UNDERCOVER INVESTIGATION (I): With Just N200 Bribe Per Immigration Checkpoint, Illegal Migrants Are Infiltrating Nigeria Through Sokoto
Between November and December 2019, IBRAHIM ADEYEMI embarked on a four-way undercover trip from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, to Sokoto, a northwestern state bordering Niger Republic. Throughout the cumulative 96-hour journey of over 4,000 kilometres, he documented how officers of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) conspire with mischievous commercial drivers to extort illegal immigrants and permit them entry into Nigeria in a strict bribe-and-pass pattern — at the expense of national security.
Wabuka Zakariyau, a Nigerien residing illegally in Nigeria, was aggrieved but he dared not agitate. His sibling, Wabuka Zibo, was dying of a mysterious stomach ache that had befallen him 12 months ago. The twenty-something-year-old had no means of taking his younger brother to any hospital in Lagos; this saddened him a lot.
One more trouble: As an illegal immigrant, he would have to cough up N4,000 — for himself and his sick brother — to settle the bribe-us-and-go immigration officers at different checkpoints on the highways from Lagos to Sokoto, and then find his way back to his country. So, when at the Oyingbo bus terminus in Lagos, the bus conductor urged the illegal immigrants amongst other passengers to contribute the sum of N2,000 each to bribe the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) officials stationed on the highways on their behalf, a furious Zakariyau rolled his eyes at the conductor, staring at him disdainfully. “These people think we carry millions with us when we travel,” he mumbled.
Ten years ago, the short, dark man was smuggled into Nigeria to seek greener pastures, and he would only become a jack-of-all-trade at Idumota area of Lagos State, subsisting on any menial job he could lay his hands on. Now, he was travelling back to his country because his brother was very sick.
Many concerns have been expressed about the continued influx of illegal immigrants, mostly of African descent, into the country, with many of them easily gaining access through the various porous land borders.
There are many illegal immigrants like Zakariyau and his brother in Lagos and other parts of the country. They leave their countries for Nigeria without the required documents to crisscross the country or even trade in it.
More than ever before, however, Nigerians are clamouring for the deportation of illegal immigrants due to the high level of insecurity and the threats on the ‘thin’ economy of the country. Security experts and NIS officials have said the influx of these illegal migrants, who are unskilled and largely uneducated, constitutes a security threat to Nigeria. Investigations have also shown that many of them who operate commercial motorcycles, colloquially known as ‘Okada’, are usually armed, a report by ThisDay newspaper states.
Recently, in the heat of Nigeria’s border closure, the House of Representatives called for stricter enforcement of the Federal Government’s border closure policy by deporting illegal immigrants. Many concerns have been expressed about the continued influx of illegal immigrants, mostly of African descent, into the country, with many of them easily gaining access through the various porous land borders. In a unanimously-adopted motion titled ‘The Closure of Nigerian Territorial Borders Not Enough’, which was moved by Rotimi Agunsoye, representing Kosofe Federal Constituency in the lower chamber, the lawmakers argued that such uncontrolled immigration into the country poses serious socio-economic and political threat to the country.
Nevertheless, the immigration officers positioned at many patrol checkpoints on various Nigerian highways have indirectly ‘legalised’ illegal migration with their cash-for-pass attitudes. Even, during their land border patrol, a significant number of officers fail to check undocumented immigrants coming in and out of the country. Therefore, armed migrants could go scot-free by simply wooing the NIS officers with bribes.
INTRODUCTION TO BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION
“You’re wasting everybody’s time, Mr Man! Na who say make you no get passport, abi you get tetanus for head ni? Them say make you pay immigration money you dey do one kain,” the bus conductor at the Oyingbo terminus booed Zakariyau for hesitating when asked for his N4,000 bribe for immigration officers.
Zakariyau met me at the Oyingbo terminus; I had arrived at the terminus early to book a seat that suited my mission. I had deliberately left home for the terminus on Wednesday, December 3, without any (valid) ID card to prove my Nigerianness and, of course, I knew the risks involved in travelling from Lagos to Sokoto, passing through more than six immigration checkpoints on the road, without any means of identification.
