In this second part of an interview with the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Immigration, Muhammad Babandede, he tells PREMIUM TIMES the challenges faced by the service in managing the country's vast border, and what the Immigration Service is doing in tackling irregular migration and abuse of permits by expatriates. He also speaks on the ongoing recruitment exercise into the Immigration.
PT: In recent past there was issue of passport scarcity leading to legislative intervention and huge uproar. What really happened?
Babandede: We came at a time when a contract was signed for the supply of booklet by a company. We are operatives. The contracts are usually signed by the Ministry of Interior. Scarcity came because of foreign exchange problem. They had to bring all the booklets from abroad. They were not able to get it. The booklet became scarce. But as a responsible institution we wrote the public about the scarcity and asked Nigerians to bear with us. When we had enough booklet we also announced to the public that we had enough booklets. We have enough public now everywhere, in Nigeria and abroad. So, it was just due to the foreign exchange problem and government has set up a committee, which I chair, to see that passport production is domesticated. There is no need to be importing passport documents, we should be producing it at Printing and Minting here. So, we are working on this possibility. By next year we should be able to produce our booklets in Nigeria.
PT: Do you see passport scarcity as a national security issue?
Babandede: Well, it is not even about security. You see, passport is an issue of social responsibility of government. It is a fundamental human right of individuals. It is the vehicle people use to travel, even if you have the money. Even if you are sick, if you don't have a passport you cannot travel. You cannot move! When you refused somebody a passport you have refused him right to move.
But its own production is a security issue. We should be able to produce our passports at home in a government security printing company which we have already committed ourselves to. So, it is a security issue and also a social responsibility issue.
PT: Foreigners applying for Nigerian visa often complain of tedious process, journalists especially complain that it is difficult for them to get Nigerian visa to visit Nigeria and that Nigerian visa is perhaps more expensive than a lot of visas around the world. Why is that the case?
Babandede: First, in the presidential order on ease of doing business, directive has been given to our officers in different locations in the world to ensure they comply within 48 hours. Compliance does not mean we should issue. It means if a person applies for visa, if there is a fault, we should be able to tell that person that we cannot grant you visa. You can refuse visa but you have to communicate back to the applicant. This directive has been given. It is being monitored online. Our SERVICOM officer is monitoring it to check compliance in terms of feedback from the public.
For journalists' visa, there is a process. Usually, journalist visas are issued in conjunction with the Ministry of Information. It is like you tell me you want to come to Nigeria to repair a machine. I have to know which machine you are repairing. So, if you say you are coming to Nigeria as a journalist, we'll ask Ministry of Information to help us prove it.
A lot of journalists also come underground. They have the right to do it but they are not allowed to do it legally but they do it. They come as tourists. But if you declare you that you are coming as a journalist there is a procedure which we must get adequate clearance from Ministry of Information.
PT: If you are found claiming to a tourist but doing journalism is there sanction for it?
Babandede: Definitely! If you claim that you are coming as a tourist and I found you working, is that a crime? It's a crime! Not only in Nigeria but everywhere in the world. The purpose of your coming to a territory must be complied with. If I say I am going to the U.S for holiday and they found me practicing journalism, it's an offence. I can be punished for that.
PT: Nigerian borders are deemed to be too porous. Why is it difficult to man our borders?
Babandede: When you talk about borders, I get worried about perception. As a professional, when you talk about border; the border of Nigeria is in another territory also. We talk about visa regime. The whole idea of introducing visa by governments is to reduce the strain of people coming into your territory to be refused entry. If Nigerian embassy is in Germany, the Nigerian border is extended to Germany, the Nigerian embassy there. When you apply for visa you go there for us to screen you. So also the case with the British High Commission in Abuja. When I apply for visa they are screening me as if I am entering their border from Nigeria. So, we have just introduced biometric visa, we are going to launch it. It means people who are applying for visas for our country would be taking biometrics. Our present visa has no biometrics, has no picture. It's just a sticker. What had biometrics was just the passport. So, we are just launching the biometric visa. We will start with like 10 countries. When you have biometric visa, you will be able to capture the biometrics of people coming. You will also be able to compare it with other biometrics you have. You can collect the biometric data of other people (countries), you can also share with them. This is what we call control before entering. If you have such biometric data, when people are coming into your borders; land, sea and air, you will be able to match that biometric data with what you have at your border. This is a strategy globally, especially with the war on terror. You need to have biometrics which you would be able to match at the border with the biometrics you have taken at the embassy.
