Comptroller General of the Nigerian Immigration, Muhammad Babandede, recently fielded questions from PREMIUM TIMES editors. In this first part of the interview, the Immigration boss speaks on a shocker on assuming duties as well as efforts he is making to tackle problems he met in the system, especially that of endemic corruption.
The interview was conducted before PREMIUM TIMES reported the extensive racketeering involving Immigration officers who dupe Nigerians applying for passports.
PT: When you assumed office as the Comptroller General of Nigeria Immigration Service over a year ago, what was it that you met that shocked you or surprised you about your new job?
Babandede: When I came on board I had wanted to see a strategic roadmap. When you take over an institution you would like to see what was the dream of your predecessors, that is what the institution is pursuing in line with the federal goals. I had not been briefed on any, which means people sit, rule and go, without plan. That is the greatest thing that shocked me on my taking over as the Comptroller-General.
This, unfortunately, is not even about Immigration, it is a national issue or even at the level of state governments. When you come on board you do not have to reinvent the wheel. You should look at what you have inherited so that you can build on good things and if there are things that are not workable you see why they are not working and take a better course. But if every leader when coming will create a new dream, it’s going to be a huge problem. So what I found out was there was no dream, no vision, no mission. That was a huge challenge for me.
PT: So what did you do about that?
Babandede: Immediately I came on board we went to Kano for a strategic management retreat in June last year, which was supported by the Kano State Government. What we did there was to plan a roadmap for Immigration. We planned on what we want to be, where we want to go, and assessed where we were. In that meeting, we gave opportunities for stakeholders to look at us and say how they feel about us. We have developed a document which we call 5-year strategic roadmap for the service. This document enabled us to look at the environment we are. We did situation analysis. We did an environmental scan. We equally did stakeholders mapping. As an institution you should do stakeholders mapping to know who your partners are and how do you manage them. I am glad to inform you that we have already started implementing this document after it was approved by the minister as a policy.
PT: There is a strong corruption perception about the Immigration Service and there are allegations of underhand deals in processes involving client interactions with your officials. How are you tackling that?
Babandede: If you do an assessment of what was going on last year and assess what we are doing today, you will know that there are changes. You cannot fight corruption unless you know what the issues are, that make corruption possible in the system. The first thing that makes corruption possible for us we realised there was contact between customers and our officers. We moved to reduce that contact because there could be a process where you could do your thing without coming. We have done that on visa. When we came on board, oil companies, big companies that do business in Nigeria like Shell, Total, etc, would require experts to come to do some repairs. So they would need visas to allow them to come and attend to those emergencies. They all had to send their people to Abuja to get things done. Such visas were issued in my office here. But if we are to reduce corruption we have to reduce such contacts. I am glad to let you know that in order to reduce that we introduced visa on arrival and temporary work permit by email. We have not automated it but we are saying don’t come to us, send to a visa email which is email@example.com. OA means on arrival in our parlance. It is now possible for you to send your request by email; we will reply you and send the approval by email. So we have reduced the contact between the public and us, therefore the drive for corruption becomes less.
We also saw that there were a lot of people who come to headquarters for services. If you have been to the headquarters one year ago and come now you will see that it is now less populated. The reason is that we have reduced the activities. If you tell everybody to come to the centre to access services, there will be stress on applicants. You come from Lagos, from Sokoto, from Borno, from Uyo, you will be in a hurry to go back because Abuja is expensive; accommodation, transport. So if an officer decides to collect bribe of N20, 000 you will give because hotel accommodation alone is almost that. So, we have reduced the possibility of people coming to Abuja for services.
We started with the cases of married women, change of data. We said women can change their data on the passport if they are married, they like to bear the name of their husbands; if they are divorced or lost their husbands and they like to go back to their maiden names. So, we said don’t come to Abuja, do it in your states. Before this time, they used to come here and wait endlessly. And of course the more you wait the more the tendency (for corruption). In fact, public servants want you to be in a situation where you can be distressed and give money.
However, for change of data for other people they must come to Abuja. I will tell you why. We don’t see much criminal intent on women changing their data due to marriage and divorce. But if you wake up one day and say you had a dream and you want to change your names after having been to Italy, America, to Saudi Arabia. We don’t want it! We would want you to come here for us to examine you. We even put a penalty of N33, 000 non-refundable fees. It is something that is approved but I am reluctant to do it.
PT: You have officers all over the world, why can’t they attend to some of these issues?
Babandede: I meet Nigerians coming all the way from US or UK for some of these services. In the case of change of name, let me tell you the risk involved as a country. There is no much problem with married women changing their names but for others we will be inadvertently conniving with criminal groups. I am not saying all those who sought to change their names are criminals but a lot of those cases were criminal demands.
Somebody will commit a crime in the US, for example, and he would like to change his data. If we issue him a passport, he disappears from the radar. Some of them want to change their entire names! We cannot allow that.
We also decentralised cases of loss of passport. In the previous time, even when you lose your passport abroad, you have to come to Nigeria. We’ll give you emergency travel certificate to come back home and get the passport. But now we have decentralised it. All that they (Immigration officials) do is to send it to us, we check certain indices of data and send approval to them to issue. In the near future, we will phase out the approval. It would be only online check that they can conduct and once it is okay they go ahead and issue the passport.
So, we have reduced contacts by decentralising cases of lost, change of data for married or divorced women, we have changed on persons coming to access our facilities by having visa on arrival, and temporary work permit for engineers who are coming to install or repair machines.
