UNDERCOVER INVESTIGATION (II): Corrupt Immigration Officers Who Flattered To Deceive And Their Bribe-Seeking Police And Army Counterparts
In the concluding part of this two-part series that began last week, IBRAHIM ADEYEMI recalls his encounter with Immigration officers who initially appeared ethically promising but ultimately took bribes to wave illegal migrants on. He also reports how other security operatives — apart from officials of the Nigeria Immigration Service— participate in the bribery-for-passage highway transactions endangering the lives of innocent Nigerians.
“If you go scot-free passing through other immigration checkpoints without paying, you can’t escape this one we’re heading to,” Jamiu, the middle-aged man who drove us during my first trip from Lagos to Sokoto, said of the Kebbi State Immigration checkpoint, Yauri. “Those immigration boys at Yauri are bastards of ribbah,” the driver stressed.
Before we were flagged down by the immigration officers, the driver had readied N2,000 to offer them.
“No! It’s no more a matter of money. This country is under pressure of border closure now; everybody should come down. Come down. Come down now!” said one of the officers, emphatically.
For the first time in all of my travel days on the highways, an immigration officer acted differently and decently. He made a valid point: Everything is not about money (bribery). He began his checks by asking each individual questions about their nationalities. For half an hour, the officer asked one question after the other and in just a few minutes, he identified four illegal immigrants in the bus. He set them aside.
“You, where are you from?” he asked one passenger.
“I’m from Dambuwal in Sokoto,” the passenger replied.
“Where is your ID card?”
“I don’t have an ID card; I only have my voter card.”
“Voter card is not enough evidence. Election has come and gone, hasn’t it?”
The passenger remained silent and the immigration officer went ahead to engage others in the bus. When he was sure that he had fished out four illegal migrants who were supposedly in the bus, he walked up to the driver and the immigrants, and what ended their conversations was a bribe offer of N2,000, which he confidently collected and pocketed.
As Jamiu sped away from the checkpoint, I asked him if he was aware of the implications of conniving with — and bribing — immigration officers to encourage illegal migration. “Am I the government?” he replied. “Am I the one to do the work of the government?”
A NIGERIEN MIRACULOUSLY TURNS NIGERIAN
No one could have thought that there was an extra Nigerien in the bus that conveyed us from Lagos to Sokoto during the November trip. Everybody’s thought was that there were only four ‘illegals’: Idrisa, Ismaila, Kamilu and Hamidu. But there was another: Ahmidu, a Nigerien claiming to be Nigerian. He had already escaped six checkpoints of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) without being found out.
We left the Yauri immigration checkpoint and headed for Koko, another town in Kebbi. Along Koko-Bagudo Road, we came across yet another immigration checkpoint. The officer who stopped us had already collected N1,000 from the driver before asking us to “park; park now and let me check by myself”.
Before the officer could utter a word, the identified four illegal migrants quickly raised their hands, to indicate that they were Nigeriens but had paid to the driver, who in turn paid the immigration officer on their behalf.
“Hey, you! Who are you? Where are you from?” the officer fired at Ahmidu. “Come down now!”
“I am from Kebbi,” Ahmidu answered.
“Where in Kebbi?”
“Which area in Kalgo?” the officer probed further.
There was silence. Ahmidu no longer had an answer and had gone dumb.
“Where is your ID card?” the questioning continued.
“I don’t have,” he said reluctantly.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Niger, through Sokoto.”
“But you said you’re from Kebbi,” the officer pressed further.“What are you now going to do in Niger?”
Ahmidu stuttered, kept quiet for a few seconds, then muttered: “My mother is from Niger but my father is a Nigerian…”
“Shut up, you liar!” the officer yelled. Other officers then joined the conversation. Everyone was already suspecting that Ahmidu wasn’t really a Nigerian. “Abi osiereni; moro wipe won s’epe fun o?” the bus driver swore and cussed at him in Yoruba.
