Estimated reading time: 67 minute(s)
Visiting the Nigeria Immigration Service as an applicant, Adeyera Michael investigates Abeokuta passport office where youths most especially pay as much as double the approved fees to renew as well as obtain an international passport.
Over the past decade, the Passport Offices of the Nigerian Immigration Services has witnessed a growth in racketeering at its premises. Express passports, as these schemes are informally known, offer fast-track passports in exchange for their substantial investment. In order to force members of the public to pay more than the expected amount needed to get a fresh passport or to renew old ones, the wheels of service is made to be so inefficient with several bureaucratic bottlenecks. One would not have any option than to part way with humongous amounts of money so that the passport will be available as at when due.
As Revealed by investigations into Immigration offices in other parts of the country these schemes are widely abused. This exposes the whole of the Immigration services to significant money laundering, tax evasion, and corruption risks, as well as threatening its security.
The potential for high-risk business operators and politicians to misuse, abuse, and exploit passport schemes are huge, as a result of insufficient monitoring, weak governance, and the lack of transparency with which they operate.
However, actions so far proposed by the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and civil society groups fall short of effectively addressing the risks created by these schemes and grand corruption.
This investigative report set out to find out why the passport office in Abeokuta has become notorious for such activities. Also, this report was necessary to find out the immediate and remote causes of the scheming going on there and how to nip it in the bud.
What we found is that, although welcome, the checks and balances currently in place do not adequately address the significant money laundering and corruption risks this corruption and racketeering pose. Renewing a Nigerian passport in their office is an uphill task many try to avoid. The unethical conduct of the officials and their middlemen would make you want to renounce Nigeria. From the outside, you won’t realize this till you visit the passport offices in Nigeria.
This investigative report is advocacy for efficiency, not vilification. What is needed is a holistic reform, not punishing few persons for the wrongs being committed by virtually everyone in the service.
The core mandate of NIS
The Nigeria Immigration Service has as its core mandate: control of persons entering or leaving Nigeria; issuance of travel documents to bonafide Nigerians in and outside Nigeria; issuance of residence permits to foreigners in Nigeria; and border surveillance and patrol.
This is made possible through the Act of Parliament (Cap 171, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria) that established on August 1, 1963, when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was the Minister of Internal Affairs.
However, the second mandate, which includes the issuance of an international passport – a traveling document required by Nigerians to gain access to and cross other country’s borders – has reportedly been fraught with barefaced racketeering over the years.
According to the information posted on the NIS website, a 32-page 5-year standard passport goes for ₦25,000, 64-page 5year standard passport goes for #35,000. On the other hand, the 64-page 10- year standard passport for adults (18 years and above) goes for #70,000 while the 32 pages 5 year official passport goes for #15,000,00. In actuality, it is a far cry from what is visible at the Abeokuta immigration office.
Online Registration for passports
On the home page of the NIS website, immigration.gov.ng, are instructions on how to make fresh applications for a passport.
Applicants are expected to follow three simple steps; complete passport application form online; make payment and obtain Application ID and Reference Number; print out Guarantor’s Form to be signed by a guarantor and commissioner of oath in a competent court of jurisdiction, and then submit completed passport application form with other requirements in person at passport office selected during the online payment process for further processing.
As simple as this may appear, the story is different, leaving applicants to result back to the passport offices for help.
I decided to set out to the Abeokuta passport office on a Friday, with expectations that the numbers of applicants on that day would be less minimal compared to what is obtainable for people that visit there on Mondays through to Wednesday. Right from the car park, I knew I was in for a ride, as cars littered the supposed car park. I walked into the premises and it was mandatory I filled the visitors’ form, having completed it, a female officer noticed I omitted the purpose of my visit, she asked, ’what are you here for?’ I replied I am a fresh applicant, I came in for my passport. She replied, ‘do you know anyone, I said no, she said, ‘ ok, go to room 9 and ask for officer David, and I said thank you.
