INVESTIGATION: Inside Nigerian airport where cleaners, touts issue fake yellow cards to travelers (2)

Entrance of Health Port Centre
Entrance of Health Port Centre

What is perhaps the biggest racket at the Lagos International Airport is being orchestrated by toilet cleaners and touts. While the cleaners merely beg for tips upon attending to passengers, what’s perhaps unknown to many is that they collaborate with touts to issue fake yellow cards to willing passengers inside airport toilets.

In the middle of October, PREMIUM TIMES reporter disguised as a potential applicant of the card and approached a cleaner at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Lagos airport. Yellow cards are normally issued after vaccination against yellow fever. Some countries require travellers from Nigeria — and other yellow fever prone nations — to present the card at their ports of entry.

First, the cleaner directed this reporter to the training school junction where the airport health facility is located. But upon further probing, he admitted that cleaners do act as agents for yellow card collection but they are mostly those working at the international wing of the airport.

“Na this thing na, na wetin them dey call them sef… like say you dey go International airport, tell them say you want (to) come down (at) training school,” said the cleaner, whom PREMIUM TIMES later identified as Godwin.

Upon further enquiry, he gave an insight into how one could secure the card through the cleaners, his explanation mixed with Nigerian pidgin.

“Na for International, no be local; this (is) local airport,” he said. “If you go (to the international wing)… just meet any cleaner say you need yellow card,” he said. “Code, no loud am.”

The word ‘code’, in Nigerian pidgin, is often used to represent activities done discreetly, especially if considered illegal. When this reporter asked again whether it would be easy to locate a willing cleaner, Godwin gave his reassurance.

“You go see. Just go International, go departure,” he said, rather confidently. “No tell any security o, if you tell security, dem go tell you make you go that side (training school/health centre). Just enter any toilet, follow any cleaner yarn (talk), them go give you. E no go pass 3k (three thousand naira).”

Immediately he gave the hint, this reporter moved to the toilets at the arrivals lounge of the international wing of the airport, located at the lower rung of the main airport facility. The first cleaner this reporter approached said he could only ‘help’ facilitate the collection of the card at the health centre, by acting as ‘middleman’.

“If you want original yellow card, I can help you and connect you with staff of the health centre and you’d get it without much stress,” he said. “But if you want ‘express’, I don’t know much about it these days but there are guys who can help.”

The ‘express’ option meant getting the card issued as fast as possible with no hassle––right inside the airport toilet, this paper later found out.

When cajoled to help link this reporter with the guys who can help, he simply told the reporter to act as a toilet user, go into the toilet and ‘negotiate’ with the cleaners. “Just go to the toilets and talk to guys, they will help you sharp-sharp if you have your money; It is not difficult,” he added and walked away.

Soon, this reporter moved to the main entrance of the toilet and met another cleaner.

“Na 3k (3 thousand),” the second cleaner, short and dark-skinned, said once told of the need. With that declaration, the next minutes were spent haggling prices and other ‘logistics’, with revelations into details of their illegal operation.

“Shebi na yellow card you want,” said the dark-skinned cleaner. “Ehn ehn na, We dey do na, talk na, I wan help you na.”

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Sensing the worrisome look on this reporter’s face, the lead cleaner interjected: “He wan even do am ‘express’ for you.”

Again, this reporter expressed worries about the 10-day difference often given before the card is issued but the dark-skinned cleaner quickly allayed all fears, assuring that the card would be backdated.

“I wan fast do am for you. No worry, them go do everything there na. Them go backdate am,” he said. The other cleaner, to ensure that the deal was successfully struck, again interjected: “Them go backdate am for you.”

To reassure of the swiftness of the deal, the dark-skinned cleaner said the card would be issued and could be used for travel same day.

“If you want travel today-today, you go use am today… now, now, now,” he said.

After back and forth deliberations, the cleaners subsequently gave a list of what is needed to have the card issued: applicant’s passport number, names as written on the passport and applicant’s date of birth. These, of course, to be backed by N3,000 (about $8).

After the details had been settled and it was time for payment, the reporter again asked if the card would be promptly issued and can be used that day.

“Ooooooh, you dey talk too much, I say you go collect am now, now,” said the dark-skinned cleaner, apparently frustrated. “No be say I wan collect your money carry go anywhere. If you sit down here; within 10 minutes you go see am now, now.”