Many Nigeriens have lived with Nigerians for decades but in many cases, illegally. Aside from Nigeriens, immigrants from Nigeria’s neighbouring countries such as Benin Republic, Togo and Cameroon thrive and survive for a number of years in Nigeria without acquiring the necessary documents to legalise their stay in the country
After arriving the terminus at 6:54 am, I presented myself to the bus conductor as an undocumented immigrant from Benin Republic. One look at me, what the young man saw on my face was fear — a look I purposefully adopted.
“Why are you afraid because of immigration?” the tall, dark man quipped in Pidgin. I kept mum and nodded in repulsion to his comment. “You only have to pay them their money. Na N2,000; na driver go collect am. If you hear say them don dey pay, you sef pay. Nobody go challenge you for road.”
In a matter of minutes, Zakariyau and his sick brother, followed by other undocumented persons, all Nigeriens, joined other Nigerian passengers at the terminus. And, of course, before the bus finally took off, an agreement was reached that the illegal immigrants in the bus cooperate with the driver when he eventually requests funds to “settle the immigration officers we would meet on the road”.
Seeing bus drivers in connivance with prohibited immigrants to bribe NIS patrol officers across land borders wasn’t a strange thing. I had witnessed the same in my first attempt to track the illegal migrants crossing Nigeria’s land borders without having the required documents to live and travel in the country. I had travelled from Lagos to Sokoto in November to study the terrain, in preparation for my December reporting trip.
‘MAD MAN, KING OF THE INSANE’
When it was time for the 18-passenger bus to take off, Jamiu, the man who drove us from Lagos to Sokoto during the first trip, asked the bus conductor to gather money from the illegal immigrants in the bus.
“Hey, mad man that collects money, king of the insane, how many of them (referring to the illegal immigrants) are there?” Jamiu asked the bus coordinator. “One, two, three, four… they’re four,” he replied after counting.
“All of you should cooperate here; nobody should act, unfortunately, else I’ll drop you,” Jamiu warned.
Many Nigeriens have lived with Nigerians for decades but in many cases, illegally. Aside from Nigeriens, immigrants from Nigeria’s neighbouring countries such as Benin Republic, Togo and Cameroon thrive and survive for a number of years in Nigeria without acquiring the necessary documents to legalise their stay in the country. While many of these persons would usually find a way to claim to be Nigerians, immigration officers also have their ways of identifying them. However, a peanut backhander, when offered to the officers, would most times set culprits of illegal immigration free — even when they have a dangerous agenda in Nigeria.
18 PASSENGERS, 10 ILLEGAL MIGRANTS
As we drove out of the bus terminus during my second trip in December, I found myself choked with puffs of cigarettes smoked by the driver. I knew I would have to deal with this for the next 24 hours or thereabouts, but I wasn’t that bothered. I had purposefully picked the seat just behind him, a vantage position, so I could watch every detail of the journey unfold before my curious eyes. Right beside me was Ismaila, an illegal immigrant from Niger, followed Zakariyau and his sick brother: There were 18 passengers in the bus but only eight were legitimate citizens; the remaining 10 were ‘illegals’.
In a few minutes, we were en route to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, after escaping the predictably heavy Lagos traffic amidst the give-me-way-if-you-can’t-go hustle and bustle of the city. At 1:23 pm, we had a stopover in Ibadan, the largest city in West Africa. From Ibadan, we left for Oyo, the political capital of Yoruba land. Next stop was Ogbomoso, a town in Oyo State. From Ogbomoso, we drove straight to Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State.
N2,000 BRIBE FOR IMMIGRATION OFFICERS AT BIRIBIRI
As we left Ilorin, traversing Shao, the true picture of cash-for-pass patterns of the Nigerian security operatives began to appear to me clearly. The driver passed through a number of checkpoints manned by the Army and the Police without being checked. He did this by simply exchanging hands with security officers and dashing out some naira notes. As we advanced towards Jebba, a geographical point between Kwara and Niger states, we were flagged down at a place called Biribiri, after Bode Sadu in Kwara, by two immigration officers who walked straight to the driver, collected the sum of N2,000 and turned back immediately without even taking a look into the bus. And so the driver zoomed off.
