The Guardian (Nigeria)

Saving Nigerians from passport touts, poor service delivery

- From Tina Abeku, Abuja

CUSTOMER is king is an age- long mantra that stresses the importance of a customer in every business transactio­n. This literally means that a service provider, public or private entity, must provide good services to its consumers.

However, recent experience­s in the hands of Nigeria Immigratio­n Service ( NIS) personnel by passport applicants have not showed that the ‘ customer is king’ or that it is a customer- friendly, revenue generating agency of government.

The Guardian observed that NIS is one of government’s agencies notorious for providing poor service to its customers, especially, those who throng its passport centres. It was gathered that Nigerians, for years, have had to go through stress, and sometimes, pains, to get their internatio­nal passports.

Though government has had to enter into a Service Compact ( SERVICOM), because of the need to have improved service delivery by Ministries, Department­s and Agencies ( MDAS), efficient service still remains a mirage.

Innocent Nweke, a footballer, was almost weeping, when he narrated his experience to The Guardian, as his attempt to get an internatio­nal passport has almost become a drainpipe.

After paying close to N160, 000 for renewal of the 32- page enhanced passport at Kano, since March 2021, he is yet to get his internatio­nal passport.

The young talent, whose dream is to go abroad for profession­al football, told The Guardian that he has had harrowing experience getting his passport — He first applied for his passport at the Kano office and now at the NIS headquarte­rs, Abuja.

On reaching the Federal Capital Territory ( FCT), Abuja, the situation worsened, as he was told to begin the process again, which was expected to last another three weeks, because the officer, who attended to him in Kano, had not remitted the required fee he was given.

Unfortunat­ely for Nweke, this seemed to be the beginning of another difficult process filled with fresh extortion at almost every point.

Mr. Bappa, the officer that linked him up with another colleague, Tijjani, at the NIS head office in Abuja, simply told the young man that he would have to part with more money ( N90, 000) to fast- track the process — Even though it should have been ready because it was processed during the period of backlog clearance shortly before the introducti­on of the current passport regime.

Recall that NIS introduced a number of innovation­s and changes to improve its services as a result of continued complaints of difficulty in procuring passports booklets, extortion and corrupt practices among officers of the agency.

At the time of speaking to The Guardian, Nweke had spent about three weeks in Abuja in pursuit of the passport without success. He also said that he and his agent had paid the sum of N45, 000 instead of N15, 000 naira to the same officer, Bappa, in Kano, to get an error fixed on his national identity card.

“I have spent all these days coming here but nothing seemed to be working. I started my passport process with my friends, however, some of them who were sent to Lagos from Kano have all concluded the process. Some have spent up to N290, 000 to get the passports and they have all gone, remaining only me. I don’t know why this thing is so difficult now they want to start again,” he lamented.

It has equally been a tale of frustratio­n and woes for many who have had to part with more money than required at the NIS head office.

This difficulty is clearly against the SERVICOM policy, which specifies that Nigerians should be given prompt, adequate and satisfacto­ry service. Not only that, SERVICOM also targets to bridge the performanc­e and expectatio­n gap between the government, citizens and other members of the public on issues of service delivery.

Some, however, have had very good experience. Miss Gift is one of them: She applied and paid at the beginning of the year and was equally biometrica­lly captured but had to travel and only returned to pick- up the passport because she was informed that it was ready and was in a batch recently processed as backlog clearance. Gift paid no extra charge and has been able to obtain her passport.

She told The Guardian that it was almost impossible to get good service at the immigratio­n office without parting with money. This is the general view of many others.

“It is normal to pay some extra money because no one will attend to you if you insist on paying the standard rate charged for any of the services. The officers also have to make something out of it or else you keep coming back here every day and still no one will attend to you,” she said.

Another applicant, Musa said he had an insider, a female officer, who collected N35, 000 from him and already ensured that he was biometrica­lly captured and would only now return for his passport collection after some weeks.

According to him, “there is no way you can come here without expecting to pay extra charges because that is how things are done here, so, instead of wasting your time, just pay the extra money and quickly finish what you are doing. I paid the woman some extra money.”

Meanwhile, other applicants that The Guardian tried to talk to simply refused making any comment because “it changes nothing.”

The Guardian observed that at the entrance gate to NIS head office, security officers run after vehicles to know where they were headed and why.

Once an individual indicates that he or she is going to the passports office, some fast thinking officers immediatel­y corner them in hope of making extra cash by linking them to another officer inside the office.

