Travelling (into or) out of Nigeria presents another layer of experience of how corruption has eaten deep into the fabric of agencies responsible for facilitating air travel at our nation’s international borders. This time, my encounter with the officials of the Nigeria Immigration Service and sundry agencies at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos … was a harrowing experience. I saw the brazen manner in which they coerce, solicit, persuade and even harass Nigerian and foreign travellers and visitors to part with money or other valuables…
As I observed their desperation and shameless activities, a few questions came to mind: Why are these officials so shameless as to not realise that by being at an international airport, they represent the face of our country? Do they not realise that they are the first point of contact for any visitor coming into our country? What impression will foreigners have of our country when immigration officers harass people and demand bribes openly without shame?
Bayo Fapohunda, narrating his ordeal at the MMIA in October 2014 (The Punch, October 14, 2014).
When the news of the suspension of the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Immigration Service, David Parradang, first broke, without much detail, my mind went straight to the extortion, like the one narrated above by Fapohunda, that Nigerian and foreign travellers go through in the hands of officials of the Immigration, Customs, Police, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, and related agencies at the nation’s airports.
All over the world, the official duties of these and similar agencies are to facilitate air travel for legitimate travellers and to prevent illegitimate ones, like the Lebanese terrorist, Ahmed Al Assir, from entering or exiting the country. But in Nigeria, the officials of these agencies seem to focus more on extortion through various methods, some very subtle and others quite aggressive and disruptive, if not crude.
Dr. Sabella Abidde, a former columnist for The Punch, once narrated a more harrowing experience than Fapohunda’s. Abidde was returning to the United States on his American passport, and, therefore, did not need a visa. By all standards, he was a legitimate traveller and should have gone through immigration, without a hassle. However, a Nigerian immigration official demanded his Nigerian passport with which he entered the country a couple of weeks earlier.
Noticing that it expired just a few days earlier, the official held on to both passports and told Abidde to step aside. Despite his appeal to the official that he planned to renew it in the United States, since its validity was not necessary for his re-entry into the United States, the official insisted he must renew the passport before travelling out of Nigeria. After hours of negotiation, the official insisted that Dr. Abidde must “settle” him. Dr. Abidde refused, and he was delayed until he missed his flight. It cost him an additional $600 or so to rebook the flight.
As a frequent international traveller through MMIA, especially between Nigeria and the United States, I have had countless experiences with these officials and made numerous observations. In general, rather than look for ways to facilitate your travel, they look for ways to delay you in order to cajole or coerce you into offering a bribe or a tip. If you are travelling out of the country, the ordeal begins at the entrance to the airport and follows you to the jet way. If you are entering the country, the extortion ordeal begins at the immigration desk and follows you until you exit the airport.
“Daddy, have a safe journey”, a policeman once said to me at the entrance into the departure lounge, and continued, “but what are you going to leave behind for your children now?” I knew what he meant but I deliberately twisted his message, and responded, “Do you think I am going abroad to die there?” My response drew laughter from him and others at the entrance. I just walked away. On that particular trip, I encountered not less than seven requests for bribes or tips. I gave out none.
Nigerian traders, mostly women, who go to China, Dubai, and Senegal to purchase goods are special preys upon whom Customs and FAAN officials descend like vultures. Take the case of the traders in Senegalese dresses, who are repeatedly compelled to give a tip by these officials at MMIA each time they return from Senegal with their goods. First, customs officials charge them at least N10, 000 per luggage. With fifty traders or more on a flight, especially on ARIK Airline, the customs officials could collect as much as N5 million on a single flight.
The mode of payment involves a First Bank Branch at the MMIA. A customs official would give a trader an invoice, broken down into “import duty”, “VAT”, and other surcharges, totalling N10,000 or more per bag. The trader would then be advised to pay cash (and cash only) at the designated First Bank branch within the airport. The traders do not know into whose or which account they are paying. But the bank tellers seem to know. The trader gets the invoice back with a stamp of First Bank of Nigeria which does not even indicate an account number but has on it Bank Code 011 and BA/CB L4490. The trader then takes the stamped teller to the customs official. She is, thereafter, good to go with all her goods.
Second, as they make their exit from the customs lounge, FAAN officials step in to demand N2,000 per bag, and issue receipts, which the traders suspect to be fake. On one trader’s receipt, the reason for payment is stated as “Being invoice raised as Rent Charge”, whatever that means. If a trader is able to negotiate the amount downwards, then no receipt is issued for the payment, which further casts doubt on the authenticity of the payment. What is interesting throughout the ordeal is that the traders’ luggage is never opened, searched, or inspected for assessment by Customs or FAAN officials.
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the traders who return via the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja are not subjected to these surcharges. This cannot but raise the suspicion that the money collected from the traders who return via MMIA may be a fraud.
These narratives imply that President Buhari needs to go beyond the suspension of the Comptroller-General of NIS over Assir’s visa controversy. He should use it as an entry point into probing, with a view to reforming, NIS, Customs, FAAN, and other agencies associated with air travel at the nation’s airports, domestic and international.
What this means is that it is high time the fight against corruption was turned on the agencies whose officials loot the public purse by taking money directly from the people’s pockets rather than from the treasury alone. It also means that the fight against corruption should not be limited to a top-down fight. It should be a bottom-up fight as well, involving citizens across the nation. It also should be a horizontal fight, cutting across Ministries, Departments, and Agencies; security agencies; educational and health institutions; the Central Bank, commercial banks, and other financial institutions; and so on.
The endemic nature of corruption in Nigeria also requires more than prosecuting looters and getting the loot back. It also requires a cultural approach that seeks to change the people’s condoning attitude to corruption, like the one Lee Kwan Yew adopted for Singapore. To be sure, cultural and attitudinal change cannot be legislated. But appropriate sanctions can be imposed on deviants in order to make them conform to the desired norm.