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COVID-19 protocols elongate queues, fuel extortion at airports

Passengers travelling through Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, have expressed frustrations over extortions by airport officials and long hours of waiting to get cleared as a result of government’s imposed Covid-19 protocols.

Following the resumption of international flights on September 5, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19 requested that arriving and departing passengers must have tested negative for coronavirus.

A document signed by the PTF said, “All intending passengers are required to register via a national payment portal online and pay for a repeat (second) PCR test to be done upon arrival in Nigeria. This payment portal will provide passengers with the options of where and when to carry out the PCR test.”

The statement added that passengers would be given appointment time and dates to present themselves at the Sample Collection Centres located in their states of residence for a repeat Covid-19 PCR test on the seventh day after arrival.

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However, against these provisions made by the PTF, passengers arriving from various countries have continued to complain that the dedicated online travel portal for pre-arrival payment for PCR test in Nigeria has not been working.

This has resulted in passengers joining long queues while filling several forms, which are submitted to dedicated departments that must approve them before clearing passengers for departure or arrival.

In a viral video shot by a journalist a few moments after arriving the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja recently, the journalist protested that despite doing a free test in London, he was still forced to pay N48,000.00 and was given a piece of paper, and told to go to a clinic that could only be found in Abuja after he was told that the clinic had branches nationwide.

Also, a Lebanese national who arrived at Abuja airport recently said he had passed through different airports before arriving in Abuja, but only in Abuja was he told to stand in long queues and fill forms.

He stated that the NCDC portal was not working, and he registered his displeasure, saying, “I arrived in Nigeria and there was a long queue of people waiting to pay money for Covid-19 tests. Is the one I did in London not enough? Are Nigerian hospitals better than London hospitals?”

A passenger who identified himself as Chukwuma told BusinessDay, “If you do not get to the airport at least five hours before your flight, you will definitely miss your flight. I have travelled to at least two countries since Nigeria resumed international flights and I have never seen such delays as a result of unnecessary paper works that could be easily done online.”

Chukwuma said it took him over four hours to get cleared by airport officials for a five-hour journey to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Airport officials have also seized the opportunity to extort and charge multiple payments for tests, while some officials negotiate negative status for a fee.

BusinessDay’s checks show that passengers will be required to pay N50,400 for each Covid-19 tests at Lagos State accredited labs.

However, when BusinessDay correspondent visited Nigeria’s busiest airport, MMIA, to get a grasp of the alternatives that Nigerians were exploring to escape the charge, she found out a secret scheme where travel agents and conniving doctors arranged coronavirus test results for travellers pressed for time.

To authenticate the scheme, the correspondent struck a deal of N25,000 with an agent who promised to get the result out in 48 hours without an actual test.

Although the ports authorities stiffened its scrutiny of travellers, there are clear indications that outbound travellers going on a long trip would not stop seeking the backdoor for cheaper results, particularly when they know that some countries care less.

But BusinessDay’s investigation reveals that the fee, which has incited some travellers into seeking cheaper results through the backdoor, is 36 percent more expensive than what South African private labs charge; 23 percent higher than Kenya’s; 42 percent more than Ghana’s; 42 percent higher than Senegal’s, and 74 percent more than India’s.

Chinedu Eze, a journalist who recently returned from Brazil, confirmed how tedious the process was getting cleared at the airport when arriving.

“Sometimes I think that the reason why the government introduced stringent laws and policies is to create rooms for loopholes where public servants and those who are connected will make money. When the law is too rigid, people look for alternate ways. And this heightens corruption, fraud, and fuels unpatriotic behaviours,” he said.

“On paper, Nigeria may have the strictest Covid-19 protocol for air transport, but in reality, those connected to government officials, lab owners and hospital owners are ripping off innocent travellers. When the government digitised yellow card and reeled out the usual stringent conditions you must meet to obtain it, two days after, cleaners at the airport started selling it. Covid-19 test certificates are being sold at the Abuja and Lagos airports,” Eze said.

Seyi Adewale, CEO of Mainstream Cargo Limited, told BusinessDay that the extreme protocol had been currently simplified for inbound and outbound international passengers.

Adewale explained that many countries have now relaxed requirements into their country as passengers do not need any protocol into the US, for example, and UK bound passengers could fly without bottlenecks that were at the outset. He said passengers only need to self-isolate when they arrive at their destinations.

John Ojikutu, a member of aviation industry think-tank group, Aviation Round Table (ART) and chief executive of Centurion Securities, said Nigeria should and must revert to the facilitation processes in the 70/80s where these forms that included questionnaires about vaccination verification on small and chicken poxes were given to the passengers by the airlines to fill before their arrival to the airport and onboard the flight before landing.

Ojikutu said the aim was to reduce the facilitation time at the airport checkpoints at departure and arrival.

“We need only one checkpoint at each airport for this along with the airport screening defence layers. My recommendation has always been to have a single line of control and administration for the airport security, instead of the multiple facets with customs, immigration, port health, plant quarantine, SSS, Police, etc.

“The US has all these under one control called the TSA. Rwanda has a similar set-up at Kigali Airport. We should do the same here,” he said.

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