While the officers make brisk business with a syndicate that starts right from the gate, observers of events say SERVICOM can adopt a similar strategy by creating public awareness right from the entry point as well so that applicants know how to demand for the right service and stay away from those bent on corrupting the system.

The NIS SERVICOM desk, which is expected to receive all complaints and inquiries about the agency with regards to service delivery has remained inconspicu­ous as a lot of applicants having challenges getting proper service, are not aware of the existence of the SERVICOM desk and its service, hence, little or no complaints are made despite heavy allegation­s in the public space.

National Coordinato­r and Chief Executive Officer of SERVICOM, Nnenna Akajemeli, needs to ensure that the agency lives up to expectatio­n, in its fight against service failure by the organs of government.

Although the immigratio­n service has seen some policy changes such as the introducti­on of a new passport regime, the electronic­ally enhance passports using the MIDAS, ( Management, Informatio­n and Data Accounting System), technology, Iris and 10 fingerprin­ts identifica­tion to prevent identity theft, more arrests and disciplina­ry actions taken to change the course of its many years of entrenched racketeeri­ng, extortion of passports applicants and other forms of corrupt practices, the question of sustainabi­lity remains one that could prove to be a challenge to efficient service delivery.

The NIS has remained in the limelight for a number of reasons ranging from insufficie­nt passport booklets to meeting demand, long delays in processing and issuance of passports, inactivate­d passports and chief among the list, passports racketeeri­ng.

With more reports of extortion and racketeeri­ng that has plagued the NIS in the past, the place of SERVICOM in ensuring that the agency remains up and doing in service delivery becomes the challenge.

As an institutio­nal mechanism conceptual­ised to fight service failure, by ensuring that organs of government deliver to citizens and other residents in the country, the services to which they are entitled, SERVICOM in the eyes of the public has not made life easy for Nigerians. Efficient service especially in agencies where they are mostly needed such as the police are continuall­y denied.

As part of the agency’s effort to fight corruption internally, the Comptrolle­r- General of the NIS, Muhammed Babandede, recently announced that henceforth, passports registrati­on are to be done basically online on the service’s portal except where impossible, to curb corruption and other sharp practices.

But obviously, a lot of officers have devised a means of circumvent­ing the process as only one respondent claimed to have made her payment online but more have said that they made their payment in cash to officers that are ‘ helping’ them process their document.

Even, the newly launched 24- hour express passport centre has already been compromise­d. The Guardian checks revealed that some personnel charge as much as N50, 000 extra to process passports for applicants ( totaling over N100, 000 instead of N56, 000), even when the online portal for that centre is closed for registrati­on.

So, despite continued claims and effort by Babandede, poor service delivery and other acts of corruption continue to thrive within the organisati­on, as most officers would only offer efficient service only to applicants, who are able to pay them extra money outside the specified amount charged for the service so desired.

MEANWHILE, the officer in charge of the NIS SERVICOM desk, Mr. Obua, said that the agency has five dedicated lines for receiving complaints from applicants for either being underservi­ced, extorted of money, among others.

“Once we receive any complaint about an officer, we immediatel­y try to get the full identity of the person( s) involved so that they can be cautioned, discipline­d or in very severe case, discharged but the key point to note is about making the report in the right quarters with the proper informatio­n supplied.

“All the complaints we receive are always being resolved but a major setback for us is sometimes from complainan­ts, which is the applicants. A lot of time when we get complaints and we ask them for the names of the officers involved, they will say that they do not want to get anyone in trouble and would refuse to give us that informatio­n. This has been a major challenge because the complainan­ts are not very forthcomin­g. It is very important for anyone complainin­g to provide us with all the necessary informatio­n.

“There is no complaint that we have not resolved. So, once we receive, we intervene directly to ensure that Nigerians get the service they deserve,” he said.

When questioned if any officer has been discipline­d as a result of complaints from the public, Obua said that whenever such a situation on issues of misdemeano­r or about officers trying to breath down the neck of applicants for selfish purposes, SERVICOM can only escalate it further either to the service human resource or the quarters where disciplina­ry actions are taken on erring officers.

He called on the public to have confidence in SERVICOM despite disappoint­ments in the past. He said, “we do not blame the public because some have really lost confidence due to disappoint­ments in the past and have lost trust but we are trying to sit up to get it right and earn back their trust, which we are aware will not be easy. But the few people that have called our numbers have realised that we are up to task and we have people at our call centre responding to calls.”

It is probably time for a change of strategy, where Nigerians are made to know where to go and steps to take in laying concrete complaints on poor services in the passports process. It is also necessaryt­hat SERVICOM puts itself more in the public’s eye and shift away from the shadows.

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