As I left the gate, a number of persons came in without filling the visitor register as they walked in freely. What I was able to establish quickly from the front desk officers is the connection between the front desk officers and their colleagues inside the main office for such activities. All that is needed is to tell the visitor or applicant the room no of their preferred link man.
I walked into the building and I saw two women strategically positioned as other front desk officers, I approached them too with expectations for clarity, they said, you will need your birth certificate and local government with your national ID Card‘. I further said I don’t know this is as stressful, and the discourse for booklet sets in.
Shortage of booklet
They said, ‘ we have issues with a booklet’, we don’t have a booklet, its almost going to three for years now, before when you come, within 2 – 3 hours you get your passport and go, but with the situation in the country, if they are supposed to give us 4000 and they give us 1000, how do we cope with that 1000 and we have 4000 work on the ground back here and we are supposed to do, the thing is just accumulating unlike before when they will give us like 8000 and we will have excess, and it is not even our fault, the booklet we are using is not even printed in Nigeria’, I said thank you, and I left for room 9.
As I walked through the stairs, I sat at the reception on the first floor, applicants littered everywhere, I sat and observed the growing population of applicants, a vast majority were youths, wanting to get their passport booklets.
Applying for passports online
Mr. Anthony like every other Nigerian applied online, registered, and made payment. He later went for capturing on the slated date for an appointment. Narrating his ordeal, Mr. Anthony said capturing took forever as he was sidelined for 5 hours as applicants who came for the manual process were attended to first.
After capturing, he was told to come for his passport in three weeks as booklets were not available. Three weeks turned to Six weeks before he eventually got his passport. Like many others who choose to claim anonymity, their experiences are not different as it took some no fewer than two months, while others three months to get their passport done.
THE HERCULEAN TASK OF APPLYING FOR PASSPORT MANUALLY
For Igbagboyemi Oladele, like every other youth, he was not spared. He walked into the immigration office with the expectation to get his passport done. He said he was able to get his passport in 24 hours after one officer named ‘Mr. Michael’ offered to help with the condition that he pays an additional sum of #15,000.
He said, “When I got there, the crowd was so much and I needed the passport, so I met one, Mr. Michael, so he told me am going to add #15,000 to the initial amount, so I added the #15,000 and I got the passport the next day. A lot of people actually came to me that they can actually help, I didn’t answer them, because of the way they dressed, not until the time I met that Mr. Michael because he was fully dressed in that immigration uniform, the way he spoke to me, that was why I actually believed the man. The other people I met who wanted to help, were outside, while some were inside, they were so many, more than 100. After I made the payment, I got the passport the following day.’’
These agents as the case may be, are not found outside the premises, but surprisingly they are sited within the reception and waiting room of the complex with applicants. Some neatly dressed, while others are casually dressed. I noticed they had the same files, as some immigration officers had too, moving freely from one office to another.
They move unhindered as a vast majority of the officers know who they are working for and who they are reporting to. At the waiting room, I sat close to an applicant; his [agent] came and said ’I have submitted the form, let me know if you need any other thing, and he left’. I watched him as he walked away, and I asked the lady, ‘is he the one helping you? And she said yes, I queried further, how much is he helping you to fix your passport? She said #40,000 and I said ok.
Like many others within the waiting room, they move freely to any applicant unhindered with files.
As directed, I went to room 9, asked for Officer David, he was not on the seat and I waited for him, when Officer David came in, his colleague said I promised to get Officer David for you. He went into his office and asked, ‘which document do you have? I said I don’t have any document, he said ‘ have you ever applied for a passport before?’ I said no, ‘do you have your birth certificate and local government’, I replied and said, I can easily get them, he asked again, ‘you said you can get them now, the original copies with two passport photograph? He asked, I said yes and he replied #40,000 for 32 pages. I probed further, how soon can I get it, he said,’ less than 2weeks because there is no booklet and there is a scarcity of booklets, he said the front desk officer I met at the gate had called him informing him I was coming. I said ok and I left, with the plan to get the documents as requested. As I left, these ‘unauthorized agents’ were having a nice time from one prospective applicant to the other.
