Mumbai: Oladipupo Alaba Joseph, a 60-year-old pharma businessman from Nigeria has been living in India since 2019, studying subjects like data science and business analytics alongside conducting his business. His wife, Olu Funki (52) retired as the deputy director of the Central Bank of Nigeria a few years ago and joined him in India.
By all accounts, Joseph and Olu are an accomplished and respectable couple. Yet, a month ago, without any prior notice, they were thrown out of their rented apartment in Naigaon East.
“Our landlady told us to vacate because my student visa had expired,” said Joseph. “I tried explaining to her that the extension was under process but she refused to listen. I approached the local police and the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO) for help but the FRRO refused to help me get an extension, saying that the institute where I was studying wasn’t a government-registered one. After three wonderful years in India, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of living on the street.”
The Nigerian businessman subsequently had to enroll in a different college, submit a fresh student’s certificate to the FRRO and also arrange for new accommodation. “Since my wife’s medical visa was valid, we somehow managed to find a new apartment. But the manner in which we were thrown out felt unfair and discriminatory,” said Joseph, who is still waiting for his visa to be extended.
This, however, is not the first time that the elderly Nigerian has been at the receiving end of discrimination. “I have actually been asked for my passport while buying a ticket at Borivali railway station,” he said. “I told the clerk that I didn’t carry it with me at all times and showed him my student ID instead. He then asked for an Aadhar card, which I had no reason to possess, as I am not an Indian. The clerk refused to give me a ticket.”
Joseph’s question is a simple one; if you allow foreign nationals on your soil, isn’t it your responsibility to take care of them while they are here? “Either extend some basic courtesy to us or don’t allow us in at all,” he said, visibly upset. “We have Indians living in Nigeria too and we respect them a lot. In fact we treat them like royalty. All we expect is for Indians here to reciprocate this love.”
Joseph’s experiences, while disturbing, would not elicit much surprise from the hundreds of Nigerian and other African nationals staying in areas like Hatkesh in Mira Road, Pragati Nagar in Nalasopara, Naigaon, Vakola, Goregaon, Malwani in Mumbai and Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. For every Nigerian involved in illegal drug or cybercrime rackets, there is an innocent one who had faced racial discrimination.
Uzor Jame Wisdom, a 28-year-old Mira Road resident gave an instance of this. “Just a few days ago, an auto-rickshaw driver tried to charge me double the fare,” he said. “When I objected, he threatened to call the police and implicate me in a fake case of drug-peddling. Thankfully, this wasn’t my first time in this kind of situation and I myself called the cops on him.”
Wisdom, who is also the PRO for the All India Nigerian Student Community Association—Mumbai chapter (AINSCA-M), had another horrible experience earlier this year when he and his friends were hired as junior artistes in a film. Any dreams of Bollywood hospitality were quickly shattered when they were forbidden to use the washroom—they were told, in as many words, that the washrooms were “only for Indians”. “This is blatant discrimination,” said Wisdom. “Assuming we are also criminals merely by the colour of our skin is wrong.”
Advocate Tushar Lavhate, who has represented many Nigerians and other African nationals in various criminal matters, said they routinely faced harassment and racial discrimination from the police as well as the general public. “The discrimination is so severe that Nigerians were denied treatment in hospitals when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak,” he said.
While the police maintain that they have a job to do, even they are not blind to the plight of innocent Nigerians. An officer currently posted with the Mira-Bhayander-Vasai-Virar police commissionerate said, “I have seen Indian youngsters ganging up and bullying their Nigerian counterparts. This is one reason why Nigerians prefer to stay close to one another. The other is that accommodation is a big problem—Nigerians are denied rental homes despite possessing a valid visa and all the requisite documents.”
Lavhate revealed that estate agents also exploited the community while getting them apartments on rent. “They extract heftier commissions from Nigerians than others, and sometimes don’t even draw up rent agreements,” he said. “This way, if something does go wrong, their names are nowhere in writing. This exploitation is faced only by Nigerians; no other foreigner has to go through this in India.”
Arije Dawood, one of the oldest Nigerians in Mira Road, rued the fact that people like him had left their homeland to escape poverty, government instability and corruption, and come to India only to face harassment and ostracism. Married to an Indian woman, Sana, 60-year-old Dawood speaks fluent Hindi and Marathi and is a respected elder in his community. As he succinctly put it, “Ek ungli kharab hai toh sab mat kaato (Don’t chop off all fingers if just one of them is rotten).”
Dawood said that even police informers contributed to the harassment. “In their quest to get rewards from their patron officers, informers plant drugs on us during police raids. Since seizures of commercial quantities of drugs make for better cases, these quantities are planted and innocent Nigerians are implicated. And since many of our people are not aware of their democratic and lawful rights, they don’t fight back,” Dawood, a former president of AINSCA-M, said.
Achebe Yeshua Donny, the current AINSCA-M president averred that the media too contributed towards the negative perception of his community. “Not all dark-skinned people are Nigerians. However, when the police arrest anyone with African features, news reports only refer to them as Nigerians,” said Achebe, who runs a garments business on Mohammed Ali Road.
