Sunday, 24th September 2023

How corruption, racketeering hobble FG’s passport policy, application process

By Tina Abeku, Abuja
21 April 2023   |   6:25 am
The time was about 3:30 pm at the national headquarters of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. Yet, there was no sign of the crowd receding in the hot sun.

Nigeria Immigration Service.


The more things change, the more they remain the same cliché aptly captures the in-country passport application process, directly under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior. In about eight years, tones of resources have been pumped into new initiatives for seamless and stress-free process of application. TINA ABEKU, however, reports that very little has changed in the bureaucratic bottleneck and sub-stories of applicants at the passport offices.


The time was about 3:30p.m. at the national headquarters of the Nigeria Immigration Service, (NIS), in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT); yet, there was no sign of the crowd receding in the hot sun.

They were undeterred by the scorching heat in the minimal shelter – a canopy and long iron benches – set up for passport applicants as they wait in line to be attended to.

In the milling crowd is Bayo, who has run out of patience. He paced between his seat and the nearby office door. He has been at the NIS office since 9:20a.m. just to pick up his passport booklet six months after he applied for a renewal, which ordinarily should not have lasted beyond the three weeks stipulated for renewal. 

Sadly, the officer who has been processing his document informed him that his bio details were missing; hence, he must be captured again. That was the third time it was happening and on each occasion he performed the process, he paid an additional fee ranging from N20,000 to 50,000 as processing fees.

 For many like Bayo, getting an international passport is a nightmare due to large-scale corruption and inefficiency among immigration officers, who do all they could, even defy the system, to extort applicants of huge sums of money before issuing the much sought-after travel documents.


Government’s intervention

While the process had worsened over the years, by 2021, following public outcry at home and in the diaspora as well as an ultimatum from the National Assembly, the Federal Government tried to find solutions to ending the difficulty faced as well as eradicating bottlenecks associated with obtaining a Nigerian passport.

On June 1, 2021, the Federal Government, through the ministry of Interior, the supervising ministry of the NIS, introduced a new passport regime to ease difficulties in passport processing for Nigerians, as well as fish out corrupt elements tainting the name of the agency and reduce corruption in the system, through online application. 

The introduction of the new regime came along with significant changes. Key among them were the processing period for passports application, which was pegged at six weeks, and the renewal of passports now hinged at three weeks before collection. 

Additionally, applicants were told that they could only do so strictly online to encourage transparency and cut off third party involvement, where corrupt personnel are ripping applicants off their money at point of application.

At a media briefing to introduce the policy, Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, said that the six weeks’ timeframe will “allow for enough time to investigate, verify and validate personal information supplied by the applicant for processing fresh international passport application.”

To allow smooth takeoff of this policy, the Federal Government began the creation of special centres for expedited passport processing with the first one known as ‘passport express centre’ located in Maitama, Abuja, through a public private partnership. 

Here, applicants in urgent need of the travel document are allowed to go there and apply for passports at a cost that is more than what is paid for regular processing price to obtain their booklets within 24 hours.

“These special centres will run on a public-private partnership basis. This has already taken off in Abuja and 10 more will be opened in the coming weeks as more of such centres will be opened all over the country,” the minister once tweeted via his verified handle @raufaregbesola.

According to him, “what we are driving at is the peace of mind that comes from assurance of certainty. If there are circumstances that will make the date, (of collection of passport), to change, it will be communicated to the applicant one week before the collection date.

“Applicants will have no basis for further communication with officers other than to complete their application process and leave the venue. The date for the collection of their passport or any challenges to the application will be communicated to them.”

This initiative is expected to be replicated across the country in the coming months after the introduction of the new regime, a target, which later never came to be, instead it is only one express centre opened in the FCT.

Where are the ‘passport express centres’?

With barely a month to the expiration of the current administration, the Federal Government has embarked on an opening spree of passport front offices aimed at easing difficulties in passport processing, especially data capturing, a mandatory stage that follows the online application before issuance of passport booklets. 

