Idris: CBN not allowing us window to foreign exchange
•We Are Following Due Process To Discipline Errant Staff
The interview was scheduled for 12.30 pm on Tuesday. By one o’clock, we got information that instead of the old Secretariat at Area 1, the session with the acting Comptroller General of Nigeria Immigration Services (NIS), Idris Isah Jere, would hold at the ultra modern NIS headquarters along Airport Road, Abuja.
Shaking out the hangover from one-week long malaise, the twist and turns surrounding the interview with the new helmsman at the NIS doused the initial enthusiasm to engage the man that took over from chubby Muhammed Babandede.
At the sprawling NIS facility, it was as if situation and circumstances conspired to prolong the waiting. As we sat at the cozy waiting room, the scenery looked outlandish. Could this be Nigeria? The environment was spick-and-span, well dressed officials in their well-starched uniforms streamed as if this was Singapore Changi Airport.
By 3.00pm, we were asked to use the lift to the acting CG’s office at the Second floor of the imposing building. At the point of entering the elevator, a lanky officer approached courteously with a bad report: “Please, Oga is receiving some very important dignitaries and pleads that you please give him some time more at the waiting room,” he stated.
Well, sinking back unto the smooth Italian leather sofa, queries for the Jere expanded: Time line of acquiring Nigerian passport, scarcity of passport booklets, incidents of sleazy in the issuance of the Green passport…
As at 4.40pm when we were ushered into the CG’s office, the man who was profusely apologising for keeping us waiting happened to be the big man in a small frame, who began taking my questions as if he was delivering a seminar.
The former Deputy Comptroller-General in charge of Finance and Accounts, Idris Isah Jere, whom President Muhammadu Buhari appointed the acting Comptroller-General of NIS, would make a good diplomat. He deployed all the skills of a change-maker as he granted the first media interview to The Guardian. LEO SOBECHI reports.
Can you outline some of the mental picture of reforms you envisaged for the NIS?
I want to give thanks to Allah for the privilege He has given us to lead; it’s a privilege for God to appoint you to lead an organisation. So, when the minister of interior presented me, I outlined three key areas to concentrate on, because I have a few months to retire.
I identified border management as a key area. You know, our major function is to police the borders and don’t forget that Nigeria’s border is so massive. Nigeria as a country is sitting on 4500 kilometers, inclusive of 850 nautical miles along the shoreline. The borders are massive. So, the key area of focus is border management.
Secondly, passport issuance. The document conferring nationality to us as Nigerians is a passport. The document for all it is worth must have integrity. So, I intend to pursue the process to ensure that the process of issuance of breeder documents too has integrity.
We call them breeder documents and they include, indigeneship letters, birth certificates and introduction letters. We ensure that they are genuinely obtained and verified. Not only that, we ensure that the particulars supplied by the applicants, including their addresses, are verified. We verify the addresses provided by the applicant ranging from residences, even if you live in Abuja here, or even if you are living in Lagos, we go to Lagos to verify. So, it is through the process that we intend to checkmate by ensuring that the document has integrity.
Then, thirdly, welfare. We want to watch the borders, we want to reform passports, all these are processes we want to do. Who will drive them, if you don’t take care of the officers? So, these are the key areas, based on the time available to me. I want to start it, so the person coming after me can continue from where I stopped.
Nigerians remember how you personally went to the Lagos office and discovered some short-circuiting of the process and all that. Also, in the Enugu office, some culprits were apprehended, what is the update on those arrests and where do you want to go from there?
Corruption in Nigeria has eaten deep, into every facet, every sector across Nigeria. When I came on board, based on the cries of the people, I felt we should ease the pains of Nigerians. I said, let me disguise myself and see what’s going on there; what the average Nigerian goes through in the process of acquiring international passport. I found out that with money, you could buy anything.
I knew that when some officers were apprehended, others could sit up. At least, they should know that anybody could disguise in any form and come, so you have to be very careful. Even if we cannot stop it completely, I think we can reduce the incidence to the barest minimum.
