Pretending to be an applicant, reporter Kemi Busari investigates Lagos passport offices where Nigerians pay as much as double the approved fees to obtain an international passport.
I arrived at the Alausa, Ikeja passport office of the Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS, at 6:50 a.m. on Friday June 23 in heeding to the advice of a friend who initially kicked against my mission.
‘You have to get there early, people start to queue as early as 5:30 a.m.,” my friend had said.
The cloud was pregnant on this day, thus creating a gloomy picture of the sky; a picture which largely mirrored my seemingly impossible mission – fact-finding on the dichotomy in the amount quoted online against the real amount of acquiring an international passport; and uncovering other acts of corruption in the passport offices.
Almost every time I informed a colleague or relative of my intention to acquire an international passport, I was usually greeted with an all-too-familiar reaction: “Can you pay this amount? I got mine in just one day through so, so, so and so person.’’
Other times, the conversation took the form of “Okay, I know one immigration officer who helped my friend facilitate his and he was issued the next day, here’s his number – ring him up or brace yourself up for a long, long wait at their office.”
The day’s business was yet to commence as the door of the main building remained shut when I arrived at the office. However, there was a security guard, a middle-aged man wearied by the pressure of age, checking prospective applicants in, giving them numbers. The numbers made them eligible to a tag which determined how early they would be attended to.
It was now 7:20 a.m. and photographers who also operate as touts in the surrounding buildings had started arriving.
According to the Act establishing it, the Nigeria Immigration Service has as its core mandate: control of persons entering or leaving Nigeria; issuance of travel documents to bonafide Nigerians in and outside Nigeria; issuance of residence permits to foreigners in Nigeria; and border surveillance and patrol.
However, the second mandate, which includes the issuance of international passport – a traveling document required by Nigerians to gain access to and cross other country’s borders – has reportedly been fraught with barefaced racketeering over the years.
According to the information posted on NIS website, a 32-page passport for ages 0-17 and 60 years and above goes for ₦10,750 (₦8,750 for Passport Booklet, ₦2,000 for Address Verification Fee) while that of citizens between ages 18-60 is issued at ₦17,000 (₦15,000 for Passport Booklet, ₦2,000 for Address Verification Fee).
The 64-page booklet passport, on the other hand, goes for ₦10,750 and ₦22,000 for persons between ages 0-17 and 60 years and above and 18-60 respectively.
This is the paragon, but the reality which stared me in the face on this early Friday morning transcended the imaginable.
THE MORE YOU LOOK, THE LESS YOU SEE
I approach one of the photographers on ground called Sunday and told him I needed a passport. Sunday, who combines photography with ‘touting,’ explained how he would ‘help’ me, from registering online to filing and capturing, all to be supervised by an ‘officer’ who would get me the passport in little or no time.
“We have the 32-page passport and the 64-page, but I advise you go for the 64-page if you want it quick. For the 32-page, I can do it for N28, 000 but the 64-page is not less than N35, 000,’’ Sunday explained, smartly prodding his first customer for the day to paying the maximum.
THE 64-PAGE ‘ABOVE’ 32-PAGE?
“There is a scarcity of the 32-page booklet in Nigeria, and it’s not as if they didn’t produce from the country where it is being imported. They are producing it but the dollar rate has prevented Immigration from buying more, and the price we charge here is still the same.’’
To get more out of Sunday, I assumed the role of an agent.
I informed him that my customers were four but that he had to give me some level of assurance before we finalised the deal.
“I want to do more than one but the only problem I have with you now is the price and I will like to meet the officer who works for you so that I will be assured that I’m in safe hands,” I said.
Sunday was quick to answer, switching between English and Pidgin with seamless ease: “I want you to do it with me not because of the money but because of customers you’ll bring for me after today. Believe me ‘bros’, I can do this thing better and faster than officers,” he said, referring to immigration officers.
“A photographer processes a passport better and faster than civil servants paid to do the job?”
But how? I wondered in silence.
“Most of them can’t finish the bulk of work they have at hand,’’ he offers what seems like an escape from the reality. “They won’t tell you when you approach them of course. If they say one week, expect your passport in two weeks. Some are even afraid of adding up to what they have at hand. But for me, I will handle it well.
You’ll even see everything from the beginning till end.’’
Some minutes of insistence to speak with Sunday’s “officer” proved futile and so, I decided to end the conversation.
“Here is my number, save it with Sunday passport and ring me up whenever you are ready,” he concluded.
Armed with this information, I headed for the entrance of the passport office. The time now was 7:40 a.m.
“Good morning sir!” I said.
“What can I do for you,’’ the stern voice of a man in mufti greeted me as I got to the gate.
The middle-aged man whom I took for a security guard who was holding the forth for the immigration officers, had been wearied by the task of checking people in.
He asked me to follow him to the registration point after I explained that I needed a passport for myself.
The Alausa Ikeja NIS office is a one-storey building with adjoining makeshift structures built with planks and iron linings on the space between the main building and the fence.
Each of the shops had similar gadgets, including a computer system, a photocopying machine, a bench that can take as much as three people at once, and some folders.
We stopped at the first shop where we met a lady. The security man explained my intention to acquire an international passport to the lady and went back to his duty post.