This policy, however, is proving to be insufficient in addressing the many challenges applicants face as the agency struggles with corrupt officials, who daily outsmart government’s well planned and thought out strategy of eliminating sharp practices, such as touting and passport racketeering. The corrupt officials have devised means of extorting clients through loopholes in the system and also by finding ways to place preference on applicants who apply for passports through personnel, (not touts as often inferred to by the authorities), than those who opted for the online application.  

What is obtainable now, according to some applicants, is that even when you succeed in applying for a passport, you wait endlessly to get the documents vetted first of all, on the interview appointment date, as immigration officers always find excuses why you have to come back again and again to get captured, knowing that a lot of applicants are unable to absorb the frustration of coming back over and over without successfully getting captured.

The applicant is also given the option to pay more so that the officer can fast-track the process or keep coming back until he or she is lucky to get their biometrics captured.

The applicant’s travails doesn’t end there as even the collection date issued is often of no relevance if you do not pay gratification to immigration officials. More so, officials appear to have a preference for candidate filling forms in passport offices than online, and therefore make desperate efforts to sabotage online applications.

While the entire process is said to be fraught with graft that it is unofficially official for immigration personnel to ask applicants to pay more than is legally required to obtain a Nigerian passport, the new regime not only increases cost of processing the document, but also comes with longer period of processing, a situation many said has become the policy’s Achilles heel, as it provides the very fertile opportunity for extortion, especially of those applicants on emergency deadlines due to health and others requiring immediate international travel.

According to the NIS, the official price for a 64-page Nigerian passport with a 10-year validity period is N70,000, a 64-page passport with five years validity costs N35,000 and a 32-page passport with a five-year validity period costs N25,000. Applicants are not expected to pay any other fee outside these official figures.

 The agency on its part has remained mute to queries on the concerns of Nigerians regarding passports processing.   

 Comptroller General of the Service, Isah Idris, while visiting Kano State to open an electronic passport office, stated that the passport reform process is still ongoing and that the agency is committed to issuance of passports between three to six weeks post biometric capture.

 Idris warned: “We reiterate our official position that passport applicants should please avoid using third parties but go online and make their applications and payments themselves.”

However, investigations reveal that passport officers are usually hostile towards applicants who apply online, thus intentionally making the remaining process tortuous.

Our findings show that for each passport being processed, an extra charge of between N30,000 to 60,000 is added to the official amount.

What this means is that a passport officer involved in this unwholesome practice, who processes passports for six to 10 persons a day at an extra charge of N30,000, will be making about N180,000 to N300,000 per day depending on how the proceeds is shared with other personnel along the chain of production.

The Guardian also discovered some shortcomings with the online application portal including the lack of provision for all categories of passport.

For instance, the portal has no clear provision for applicants who wish to apply for the 64 page and 10 years validity passport, hence, the applicant is forced to resort to third parties, who usually demand heavy charges before carrying out the processing.

To set the record straight, Media Adviser to the Minister, Mr. Sola Fasure, explained that the “Minister stated that passport application facilitation front offices will be opened. 

“This front office concept is different from the passport express centre we had in Maitama, which has now been discontinued. A front office is where application will be made and biometric data collected. No decision will be made here, but your application and biometric data will be forwarded to the NIS for processing and issuing.”

 According to him, “the Ministry of Interior introduced several reforms in the passport administration process. Application for passport is now done strictly online. However, due to pressure in some biometric data capturing centres, there is need to open more service centres, hence, the passport front offices. 

“This will also involve private-public partnership arrangement, in addition to the ones run directly by the NIS. The process is ongoing and soon, more front offices of the NIS will be opened in Daura and Oyo. The Alimosho and Ilesa front offices in Lagos and Osun states respectively have been opened. The ones in partnership with the private sector will also be coming on stream shortly to reduce the pressure we have at the passport offices in urban centres.”

