Sun. May 26th, 2024
Jude Johnson

The Minister of Interior, Dr. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, has been advised to thread with caution in his patriotic efforts to reform the International Passport regime of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). This is to enable him look at the broader picture, make informed decision and avoid some pitfalls that might derail his good intentions at such critical reforms.

This advice to Ojo was contained in an open letter addressed to him by the former Immigration Spokesperson and retired Comptroller of Immigration, Mr. Joachim Olumba, who shared his reservations and suggestions regarding the ongoing passport reform agenda. Olumba, who served in the Nigeria Immigration Service for almost three and a half decades, expressed concerns about the minister’s current approach to passport reform and called for a broader perspective on the challenges facing the Ministry of Interior.

In the letter, Olumba acknowledged the importance of addressing issues related to passport issuance, including delays and alleged corrupt practices, but urged the minister to consider a more comprehensive approach to the ministry’s responsibilities. He expressed concerns about the minister’s focus on passport matters to the exclusion of other critical areas related to national security and the welfare of immigration officers.

Olumba highlighted several key areas that require attention, including:

1. Porous Land Borders: Olumba emphasized the need to address the security challenges posed by Nigeria’s porous land borders, which contribute to cross-border criminal activities and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

2. Correctional Centers: The conditions in Nigeria’s correctional centers, where inmates often live in substandard conditions, were raised as a pressing concern that requires the minister’s attention.

3. Funding for Passport Offices: The retired immigration spokesperson highlighted the need for adequate funding for passport offices, as they currently struggle with minimal subventions for operations.

4. Immigration Officers’ Welfare: Olumba stressed the poor remuneration and working conditions of immigration officers and called for improved welfare packages and prompt payment of emoluments.

In addition to addressing these issues, the open letter suggested that the minister should focus on ensuring a consistent supply of passport booklets, which is the primary cause of delays and related challenges in the passport issuance process.

Olumba also recommended that a percentage of the revenue generated by the NIS should be retained to fund improved welfare packages and infrastructure for NIS personnel.

The letter concluded by advising the minister not to involve himself in minor issues of posting and trivial passport matters and to allow the Comptroller General of Immigration to discharge such responsibilities without external influence. It underscores the need for a balanced approach to reforming the Ministry of Interior, taking into consideration a broader spectrum of critical issues beyond passport issuance.

Read the full letter…

OPEN LETTER TO THE HONORABLE MINISTER OF INTERIOR ON MY RESERVATIONS ABOUT HIS PASSPORT REFORM AGENDA

Dear Honorable Minister,

I write with utmost sense of responsibility as a patriotic Nigerian citizen and as an insider who has gained profound knowledge and vast experience from my almost three and a half decades of active service in Nigeria Immigration Service.

I wish to emphatically state that I am going to express my concerns and opinions on the subject matter as frankly and as courageously as possible with the ultimate goal of fostering your understanding of the intricacies of the passport system and issues. It is my sincere belief that my submissions here will significantly ennoble and enable you to serve the overall best interests of Nigerians in your present capacity as Minister of Interior.

Honorable Minister Sir, since your recent appointment and assumption of office, I have watched with keen interest as you have repeatedly and tirelessly made vociferous commitment about your determination to decisively redress the inherent delays and corrupt practices associated with passport acquisition in the country. I have been waiting patiently to see your comprehensive transformative blueprint for reengineering of all aspects of your extremely important ministry of present assignment to no avail. What I, and indeed, most discerning Nigerians have encountered on a regular basis is a minister of a highly sensitive ministry with critical responsibility for oversight of internal security concentrating all his attention, energy and effort on passport matters.

It is noteworthy to pinpoint that I am not in any way suggesting that it’s not important to address observed anomalies in passport issuance and administration. However, I am averse to the manner you have carried on with this engagement as if it’s the only critical challenge confronting your ministry in particular, and Nigerians in general. In fact, I find it quite dissatisfying that you have persistently focused attention on failures and perceived sharp practices in the passport process without a corresponding interest and commitment to the other sensitive areas bordering on national security.