“Take this form and fill. We do 32-page for N28, 000 and 64-page for 35, 000,’’ said the lady whose identity, either as a shop owner or attendant, could not be ascertained immediately.
She was obviously not willing to attend to a customer who would ask so many questions and when she realised that I was one, she told me to ‘just fill the form and ask questions later.’
By her explanation, the form after it was filled would be used to register for applicants online before handing it over to immigration officers.
In essence, the shops as shanty as they appeared perform the crucial functions of registration and bank transactions for applicants on behalf of NIS. And without passing through these shops or that of other touts around, one may not be registered for an international passport.
After scanning through the form, I informed her that I didn’t have the required documents at that moment and that four other people whom she would register were on their way if only she would reduce the price and at least introduce me to an immigration officer who would handle the processing.
“32-page is N28, 000 and you’ll get it after six weeks,’’ she replied with no further explanation.
“What’s your name so that I can ask when I come,’’ I asked in a final attempt to get her attention.
“Just ask for Bola passport,” she replied, not taking a second off the keyboard from which she was typing on the computer.
“Just make sure you tell that person who brought you here that you haven’t registered so he won’t think I’m working ‘behind’ him,’’ she added quickly.
I left Bola’s shop and was jolted by the crowd of applicants in the premises, which was now more than double what I left just over 20 minutes ago.
In the last attempt to speak with an officer who worked with the touts, I decide to join the crowd. I made my way to the side of the tent – a structure constructed by NIS to shield the waiting applicants from the sun or rain – where I found an abandoned tyre obviously unoccupied due to its level of dirt. This would serve as my seat for the next hour.
FINALLY, I GET TO SPEAK WITH AN OFFICER
As the clock ticked, more applicants trooped in. This time, the number of people in standing position had comfortably doubled the ones seated.
By 8:58 a.m., a female officer emerged from the main building. Speaking through the microphone erected under the tent, she opened the business of the day.
“Good morning all. On behalf of the management of the Alausa passport office, you are most highly welcome. My name is Grace, I’m the Public Relations Officer, PRO, of this passport office and I’m here to familiarise you with our activities for today.”
In the next 10 minutes, she would explain the process of fresh application, renewal, capturing, the collection of passport and other intricacies.
She explained that applicants billed for the collection of their passports were the ones the office would attend to while those who were around for other purposes were to come back in the next five hours. She added that names would be called in batches of 50 people at once.
As she reeled out the names of those to be attended to, I observed some immigration officers come out of the main building, hand over passport booklets to applicants amid the final exchange of naira notes, without questioning.
She came back for the second round of announcement by 10:50 a.m. This time, her announcements, mostly repetitions, had become of little interest to me but her last sentences finally gave me access to an officer.
‘’We do not condone backdoor processing of passport here in Alausa office,” she said.
“If you meet any of our officers to do this for you, you’ll be embarrassed and you’ll still not get your passport. In case you have any question, you are free to meet me or any other officer.”
After the second round of name calling, I had my first experience with an officer.
TOUTS AS ‘AUTHORISED’ AGENTS
Corruption in Alausa passport office does not only exist with the officers but in the structure and administration of the office.
The office has no inquiry or customer service desk, the sort you have in banks, where one could learn the procedures for applying or renewing an expired passport. If there was any such desk, they did a masterful job of hiding it.
The best and alternative way of transacting with touts is to meet immigration officers who offer ‘official help’ at a cost, mostly determined by the size of an applicant’s pocket.
Also, the actual registration has a lot of complications as I would be tutored by Mr. Halliday, my first officer contact.
“Follow me,” he said after telling him that I was a fresh applicant.
Mr. Halliday, a good-looking officer, perhaps in his 40s, led the way to the shops where I was first directed to by the security guard.
Once I realised he was leading me to one of the touts, I protested and demanded a direct transaction with NIS.
The three-minute tutorial that followed confirmed the impossibility of my request.
“Young man, let me explain to you how we work here. You see these people here, they are our authorised agents. They work hand in hand with the immigration. They collect the money on our behalf, get you registered and after that hand you over to us for other processing,” he said.
“You don’t need to be scared of them, they can’t dupe you. I will take you to someone now and after your payment, I will help you to do everything without stress.’’
Mr. Halliday led me to a shop, just beside the one I visited earlier. The attendant, a female, informed me that I had to pay N28, 000 for 32-page passport and must first apply for mine, even if I was expecting ‘100 people.’
“Take my number and call me when you are through,’’ Mr. Halliday, now “Halliday passport” on my phone contact list, said as he left the shop for his duty post to hunt for more applicants.
I took the form and as I filled it I saw two other officers heading for the next shops with intending applicants. With their movement, the corruption intricacies at the registration stage become clearer to me.
HOW IT WORKS
Each officer with the NIS has one or more touts whom they work with.
The touts receive cash on their behalf, do online registration and hand over the applicant to the officer he or she works with.
In this kind of arrangement, the applicant is asked to pay more, say about N12, 000, above the approved price and this excess payment ends up in the hands of the tout, his or her affiliated officer and others who help in facilitating the deal.
But who gets what? How? In the next hour, I arrive at another passport office for a more revealing bout.