And, because it’s a document that has integrity, the process too must have integrity. As I have said, corruption is everywhere. But, this is Nigeria, if you are traveling to school abroad, going for medical tourism, for one reason or the other, you have to acquire the passport. Or even, if you want to do a transaction with a bank, it is needed for identification. So, why must you be taxed to get that official document?
It pained me, I put it out, I said, ‘okay, how much do you give God to give you oxygen to breathe in and out. You take oxygen free of charge. Go to intensive care units of the National Hospital; you find out that people are paying heavily for oxygen. If therefore God is doing it for you for free, why don’t you do it for others for free?’
Government is paying us from the tax that the person is paying, why would you charge them double again illegally? So, I did what I did just to tell the officers that the world is watching them. People know what they are doing; they assume nobody is watching.
About the culprits caught, we have a (disciplinary) procedure and we are following the due process. If you don’t follow due process, they go to court. The court will upturn what you have done. So, for now, the officers are facing the disciplinary procedures before we can conclude. We will let the public know the processes involved.
There are other innovations that have come on board on your watch regarding the issuance of passports. The worry is how you can ensure that the process is seamless?
Let me take you down the memory lane. Before now, we used to write passports with our hands (calligraphy). If you had very good handwriting back in the days, we took you to the passport office, because of your handwriting. But, this is the 21st century. Now, ICT (Information Communication Technology) is the answer.
It is very seamless to do, because as we do upgrades, it won’t have problems. And of course, we intend to introduce other forms. Because of the process of getting a passport, we intend to have it as a policy. The minister said it should take a maximum of three weeks to get renewal of a passport and six weeks for a fresh one to enable diligence of the breeder documents you submitted to be sure we are not giving a Ghanaian for instance, our passport.
Whatever you submitted we would find out based on the address you submitted. And everything is online; you fill a form online, you submit online, you download the document, you validate, then we fix appointments for you online to come for your passport. Nobody would take your money.
This issue of shortage of passport booklets, how are you going to jump that persistent hurdle?
Well, the government has not invested kobo into passports. Rather, it is making money out of it. It is contractor-financed and the government is getting a share from the proceeds. You may wish to know that all the passports we issue outside the country, we (NIS) don’t get kobo from it. The money given to NIS to finance the diaspora passport goes directly into Federal Government accounts.
So, the local share of NIS is what we are using to finance and that is the challenge we are facing. We say maybe the government should give one million to NIS just to allow us to access part of the money we generate from outside the country.
The whole money is in government accounts managed by CBN. We don’t benefit from it. And we realize billions of dollars yearly, yet we continue to service the operations. So, you can see the gap. If the government can permit us a window to utilize a part of the money realised, this issue will be over. We don’t have the money realised outside to service the operation, it’s the local we have that takes care of the operation in diaspora
CBN is not allowing us a window to foreign exchange. So, the company supplying the booklet goes to bureau de change to buy foreign exchange for passports. They go to bureau de change to buy dollars and meanwhile, we have not increased the price. So, it will eat into our revenue, because they will bring their bill, we have to pay them. That is the reason for the scarcity.
When staff of NIS limit contacts with people, how do you recognise or reward their sacrifice, especially when the same staff were used to human contact that facilitates some access to illegal free income, how would you ensure balance?
We agreed that people who are handling such documents should be remunerated. The minister has given us the go ahead to propose; he can approve anything for us. It’s like somebody cooking and saying he won’t taste, is it possible? No!
Since we have a certain percentage coming to NIS, we create a certain percentage for warfare. Don’t also forget that we delegate some of our duties. If you say only those doing passport, what about those in administration, they are also doing complementary roles. Do you leave them? It’s not fair enough. So, you have to critically look at the warfare. I agree you should give some preferences to somebody at that kind of duty. Definitely there’s something for those with special duties.
What is the relationship between NIS and individuals offering ancillary services around passport offices, particularly business centers where applicants access internet/ICT guides…?
NIS does not recognise business centers anywhere. Probably, you are referring to business outfits around passport offices that are operating on their own. But the truth is that NIS under me is given a watch to ensure that they are doing proper things.