When the young man realised that he had been found out, he confessed he was indeed from Niger Republic. He threw himself to the ground, rolling from side to side to the sympathy of some of the Nigerian passengers.
“Don’t beg for him? They’re not worth begging for,” one officer asserted angrily when some passengers started to beg on Ahmidu’s behalf.“Who knows if this idiot is a Boko Haram member? If you were the one in their country, in this position, you are in trouble. They don’t take sh*t over there.”
To the frustration of us all, the Nigerien was detained for over an hour. We couldn’t journey on without him, so, technically, he had held the rest of us to ransom. The officers searched him, but not thoroughly. In the end, for lying to be Nigerian, he was asked to pay N1,000, which he did amid sobs before promptly joining us for continuation of the journey.
“These people are merciless”
‘HELP, PLEASE HELP; MY BROTHER IS DYING!’
Only a man with no blood running through his veins would ignore the wails of Zibo, Zakariyau’s younger brother. Our vehicle had developed some technical problems along the Koko-Jega Road and the driver had vanished from the scene to hunt for a repairer. We were stranded.
But among the stranded passengers was Zibo, dying of a mysterious stomach upset. No one seemed to have the ability to save the life of the illegal migrant, who would still have to travel more than a thousand kilometres to get to his country, Niger. This happened on December 4, during my second trip to Sokoto from Lagos. It was sunny in the terrain; the time was 12:15 pm.
As minutes passed, Zibo held his stomach tightly, rolling on the ground by the roadside. He cried and screamed heavily for help. How on earth do we cure an undiagnosed ailment without any forewarning? I had pitifully thought. On the advice of a passenger, Zakariyau, the brother of the sick boy, had run to purchase some tins of milk but his efforts were fruitless. The condition got worse. “Help, please help; my brother is dying!” he wailed.
I personally thought the young man had passed away until other passengers confirmed he was still breathing; he had only lost consciousness.
The driver resurfaced after some two hours, with a mechanic; he uttered no word of apology until the repair was done and the journey resumed.
Zakariyau spoke to me about his plight as an illegal immigrant in Nigeria. He told me how he had been deceived to leave Niger Republic for Nigeria to “come and work to get big money in Lagos”, only for him to end up as a jack of all trades in the state.
“Na market we dey carry for Idumota,” he said when asked about his business in Lagos. He lamented the hike in bribes being paid to the Immigration officers these days.“The last time I travelled, we paid bribes of N1,000 as a group at each checkpoint,” he said. This N2,000 bribe they’re suddenly asking for, I don’t know why.”
A conversation with Wabuka Zakariyau, a Nigerien illegal immigrant
ILLEGAL MIGRANTS KICK AGAINST ILLEGAL FEES
A soft protest erupted in the bus when we moved towards Jega, from Koko. The driver had asked the illegal migrants to contribute an extra N200 each to settle other Immigration officers at Jega and Sokoto, and particularly to get his own commission of the money — for bribing the officers on their behalf. Zakariyau was the first to kick against the idea.
“See now, one person N2,000; This one who is sick and I will pay N4,000,” he lamented, stressing the health condition of his brother who coughed in the bus intermittently. “These people think once you’re coming from Lagos, you already looted all the banks in the state.”
What followed Zakariyau’s lamentation was a wave of uproar from other illegal migrants. Most of them said they lacked the funds to travel back to their homes let alone pay an extra charge of N200,
“These people are merciless,” Ismaila, one of them, said.
The driver taunted the illegal migrants, saying: “These bastards do not know they are exhibits. Do they expect me to pay the Immigration men for them? Or should I not get my own share of the money to at least buy paracetamol after all the stress I have passed through?”
“I will drop all of you now!” he threatened. Following the threats, the illegal migrants had no other choice than to cooperate with the driver. They raised his money, and the journey continued.
‘PERMISSION OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS IS ILLEGAL’
Saddled with the responsibility of implementing the country’s diplomatic policies, among other functions, the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the granting of thoroughfare to illegal migrants by NIS officials.