After about an hour, I returned with the documents as requested, I walked into the office, and officer David told me new booklets just arrived and they are 64 pages, I said ok, no problem, he said I will add an additional #5,000 to the initial #40,000 and #1,500 for Local government Identification, as I didn’t go with any and for interview. While the conversation was on a young adult was standing by officer Joseph; he directed that I give him the money, as I did, he counted to be sure it was complete, and in turn, brought out a form I should fill. While I did that, the ‘agent’ went out to complete the process.
While I waited, Samuel, an applicant came in from Lagos, he was directed to speak with officer David to fast-track his application. As officer David stepped out, I asked him how much he paid for his passport, he said #40,000. I asked further why he didn’t apply in Lagos; he said the queue in Lagos discouraged him and since he was referred to an officer here, it was better for him. We both went through different ‘agents’ for the same purpose.
After some minutes, my documents were ready to move to the next stage, another officer asked me to follow him to an office, when we got there, he asked me to wait outside, as I did, he was ‘reaching’ out, when he came out, he told me I will be called in any moment from now, alas, I was called, it was the verification office, in less than 5 minutes my documents were verified. The officer said I should return to the waiting room for capturing.
It was a long wait in the waiting room, I sat for over an hour, I observed how business activities were going on unhindered. The agents had their location within the reception. I was called in for capturing, and the officer in charge said no phones are allowed; the command had two systems for capturing. After few minutes, I was captured and I returned to meet Officer Joseph, who said I will pick my passport after 3 days.
THE HERCULEAN TASK OF RENEWING YOUR PASSPORT
Tajudeen came into Abeokuta from Ijebu Ode for some business engagements and needed verifications in order to assess his bank accounts with a new generation bank. He noticed his passport had expired. He was a businessman who used his passport for bank transactions and other means of identification as he didn’t have a driver’s license and he had not been able to get his Permanent voters card.
The reasons above qualified him for renewal. He had two options: renew it in Abeokuta or instead go to Lagos. He opted for the former to avoid the stress of the unpredictable nature of Lagos traffic and the uncertainty that comes with the unknown.
Family and close associates who he spoke to vowed that he would not be able to complete the process in record time unless he greased the palm of the necessary contacts at the Office.
A source however referred him to me. I spoke with him on the phone and after a few days, we met some were within the state capital. We spoke and I told him what my investigation set out to do and I allayed his fears on his safety and other sundry matters.
On the appointed day and with me by his side, we approached the Office and our first observation was that it would be a herculean task. We were greeted by touts advertising “connections” within the Service that would Fast Track the whole process. Most of them are agents of immigration officers.
Some officers were at the gate that day, and every other day. They were positioned as security but were seen scouting for new applicants; identifying them by their looks of either desperation or frustration. The ideal thing is to direct applicants to a guideline or office, but they never did. They were asking them “do you know your way?” Answering “no” or making inquiries makes you prey. You would be connected to their partnering tout or officer to ‘assist’ you. Answering “yes” means you’ve already established contact with an officer inside.
Some others vowed that he won’t get it quickly unless an immigration officer ‘helped’. Help in this instant means paying an officer to monitor and hasten the passport application process.
They disclosed that applying without being helped can take up to 5 months, while he’d get the passport in 10 days when assisted. They asked him to pay N40,000.
Tajudeen remained adamant, but after a while, I told him to succumb for the next top officer we can get to “assist”.
He met an officer who charged him N45,000 for the 32-page passport, but we slashed the price to N40,000. The officer reluctantly agreed; persuading us to pay more. He paid N40,000. Paying N40,000 seemed much till we eavesdropped that some people paid N50,000 to N60, 000 for the same 32-page passport. That made me feel N30,000 was a good deal. I was somewhat glad.
