Nigeria’s president has warned his fellow citizens to stop trying to make asylum claims in Britain, saying that their reputation for criminality has made it hard for them to be “accepted” abroad.
Muhammadu Buhari, the tough ex-general elected last year, said those who had joined the migrant exodus to Europe were doing so purely for economic reasons rather than because they were in danger.
He added that because of the number of Nigerians imprisoned for law-breaking in Britain and elsewhere, they were also unlikely to get much sympathy.
“Some Nigerians claim is that life is too difficult back home, but they have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking,” he told The Telegraph.
“I don’t think Nigerians have anybody to blame. They can remain at home, where their services are required to rebuild the country.”
Mr Buhari’s remarks may upset refugees’ rights groups, who claim that the vast majority of asylum cases lodged by Nigerians are genuine. In recent years, many have said they are fleeing Boko Haram, the Islamist group that Mr Buhari’s army is now struggling to stamp out in northern Nigeria.
However, only around one in ten of the 13,000 asylum claims lodged by Nigerians in Britain in the last 15 years have been accepted.
And the claims of persecution appear to cut no ice at all with Mr Buhari, a headmasterly figure who famously waged a “war on indiscipline” on his fellow Nigerians while serving as the country’s military ruler in the 1980s.
While he has not re-introduced such measures as a civilian ruler, he makes it clear that a minority of his countrymen could still do with improving their behaviour. “We have an image problem abroad and we are on our way to salvage that,” he said.
Mr Buhari, 73, made his remarks in a wide-ranging interview during a three-day trip to London, where he was among world leaders attending Thursday’s international conference on the Syrian crisis and the ongoing war on terror.
He won power last year on a pledge to take a firmer line with Boko Haram than his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, under whose watch the group kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria’s north east in 2014.
While Boko Haram has lost most of the territory that it controlled until last year, it has continued to mount savage guerrilla attacks, killing 65 people during a raid on a last weekend.
There is still no sign of the missing girls either, whose plight attracted worldwide publicity via a celebrity-backed social media campaign.
Despite pressure from Western governments not to make any concessions to Boko Haram, Mr Buhari said that he was willing to negotiate for the girls’ release if reliable interlocutors could be found.
“As long as we can establish the bona fides of the leadership of Boko Haram, we are prepared as a government to discuss with them how to get the girls back,” he said. “But we have not established any evidence of a credible leadership.”
He also said it was possible that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakr Shekau, had been replaced by another commander, although there was “conflicting information” as to his fate.
Some believe that Shekau is now either dead or on the run, while other reports last week suggested up that large numbers of Boko Haram commanders had now taken refuge in Sudan.
The prospect of Islamist fighters proliferating all over the porous Sahel region of west and central Africa is one that Mr Buhari and other African leaders are now increasingly alarmed about.
The Islamic State now controls the city of Sirte in Libya, while a resurgent Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out massacres of foreigners in hotels in Mali last November and in Burkina Faso last month.
Mr Buhari traced the rising violence back partly to the fall in 2011 of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, who used large numbers of African mercenaries from Sahel countries in his armies.
“For Africa and the Sahel, the demise of Gaddafi’s regime led to a lot of armed and trained people being dispersed,” he said. “Fighting is all they know, and they are available at a fee.”
Born into an aristocratic family in Nigeria’s Muslim north, Mr Buhari’s return to power after an absence of three decades speaks volumes about Nigerian’s ongoing discontent with the civilian political leaders who have served them in recent years. In the 1980s, he was one of a succession of uniformed leaders during the country’s period of military rule, who argued that “a flawed democracy was worse than no democracy at all”.
He pursued his vision of a more orderly Nigeria with single-minded ruthlessness, beefing up the country’s secret police, prosecuting around 500 officials for corruption, and throwing journalists and anyone else who dared criticise him into jail.
In 1984, his government notoriously despatched agents to London to drug kidnap Umaru Dikko, a minister in the previous government accused of embezzlement.
The plot was only rumbled when a customs officer at Stansted Airport became suspicious about a crate marked “diplomatic baggage” that was due to be picked up by a Nigerian airliner, and opened it to find an unconscious Mr Dikko inside.
The incident sparked a major diplomatic fall-out with Britain and saw four men jailed for kidnapping.
Today, Mr Buhari is again on the trail of alleged embezzlers, some of whom are accused of stealing billions of pounds from the Nigerian government during Mr Goodluck’s administration. However, while one of them has already been arrested in Britain – with more arrests are expected – this time he is content to let Scotland Yard pursue them on his behalf.
“The legal process in this country is slow, sometimes a little too slow for my liking,” he said. “But we still respect the system because we know it is thorough and fair.”