As a country, we have a challenge. Nigeria is a vast country. Our immigration policy should be dependent on our geography. It is the global practice. UK is an island, so they tied their immigration strategy to Heathrow, Gatwick and the sea. Majority of those who enter UK become illegal migrants only after entering, not that they enter illegally. They have been protected by God, as an island. So, people normally come through the normal ports and then they overstay to become illegal (migrants).
For us, it is more than that. Yes, people come around from China, from UK and overstay. However, we also have a vast land which, technically, we cannot physically patrol. So, people will come through everywhere. Not only that, the land borders we have between Nigeria and Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, Nigeria and Benin are not well delineated and there are no attractive roads. Go round other territories and see borders between countries; you have highways with parking places, with restaurants. It attracts people. But if you have no good roads, people go through anywhere as entry points by cows, camels, land rovers. Until these sorts of things are developed, you cannot overcome this challenge.
Another major issue is the policy of our leaders. ECOWAS leaders have taken decision that we can enter each other's territory and live for a period of 90 days without visa, but it didn't say without passport. It says we can establish businesses in each other's territory. We can do any business. A Niger national can do any business you can do because he is a citizen of the community. If a Nigerian wants to go to Niger, if he has an ECOWAS travel certificate, nobody can stop him. But we won't know that he will be going to Libya. We will not know that he would go be crossing the desert and die. So that is why we deliberately call for a meeting with heads of immigration in the ECOWAS states.
PT: There is this too much talk about Fulani herdsmen infiltrating from other countries. Is this what is backing them up?
Babandede: People are talking about foreigners in their territory. What we should talk about is whether those foreigners are entering and living legally. If you know the number of Nigerians living in West African countries you will be shocked. If you know the strategic locations and economy they control in our neighbouring countries, you will be surprised. The greatest investors who have big money in Niger are Nigerians. If you know the investments of Nigerians in Ghana, in Benin, or Togo, you will be shocked. So, we should not be sentimental about foreigners. We should be concerned about foreigners staying to contribute the right thing in our territory.
We are interested in ensuring we find a way with our colleagues to end irregular migration, especially migrants that die in the desert. I don't want you to look only at people entering but also look at Nigerians that are leaving. Hundreds are dying in desert, many in the high sea. We want to prevent them. To prevent them we have to work with Niger. If a Nigerian is going to Niger we can't stop him if he has ECOWAS travel certificate. But the man in Niger can stop the Nigerian man from leaving Niger because that is the end of ECOWAS border. 'You want to leave Niger, where is your visa for Libya? You say you want to go to Morocco, where is your Moroccan visa?' They can also prevent others who are not citizens from coming in, like Malians; they meet Niger before they meet us, they meet Benin before they reach here. These are the types of cooperation we want.
We have introduced a policy, we have already written to the presidency to give us permission for implementation. It would require every non-Nigerian to register at his or her local government of residence. Initially the law says a Commonwealth national needs not to register so only aliens (which at that time we consider as non-Commonwealth citizens). but now we have changed the law. This year we want every non-Nigerian to register so that we can have a biometric data of all the people. Equally this year, to enhance border security, we have been able to purchase a lot of border patrol vehicles. We have also trained special border patrol corps and rapid response team. We have just launched a communication room, where we can see some land borders and I assure you we will expand it where we can see real time what is happening at the land borders and we can respond to it. We are working on the aircraft. Nigeria had aircraft patrol but it was abandoned for many years. I am just working to reactivate the Air Border Patrol wing so that we can patrol and feed ground commanders so that we can react as soon as possible. We are doing a lot on borders but the best way to man borders is to cooperate with your neighbours.
PT: If you move around in cities, you see foreigners like Chinese doing some jobs that ordinarily Nigerians can do. How do you make sure that foreigners have not taken over these jobs especially when we have huge unemployment figures?