Financial assistance did some work, the officer ‘assisting’ fast-tracked the application. He did the face and fingerprint capturing within three hours. Don’t say I waited long! Capturing within such a timeframe isn’t possible without ‘assistance’; the applicants were over two hundred.
The officer has a client’s record book. Data was added to several others contained therein. He was told to come for the passport in two weeks. Efforts to secure a faster date failed. We left and couldn’t return till after a month due to a tight schedule.
In Abeokuta Passport Office being confident the passport is ready isn’t enough, lay your hands on it, I counseled myself.
“Your passport is not ready, we don’t have a booklet”. The immigration officer assisting uttered at the next appointment. Efforts to get the passport quickly exposed us to several other wrongs in the passport office. These are
There’s no orderliness and feedback mechanism.
You must always be present, even for minor things.
The officers are used to earning extra from bribes daily. This affects their commitment to you. They no longer give you much attention after the first day, their attention is always on the new clients. They have so many clients that they struggle to remember their name and situation when they dial.
There is in house politicking and several factions leading all the way up. The officer you pay is responsible for you; no officer will assist you even if they can, no matter how terrible your situation is.
After several complaints for over a month, we were directed to explain this situation to the head of Service Compact (SERVICOM). He advised that Tajudeen shouldn’t regenerate his file for one reason: the officers assigned to search files often declare them unfound without conducting any search. The officer collected an extra N3,000 to tip a new contact in the production room.
We returned the next day and to our dismay, the passport office had no network to check my status. I was amazed, but the officers weren’t. They experience such regularly. No one could do a thing that day. The entire office was practically shut down.
We refused to be broken and after another 7 hours delay, he got his passport that day, after about three months after applying.
COVID-19 AND THE PROTEST AND THE MAD RUSH FOR INTERNATIONAL PASSPORT?
In October 2020, Nigeria was rocked by some of the biggest protests since military rule ended in 1999, resulting in dozens of deaths and rattling the political establishment. Thousands of youths took to the streets to vent their anger about police brutality by marching, barricading roads and bridges, and setting buildings and vehicles alight. The authorities initially struck a conciliatory tone and agreed to police reforms, but their response has become increasingly heavy-handed.
The massacre in Lekki, Lagos on 20-10-2020 was the height of wickedness, apathy, insensitivity, irrationality and unreasonableness on the part of the Nigerian government and this has triggered most of Nigeria’s youthful population to get out while they can.
The frustration with the system and coupled with the fact that the government has not handled the aftermath of the protest well has left a lot of young Nigerians angry and desolate. Many are now actively considering leaving Nigeria for greener pastures. Apart Economic inequality in Nigeria has reached extreme levels, despite being the largest economy in Africa. The country has an expanding economy with abundant human capital and the economic potential to lift millions out of poverty.
The #EndSars protest plus the effects of the coronavirus pandemic has led to some unintended consequences. The number of Nigerians living in Canada crossed 33,000 in 2016 and the number keeps rising. The desire to leave Nigeria and settle in a foreign country for greener pastures has been strong since the economic recession in the early 80s.
Following the announcement of the resumption of international flights, the Passport office has experienced a rush on passport applications. According to the officers who spoke, on an average day the Office would receive 200 passport applications. But since August, the Office has been receiving approximately 1,000 applications per day primarily from applicants aged 18 to 45. In the ordinary course, it takes about 15 days to acquire a passport in Nigeria.
Almost 70 percent of the labor force is unemployed, and the inflation rate is at an all-time high, is expected to go higher before the month-end. Exactly how many Nigerians have emigrated over the past three years remains unclear, but the queues remain long outside the passport office in the state capital, Abeokuta. It is not uncommon for people to spend the night outside on the pavement, to ensure at least getting into the building the following day. The delays that characterise the application process have been complicated by corruption.
