Despite the scorching sun, the crowd at the Nigeria Immigration passport office, Ikeja, Lagos, kept swelling with exasperated Nigerians. Many of the applicants, who went with high hopes of getting their passports, however, left in frustration.
One of them was John, who needed the travel document urgently. Worry and anxiety were written on his face as he called his father on the telephone to lament his ordeal.
When he was done with the conversation, he told one of our correspondents how he had become frustrated after pursuing the document for over three months.
“I am not in a good mood at all. I have been coming here since February. They keep wasting people’s time. My parents paid for me through someone. Nobody applies online, because they will not attend to you. So many people are just sitting down and their files are unattended to. The documents for processing are not available; they say there are no booklets,” he said.
Another applicant, Patience, was also dejected when one of our correspondents approached her and introduced himself as a journalist. She sneered, wondering how the reporter could help her situation.
After some persuasion, she opened up. “I gave up on Nigeria a long time ago. Nothing can be better. For the past three weeks, they have been asking me to bring one document or the other. My house is far away and I need the passport urgently. But they are saying there is no passport booklet.
“The officers said if I needed express (service), then I must add something to the fee they had already charged; they demanded between N10,000 and N15,000. But I am ready to even pay, except that there is a problem with my name that I needed them to correct. You know how things are done in Nigeria. Online, the fee is N17,000, but I was asked to pay N40,000, and that was because I went directly to an officer I knew. And on top of that, they are asking for extra money for express.”
Several other applicants lamented how they could not secure their passports because the officials claimed the booklets were not available.
It was noted that despite the scarcity of the booklets, a few individuals seemed to be getting theirs. Some immigration officers around the security office near the main gate were observed counting naira notes collected from some applicants.
While our correspondent could not tell the purpose of the payment, it was observed that many applicants paid directly to the immigration officers to ease the process of the application. Several applicants confirmed this to our reporter.
A woman, who did not identify herself, said the process of the passport application had been hitch-free for her because “an uncle paid directly into the account of the officer handling it.”
We overheard an agent discussing with a client on the phone and talking about how he had been haggling the price for a 10-year passport for N95,000. He claimed that his link in the immigration office was demanding N120,000.
A student of a private university, identified simply as Bimbo, said an intermediary, who collected N50,000 from her for a five-year passport, promised that everything would go smoothly. She said the agent connected her with an immigration officer, who called her for data capturing.”
Long wait, scarcity characterise passport applications in FCT
In the Federal Capital Territory, the situation is not different. Findings indicate that passport applicants generally go through unofficial routes to obtain the booklets and pay exorbitantly. Checks show that many NIS officers are taking advantage of the scarcity to engage in passport racketeering.
Many applicants have yet to get the passports weeks after going for biometric capture after paying the stipulated fees. Officials blamed the scarcity on inadequate supply of booklets by the contractor, Iris Smart Technology Limited.
A passport applicant, Anselm Ansadi stated, “I discovered that getting the e-passport isn’t as easy as it sounds. After paying the necessary fees and doing the biometric capture, I was informed that the passport would be ready within a week.
“After waiting for over two weeks without getting any response, I contacted an immigration officer at the NIS headquarters, who helped in fast-tracking the issuance. I had to part with additional money.”
A businesswoman, who was asked to pay N100,000 for the 10-year booklet, blamed the government for giving room for the unending exploitation of Nigerians by passport officials.
Extortion, touting by NIS officers at play in Enugu
At the Enugu NIS passport office, an official asked one of our correspondents to pay N30,000 against the official N18,500, while an urgent passport application went for N35,000.
In a move to cajole our reporter to patronise him, the officer said, “If you want a passport, you must go through an immigration officer to get it in record time. Otherwise, if you apply online, you hardly get the passport. One person I know, who applied online, has not received it since November last year. Another one, who applied since the first week of February hasn’t obtained his passport till date.
“However, there is scarcity of passports now. But if you go through an immigration officer (unofficially), you will finish your application and receive the passport booklet.”
