Theophilus Abbah, managing editor of Daily Trust newspaper, is one of Nigeria's most regarded investigative journalists renowned for giving voices to the voiceless and helping the oppressed, the cheated, and the abused get justice. But in mid October 2017, Mr Abbah himself felt extorted and could do nothing about his own situation.
Mr Abbah was at the time planning a trip to Johannesburg to attend the 10th Global Investigative Journalism Conference which held November 16-19 of that year. To process his visa for the trip, the reporter dashed to the Abuja office of VFS Global, a private firm to which the South African High Commission and a number of other embassies in Nigeria have outsourced their visa processing services.
VFS charged Mr Abbah N34,270.00 for a three-month visa. But what irked the journalist was the breakdown of the payment he made. "When I saw the breakdown of VFS service charge, I felt cheated because the cost of the product is so low while the service charge is very high," he told PREMIUM TIMES.
"The VFS service charge is three times the Visa fee. This is exploitative. I don't understand why the service charge should be higher than the cost of the product I am buying. What value are they adding for them to charge so exorbitantly?"
While Mr Abbah was fuming in Abuja, some of his Lagos-based journalist colleagues applying for visa to attend the same event were dealing with the same situation at VFS' Lagos office.
Motunrayo Alaka, head of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, who coordinated the trip, said the four journalists got two rude shocks.
"The first was that the total amount they expected to pay from what was written on the organisation's website and what they eventually had to pay was higher by about N9, 000," Mrs Alaka said. "The second shock came as they got the breakdown of the costs which shows that while the visa fee itself is N8, 600, VFS charges N25, 270 for its services as the middle person.
"I see this as a ripoff by VFS but more worryingly a lack of regulatory framework that protects citizens of Nigeria from such practices. On many counts, from the cost of goods and services to the process for accessing them, the Nigerian government encourages monopolies and often leaves the people to be cheated by various cartels."
But Mr. Abbah and Mrs Alaka are not alone in their discontent with VFS Global and its services in Nigeria. Months of investigation by PREMIUM TIMES show that widespread complaints of extortion and exorbitant service charges have continued to trail the operation of the company in Africa's most populous country.
Martins Obono, a frequent traveller, says he is no longer comfortable with the services of the company.
"I think their services are a rip-off in the first place," Mr. Obono, an Abuja-based rights activist, told PREMIUM TIMES. "Secondly there's usually no guarantee that your visa will be out as at when due."
VFS Global is an outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide. The company manages visa and passport issuance-related administrative tasks for its client governments.
The firm works predominantly with a user-pay revenue model where it receives its service fee directly from the visa applicants, in addition to the visa fees which are remitted to the diplomatic missions.
Since most countries find it cumbersome to create visa processing desks in their embassies, VFS global now serves as the courier man between those that want to travel and the diplomatic missions of the countries they are travelling to.
Basically, the company collects, manages and processes visa documents submitted by prospective travellers and passes the applications to the embassies who then issue the visa. The company collects the processed visas from the embassies and delivers to applicants from which it received the original applications.
VFS is domiciled in Nigeria, processing visas for citizens who want to travel to mostly European and African countries such as UK, Canada, Belgium, France, South Africa, among others.
To travel to any of these countries, applicants are forbidden from approaching their embassies directly, and therefore have no choice than to procure the services of VFS Global.
Being a monopoly in the market in which it operates, customers have often accused VFS Global of mistreating them, saying the firm has often indiscriminately hike its service charges as well as pose a lacklustre attitude in discharging the services paid for.
But what has irked customers the most appears to be the "unbelievably high" service charges the company receives from applicants.
For instance, when PREMIUM TIMES commenced this investigations in November 2017, the South African Visa fee was put at N8,600. But VFS was collecting an additional N25,465 as service charge, almost three times the visa fee.
PREMIUM TIMES put out a questionnaire on its social media handles asking Nigerians who have used VFS global to share their experiences.
While some of the respondents were of the view that the company's services were below standard and not commensurate with the service fees it charges, others said its services were good but needed improvement.
"Their services are not bad actually but the fee they charge is on the high side," one respondent said. "When you apply for Canadian visa and you are refused, you will be asked to pay for biometric and processing all over again which is not fair."
"I paid N45000 for myself and N38000 for my son to Canada and still was rejected," another respondent said. "They should reduce their charges and help to tell the applicants if their documents are likely to be accepted."
"Some of the female staff are arrogant and the email and SMS alerts rarely come on time," yet another one said. "Too many delays."
Fraudulent SMS fee
Mrs. Alaka of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism said, "Another fraudulent part of the visa process as managed by the VFS is the charge for text messages. Applicants pay N400 for what must be golden text messages. I have paid this many times. The maximum number of text messages sent to the applicant is usually four. One to acknowledge receipt, a second to state that the application package has left the VFS office to the embassy, a third to announce that it is ready for collection and the last to document that the applicant has collected the package.
"Regular text message by service providers cost N4 per unit and bulk text messages can be as low as N2 by unit. Why then do Nigerians have to pay N100 each for four text messages by VFS? Again, I blame the regulators who allow this to happen to the detriment of the people. Going to another country is treated like it is a favour to Nigerians even though our visits contributes in huge measures to the economy of the receiving countries."