Nigeria is experiencing a debilitating flight of professional and skilled people escaping the country’s economic meltdown, with the health and teaching professions most affected by the brain drain. The series of events has also increased the influx of those who want to travel. Those unable to leave have turned to “side hustle” as a way of supplementing their meager incomes, while others have seen opportunity in the crisis and are turning it to their own advantage.
This desperation to travel out has left them exposed to exploitation in the Passport office. There are no monitoring and retributive mechanisms to ensure that those who would have been found on the wrong side of the law are punished. The situation is made even more pathetic by the fact that those who should enforce and interpret the law are also corrupt,
WITH #2,000 YOU WILL BE DOCUMENTED WITHOUT SUBMITTING ANY EVIDENCE
On a different day, I arrived at the Abeokuta passport office, I met another officer on mufti, I approached him with the intent of getting a passport, he said 32 – page is the most common booklet available, as the command has only gotten the 64- page booklet once in the year. When asked how much the 32- page booklet is, he said it’s #40,000 with an additional payment of #2,000 for documentation. I pleaded with him to accept #35,000, he said #42,000 last insisting that some of his colleagues get as much as #50,000. He said I could go up to mingle to confirm.
He said I will have to pay #2,000 for not coming with any document such as birth certificate, Local government identification, and state of origin. He noted that after the interview, I will be passed after paying the #2,000 insisting that they have to collect the money so as to pass the document and not check if one submits a fake document.
When contacted to react to the alleged corrupt practices in the Abeokuta passport office of the Nigeria Immigration Service, the Public Relations Officer, Jide Osifeso said he would treat the interview as a complaint, as he would need to seek approvals from his boss if it is to be treated like an interview. When asked to clarify on the alleged corrupt practices at the command and what is obtainable in getting a passport online as against what happens on the field (the passport office), he said: Most times I advise people to go online, pay what you are supposed online, do the downloading yourself, we have a front desk, do the necessary documentation, pay the necessary fees, the front desk officer will take these document and pass it in into a file, and process it normally, because the applicant make payment themselves.
I advise the applicant to go online and make the necessary payment to know what kind of passport you want to do, take note, you have to make sure that if you are applying for a 10-year passport, please make sure that whenever you are applying for that passport, they can provide that service. If you go and pay for a 10-year passport and you come to Ogun state, for example, Ogun State doesn’t have the printer for that. That means the applicant would have to go through the bank and find a way of doing the refund.
Be that as it may, I advise people, the standard procedure is to go online. He said the only delay you might have is flight delay in booklet supply; the passport may not be ready as quickly as possible.
Jide asked further on who made the payment, I replied, officer David, and I asked further, having explained the online process, is it that manual applications are not done? He said, I am aware the standard procedure is to go online, but of course, I see people writing the forms manually up and down at times, and I call them to order that you people are supposed to do this online. But you see, the problem I have with Nigerians with simple instructions, a lot of people will come here, and tell you, I can’t be bothered with online, the network was bad, I can just pick a form and do it and go away, most people will come, I have people that will come, that they have done the payment online and they have a smooth process, and we have people that will come here and say, I don’t have time, they believe their forms is available at the passport office, so if they choose to meet an officer, an officer that will help them process their application, knowingly fully well the prices on the internet and they choose to pay another fee, I am not involved in such transactions so this is what I just tell them, this is at your own risk, if you get the passport, maybe the guy promised them, you will get it in 5 hours, instead of you having to wait for two weeks. A lot of applicants look for miracles, they look for 3 hours job, 5 hours job and when the thing backfires, they then come to the PRO to complain, and I tell them when you went online, what did you read. So the underlying factor then is the applicants’ search for quickness coupled with the fact that some people go to meet passport vendors, who tell them I know one officer that can do it for you for X amount. For example, I had a case last week when the vendor collected #70,000 came to an officer, paid him #40,000 or so, when the woman did not collect her passport it became rowdy, she became agitated. I asked the officer, what did you collect, he said, they can’t say it here, they should go and say it elsewhere, so manual applications, I see it happening at times.
This report was supported by the Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA Resource Centre)