Responding to the view that racketeering and extortion of applicants by immigration officers is at an all-time high, Fasure pointed that that “there are cases now and then of untoward practices, but we act promptly and decisively once they come to our knowledge. 

“But there are also overwhelming cases of people who, without prompting, come to the social media to appreciate the NIS for getting prompt and efficient service without having to bribe anyone. 

“The NIS continues to serve Nigerians diligently and effectively. Last year alone, more than 1.5 million passports were issued to Nigerians. This is unprecedented.

“In every system, we have human factor as a challenge. But our biggest challenge in this area is the applicants who continue to patronise unofficial channels and sources because they want a short cut. 

“If no applicant patronise touts and these dubious sources, apply online themselves and follow the directives, there will be zero incident. Our message to applicants remain: apply online, book your appointment and go for your biometric data capture. You will get your passport three weeks or six weeks after biometric data capture for re-issue or fresh application.”

Since introduction of the new regime, many have said the NIS is currently one of the most corrupt government agencies as officers smile home with fortunes, money extorted from desperate Nigerians hit by the new ‘Japa’ (emigration) fever on a daily basis as the new policy serves to make an already bad situation worse.

National Coordinator of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, said the level of corruption amongst top-level government officials is systematic and endemic. 

 “Even as the Independent Corrupt Practices and other offences Commission (ICPC), seems to have busted a few of these corrupt practices within the public and civil services of the federation, they are becoming more endemic and disturbing because the sleaze happens from top to bottom. 

 “Also, because there is a great incentive for these officials to continue swimming in the web of corruption given that the anti-graft agencies are not doing enough, so, there will continue to be corruption in the entire system,” he said. 

Onwubiko noted that “Nigeria needs a holistic approach to waging war against public service corruption because if those who are ministers and even the President is not free from corrupt practices, what do you expect the smaller people under their control to do? We need a clean sweep from top to bottom to eradicate traces of corruption, sanitise service delivery mechanisms in the public and civil service and impose very strict punitive measures to offenders caught in the Web of corruption.”

According to him, a most effective way of battling these challenges in the NIS is first and foremost by conducting enlistment or recruitment into public and civil service such as the Nigerian Immigration Service based on “merit and competence and not on whom you know or man-know-man. 

He pointed that “some persons who joined these agencies pay through their noses to obtain the job slots; they will inevitably explore loopholes in the system to recoup their investments.  We need to sanitise civil service recruitment processes and enforce relevant statutes and regulations guiding civil and public service and we must not treat anyone as a sacred cow.”

 The human rights advocate also drew attention to the dynamism of graft, a give and take syndrome he adduced is fueled by the general corruption tendencies my most Nigerian because the immigration personnel who are engaged in graft are Nigerians meanwhile, those who go to the “Nigeria immigration service for passports and other official dealings most times are left with fewer options and those without expansive tolerance level will simply bribe so they obtain what services they applied.

He lamented that the internal mechanisms for fishing out corrupt officials are deliberately weakened by insiders who benefit from corruption, hence “it is somewhat cumbersome to report cases of Corrupt Practices. Government at the centre now is tolerant to corrupt because those who head these agencies are employed through nepotism,” he alleged.

Meanwhile, development law expert and Lead Director at the Center for Social Justice, (CSJ), Barrister Eze Onyekperehas praised the federal government passport policy describing it as “a step in the right direction” because it not only reduce person to person contact, but also does away with undue discretion.

Onyekpere pointed that “online processing of passports and indeed, online processing of documents that otherwise was processed manually has so many advantages and one of such advantages is the reduction of corruption. 

“This is facilitated through the elimination of person to person contact and the opportunity of applying undue discretion. Definitely, no one, except persons suffering from exceptional depravity, can have the effrontery of contacting applicants through their email address or phone number and demand for a bribe on the basis of the forms they filled online. 

