• Sunday, July 21, 2024
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How Nigerians groan under Passport racketeering despite process automation

Nigerian passport remains one of the world’s least powerful in 2024

Obtaining an international passport in Nigeria has been marred by scarcity, racketeering and frivolous activities by some Nigerian Immigration Service officials at various NIS offices nationwide.

BusinessDay findings showed that despite the automation of the Agency’s activities, passport applicants are made to ‘unofficially’ pay at least N45,000 to N100,000 to officials in order to reduce the waiting period.

At a visit to NIS headquarters in Abuja, our correspondent discovered that for easy processing of passport, an applicant requires the service of an ‘Agent’ being an official of the Agency.

“What are you here for? If you came for passport processing and you don’t know anybody inside, you can’t do it by yourself, let me call someone to help you out,” a staff of the Agency told our correspondent.

The short dark-complexioned security man beckoned on a young slender light-skin man whose name was Chibuzor to take the “applicant” into the building.

Shortly after we were about entering the gate, two other applicants joined us; a young man in his mid-twenties (Michael) and a woman with her two children about 10 to 15 years old. As we made our way through the gate, a female officer attempted to stop us but for Chibuzor’s intervention.

“Leave them; they are with me,” he said. So, we made it through the gate without registration, and just as we were leaving the point of registration, the woman, as though expecting share of a cake, said to Chibuzor “make sure you see me later,” while Chibuzor gave an assurance.

Chibuzor disclosed to our correspondent who enquired to know how things are done, that the cost of acquiring a new an international passport within 6 weeks is N35,000 “but if you need it in two weeks’ time, it will cost N45,000.

“In our Maitama branch which used to be the express centre, no delay, people pay as high as N60,000; that is N25,000 extra and you can get your passport in a day or two all things being equal. We also can give you express delivery here if you want, you can get your passport today.”

Meanwhile, the official cost of the obtaining a passport as contained in the Agency’s website is N25,000 (32-page5-year standard passport), N35,000 (64-page5-page standard passport), N70,000 (10-year standard passport for Adult only). N15,000 (5-year official passport)

Applicants narrate their experiences

Michael, one of the applicants, in a conversation with BussinessDay disclosed his prior experience at the NIS

“This is not my first time applying for passport, the first time I came for an international passport, I was asked to pay extra N20,000 and another N10,000; the exploitation was much; so, I just couldn’t go on. Now, I am here for the ECOWAS passport; when I leave here, I will apply for international passport elsewhere,” he said.

All the while, officer Chibuzor was having a conversation with the other woman on how he could help get a passport for one of her kids. He then turned to me and said: “You will fill the form today, capture and send the rest of the files on WhatsApp then we continue the process.”

Just then his phone rang and he began to tell the caller about some of the closed deals (transactions): “Hello Abass! Someone just transferred money to me now and I sent it to Ubong. He will call you now so please update him on the list of people that have paid and line them up.”

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Chibuzor led us to an office where we were given forms to fill. After filling the form, I was asked to wait under a canopy where so many people were seated. While waiting our correspondent struck a conversation with another applicant who narrated his experience.

“I am here to collect my passport and it has taken quite a while. It took me over 6 weeks to get mine and that’s because I initiated the process online and I don’t know anyone here and nobody told me how things are done here, but those who have insiders helping them are lucky to get theirs earlier. Usually, those who begin the process online without the help of an insider tend to wait for longer period,” he said.

At this time, Officer Chibuzor was ready for the cash payment; even though Our correspondent gave him the excuse of not having other documents needed for the application, he insisted that payment be made to him that very day.

“We need to initiate the process today; so, transfer the money to me or do you have cash to pay now, then I can take you for capturing? Just transfer N40,000,” he said.

Money was transferred into his personal account and he confirmed the credit alert. In the same vein, the woman who came with two children was asked for some undisclosed amount of money which she paid to him in cash after asking her son to recount and confirm the money.

After the payment by the other applicants, he led them into the processing centre where many other people were waiting to be captured. Officer Chibuzor asked our correspondent to sit down while he submitted the form in person.

The hall, just like a waiting room, was congested as applicants; both online and those with Agents sat waiting to hear their names being called. Our correspondent observed how people troop in, some being led by their Agents (NIS Officials with or without uniform).

Derek, an applicant, who came for renewal sat close to a female officer(not in Uniform) who our correspondent learnt was his Agent

“This officer here is helping me out; she is my relative and I paid 40k for renewal but for new applicant like you, I heard if you want express, you will pay 100k and in a day or two your passport will be ready. The amount you pay will determine how early you will get the passport. She advised me not to go through the online process as they are not prioritized,” he said.

“If we don’t have this passport, they will use it against us but now see how much they are exploiting us. The exploitation here is already a norm. If you want to follow due process your passport will be delayed because they will prioritise those who made payment and even after the 6 weeks given, they might come up with stories saying the passport booklet are not available,” he lamented.

Shortly after the forms were submitted our correspondent was called into the capturing room and was attended to. After the capturing, Officer Chibuzor took our correspondent outside and asked that the state of origin certificate and birth certificate be sent to him via WhatsApp, then the passport number will be generated. Having said this Officer Chibuzor dismissed our correspondent while he went to attend to other applicants (his clients).

But NIS still living in denial despite glaring sharp practices in its offices.

Amos Okpu, the Service Public Relations Officer, in a telephone conversation with BusinessDay, denied the knowledge of any of such sharp practices in the offices.

“Please reveal the names of the officials involved. Nobody is expected to enter our premises with cash and I don’t know about such practices,” he said.

Expert: How government fuels and condones racketeering

Responding to the glaring malpractices and exploitation at the NIS offices, Makolo Daniel, a former NIS officer and a lawyer, blamed the government which he said was the cause of the problem.

“Passport is just a means of identifying yourself as a citizen of Nigeria, yet it now costs more than the minimum wage. This, already, is a malpractice from the side of the government. Why should government that ought to provide warfare for her citizens, take this much from them just for a means of identification?” Daniel said.

He further said that the Nigerian government has shortchanged her citizens.

He said: “Some government officials signed contracts with shadow companies probably owned by themselves; today, passport is produced in a different country, the security features in another country, the printing in another country before it’s brought back into the country. Meanwhile, this technology can be bought or transferred to Nigeria but since it wouldn’t benefit them, they rather contract it out.”

He argued that the new passport, though with security features, ought not to be as expensive as it is.

“This security system can’t be compared to that of the ATM, yet the increment is outrageous,” he said.

“There is volatility in the foreign exchange which is deliberate; so, Nigerians are racketeered in the foreign exchange; then again, the Immigration officers who are the last contact on the line still exploit Nigerians,” he added

According to him, the NIS system needs a strong character who believes in the country and who has the mental, physical and intellectual capacity to drive the agency to the point where it realises that it is a service-oriented agency not a revenue-yielding agency.

“They must come to the realisation that their utmost duty is to provide services to Nigerians and foreigners to make life better for them,” he said.