For several years, federal government has failed to rein in the excesses of Nigerian immigration and security operatives at its airports and besides the transfer of some officials, concerned agencies have never taken effective and decisive action to stop the damage to the country's image.
Nigeria is disgraced every day by the nefarious activities of Customs, Immigration officials, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and Aviation Security (AVSEC) personnel at the airports. From the Murtala Muhammed International airport, Lagos to Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano, there is massive extortion going on and passengers billed to travel overseas and who have met all the conditions to do so are denied this right because they did not pay money to some of these security operatives.
These officials demand money as if it is their right; they do it without flinching and give orders with gusto, without caring who the person they are asking to give them money is. They do not care that they could be caught; neither do they care that they could be challenged and sacked. What gives them this confidence?
This writer has witnessed events at the Lagos international terminal during screening of passengers for boarding, how some expatriates smile cynically when they watch Immigration officials collect bribes; how some of the officials raise spurious charges against a passenger who has met all the conditions to travel and seize his passport. Such actions damage Nigeria and destroy the fabric of its image in the comity of nations. The irony is that a foreigner, who witnessed such disgraceful things 20 years ago, would witness a worse scenario, if he travels back to Nigeria in 2013!
Immigration One cannot fail to perceive the air of hostility that envelops the atmosphere during check in of passengers and on arrival. The Immigration officials who screen the passports on departure have bludgeoning ego which seeps out as they insincerely study some passports to indict an innocent Nigerian travelling out of the country for business and other serious matters.
Immigration officials smell naïve passengers the way sharks perceive the presence of blood in the surrounding water. Many times they have literally stripped a first-time international traveller all the monies on him in order to allow him to travel. Watching them engage in this ugly trade, especially at peak hours ignites a volcano of rage in one. As they examine the passengers' documents, they would identify those they think can part with money and seize their passports, asking them to enter one small office at the Lagos airport. There they would delay the passenger until it would be minutes before the take-off of his flight. At such critical time, the innocent passenger would not have any other choice than to empty the contents of his wallet to satisfy the unscrupulous Immigration officials so that he won't miss his flight.
Many Nigerians see travelling overseas as going to war because they literally battle with the security officials at the screening section anytime they travel out of the country.
Luggage Screening This writer, few weeks ago, watched a passenger who submitted his luggage to be physically searched by security operatives at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. He was travelling to Beijing, China. When he opened his luggage, one of the security officials motioned the passenger and asked him to put money at the corner of his luggage. The passenger was aghast. He told him that he had met all the conditions to travel and refused to give any bribe.
The official was surprised that the passenger refused to place the money for him in his luggage because almost all the passengers asked to do so usually complied. The passenger's refusal also surprised the other security officials, including the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and AVSEC. With his refusal the Customs official wanted to know what gave him the courage and confidence to refuse him his request but further inquiries revealed who the passenger was and the official realised that he could not use his excessive power on him.
Most often when a passenger refuses to be extorted, the security operatives would just raise a spurious charge and detain the passenger as long as they want. Sometimes the passenger misses his flight. So a traveller always bears in mind that he would have to meet the hostile and corrupt security operatives at the airports, especially the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, which facilitates over 60 per cent of foreign travel in the country.
Illicit businesses like aiding people travel with fake passports, assisting drug couriers evade security screening, helping foreigners come into the country without visa and extorting huge sums of money from innocent travellers have been going on for years unchecked. So every Immigration officer, Customs, NDLEA and AVSEC dream to be sent to the international terminal of the Lagos airport and whenever they are posted, they do everything possible to remain there, because the terminal is a cash cow, where security operatives become rich overnight.
On the physical search of passengers' luggage, a Customs official told THISDAY that they had to conduct physical search because they do not have the machines to do so. Over the years, these operatives have been conducting physical search of passengers and Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world where this is done, but inside source disclosed to THISDAY that the operatives even discourage the use of machines because physical search encourages interaction between them and the passengers, who are often threatened with confiscation of the contents of their baggage unless "they settle."
Failure of Authorities Over the years, concerned authorities have failed to check the excesses of these operatives. In 2006, NDLEA officials caught on camera where AVSEC workers were aiding drug couriers, they were also caught using operational vehicles to bring them to the tarmac and to the foot of the aircraft, thus evading all security checks, but after investigations, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) just transferred some of the officers who later found their way back to the "lucrative" terminal.
It is not on record whether other concerned authorities have taken any punitive measures to check the excesses of their officers posted at the airports, especially the Lagos airport where most of these crimes are committed. And the handicap FAAN has is that, whenever its head of security confronts Customs, Immigration, NDLEA officials over their unscrupulous activities they remind him that they were not answerable to FAAN and there is no indication that FAAN has taken cases to the headquarters of these security agencies. Besides, these indicted officials are said to make "returns" to the top officers at the offices where they are posted from so these agencies see the airport as cash cow. THISDAY gathered that when security operatives lobby their superiors at NDLEA, Immigration and Customs to post them to the airport, there is a guaranty that they must be making such returns; although this allegation has not been confirmed by investigation.
Technology-aided Supervision With the development of close circuit cameras (CCTV) airport authorities monitor every minute of proceedings at different activities and different areas of the airport for security and other reasons. Every action taken by passengers and security officers during screening is captured, so is the excesses of these security officers. But in Nigeria the activities of these security officials are not captured. THISDAY made enquiries why this is so and a security expert familiar with security proceedings at the terminal disclosed that although there are CCTVs to monitor the activities of the security operatives but the system is compromised.
"We have been on that for years. The security operatives cannot monitor themselves; they have to employ an independent body to monitor them. That is the way it is done elsewhere. This has remained a nagging problem over the years," the source said What this implies is that the security arm of the federal government and FAAN may not be too concerned about the excesses of these officers, otherwise, they would have found a way to stop the daily shame of the country by their nefarious activities. The Chief Security Officer (CSO) of FAAN, Col. Carl Analo (rtd) recently, in a telephone interview, acknowledged to THISDAY that extortion is still going on at the Lagos airport and said the agency's management was doing everything to stop it.
He said he has raised the issue many times during security meetings and has caught and officially reported those indicted in the shameful act to their superior officers. But the handicap FAAN has is that officials of Customs, Immigration and NDLEA claim that FAAN does not have control over them and therefore would not abide by their directives. But it is believed that once these officers are posted to the airports, they should be under the supervision of the airport management in addition to abiding by the principles of their profession.
This is because without overall control and management by FAAN, discipline and respect would not be instituted and when these officials indulge in extortion, it is the image of the airport and Nigeria that is damaged. "In addition to what we are doing, the airport manager has established an anti-corruption monitoring team which has been going round and identifying those collecting bribes from passengers.
We are catching them now. I have been very hard on them to the extent that they now have informants who monitor my movements. The minister is going to deploy more retired army officers to the airports to check the excesses of these operatives. The problem is not with the AVSEC because they are under our control; the problem is the others: Customs, NDLEA and Immigration", Analo explained.
It is only when the extortion and harassment stopped that Nigerians will know that a drastic action has been taken. For now, the immigration and security officials are having a field day shaming the nation.