At the Federal Secretariat, Enugu, more than five immigration personnel accosted our correspondent, saying, “Oga do you want a passport? Is any immigration officer processing your passport?’’
The State Controller of Immigration, Mr Joachim Olumbah, promised to investigate and fish out those behind the passport racketeering in the command. He said such unprofessional acts could not be denied, but noted that it was not an official endorsement from the command.
Travel agents, NIS officers levy passport applicants in Benue
Nigerians seeking to obtain the e-passport have decried the non-availability of the travel document in Makurdi, Benue State. They also frowned on the activities of middlemen and travel agents, who go about extorting money from intending travellers on the pretext of assisting them to facilitate the issuance of passports from the Nigeria Immigration Service office.
When our correspondent in Benue visited the NIS passport office located opposite the High Court in Makurdi, some applicants were sighted in a queue waiting to collect their passport booklets. But their hopes were dashed as they were turned back and asked to come back another time.
One of the applicants, who identified himself as Donald, said he applied for the passport on January 8, 2021, to enable him to travel abroad for his education.
“At first, I was told to go to the bank and pay N18,000 into a designated account and bring the printout, which I did; since then, it has been one excuse or the other. I was asked to come today, but when I got here, an officer told me that the passport control officer was not available and that I should come another time.
“This is not funny; some people, who applied at the same time as me, have collected theirs because they were able to grease the palms of officials. That is, after they paid N18,000 in the bank, they still came to the office and paid additional money to officials or travel agents to facilitate immediate issuance of the passport. Those of us who refused to bribe, the officials are unable to get ours.”
Another applicant, Mr Terna Suemo, said he paid for the 32-page booklet in the first week of March 2021 but could not get it due to non-availability of booklets.
He stated, “However, an insider told me that if I wanted to get it officially, it would take time, but if I needed it urgently and I pay extra money, he could get the passport for me.”
The NIS Public Relations Officer in the state, Mrs Ngufan Akaa, declined to comment.
Long queues of applicants waiting to do the mandatory biometric capture for the National Identity Number are features of the Rivers State passport office in Port Harcourt.
Though the new complex donated to the service by the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, appears comfortable, it is usually crowded amid complaints of booklet scarcity and delay. No incidence of touting was noticed at the office located at No. 8 Aba Road, Port Harcourt.
Meanwhile, an applicant, who simply identified himself as Chidi, said he travelled all the way from Awka, Anambra State, to Port Harcourt, where he was referred to after paying N50,000 as express delivery charges for the 32-page passport, which ordinarily costs N25,000.
“A passport of 32 pages that costs N25,000, I was made to pay N50,000 for express service, because I needed it urgently. I came all the way from Awka, because there was no booklet at the office. I had also gone to Owerri (Imo State) and Asaba (Delta State), but there were no booklets in those states.”
Checks indicated that over 1,000 booklets had yet to be collected by their owners. It was also gathered that Rivers was the only state in the South-South and South-East currently issuing the e-passport with a five and 10-year validity period.
Passport scarcity, violation of freedom of movement – Lawyer, CSO
A lawyer, Deji Ajare, of the Sterling Centre, Abuja, said the failure of the government to issue passport booklets was a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of movement of the citizens.
“Nigerians in the Diaspora, who are reportedly facing some form of difficulty over processing of their passports, can benefit from a renewal by postal service and the opening of more centres to cater to this need.”
Speaking in a similar vein, the Executive Director, United Global Resolve for Peace, Olaseni Shalom, argued that the passport scarcity was artificial and meant to subvert due process and enrich the pockets of a few corrupt officers.
The NIS spokesman, Sunday James, failed to respond to inquiries about what the service was doing to curb the unethical conduct by immigration personnel. He did not respond to calls and a text message sent to his phone on Wednesday.
Apparently roused from its slumber by the loud complaints from angry Nigerians, the Federal Government announced a policy statement it hopes would assuage the problem. The Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, said all passport backlogs would be issued on or before May 31, 2021, adding that those with issues with their applications would be contacted.