What we did was to improve the website, make it friendly, so that even on your handset, you can start filling the forms, you don’t need anyone to assist you. It has been simplified. It’s serious now, we have other windows of payments being introduced; on your handset you can make payments and generate receipts.
With the security situation in the country, how far are the staff members of NIS faring in border surveillance, especially when there are pressures from aliens emptying into Nigeria?
Check that map (points to map on the wall of his office), you will see some points marked there. We have four operational bases in this country to enable NIS officials to cover the border effectively. We have 85 recognised border control points. We have also about 114 illegal road entry points that you can escape to outside Nigeria without being stopped. Don’t forget that they are just imaginary lines called borders.
But, the government has taken a step forward by signing the E-border. ICT is the only solution to fortify our borders now. Soon, the government will deploy and start taking data from the E-border, maybe by next year. So, they will start implementing the new border controls. Part of why we have this E-border is to serve as a control center. We would take you round to see what NIS is doing so far. We have a control room; from here, you can see what is happening in Sokoto live. You can see those crossing the border with their machines live! That’s the future of NIS; we want to go to the moon in NIS. So, ICT is the answer to surveillance, survey our borders, gather data and share our data to other agencies for credible action.
Where do you see NIS in the next six years?
We just concluded a retreat in Ilorin, where we went to develop a five-year plan with the Ministry (of Interior). NIS always has a plan; we are always ahead. You saw when I moved to my chair, I entered the system to approve files. There are no papers on my table, as you can see. This is technology-based, that is the future of NIS: paperless all over.
And for passports, we want a situation whereby, you enter your biometric, and send it to NIS, they print it, you make payments and receive the mail in your house. That’s where we are heading to. We also want to implement E-gate; we are in the process of making that work. That’s where we are heading to. So, the future of NIS is to employ technology to do everything so that you can sleep with your two eyes closed.
What would you itemise as your immediate challenges?
By and large, funding is the major issue. Money activates every thing, but I can assure you that the government is doing well. Unfortunately, it is still an envelope budget. We are given a particular figure; joggle whatever you want to joggle with that figure that is the challenge. You have to invest in ICT heavily, internet connectivity, there are equipment you have to maintain. It’s all about money. Then we want all migrants to register with NIS. Then we would do internal monitoring. As I have said earlier our challenges are funding and staff strength among others.
In the area of planning, what have you put on the table?
All these have been planned; if we haven’t planned, we won’t be where we are today, that’s why I said during the retreat, we developed a five-year strategic plan. Is it on border patrol, this is what we are going to have; on platform reforms, this is where we intend to go; on entrance monitoring, this is where we intend to go. So, if you don’t plan, you are already failing.
Is there a way you shed more lights on international passport reforms so that ordinary Nigerians could look forward to as the innovations of acting CG Idris. How will you describe the new initiative?
You see the initiative by the minister is to make decisions of renewal maximum of three weeks, the freshers for six weeks. For now, we are migrating to enhanced and money-enhanced. Money enhanced does not have more features as the enhancement. The cabinets, you know, have so many more features than the old ones.
Again it is easier to get the enhanced one. But, currently we have the enhanced one, because the company does not make money in the enhanced ones. By March next year the cry will be over by the special grace of God.
Is there room for express service?
Well, whether we like it or not, we do express. We are compelled to do express, but not free of charge. If we had income from the government, I would be able to pay my staff for welfare. Government will not invest; it’s just for the government to allow NIS to run express service. It’s your choice; if you don’t want express service, go through the three weeks’ renewal. No problem! We intend to sell the idea to the government to allow the NIS a window to allow private companies to come into the process. Meanwhile, officers will be around to ensure that only Nigerians are captured. So, we intend to have more front offices, the back offices are only to police the front offices, acquire biometrics and sieve all the information for production.
Is there any system in place to ensure the integrity of data protection of Nigerians when private sector or other people other than NIS are handling the process?
If we are going to employ companies, they are going to go through clearance that guides them from going scot-free. They are going to be punished for any infraction. So the laws are there. We engage them.