In his opinion, “It is a step in the right direction and needs to be encouraged. If the immigration authorities keep to this new online processing of passports, the service delivery rendered by this agency of government is bound to improve and ultimately contribute to improvements in the ease of doing business.

On the downside, he notes that“Online processing of documents introduces some form of automation in government business and as such, it is expected that the timeframe for processing the passport should not take six weeks. Renewing of passports in 3 weeks is also a long time to wait. These timeframes should be reduced to half of the current timeframe.”

A source in the agency who craves anonymity, told The Guardian that the passport processing is not the only mandate of the NIS as the service as the agency has many other functions such as border management but because of how lucrative the passport department is, many officers now jostle and maneuver their way to be posted to the passport unit.

Another set of passport applicants that are often the least mentioned but are some of the most extorted from, are those that wish to correct errors made on their passport booklets by either the immigration officials or by the applicant themselves in the course of application. 

 These errors range from misspelt to wrong order of names appearance and date of birth among others.

This set of applicants are often made to part with larger sums of money to fix the errors as officials do all they can to make the process difficult by demanding all sorts of documents as proof that the applicant is not a fraud. Here, personnel at the office of the comptroller of passports are almost always culprits.

The story is not much different at the Gwagwalada passport office in the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT), where immigration officers extort large sums of money from applicants and anyone who fails to cooperate or has no money is blatantly told that there is no more passport booklet, a very common excuse by corrupt officials of the service.

   Apparently, the administrative processes that have now been introduced into the system by the new policy to ease the process according to the government, has provided the right avenue to the extortion and bribery to thrive.

Sharing his bitter experience with The Guardian, a journalist, names withheld, who visited the Gwagwalada center to process the document was asked to cough out the sum of N20, 000 even after he had paid the official sum of N25, 000 for a 32 paged passport. According to him, the officials say the extra charge will be use buy fuel for the agency’s power generatingset.

Although the agency recently woke up to dish out sack letters and sanction few personnel through redeployment, and demotion and compulsory retirement among other as part of an anti-corruption fight, many say that the agency is merely making show to fool Nigerians when it is obvious that corruption is quit endemic and touches the upper echelon of the service.

Also, the Executive Director Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) and Head of Transparency International (Nigeria), and Board of Trustees Chairman Amnesty International Nigeria, observed that the policy “Is a welcome development because it is seen an effort by the Nigerian Immigration Service to curb person to person contact in the passport allocation process which has for years bred serious corruption in that sector.

He said the step by step procedure and guidelines for passport applicationboth within Nigeria and in the diaspora shows effort and commitment to do curb corruption.

He however pointed “Corruption still persists because there are stories and allegations of individuals still paying money to immigration officials inorder to fast track their passport application process. 

 “In some cases, these individuals willingly offer bribes to the officials while in other cases, officials demand money in exchange for fast tracking of the process.”

 According to him, “One factor that has contributed to this is the long wait after application via the portal before applicants receive their passport. Secondly, the absence of proper disciplinary measures for immigration officials found guilty of collecting bribes and delaying the process has further compounded the issue.”  

 He recommended that“The Nigerian Immigration Service puts in place mechanisms to expose and punish corrupt officials within the service without fear or favor.

“Also, the Federal Government should lookinto addressing the issue of scarcity shortage of booklets which has contributed immensely to the delay in passport application process. 

“Lastly, there should be mass sensitization of citizens by the Nigerian Immigration Service on the passport application process as highlighted of the website. 

 “Opinion boxes and reporting platforms should be made available by the service for citizens to submit opinions or complaints about processes or immigration officials guilty of demanding or receiving bribe. The Management can then use information and reports gathered to take necessary action.”

Indeed, a number of reforms are said to have been introduce into the passport processone of which is the passport policy, a novel policy praised by many, however, sustainability challenges and the knack and ingenuity of corrupt officials to sabotage the system persists but Nigerians still hope that efforts by the federal government will be strengthen and major loopholes tackled to rid the agency of the infestation of graft and racketeering and to boost public confidence in the agency.