Ever since you assumed office, the media has been awash with the coverage of your copious pronouncements condemning the predicament of Nigerians who suffer unnecessary delays, difficulties and varying levels of extortion in the course of seeking to obtain passport from the offices of the Nigeria Immigration Service across the country. Recently, there were reports that you availed Nigerians a telephone number and email address to contact in the event of any Immigration Officer demanding for bribe from prospective passport applicants.

Let me reiterate as a former Reform Champion of Nigeria Immigration Service and as a responsible Nigerian that, it is very good to do everything possible to eliminate whatever constitutes difficulties for Nigerians in the course of obtaining the vital travel document. Equally, it is absolutely necessary to protect Nigerians from exploitation and extortion in all sectors, including Immigration offices. I appreciate your commitment in this respect.

However, it seems to me that you have a warped understanding of what your responsibilities as Minister of Interior should be. I perceive that you probably lack a clear grasp of what constitutes grave threats and setbacks to the Nigerian nation from the perspective of the Ministry of Interior, which, ordinarily, should require your urgent attention. It could also possibly be that you understand all the challenges present in your current job portfolio. Perhaps, it might seem that you are more comfortable identifying with the popular and less-demanding issues.

Honorable Minister, the point that I am making here is that, while it is very important to address inherent challenges in the passport issuing process, there are many other more pressing issues that require your urgent attention and intervention. I have been worried and wondering where you have placed in your scheme the more critical challenge of porous land borders. As the Minister of Interior, you are saddled with the responsibility of overseeing the Nigeria Immigration Service, which is the country’s prime border management agency. One expects that the present parlous state of the country’s porous land borders should be a source of sleepless nights for you. We have not heard you talking about how to contain the pervasive level of insecurity across the country, which is widely believed to have been complicated by the porous state of our land borders. Our expansive, unstructured and poorly manned land borders is extensively thought to have been fuelling the supply and proliferation of small arms and light weapons with which bandits are terrorising the country. Furthermore, the prevalence of different forms of cross-border crimes and criminality, including trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants by suspected international syndicates, smuggling of contraband/goods, illicit drugs, etc, should all be traumatising and attracting all your attention by now.

What about the Correctional Centres where inmates are living in conditions not suitable for even animals? Many concerned Nigerians have been waiting with bated breath for your position on the very ugly situation that borders on the plight of inmates. They stay in overcrowded unhygienic centres and are very poorly fed leading to malnutrition in majority of them. All we have encountered is your disappointing deafening silence on this crucial matter. Perhaps, the Honorable Minister is waiting to successfully complete your passport reform plan before venturing into the more critical areas that, abinitio, should have commanded paramount attention.

Honorable Minister Sir, my concern or worry is not actually that you have chosen to focus all your attention in addressing the challenges associated with passport issuance. I am disappointed that I have not so far seen any concrete evidence that you quite understand the intricacies and magnitude of the issues involved. I am also yet to see any meticulous action plan articulated to permanently consign the challenge to the garbage bin of history. Quick fixes cannot produce enduring positive results. You can only successfully put to perpetual end the problems faced by passport applicants when you properly comprehend the nature, scope and causes of those problems. It cannot be resolved by dishing out marching orders neither does the solution lie in scandalising and demonising Immigration officers.

Perhaps, it’s absolutely necessary to remind the Honorable Minister that this particular Nigeria Immigration Service presently associated with the management of a seemingly chaotic and unimpressive passport issuing processes have been the same agency that used to process the vital travel document seamlessly and expeditiously in one, two or three working days. Many Nigerians would attest to the fact that they had their passports produced in a matter of hours in the not too distant past. Therefore, we should be asking some pertinent questions. What has suddenly gone wrong? Why are Nigerians presently spending several weeks and months to be able to successfully obtain passport which they previously got within a few days? What are the factors responsible for the alleged corruption and exploitation suffered by Nigerians seeking to obtain the travel document?