Most of the respondents surveyed also complained of not receiving SMS which the company charge them N400 for. "I have applied for visas through VFS several times," said Musikilu Mojeed, editor-in-chief of this newspaper. "Not once did they ever send me an SMS. They only sent me emails. Yet each time I applied, they compelled me to pay N400 for SMS."
In what appears a clever antic to avoid responsibility for SMS not sent or delivered, the company puts a loud disclaimer on its notice board at its Abuja Office
"It is not the responsibility of VFS Global to ensure SMS service is received by the applicant," the notice read. "Our obligation is to send the SMS and we shall not be liable for any SMS not received."
The activist, Mr. Obono, who regularly applies for UK visa through VFS Global, believes "this is another way of exploiting people."
CSNAC goes angry
In July 2017, the Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) wrote to the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) to investigate the activities and business operations of VFS Global for charging N400 for SMS.
In a petition to the director-general of the commission, CSNAC accused VFS Global of "fraudulent, unconscionable and exploitative" business antics.
"VFS Global charge a mandatory SMS rate from visa applicants and the said service is designed in such a way that it's not optional, thus stifling competition and imposing the excessively high rate on the applicants," the group's chairman, Olanrewaju Suraju, said. "This is in utter breach of consumers' right to choose and access to variety of quality products and services at competitive prices.
"The average amount chargeable by all communication companies for SMS is the rate of N4 (Four Naira) only and the said rate is way cheaper when utilizing bulk SMS service which comes at an average rate of about N1.50k (One Naira, Fifty Kobo) only. We are reliably convinced that VFS Global utilizes the said cheaper alternative.
"On the whole, in a normal visa application, the SMS notification usually required to be sent is less than four SMS which at most will cost about N20 (Twenty Naira) only, leaving an excess of about N380 (Three Hundred Naira) unaccounted for, in an obvious exploitation of applicants and an overcharge aimed at depriving them of their hard earned money."
Similarly, the coalition identified the inefficiency of the firm's SMS service, stating that, "disturbingly, the said VFS Global Services and operation company in an overwhelming majority of established cases negligently and or fraudulently fail to send the relevant SMS to update applicants of the status of their application as promised despite the un-refundable payment made to that effect.
"This is in a flagrant breach of consumers' right to satisfaction of basic needs, as the said company owes a duty to ensure that their services meet the standard of quality promised such that there is value for money in the transaction.
"On the above basis, we hereby demand an urgent investigation of the VFS Global Services."
Consumer Protection Council speaks
The Director General of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Barr Babatunde Adekunle Irukera
The Director General of the Consumer protection Council, Babatunde Irukera, confirmed his organisation received the petition from CSNAC in addition to a myriad of complaints from other disgruntled applicants.
Mr. Irukera also said there was also a complaint by a customer who said he paid the N400 but did not get the SMS alert. So he did not know that his visa application had issues until he tried to go collect his Visa a few days to his travel.
"From CPC standpoint, we believe that if people pay for something they must get the service they paid for," the official said. "You ask people to pay for SMS service and you cannot disclaim whether they get that SMS or not. You have an obligation to demonstrate that the SMS was sent."
On the controversial VFS service charge, Mr. Irukera said although discussions on pricing must be handled with care, his organisation believes companies just "can't charge anything they want".
"We have some key issues we are looking at," the CPC official said. "First, what option does a potential traveller or consumer have? Can you apply without VFS or directly through the embassies? So we will look at the fairness of what the service charge is compared to the service itself.
"It does involve some level of inquiry that a service charge for a product is higher than the product itself and we must make that inquiry.
"What we are saying is that we will meet them and ask them their pricing formula. We will also look at other embassies that don't subscribe to VFS Global and see what they are charging and we will now make a conclusion whether the pricing is fair or if it is exploitative."
PREMIUM TIMES later reached out to Mr. Irukera to enquire if the meeting between CPC and VFS Global slated for January held.
"We had a meeting with them in January and we conveyed all the complaints and demanded information and they are in the process of providing them," he responded. "We have opened an investigation on this."
A VFS Global office
Repeated efforts to get VFS Global to comment for this story were unsuccessful.
An official of the company told our reporter on two occasions, "There is nobody available to respond to your questions."
The telephone number listed on the company's official website failed to connect for months and multiple calls and SMS inquiries sent to it therefore remain undelivered.
Repeated visits to the South African High Commission in Abuja for reaction to the exorbitant service charge by VFS Global turned out a wild goose chase. A letter of inquiry duly acknowledged by the embassy on December 19, 2017 is yet to be responded to.
But while VFS and the South African embassy continue to evade questions, those on the receiving end of the company's actions are calling for urgent action.
"The ministry of foreign affairs should intervene and regulate that sector because although VFS is a private firm, it operates as a monopoly," Mr. Abbah of Daily Trust said.
"Nigerians do not have alternatives. If there were alternatives and competition then people will have other options. I think Nigerians should be given more options and alternative other than VFS Global."