Economic and security challenges ranging from banditry, kidnapping, smuggling, illegal migration and proliferation of light weapons are major issues affecting the country. The relentlessness of the Boko Haram insurgency, for instance, is known to be partly due to the ease with which insurgents from countries in the Lake Chad region easily cross into Nigerian territory, smuggling in arms and ammunition.
These were some of the issues that necessitated last year’s closure of the borders by the Federal Government. Illegal immigrants are key contributors to the country’s insecurity and economic problems. In November 2019, the Federal Government announced that it had captured 296 illegal immigrants since the border closure. But hundreds of prohibited immigrants, by far outnumbering the government’s arrests, still thrive in Nigeria; a good number of them gain seamless entry by indulging corrupt immigration officers across various borders.
N2,000 BIRBE AT NGASKI; ANOTHER ALONG JEBBA-MOKWA ROAD
It was already dark when we alighted at Jebba around 9 pm; we had 40 minutes to fill our yearning stomachs and visit the loo and then routed some 38 kilometres to Mokwa, Niger State, from Jebba. Meanwhile, along the Jebba-Mokwa Road, another immigration officer stopped our vehicle, but instead of him to, at least, take a peek at the passengers in the bus, he quickly demanded for “my money”. The driver settled him with another N2,000 and moved on. The time was at exactly 10:53 pm.
When we left Mokwa for Kotangura, still in Niger State, the driver, in an attempt to avoid the deathtrap along Mokwa-Kotangura Road, changed his route, traversing through forests of many dangers en route to the terrible roads of Wara town, Ngaski Local Government Area of Kebbi State – a terrain so bad that Google map could not track. By treading that path, we had short-cut areas such as Zugurma, Eban, Kabogi, Rafingora and Kagara, before Kotangura. It took us about three hours before we found our way out of the bush path, only to find ourselves at the Kotangura Immigration Border Patrol, Ngaski, along Yauri Road.
“Stop there!” an immigration officer screamed, and the driver obeyed immediately. The officer, a short man with protruding belly and a toothpick dangling in his mouth, stretched his hand to take the N2,000 readied for him from the driver. He allowed us to drive on without further checks. At this juncture, people on the bus, including the illegal immigrants, were already getting irritated by the constant stops and the corrupt immigration officers manning the highway checkpoints. “We first paid at Biribiri, went further a little and paid again, went further and paid. We’ve paid again, doesn’t that make it five?” the driver lamented as he drove on.
Among other security operatives in the country, the Nigeria Police are perceived to be the most corrupt perhaps because they interact with the people the most. But the Police are not the only public officers associated with bribery and corruption. According to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the Police, Immigration and Customs services are the public organisations that seek bribes the most. Africa Check quoted NBS in a report detailing the percentages of bribes sought by these organisations. For the police officers, it was 74.7%, while Customs and Immigration officers had 86.9% and 83.30%, respectively.
PRICING IMMIGRATION BRIBE LIKE PEPPER
Bored and bothered, Ismaila, the illegal immigrant who sat beside me, moaned about the bribery and extortion propensities of the officers on the highways. “These people too like money; this kind thing no fit happen for my place,” he bragged. I was really stunned by Ismaila’s comments; I wondered how a culprit of illegal migration would be so rest-minded that he turned out to be faulting officers who were supposed to scold him.
At exactly 2:50 am, we arrived at the Kebbi State Immigration Patrol checkpoint in Yauri. The driver, consciously or subconsciously, did not stop to ‘settle’ the officers at the checkpoint. “Hey, stop there!” an officer yelled at him before he could drive further. “So you wouldn’t stop if I didn’t stop you?”
“Sorry, officer, I’m very sorry; you know that’s not how I behave,” the driver apologized, handing over a N1,000 note to the officer, which was promptly declined. The driver again handed over N1,500 from a pile of N500 notes to the officer, but the officer rejected the money. This looked interesting as it seemed the officer would decline the bribe offer. “How many are they?” he asked, referring to the illegal migrants.
“Just accept it,” the driver begged.
“How many are they?” he insisted. “That is my concern.”
The driver, instead of giving the figure of illegal migrants in the bus as requested, added another N500 note to make it N2,000, but the officer refused the offer. Moments later, however, my initial excitement of meeting an upright officer faded into thin air as a drama of haggling ensued.