Babandede: I don't want to mention citizens of a country as man who regulates migration. I would like to be fair to all. We are aware of a lot of challenges of non-citizens who are doing jobs undercover. But do you know that those who assist them are Nigerians? A Nigerian company would apply for expatriates. You know we don't give expatriates resident permits, it's issued by the Ministry of Interior.
A company would apply and say I need one mechanical engineer, and this and that. Such permits are granted to the company but only for the man (expatriate) to be found in the market.
Since I came on board within the last year we have deported over 50 people, out of this country. Majority are actually Chinese. When we say deportation, it means you cannot come back to this country because we have taken biometrics, we have stop-list your name. We are launching a special operation where we can be able to track people working in different locations. I assure you, you will be able to see the difference in a few weeks.
PT: There was this huge Immigration recruitment scandal about four years ago, which generated serious uproar. Were you able to address the dust it generated? And now that you are in another round of recruitment, how are you making sure you avoided mistakes of the past?
Babandede: First, we were able to resolve the problem. I inherited a big problem when I came on board with a lot of young officers protesting on the streets about the recruitment that was cancelled in 2015. I listened to them. I asked their representatives to come here. They said they were given letters of recruitment; they did training but they were disbanded. I said it was true.
The truth is that there was at that time a committee set up by President Goodluck Jonathan to look at why people died or were injured during the recruitment in 2014. In that recruitment, almost everybody attended the interview, thousands in stadiums for interviews. It was not possible. It led to stampede, many people died. So, the committee was meant to recommend to the board solutions out of the problem. The committee recommended that all those who died should have two of their relations offered to work. Those who were injured if they were not deformed they should be recruited; luckily there was hospital report. And the government complied. Then it gave guideline on how the recruitment should be done. But unfortunately, that committee that was supposed to make recommendations to the Board had no recruitment power but they went ahead and recruited 2,000 people. That was a mess!
When this administration came, it was found that it was illegal. They were not supposed to recruit. They were to recommend. You set a committee to go and find solution to a problem, they went and create another problem. So, they were dispersed.
Therefore, after listening to them when I came in, I wrote to government to say that these were Nigerian citizens. Yes, public servants erred, but they were already recruited. It was not their fault. They were only looking for jobs and what they saw was a letter from government. So, we recommended to the government for the 2000 to be screened to make sure they have the correct certificates and have met all other criteria, and that they were placed on the right ranks based on their ages. So, the government approved the recommendation. We were able to get 888 out of the 2,000 and we brought them back to service.
Then, we now come to the new recruitment. We have a very small vacancy of 1,122. What we say is that it has to be online. People would apply online. We are able to get a large number of almost 1.2 million applicants. But the system had already cut off many people who have not properly filled the forms, those who have not applied for the right cadre, those who have wrong age on rank and academic qualifications. So, the system is screening.
After finishing the screening, we will shortlist a certain number of candidates per state and then we will do the interview. The interview will be segregated. It will not involve too many people like we did in the past. We cannot repeat that mistake. We will shortlist a small number of people who will be able to be interviewed one after the other for a period of three days, according to their cadres, before the final list.
So, what I am saying is that we have learned from the past and coincidentally I was the one who coordinated the screening (of 2014) in Lagos. I am very proud to mention that I was the one who supervised Lagos. But I cancelled the exercise in Lagos on the same day. I only called the minister to say 'Honourable Minister I am the one on ground, I found that this recruitment is not possible, I have cancelled it.'
PT: What did the minister say?
Babandede: He was not happy at the beginning but later he commended the decision because he found out that nobody died in Lagos and no one was injured even though Lagos had the highest number of people.
I cancelled it because everywhere was full, in and out of the system. So, I said this is not going to be a fair recruitment. So, there was no casualties in Lagos.
PT: In this ongoing exercise when members of the National Assembly give you their own candidates, state governors and ministers do the same...
Babandede: They are aware. I have told them. National Assembly members have drilled me several times, I said these slots is for the poor. The person who doesn't know Babandede, who doesn't know a member of the House of Representatives, who compete online are the ones to get the jobs. Forget about recommendations. We have already given room for recommendation in the application form, to write the name of a sponsor who would know who you are. Let everybody write. What we would do is to give to those who are qualified. I assure you of this.