In the guise of going for withdrawals of the charged amount, this reporter moved away from the midst of the cleaners, with a promise to return afterwards. He never did.

Yellow Card

The yellow card, otherwise known as the International certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), is a card that stores record of an applicant’s vaccination details. The card is usually requested at immigration points and without it, travellers are not allowed into or out of some countries susceptible to yellow fever. Nigeria, Africa’s largest country by population, falls within the yellow fever endemic zone.

Yellow fever is a viral hemorrhagic fever transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes which can become deadly for people who are not vaccinated. A single dose of the yellow fever vaccine provides lifelong protection against the disease. It is also effective for 99 percent of persons vaccinated.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that to travel to countries where there is evidence of persistent or periodic yellow fever virus transmission, people need to be vaccinated and obtain the yellow card.

For years, issuance of yellow cards in Nigeria has been marred by fraud and irregularities. In 2012, about 125 Nigerians were denied entry into South Africa because the South African Port Health Authority was not satisfied with the authenticity of the travelers’ yellow fever vaccination cards. Last August, the Nigerian government as part of moves to curtail issuance of fake cards introduced the electronic version, which is machine-readable.

But despite efforts to control the issuance of fake cards, PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation showed that toilet cleaners at the airport still have a field day issuing it to passengers.

It is part of the rot at the nation’s top airports, where procedures are circumvented and rules violated.

In the first part of this series, PREMIUM TIMES showed how airport officials routinely extort travellers and make them part either with money or personal belongings.

Departure Toilets

The next day after speaking with cleaners at the arrival lounge, our reporter went back to the airport but this time to the departure toilet.

This time he met a middle-age female cleaner moving out of the section. Upon being told what the reporter was looking for, she signaled to the entrance of the toilets, without uttering any word. At the toilet entrance were young men and women, numbering up to five, moving suspiciously around with different sheets of paper in their hands.

Seconds after, one of the boys whom PREMIUM TIMES later identified as Muri moved closer to this reporter and said, in hushed tone: “How far? Yellow card?”

“Yes,” PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter said. Then, in split seconds, he and another colleague gently dragged the reporter into the toilet for negotiation.

‘Express’ Issuance

At the port health centre, the yellow card is issued after an applicant completes online registration, queues for vaccination. But at the airport toilets, the process is done on ‘express’ mode: applicant pays the agreed fee, writes his details on a sheet of paper and awaits issuance inside the toilet before he appends signature––all within minutes.

After long deliberations over price, PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter paid the agreed fee of N2, 500 and supplied his details. Then, the cleaner in charge of issuance, named Julius, told the reporter to move out quietly and ‘hang around’ for some minutes. In the intervening minutes, two middle-age men came and he handed them tightly enclosed parcels on the two occasions. He would later reference the presence of the two people––who came in a spate of four minutes–– as proof of his expertise and reliability.

Soon, another young man, a tout wearing no uniform, surfaced and they both spoke in hushed tone and moved into the toilet, with Julius the ‘issuance officer’ wielding a pen. After some minutes, this reporter was called upon to verify some of the details, including the passport number. Pronto, after verification, he was asked to go out again and await further directive. Two minutes afterwards, he was finally invited by Julius to append his signature on the fresh ‘yellow’ card.

And so without registration, vaccination or any form of due process, this reporter was handed a fresh ‘Yellow’ card, with assurance that it can be used to travel across the world. Attempts to interrogate Julius inside the toilet was cut short as he claimed he might be apprehended by some of the un-cooperative security operatives. He then gently led this reporter outside.

In a conversation outside the toilet, to elicit more response, this reporter promised to bring more applicants and Julius gladly accepted the offer, beaming with smile.

According to the World Health Organization’s rule on vaccination against yellow fever, the vaccine must be administered at least 10 days prior to the travel. But when PREMIUM TIMES’ expressed reservation over the concern with claims that he was travelling that day, Julius assured that it had been backdated.

“The way I do am (Yellow card), you have been travelling with it; this is not the first time. Even if you go to Port Health Centre, it’s backdate.” he said. “I backdate…they backdate”.

To reassure this reporter of his ‘expertise’, Julius said he had been in the business for more than five years and none of his ‘clients’ had had issues. “We have been here more than five years; more than. No issue,” he said, quite confidently.

He explained, however, that one would need to be bold to defend the card if confronted by officials at airports in some countries, citing example of a client’s experience in Kenya. He advised that if confronted, the applicant should boldly refute all allegations of shady acquisition and insist that it was properly issued after appropriate vaccination.