It is very important to respectfully inform the Honorable Minister that some of these anomalies were created by the Ministry of Interior, or specifically speaking, some of your predecessors, who are of course, politicians. They are believed to be the architects, who facilitated most of the bogus contracts which had insertions that, basically served personal interests. I enjoin the Honorable Minister to get hold of all the contractual agreements between the Nigeria Immigration Service and its partnering firms and you will not differ in this long-held perception of most Immigration officers after careful perusal of the documents. You are bound to discover a can of worms in virtually all of them. The letters of most of the agreements with service providers are believed to have been couched to short-change the NIS and the Federal Government. Your predecessors may have glossed over those wasteful partnership agreements possibly because of the unpatriotic habit of smuggling into them very controversial clauses that tended to frustrate the Service from doing away with them without incurring heavy costs. Perhaps, you might be the one divinely chosen to break the jinx. If you’re able to achieve a reversal of some of these seemingly questionable contracts, you would have been able to verily warm yourself into the hearts of the vast majority of the officers and men of the Service. Moreover, you would have saved the country so much losses if you do not incur heavy costs in the process.

Delving into the crux of the matter, the obvious fact remains that the major factor responsible for the prolonged delays in the issuance of passport is the scarcity of booklets. The perennial scarcity and sometimes, non-availability of passport booklets surfaced not long into the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari. Prior to his administration, Nigerians never experienced delays and hardships in obtaining passport from Nigeria Immigration Service. Passport booklets rationing suddenly began during the Buhari era. And Nigerians became the victims.

Unfortunately, most Immigration officers never knew what was exactly responsible for the protracted scarcity of passport booklets. As successive leaders of the Service preferred to keep the reasons for the scarcity away from Nigerians, preferring to mislead the public that booklets were available, speculations became rife to the effect that the scarcity was a deliberate design to exploit passport applicants. Except for snippets of information that emerged from the grapevine attributing the persistent passport booklet scarcity to the volatile foreign exchange (forex) regime of the Buhari administration, not on even one occasion was the actual cause explained to Nigerians by authorities in NIS. This was very deceptive and bad. It’s only politicians that operate in this form of trickery and subterfuge. Unfortunately, the mismanagement of information in this regard worsened public perception of NIS than would have been the case if the Service had been more open on the matter.

Therefore, Honorable Minister, when you are hollering orders to Immigration officers to issue passport within specific timelines, you must be certain to ensure constant supply of booklets. It’s quite obvious that the present unprecedented free fall of the Naira and the absolute scarcity of forex both in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the commercial banks will not make your timelines realistic. You must preoccupy yourself with marshalling out proactive and effective ways of overcoming the issue of the fatal shortages of forex and the astronomical decline in the value of the Naira, both exacerbated by poor fiscal and monetary policies of the Federal Government led by your party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Honorable Minister Sir, the anomalous scarcity of passport booklets have not only brought about the hardships suffered by Nigerians in the process of procuring passports, but actually led to sickening sharp practices by some Immigration officers and even people outside of the Service. Of course, common sense and experience have shown that in moments of scarcity, prices are hardly controlled. This is what is at the bottom of the bitter experiences of extortion, prolonged delays and disappointments encountered by Nigerians in passport offices. The simple permanent solution lies in ensuring that passport booklets are constantly available as was the case before the coming of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to power in 2015.

There is another significant and endemic systemic cause of the exploitation of Nigerians in the passport administration process. This is, perhaps, a very sad dimension. By a curious institutional arrangement or failures, field Immigration officers are left to literally manage, without funds, the process of passport issuance and other services and operations. Most of the time, a State Comptroller or Passport Control Officer, is provided a paltry sum that hardly exceeds Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Naira (N250,000:00) to run the Command or Passport Office for a whole quarter of a year. Sometimes, they do not get any allocation or subvention in an entire quarter. Yet, they run the power generating sets in the Command on a daily basis, providing diesel and shouldering periodic maintenance of generators, air conditioning systems and other electrical appliances and office equipment. They purchase reams of paper in cartons, buy furniture items in many instances to ensure that they keep their offices functioning. There is hardly any passport office that spends less than one million naira monthly to ensure that members of the public are attended to. Unfortunately, the State Comptrollers and Passport Control Officers do not receive up to One Hundred Thousand Naira as operational subvention monthly. Even at this, the pittance comes quarterly. And they may not even come at all in some quarters.

