By Michael Owhoko, Ph.D
With a thriving and fertile environment for extortion and racketeering, process for obtaining the Nigerian passport has turned the booklet into a hire purchase document where applicants pay official cost at point of application, connoting preliminary downpayment, and thereafter compelled to pay a bribe as balance in installments or in full, depending on the deal reached with Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) officials involved in this underhand deed. This is the practice nationwide.
Applicants who fail to comply with this process risk delayed services characterized by uncertainty, except for Very Important Persons (VIP) and those with direct contact with top officials of NIS who enjoy some level of waivers exempting them from any form of bargains. Despite this, a balance sum is made as gift at the end of the exercise to the facilitating official in appreciation, but at the discretion of the applicant.
Sadly, some of these NIS officials have also extended these unethical practices to foreigners and the country’s missions abroad. As a government agency providing direct services to foreigners, NIS is the face of Nigeria. How it carries out its activities and obligations rub off on the country’s image with implications on public perception. Its conduct can be used to gauge corruption in the course of passport, visa, work permit and expatriate quota issuance.
The hire purchase process is embodied in two recognized methods of application, namely, online and physical through NIS official. In the online, applicants are required to apply through dedicated portal on the internet where payment is made and appointment date assigned for biometric capture. Fixed date for collection is not known, and applicants need not contact NIS officials prior to application.
But applications through NIS officials are directly handled and facilitated by a contracted official who superintends over the process. Based on the agreed sum, payment is made inclusive of official cost, and thereafter, dates for biometrics capture and collection are given to the applicants. Processing time through this method is short and definite. This is the preferred choice for NIS officials due to attractive illicit returns.
Unfortunately, while the online method is officially and openly canvassed as the appropriate channel, it is softly and covertly discouraged by unscrupulous NIS officials owing to inducement constraints. Once these NIS officials are aware you have applied online, you are treated like a leprosy patient to be avoided. You may not even get a response for a simple enquiry relating to collection date. Sarcastically, they ask you to go back to the internet to get a date. This is done to discourage applicants from applying online.
At any passport office, online applicants are subjected to indecent conditions, including standing in scorching sun almost all day, and drenched in a state of uncertainty. In some instances, they are crammed into small office spaces, either waiting for biometrics capture or collection of passports or making enquiries for collection date. Sometimes, they go through this process next day with no definite assurances.
Persons applying through NIS officials are not subjected to these depressing conditions. They are given special treatment which enables them to reduce their waiting time either for biometrics or other formalities. Their transaction timelines are guaranteed. Once their passports are ready, they are contacted by the handling official for collection.
Kickback charged by NIS officials for direct applicants is contingent upon delivery time, whether for fresh passport application or renewal, and this ranges between N30,000 and N60,000, depending on negotiation. However, any frustrated online applicant may also speak to any NIS official for intervention to facilitate the process, but this requires a bribe of not less than N20,000 or higher, depending on compromise.
Despite being fraught with corruption, the public is still advised to apply online to avoid touts, as asserted by the acting Comptroller General of NIS, Caroline Wura-Ola Adepoju on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily. According to her, “our applications are available online and we are trying to sensitise our applicants that they should go online for these applications to avoid patronising touts”, assuring that “for a fresh application, it takes six weeks to get the passport ready, while it takes three weeks for renewal”.
This declaration is at variance with realities at all NIS passport offices. It is either Caroline Wura-Ola Adepoju is feigning ignorance or lack the courage to admit prevailing anomalies. Having risen from the ranks to become Controller General, she cannot deny knowledge of unethical practices in the system and the plight of online applicants. Touts operate within the precinct of NIS, and mostly, in collaboration with some NIS officials. Besides, passports are not ready in weeks as current minimum waiting period is two months, just as online applicants are still required to visit the offices for biometric capture despite automated process.
The cost for a 64-page passport with a 10-year validity period is N70,000 while same page with five years period goes for N35,000, just as a 32-page passport with a five-year validity period costs N25,000. Officially, NIS says applicants are not required to pay any other fee outside these costs, but in practice, it is not true, as actual costs are padded.
Nigerians in diaspora and foreigners living in Nigeria alike are not spared the agonies inflicted by crooked NIS officials. These are manifested when travelling through the country’s international airports where these NIS officials brazenly solicit for alms in hush tones from travelers without mindful of existential damage to the country’s image.
At the country’s missions abroad, NIS methods of service delivery are poor and do not conform with international best practices as obtain in advanced economies. Despite the presence of NIS officials in those foreign territories, they ignore enculturation of prevailing work ethics and civility of their host nations, preferring to hold on to the Nigerian factor where Nigerians in diaspora are subjected to undignified manners in the course of passport issuance.
Renewing or obtaining fresh passports abroad by Nigerians is a nightmare. Most of these applicants travel long distances either by road or air to get to Nigerian Embassies or High Commissions. Yet, upon arrival, they are confronted with cold reception and unruly behaviour with a mentality of doing these applicants a favour, resulting in low morale of many Nigerians in diaspora.
I recalled a friend who narrated his experience in the hands of NIS officials in Nigerian Embassy in New York City (NYC) where he had gone to renew his Nigerian passport after flying for over five hours by air from Portland. On arrival at the Embassy, NIS officials were reluctant to attend to him, not because they were busy, but hiding under cover of arrogance and laziness. He had to practically beg them before he could be attended to, and thereafter given a date for receipt of his passport, a development connoting a hangover of the Nigerian mentality. Others are not as lucky as he was.
From Ottawa, Canada to Atlanta and Washington D.C., USA to Bern, Switzerland to London, England to Madrid, Spain to Brasilia, Brazil to Berlin, Germany and to Johannesburg, South Africa, the story of ineptitude, poor work ethics, lack of professionalism, poor service delivery and recalcitrant disposition are the same, leading to stress, trauma and humiliation of applicants.
As a result of these glitches and contradictions in the operations of NIS, the agency conjures image of graft and ineptitude, just as the uniform constantly reminds the public of existing ethical gaps in the system. While these are symptoms of larger dislocations in the Nigerian system, the greed of some of these NIS officials who take delight in sabotaging the system for selfish gains, should be curbed, failing which, means NIS has been compromised beyond redemption.
It will do the country no good if these greedy officials who have exposed NIS to profound ridicule, undermined and precluded the system from delivering a seamless process for all Nigerians are allowed to sustain their dubious acts of extortion.
It is absurd for a country like Nigeria that is enmeshed with corruption toga to have a preferential service reserved for a category of Nigerians while others are subjected to ill-treatment. It is therefore, imperative for the entire NIS system to be retooled for transparent, equitable, optimum and improved delivery capacity to save the country from a few elements who are bent on making corruption a lifestyle.
Dr. Mike Owhoko, Lagos-based journalist and author, can be reached at www.mikeowhoko.com.