“At least, you be Nigerian na…shey you wan go dey dull yourself?” he said, smiling.

Extortion, Regulatory Failure at Nigerian Port Health Authority

While the cleaners inside the airport toilets issue fake yellow cards, PREMIUM TIMES investigation further revealed that there is a breach of WHO’s regulation in the issuance of genuine cards by officials at the port health authority, too.

When this reporter visited the port centre, findings showed that the security officers at the gate act as middlemen for selected staff of the health centre by bringing in applicants who are charged between N3,000 and N4,000, far higher than the N2,000 it takes to get the card.

The first security official approached by PREMIUM TIMES, an old man, directed this reporter to a staff of the centre immediately he was told of the application. At the vaccination points were many applicants, a few sitting on benches and many standing in the crowded space provided, awaiting vaccination. After haggling about price, the staff finally directed this reporter to pay N3,000 for “registration and bank charges” by sending his details to a WhatsApp number she provided.

The N1, 000 is for processing, she explained, adding that the card goes for N2,000. The port centre, often crowded, is the only authorised point yellow cards are issued in the airport, the staff explained.

The most brazen violation of basic yellow card rule at the port health centre, PREMIUM TIMES observed, was in the practice of backdating the issuance date to allow passengers use the card for travelling as soon as they wish.

This reporter observed that many passengers came with their passports and other travelling documents, panting, pleading with the officials to quickly issue the card to them as they were already late for boarding. The health officials largely succumbed to the pressure by backdating the issuance, in flagrant abuse of international best practices.

“Many people want to do the right thing but look at the crowd,” Clement Ogu, an applicant told PREMIUM TIMES. “I have been coming here and going back for the last three days because of the queue and all. I understand this is the only place they issue the card; it is bad. That’s why there is huge agitation and you see people struggling to bend the rules. It is why many choose to go get from illegal means if the country you are travelling to is not that strict about it.”

Although officials at the port centre backdate the cards upon request, PREMIUM TIMES on multiple occasions however confirmed that they ensure that the applicants are vaccinated before the cards are issued.

When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Henrietta Yakubu, FAAN spokesperson, to intimate her of the sharp practices inside airport toilets, she feigned ignorance of the development. Upon being told that cleaners issue fake yellow cards in the toilets, she said it was not possible.

“No, no, no, no, we have roller banners all over the airport, telling passengers where to go to, to get those cards,” she said.

“I am sure passengers know too well they are not supposed to just get cards off the counter like that. You are supposed to be immunized; you are supposed to go to the office of the Port Health Authority to get your yellow card. No, no, no, I don’t believe that.

“That passengers will get yellow cards from just airport workers like that, no, no, no. Nigerian passengers are enlightened; they know they are supposed to go to port health to go and pick up their cards.”

Fake and original yellow cards: Spotting the differences

PREMIUM TIMES findings show that in the past, many travelers had their yellow cards delivered to them through third parties. This practice is often traced to the proliferation of fake cards, often carried about unknowingly by a few travellers out of ignorance.

The practice has now been eradicated with the issuance of the new electronic card, as applicants are given on the basis of on-the-spot identification and vaccination.

So while it may be difficult to distinguish between fake and genuine yellow cards in the past, the new electronic card may have erased that possibility as checks revealed that the new cards issued at the port centre is clearly different from the one issued inside airport toilets.

The most glaring difference on the two cards is that although both have yellow design, the fake ‘toilet’ card appears faded and whitish while the one issued at the port health centre is not. Also, the design is quite different: while the Nigerian coat of arm is placed at the topmost part of the front-page in the electronic card, it is placed somewhere in the middle on the fake one.

Also, the new electronic card contains scan QR Code for verification, unlike the fake one which does not. Similarly, the portion where applicants name is written is boxed in the new card, while it is not in the fake one.

However, PREMIUM TIMES findings showed that the fake card was designed as a cloned version of the old yellow card, used by passengers before the introduction of the new electronic version in August.

According to official information obtained at the port centre, yellow cards issued before the introduction of the new one are still valid, if the issuance was after 2015.

By this development, those carrying fake cards can still use it to travel without hassle, especially to countries where the checks are not rigorous. In the absence of thorough surveillance, toilet cleaners in Nigerian airports issuing fake yellow cards will continue to have a field day doing business–– despite the introduction of the new electronic card.



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