“You will pay N3,000. That is the usual amount,” the officer told the driver, who, obviously unhappy with the amount, retorted: “When did that start to happen? The day before yesterday I passed here, I did not pay up to that.”
“Let me call my boss,” the officer threatened, but the driver refused to budge. “Call him,” he replied, daringly.
“I swear, it is N3,000,” the officer insisted.
“You heard him say N3,000 should be given to him,” the driver addressed the passengers in the bus, but none of the illegal migrants uttered a word.
“This is not something we should start arguing over. I swear it is N3,000 they pay now,” reiterated the officer, who was already getting irritated. “I don’t want my boss to come here, because once he does, they must come down.”
At this point, the driver, tired of haggling and arguing, paid the N3,000 bribe reluctantly — N1,000 more than he’d spent at other checkpoints. The officer then bade the passengers farewell while the driver zoomed off.
N2,000 BRIBE TO FREE 10 ILLEGAL MIGRANTS
We spent the night at Yelwa, an area in Yauri, after travelling away from the scene of the haggling. At 5 am, the bellowing voice of the call to prayer woke everyone; the Mu’azin admonished all Muslims to observe their prayers, for “praying is better than sleeping”.
By the time everyone was done praying, brightness of the day had taken over the darkness of the night and the journey continued. We headed to Koko, a community neighbouring Yauri in Kebbi State.
At exactly 8:14 am, we arrived at the immigration patrol checkpoint at Koko-Bagudo Road. ‘Kebbi State Immigration Service Command, Koko’ was boldly scribbled on a butter-coloured van parked by the roadside. Our driver had prepared N2,000, which he handed over to an immigration officer, who flashed his teeth to receive it. Another officer sauntered towards the bus, hands in his pockets, to confirm the amount given to his co-officer.
Inches forward, as the driver sped past them, I saw another officer extort a truck driver and I wondered what could have attracted an immigration officer to a truck driver, only for me to find out from the driver that the truck was conveying a horde of undocumented persons.
As the driver drove out of the checkpoint, speeding along the Koko-Jega highway, I did a quick calculation of the figures: N2,000 for 10 illegal immigrants, that’s an equivalent of N200 per illegal immigrant! Therefore, this could mean that N200 covers up for the travel documents required by law for an immigrant to live and survive in Nigeria.
PROHIBITED BY LAW, PERMITTED BY BRIBERY
Section 18 (1) of the Nigerian Immigration Act says any immigrant not in possession of a valid passport shall be deemed to be a prohibited immigrant and liable to be refused admission into Nigeria or to be deported as the case may be. Section 8 (2) of the same act rules that any person desirous of entering Nigeria for any of the purposes in subsection (1) of this section, shall produce the consent to an immigration officer; and the failure to do so shall be an offence under this Act, and any person who commits such an offence shall be liable on conviction to deportation as a prohibited immigrant.
Regardless of the law, corrupt immigration officers stationed at different checkpoints on Nigerian highways are having a field day extorting and condoning undocumented migrants in the country.
Meanwhile, for extorting and collecting bribes from illegal immigrants, the highway NIS officials have breached Section 98 (1) of the Criminal Code Act-Part III-IV. According to the Act, any public official who: (a) corruptly asks for, receives or obtains any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person; or bribes, etc., (b) corruptly agrees or attempts to receive or obtain any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person, on account of (i) anything already, done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour already shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any matter connected with the functions, affairs or business of a Government department, public body or other organisation or institution in which he is serving as a public official, or (ii) anything to be afterwards done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour to be afterwards shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any such matter as aforesaid, is guilty of the felony of official corruption and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.
‘SEND US YOUR EVIDENCE’, IMMIGRATION SERVICE REACTS
When BusinessDay contacted Sunday James, spokesperson of the Nigerian Immigration Service, he was not willing to listen to the reporter.
Informed that there was proof of how illegal migrants were moving in and out of the country through the land borders, he interjected the reporter, saying: “That means you’re not current. What about the recent arrests made?”
Before the reporter could explain further, James questioned his professionalism and insisted he was being economical with the truth. “We believe only in evidence-based journalism. Since you said you’re an eye-witness, send me the evidence so that we can go there and arrest them.”
He dropped the call afterwards.