th Street and Second Avenue. The only source of air in the edifice is the air conditioning units.
Outside the embassy, visitors were sitting, waiting for their passports. I approached a woman with two kids, a boy and a girl. Idera had been sitting outside for hours, while her husband breezed in and out of the embassy. The heat inside was unbearable for her and her children. She showed me the boy; his face was covered with sweat. She lifted his arms; “My baby had no rashes before we came here today, now his two arms are covered with rashes from the heat. It’s like an oven in there,” she said.
When her husband came out drenched, he hesitated to tell her, but despite waiting for six hours, the embassy said he had to come back in two days because they were out of ink.
“You won’t believe how rude they were; they talk to you anyhow,” he said. I begged them that my children cannot come back to this heat, but they didn’t care.”
Another family sat near the pillar painted in grey outside the building. The three teenagers waited patiently outside for their mother who kept going in and out. “We’ve been here for six hours,” one of them said.
As soon as I got in the elevator, I thought of running back outside. On the eighth floor, the chairs were empty. The old standing fan made no difference. It was blowing heat. No wonder people sat outside. I went to the sixth floor, no air. I went to the fourth floor, no air. I went to the second floor, no air. I had to see for myself.
Getting back to the first floor, I went to the waiting room, where about three families were waiting. Two families gathered around a standing air conditioner. I was so happy to see at least one source of fresh air, and I mentioned it to the two families. I was surprised by their response.
“The air conditioner didn’t work all day; we were all sweating, so most people went outside. It was later in the afternoon that it started working,” they said.
I was short of words. I looked around the waiting room, and I was ashamed. How can this be my embassy? I saw loose wires hanging on the walls near the surveillance camera, and an old box television with nothing playing. Though beautiful outside, the huge building made me feel like I was in Nigeria, at one of the ministries’ run down offices.
A man held his newly born baby to his chest at the waiting room, “My baby’s food is finished,” he said. I begged the staff all day to please help us do the passport today. We came very early, all the way from Pennsylvania; we drove for five hours, they just dismissed me and told my wife and I to come back on Wednesday.” They told him to come back in two days because they’re out of laminating supplies. I was confused; I thought they were out of ink, now it’s laminating supplies.
From what I gathered, some diplomats have not been paid for four months. Some local staff also have not been paid for two months. The mission is unable to pay for medical insurance of staff and diplomats. So, I was not surprised to hear customers say one man was willing to produce passports if money exchanged hands. However, I have no means of verifying this information, because while I was in the room, the man did not take money from customers. They offered him cash, but he rejected it.
An embassy employee noticed me and wanted to query me. So I asked, “Are you happy working under this condition?” He looked at me and said “no!” I told him my hope in reporting this, is that the Federal Government will release funds to pay salaries and fix the air conditioning on time. I found out even if they get money today, it could take two months to install new AC units.
Back outside, I met a man that flew in from Minnesota. “They just told me to come back on Wednesday, how am I supposed to do it?” He works in Minnesota; now he has to change all his plans and his return flight if he wants a new passport.
Several families have to come back to this heat. I only spent about 40 minutes in there, and I couldn’t wait to buy a bottle of water, which I drank in a gulp. I was drained!
For two days, I tried to get a top official of the embassy to comment on these issues. Finally, after telling me to call back again and again, the official said he needed to get approval from Abuja before he could talk to the media.
I went back three days after my first visit, security told me there was an instruction that I must not be let into the building.