Sources in local as well as central law enforcement agencies said that thousands of Nigerians and other African nationals were staying on illegally in India. “They want to live a peaceful life here rather than going back to their country and facing poverty, and instability,” said a police officer. “Some marry Indian women and become eligible for an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. Many old Nigerian businessmen living in Mira Road have OCI cards.”
“We do legitimate business but our visas are not extended easily,” said Achebe in response. “The government should legalise our stay so that we could contribute to society and the growth of the country while helping our families back home. It should make visa extension rules and documentation more flexible.” A police agreed, saying that if a Nigerian or any foreigner was looking to do business for a short term in India, the government needed to consider their requests. “Anyway they are staying here,” he said. “Let’s legalise their stay and allow them to do business legitimately and contribute to our economy.”
While the police, the anti-narcotics agencies and FRRO agree that Nigerians face harassment due to the criminal elements among them, they also stress on the fact that their crimes need to be tackled with an iron hand. Scores of African nationals, mostly Nigerians, are arrested every year in and around Mumbai by various agencies in drug peddling and cyber-fraud cases.
A sub-inspector from the Mumbai anti-narcotics cell, who monitors such cases, said that investigations indicated a well-planned racket. “Key members are based in Nigeria from where they coordinate the supply and movement of drugs in coordination with cartels,” he said. “The mules who carry these drugs come from countries such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Guinea, Kenya and the Ivory Coast.”
A DRI officer added that mules are often chosen from lower economic backgrounds with valid reasons for travelling to India such as medical tourism. “The cartel uses such mules, as the chances of their coming under the law-enforcers’ scanner are less because of their genuine medical history,” he said.
Drugs supply and movement is a well-oiled machinery. On the instructions of the main handler operating from abroad, the ‘distributor’, the next unit in the chain, with the help of his men collects drug parcels from the mules and then contact Indian drug peddlers. “Nigerians never supply drugs directly to consumers, as it is risky. They supply them to peddlers who are trustworthy. Many Nigerians or other foreigners involved in the drugs business befriend peddlers in jail,” said an ANC inspector.
“The foreign drug cartels do the business very professionally. Even if anyone from the chain is caught, cops find it tough to dig out information about the person next in the chain, as even they are not aware who is going to come to collect the parcel. And even if they do know, they don’t reveal anything because if the cartels find out they blabbed to the cops, they punish their families for the betrayal,” said DCP Datta Nalawade who headed the Mumbai police ANC for nearly two years.
The senior functionaries in the racket sit in metros such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Goa and coordinate with one another. To dodge the police, a Nigerian sitting in Delhi gives instructions to a buyer in Mumbai over the phone. He changes the drug drop locations and money pick-up locations several times to avoid arrest,” a senior ANC officer said. Added DCP Nalawade, “They work in a very organised manner. If one modus operandi is exposed, they waste no time in switching to another.”
African nationals, mainly Nigerians, have also become notorious in India for their cybercrimes such as phishing/e-mail lottery scams and gift frauds. Mumbai police spokesperson and DCP Cyber Balsing Rajput pointed out other scams the community was involved in, included ‘romance scams’ carried out on social media and matrimonial sites as well as financial frauds. “They do detailed profiling of their prospective victims, lure them with fake profitable businesses or expensive gifts and then squeeze money out of them. After robbing citizens online, they send back money to Nigeria via hawala and crypto-currency,” DCP Rajput said.
Nigerian nationals have a significant presence in other metropolitan cities as well. “Most raids on areas with high Nigerian populations are like a yard sale. We go in expecting one drug and come out with several, apart from computers and cell phones containing evidence of dozens of cybercrime rackets,” an NCB officer told HT. He recounted an operation in Bengaluru where the routine interception of one Indian girl carrying seven kilograms of heroin led to the busting of a larger module and the seizure of 27 more kilograms within the next 48 hours.
An immigration official said that rogue Nigerian nationals would visit India using a passport of another Nigerian with good credentials. “They very cleverly change the photograph in the travel document,” he said. “For this sometimes they manage the details in their country’s passport system. By this method, they use one passport for multiple people.” The immigration officer added that on the expiry of their visa, some Nigerians deliberately got themselves booked in petty criminal cases so that they were kept back for the trial and could not be deported to their home country.
798 Nigerians in Indian jails facing trial
As per the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), in 2021 as many as 798 Nigerian nationals were named as accused in various criminal cases across India. Of the 798, 245 were involved in drugs/NDPS cases while 311 were booked for violations of the Foreigners Act and Registration of Foreigners Act. After Bangladeshis, Nigerian nationals were second on the list of foreigners committing crimes in India.
As of December 2021, 774 Nigerians are lodged in various jails across India facing criminal trials. Of these, 281 are lodged in Delhi jails and 177 in Maharashtra jails. Indian jails are also housing 255 other African nationals as undertrials.
Every year 350+ Nigerians are deported
An officer from FRRO Mumbai said, “Every year nearly 400 foreigners are deported from Mumbai. Ninety-five percent of these foreigners are Nigerians and other South Africans. This year till October, 450 such foreigners were deported.”