Additionally, in line with the presidential executive order on ease of doing business which says all your services should be clearly spelt out; we have done that. We have operationalised the Executive Order by ensuring we have identified all the services we give, the requirement, the fees and timeline. One thing that fuels corruption is when people do not know what is required of them. As I explained to the officers only last week, you cannot change the rule of requirement. You cannot tell me that loss of passport requires five documents and I come to the passport office and you say ‘No, no it’s seven’ and when I bring the seven you say bring another one. The order says the one that is written is what applies. I have made this known to the public. We have also given copies to the officers. It is also available on our website. That is also part of an attempt to reduce corruption. It’s when people don’t have information you will be able to create reasons for you to charge them. The presidential directive says if you met the requirement and we don’t reply you in seven days, after two weeks they can ask the minister to issue you the document.
Also to reduce the level of corruption in the system, we try our best not to force officers to come to Abuja. Look around in the headquarters. I am proud to tell you that when it comes to the line of officers coming, I tell officers don’t bring ‘returns.’ I raised this issue during many meetings. If law enforcement officers will discourage those working below them to bring money, returns, to the top…when you have not given them enough equipment to work, you have not given them money to fuel then you expect them to give you returns? Where do you expect them to get the money? They will be collecting it from the ordinary people. You are asking them to do the impossible.
What I am saying is that first, it is unethical to ask for returns. Secondly, you are forcing them to collect bribe. When you are stressing somebody who you have assigned to collect money and the money is not coming from a legal source, he will only be collecting more and more of bribe. It is illegal, it is not allowed. We stopped them from bringing returns to us. It is very clear.
PT: So, you don’t collect returns?
Babadende: Definitely, definitely! It is clear! Ask the passport officers or the comptrollers of commands, no money for me, just do your work. And I have directed them to do the same, but there are still some bad eggs, so it’s possible. I have visited many places in disguise. I call it ‘undercover boss.’ I have told all the officers. I will come to your command as an applicant, I will pass your border as a traveller, including the airports to see what is happening. I have visited passport offices, and I have visited Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos undercover.
PT: …What did you find?
Babadende: Oh, very interesting! I was at Murtala Mohammed Airport in April undercover as FAAN staff. I worked with other staff for good two hours, they didn’t know I was the one. They never expected the Comptroller General to work as a cleaner. What I saw was disgusting. I had to take some disciplinary measures. Some have been redeployed from the airport.
I saw lack of interest in work by officers who make phone calls, discuss their businesses while attending to customers. I saw facilitators, who like to receive travellers to come and fast-track, which is not happening in normal society. I have seen officers who are not security conscious. For example, one of the officers I found, he collected the passport of a traveller who said she had the problem of stooling and he allowed her to go the toilet and come back. I said if this woman brought drugs, she went to the toilet and upload the drugs and come back it’s ok. It could happen. In such situation, you could draw the attention of NDLEA so that a female NDLEA officer could go with her to the toilet. I also saw cases of bribe in terms of people (officers) coming to the airport but have no business doing, but they always come to the airport to do clearance. We have collected the tags and posted them out of the place. So, I saw chaos, where everybody wants to participate. This is not what is happening in normal society. I always follow the queue when I travel, even when I come back to Nigeria I follow the queue.
PT: Have you witnessed some of them begging for money from people arriving?
Babandede: Well, not really begging but in a style. ‘Oga welcome o, how was the trip?’ I call that a ‘bribe-demanding greeting.’ I have spoken with them about it. I have the intention to visit somewhere. I have made adequate arrangements to visit one of the borders. I have been told they are in the habit of collecting money from travellers leaving the country. I have done good work on Seme. Seme used to be the most corrupt corridor. I didn’t do the operation in Seme by myself. I sent my officers there. Seme is now sanitised, you are free to go and see.
PT: How many officers are on trial for corruption?
Babandede: First, I have removed the comptroller in Seme. He has been issued with a query. I have five officers from there who are undergoing orderly room trial. We have officers from the Murtala Mohammed Airport who have already faced disciplinary committee, the recommendation is with the board. One of the recommendations is to demote them. I have also arrested officers in passport offices collecting money. They would tell clients booklets were finished, which was an excuse to raise the money.
But unfortunately, this country is very wonderful. Some important personalities who would complain to me that your officers have done this or that to me, if you discipline the officer it would be the same person who will come and beg you, ‘ah, I don’t want him to be dismissed’. I say you cannot tell me this. There is one very senior person in this country who complained to me that an officer asked for money from him and I disciplined the officer, then he came back and said, ‘Please, my intention is not for you to punish him. He should not lose his job’. But people should lose their jobs, that is when they would know there is a change taking place.
We have done a lot in terms of reform for corruption. But the best way to lead is to lead by example. Every leadership should be by example and we do our best.
PT: Are you saying you are not corrupt?
Babandede: What do you think? Have you seen me collect money? Find out! We have facilities we issue, there is nobody…including contracts, go and find out. Last year what we did with contracts we allowed people to bid openly. We have the recordings. We asked people, have we influenced your applications? They said no. They never knew the comptroller general of immigration and they got the contract, for the first time. So we try our best.
Go and look around, if you know this environment, you will see the changes that are taking place. Our projects are well documented. And I told members of the National Assembly, visit anytime. Visit the contracts we said we have done; you will be satisfied. I just received a phone call that they have visited the Training School in Kano and they were satisfied. Any work I said is done, it’s done. Go and have a look at our store.
Since Immigration was established there was never a time that the store is filled to the brim because sometimes contract is awarded and it is not supplied. We make sure it is supplied. We follow it to the destination to ensure it is delivered in good condition. So, I am saying, we are trying to reduce corruption by being good examples for the system. We try also to send money for the officers. If you do not send money for the officers to do patrol, where do they get the money to fuel? So, in terms of corruption reduction, this is so far what I can tell you on corruption alone.