Ferdinand Nwoye, spokesman of the Ministry, told BusinessDay that illegal immigrants should not be condoned or permitted in the country.
“Illegal immigrants are not allowed all over the world,” he said.“While you use the word ‘illegal’, it should be noted that migration is something that should be done according to the specified laws of both the immigrating country and the emigrating country.”
Highlighting some of the implications of illegal immigration, he said: “Illegal immigrants are found all over the world and there are so many implications.
“Once you have a lot of immigrants that are not documented, statistically, it will be very difficult to plan, because you will not know the actual number of people that are residents in your country.
“Again, illegal immigrants, when they come into a country for a job that a native of the land will do for N10, they can do it for like N2 because they are desperate. They are just looking for survival. So there would be pressure and there would be unhealthy competition.”
On the security implications of illegal immigration, he said: “When someone is coming in illegally, you don’t know if he’s coming with arms and weapons. As you can see, Nigeria closed its borders. According to the statement coming from government offices, it has reduced the number of light arms and weapons that are coming into the country, which in turn gives the relative peace we have for some time now.”
When asked if he was aware that some Immigration officers were sabotaging the government’s efforts to eradicate illegal immigration by permitting and extorting illegal migrants on Nigeria’s highways, he said: “permission of illegal immigrants is also illegal”.
He added, though, that with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol of free movement, there is a level of freedom to be enjoyed by migrants who possess ECOWAS passport.
“That is left for the immigration officer because I know that part of their duties is to check such practices and I know they should be doing that,” he said.“But if there is any lapse discovered somehow or somewhere or the other, I think it should be directed to them. At least the authorities should now have a thing to say.”
ARMY, POLICE OFFICERS CAUGHT IN THE ACT OF BRIBERY
Like the bribe-and-pass immigration officers, Nigerian soldiers and policemen are other racketeers conspiring with drivers to smuggle illegal immigrants in and out of the country.
Away from the corruption-thriving checkpoints of the Immigration patrol officers on the highways, we passed through a number of checkpoints manned by Nigerian soldiers and policemen without any enforcement of the law in particular.
“Bring that phone!” a soldier had ordered me as we were flagged down at a military checkpoint at the Yauri-Koko Road in Shanga Local Government Area of Kebbi State.
“Who are you calling? Are you a Boko Haram terrorist?” he asked.
I submitted the phone to him but he didn’t check anything; he rather stretched his hand through the driver’s window and collected a N200 note. “You’re welcome,” he said as he received the money and gave the phone he had seized to the driver, who returned it to me.
The next checkpoint, some yards away, was also supposedly monitored by soldiers. One of the officers quickly welcomed the passengers as we stopped at the checkpoint, and the driver, as usual, gave a N200 note to the soldier and then collected N100 change, bidding him farewell.
We drove speedily still on the same road and arrived at yet another military checkpoint, where a soldier was sighted being backhanded by a truck driver who loaded a horde of people, suspected to be illegals. After passing the said truck, he moved closer to us to collect another N100 from the driver.
On a spree movement towards Koko, we also encountered a number of policemen hanging their rifles on their shoulders but only to collect N100 notes from passing drivers. Like other drivers, the man who drove us didn’t pass any police checkpoint, especially on this road, without parting with cash to woo the policemen and other security operatives.
Two Nigerian soldiers and a policeman, who were collecting their own shares of the highway ‘illegal tenders’, were filmed in the act as our vehicle drove on the road.
In a few hours, we arrived at Jega in Kebbi State, and before heading forth to Sokoto, just some 15 kilometres after Jega junction, we met yet another Immigration officer who, this time, collected N1,000 for 10 illegal migrants. As if that was not enough, at another immigration checkpoint in Sokoto, N2,000 was dashed out in exchange for freeing the illegal immigrants and allowing us to move on without much hindrances.
At 2:32 pm, we entered Sokoto city against all odds, free to individually proceed with our journeys to wherever, including the Republic of Niger.