WAR: Contrasting fortunes of Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Abuja
THE Embassy of Ukraine in Abuja – at Plot 894, Olu Awotesu Street, Jabi District in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) – is usually a busy office where prospective travellers, mostly Nigerian students wishing to study in Ukrainian universities, converge to seek visas.
But the embassy was deserted on February 28, about four days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in line with a ‘special military operation’ of President Vladimir Putin.
It was a totally different scenario at the Russian embassy in Abuja on the same day – February 28 – as scores of students and other travellers were seen at the consular section waiting to submit travel documents or undergo scheduled interviews for trips to Russia.
Deserted and quiet at the Ukraine embassy
There was not a single visa-seeking student or businessman in sight when The ICIR visited the Ukrainian embassy in the afternoon on February 28.
A row of seats, positioned at the front of the embassy, is where visitors who are on visa appointment usually wait before they are admitted into the main building.
The seats were empty at the time The ICIR visited, between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm.
Only a single policeman, who was clutching a gun, was seen at a security post by the entrance of the embassy.
The policeman did not identify himself and refused to respond to The ICIR’s enquiries concerning the state of affairs at the embassy.
His voice sounded dismissive, particularly when he was asked to direct the journalist to embassy officials who could respond to enquiries.
“There is nobody here who can attend to your questions. The embassy staff are not around,” the policeman said in a voice that sounded impatient and aggressive, while he stared at the ID card brandished by The ICIR’s correspondent.
Ukraine is thousands of miles away and there is no indication that Russia would target the Ukrainian embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, but the policeman appeared wary and on the edge. His hand kept straying to the trigger of the gun.
At some shopping plazas around the embassy, people who spoke to The ICIR disclosed that the daily traffic at the Ukrainian embassy had ceased since the war broke out.
“Before now, you would see so many students around here, looking for visas to travel to Ukraine. Sometimes they were so many that even the seats in the waiting area in front of the embassy would not be enough for them,” a POS operator in the street, who simply identified herself as Jane, said.
The ICIR could not independently confirm whether staff of the embassy were at work at the time of the visit. But there was no indication that the place was open for normal business.
The embassy was very calm and appeared deserted.
Despite ongoing war, at Russian embassy, Nigerian students queue up for visas to Russia
Things were markedly different at the Russian embassy in Abuja, on Plot 1119 Constitution Avenue, in the Central Business District.
Judging from the size, structure and location of the Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Abuja, there was no doubt that Russia was the bigger country.
While the Ukrainian embassy is a moderate two-storey building on a busy street in Jabi, a largely residential area in Abuja, the Russian embassy building is a modern, imposing edifice located in one of Abuja’s most highbrow neighborhoods – the Central Area, also referred to as Central Business District.
The Russian embassy is just a few metres away from the World Trade Centre building, which is still under construction but already regarded as one of Abuja’s landmark structures.
And while the war between Russia and Ukraine has already slowed down activities at the Ukrainian embassy, it was business as usual at the Russian embassy when The ICIR visited on February 28.
The ICIR’s reporter observed that, despite concerns over a possible escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war, many Nigerians were at the Russian embassy to seek visas to travel to Russia.
Most of them were students who had appointments for visa interviews. Others came to submit visa application documents.
The prospective travellers, all of them youths, sat on concrete pavements around the embassy’s consular section, waiting patiently for their turn to go inside the building.
A couple of armed policemen manned the entrance to the consular section, and they made sure that the crowd of visa applicants conducted themselves in an orderly manner when they were instructed to line up to enter the building.
In an encounter with The ICIR, one of the students, who identified herself as Esther Tallen, said the crisis between Russia and Ukraine would not stop her from travelling to Russia to further her education and possibly seek greener pastures.
Asked if the war had not discouraged her from travelling, Esther said, “Why will it discourage me? You only live once. You can even stay in your house and die.”
Esther further explained that she was at the embassy to collect her visa.
“I am going to Russia for my studies. I have been looking forward to this and no war can stop me. After all, the fighting is not even taking place in Russia,” she said.
When The ICIR’s reporter requested to take her picture, Esther refused.
“Nooo! I don’t want trouble,” she said.
Others who spoke with The ICIR also refused to be photographed.
While The ICIR’s reporter was at the embassy, a young man who identified himself as Sabinus emerged from the building with shouts of joy.
Reason for the celebration: He had just been given a visa to travel to Russia.
The ICIR’s reporter asked Sabinus if he was not worried about embarking on the journey when Russia was at war with Ukraine, and considering the possibility that the fighting might open up on the Russian front if members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) eventually decide to intervene by attacking Russia.
Sabinus said he had already considered the possibility.
“I spoke with my friends there (Russia) and they told me there is no cause for concern. Russia is safe,” he said.
But, beyond the belief that Russia was safe, Sabinus noted that he would not just give up his dream of leaving Nigeria just because of potential risks.
“Life is risky enough here (Nigeria), so I don’t think things would be worse out there. I am very happy that my visa is out. I have been praying for this,” he added.
Another prospective traveller, Osas Isimhen, who was in the queue for visa interviews, told The ICIR that Russia was safe because “Russia is the aggressor.”
Isimhen said he was already based in Russia and had a wife and kids there.
He visited Nigeria and was eager to return to Russia.
According to him, he was a student in the country and came to the Russian embassy to regularise his travel documents to enable him to return to Russia after the visit to Nigeria.
He said his wife is a Russian lady.
“I am married to a Russian lady. I reside in Russia, I school there and my wife and kids are there,” he said.
Isimhen said the war between Russia and Ukraine was not a cause for concern for those in Russia.
“I am not afraid. Have you heard that any fight is taking place in Russia? It is Russia that is oppressing them (Ukraine). Moscow is very far from Ukraine, so there is nothing to worry about as long as you are inside Russia. It is those in Ukraine that should worry,” he said.
While Esther, Sabinus and Isimhen refused to have their pictures taken, some other visa applicants at the Russian embassy pointedly refused to talk to The ICIR.
“I don’t want anything that will affect my visa application, that is why I can’t talk now,” one of them said.
It is estimated that there are 5,600 Nigerians in Ukraine, the majority of whom are students numbering about 4,000, according to the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ records.
The number of Nigerians in Russia could not be determined at the time of filing this report.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has so far killed more than 200 civilians, including three children. Nearly 1,100 people have been injured in the conflict, including 33 children, according to Ukraine’s health ministry.