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BusinessDay

Passport racketeering as organised crime at Nigeria Immigration Service, embassies

We often hear politicians talk about fighting corruption, improving the efficiency of public-facing institutions etc. It’s all talk. The sad reality is that these agencies are deliberately designed right from the top to be extremely corrupt and predatory.” Christopher Akor 2022

In Nigeria, virtually all government institutions are ‘deliberately’ designed not to function effectively for extortionist reasons. This view is consistent with the prefatory statement above. Consequently, any legitimate encounter an average Nigerian has with the Nigerian state through its bureaucracy, the outcome is frustration and despondency. Of course, this doesn’t apply to the Very Important Persons (VIPs) who are in many ways responsible for our deplorable situation in the country.

Ordinary Nigerians who legitimately seek an important service from the state are always confronted with a bureaucracy that is deliberately “dead”. The bureaucracy only comes alive and functions effectively when they are willing to bribe their way through the system.

The shortage is caused by “human factor” at the various Passport offices. Meaning, the NIS officials are hoarding it, hence the racketeering

That is why the saying “corruption wakes a dead bureaucracy” holds true for the Nigerian context. There is hardly any government institution that is an exception to this, but my focus is on the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) and Nigerian High Commissions/Consulates where Nigerians apply for International Passport.

Most Nigerians have been subjected to unnecessary and severe stress whenever they apply or attempt to renew their International Passport at home and abroad. Procedurally, the NIS has a standard online process for application or renewal of Passport on its official website.

However, applicants who rely on this procedure hardly succeed because the unofficial criminal process that thrives on bribery frustrates the official procedure. Herein lies the organised crime of International Passport racketeering that has now been institutionalised at the NIS offices, and High Commissions/Consulates – for applicants in diaspora. Instances of racketeering abound but I will limit myself to a few within and outside the country.

Recently, a friend began the process of application to renew his Passport and his son’s at the Ibadan command in October, 2022. Instead of paying the official rate of N27, 000, he was lured into considering what they now refer to as “express”, which is between N55, 000 to N60, 000. This cost depends on the location of application. He yielded to the “express” believing the Passports would be ready as the name process – express – implies. Having coughed out N150, 000 (for the two Passports) and was captured in December, their Passport is not yet ready.

He has made countless calls to the top brass of the NIS within his reach to no avail. This extortionist, criminal, and cruel network is blind to applications by senior citizens. My mother in-law (now 71years) applied for renewal at the Osogbo command through “express” and paid N60, 000 since she will have to wait for forever if she relies on the official procedure. She was asked to present herself for capturing at 2am!! For heaven’s sake, who in their right senses would fix an appointment for a government business at this ungodly hour?

Isn’t this time for nocturnal appointment meant for witches, wizards, and criminals? Despite her old age, she managed to turn up at 5am. Sadly, she was not shown respect by NIS officials on account of her age, as she was captured around 10am. Up till now, her passport is not yet ready. Unfortunately, the “express” don’t weak the dead bureaucracy in both instances.

My friend, Christopher Akor almost lost his life with his family in an accident in America on his way to Atlanta, Georgia, to renew his International Passport, having tried to secure an appointment on the contact numbers supplied by the Consulate without success. As he later learned, not picking the call was deliberate.

Like in Nigeria, the criminal network at the Consulate “fraudulently” charges $130 – that is not receipted – for coming without an appointment, when they’ve made it practically impossible for applicants to book appointment via a phone call. In South Africa where I leave, the criminal network is well institutionalised. They collect R5, 000 (N190, 000) for renewal through the “express” channel.

A Nigerian student told me he was asked to pay R10, 000 (N380, 000) for renewal in December when he explained how urgent he needed the Passport. All efforts to see the Consul-General in Johannesburg was frustrated by officials at the Consulate. Luckily, the President of Nigerian Student Society (NSS) intervened, and he got it. However, this came with a lot of stress and financial burden. My fiancée (a PhD student) applied through the official process and struggled to get captured in Johannesburg in November.

Her Passport is not yet ready because she didn’t use the “express” channel. These are just few among a plethora of the harrowing and traumatising experiences Nigerians in diaspora face to renew their Passports. The experience in Britain I hear it is mildly harrowing because applicants only pay exorbitant charges (which is not supposed to be) with the assurance that they will get their Passport.

Regrettably, the Nigerian state – and its relevant institutions – has not made serious effort to end this criminality at home and abroad. This is largely so because the VIPs and their families are not subjected to the stress and trauma ordinary citizens are confronted with when applying for Passport or renewing an old one.

Amidst all this mess which has caused us national embarrassment, what we’ve heard from the NIS, Ministry of Interior, and various Embassies is nothing but blame game. The problem actually began with the ‘rumoured’ shortage of passport booklets in the country, which turned out to be true. But Mr Rauf Aregbesola, the Minister of Interior has since denied this.

According to him, the shortage is caused by “human factor” at the various Passport offices. Meaning, the NIS officials are hoarding it, hence the racketeering. This sounds plausible given our knowledge of the Nigerian bureaucracy and cannot be discountenanced. According to the Minister, “in 2021 alone, we have provided 1.3 million Passports to Nigerians. As of today, there is no booklet shortage in Nigeria”.

Furthermore, he said that “as of the second quarter of 2022, the Nigeria Immigration Service…has provided 645, 000 Passports out of the 750, 000 applications received. To address the challenges of backlog, we have sent 11, 000 booklets to Ikoyi, 11, 000 to Alausa and 8, 000 to FESTAC centres in Lagos State.

We have also sent sufficient booklets to all centres nationwide to address this challenge.” The question is, where are all these booklets? Is the Minister right about his “human factor” narrative?

Conversely, a Deputy Comptroller in one of the South-Western states has blamed the Ministry of Interior in Abuja, particularly the Minister’s office. According to him, they capture about 400 people everyday in his centre. This explains why there are backlogs. So, if Abuja gives them at least 5, 000 booklets in a week they can clear the backlogs and deal with fresh applicants.

Read also: How corrupt, tardy process prolongs passport pickup

He also said the headquarters gives his command 1000 booklets in a month, which is way below the demand. Additionally, he mentioned the role of powerful influences from traditional rulers, politicians and likes, whose applications MUST be attended to without excuses.

His perspective also says a lot about why average Nigerians go through the excruciating experience of applying for Passport and the attendant racketeering across the country.

I belong to the constituency of average Nigerians, and this is our opinion about the criminal network of Passport racketeering. We are not interested in whose fault it is. The Ministry of Interior, the NIS, and the High Commissions/Consulates under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are complicit in this organised crime, and top officials at these institutions are benefiting from the crime.

Two things should be addressed with immediate effect. The President should order a probe into this crime and those behind it MUST be arrested and tried forthwith. This is not too much to ask! Secondly, except there is a superior reason why it must be so, the NIS should stop the unnecessary process of capturing the biometrics of those applying for renew. It is needless because biometrics don’t change.

Maintaining this process will only keep providing the basis for corruption – Passport racketeering. If Nigeria was a sane society, this is an issue that should necessarily be on the campaign trail in an election year.

Ihembe writes from the department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, South Africa; martinihembe@gmail.com