Given the above scenario, no one will rationally expect any State Comptroller or Passport Control Officer to go borrowing funds in order to run their offices. And they must not shut down the offices. So, monetary demands are placed on passport applicants largely to get the offices running to attend to them. Invariably, there’s no gain-saying the fact that, without recourse to such payments, no passport office will be open to process the vital travel document seamlessly for even five days in a whole month. I hope the Honorable Minister can now sufficiently understand that booklets scarcity and absolute poor funding of NIS are the major factors behind the surcharging of Nigerians in passport offices.

The factors are not limited to the two outlined thus far. There’s the additional factor of extremely poor welfare package available to the officers and men of the NIS. Immigration personnel are poorly remunerated. Salaries and allowances are nothing to write about. The working conditions for them are very poor. They are at the frontlines in the borders confronting desperate and deadly cross-border criminals in the course of discharging their statutory duties of border control, patrol, surveillance and security. Majority of them are serving in commands and locations very far from their states of origin. They are transferred regularly without being paid their due allowances. They attend courses and are denied their training allowances. One can go on and on enumerating the unbearable deprivations and denials which Immigration officers are subjected, notwithstanding that they occupy a central place in the security architecture of the country.

Other security agencies including the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), that is widely believed to be poorly remunerated; the Department of State Services (DSS); the National Intelligence Agency (NIA); the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), all enjoy better remunerations and conditions of service. Needless to add the armed forces here.

However, perhaps, it will serve the good purpose of buttressing my assertion here to specifically mention that a Comptroller of Immigration Service earns less than Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Naira as salary monthly. And he would have put in between 25 to 30 years in the Service as a graduate before attaining that high rank. In essence, awfully low remuneration and poor working conditions also account for some measure of the extortion experienced in the passport offices. The same can also be said of nearly all public sector employees, particularly most government institutions. So, the case of NIS is not an isolated one. Painting a picture which portrays the Service as strangely symbolic of corruption is grossly misleading and unfair to the officers and men. I am certain that as soon as the root causes of the problems in passport administration are addressed, the attendant extortion and exploitation of the public will literally vanish.

From the foregoing, Honorable Minister, it’s not unlikely that you will truthfully accept the fact that the magnitude of the inherent challenges you are determined to confront requires more than dishing out marching orders. You must scrupulously weigh the immediate and remote causes which I have attempted to chronicle here with a view to addressing them effectively. It’s very necessary to emphasise here that your reforms are bound to fail woefully if you do not have the total grasp of what the fundamental issues are as far as the passport issuing process is concerned. The authorities in NIS and the Ministry of Interior might not be disposed to provide information on all the perspectives on the subject. Some of them might not be totally unconnected with the creation or sustenance of these challenges.

Honorable Minister Sir, I will not end this open letter without offering a few clear-cut suggestions which I honestly think will help in repositioning the NIS to live up to the expectations of majority of Nigerians.

I wish to reiterate that the most vital area which requires all the attention you could muster is the sourcing of foreign exchange to ensure the free flow and seamless supply of passport booklets. Whether the booklets are produced locally or overseas, forex is required to keep it in steady supply. It’s absolutely necessary that you work out a reliable source of having regular forex supplies to ensure constant availability of booklets and the accessories.

Permit me, Honorable Minister, to offer specific ideas and suggestions on partnership agreements with service providers, operations and officers’ welfare. I have earlier stressed the need for you to take a deeper look at subsisting contractual agreements with support service providers with a view to setting timelines for their eventual termination and takeover by the NIS. Meanwhile, most of these services are currently being performed by officers and men of the Service. Yet, the partnering companies smile to the banks with proceeds from crooked contractual schemes designed to short-change the Service and Government. This is not right at all.

For seamless operations, Commands and Passport Offices should be properly funded. The least a Command should receive as monthly subvention should be a million naira subject to periodic reviews. Commands with high volume of operations may be approved amounts ranging from two to three million naira monthly to defray their operational or running costs.

Thirdly, the welfare of Immigration officers and men should be accorded greater attention. By this, I mean that they should be better remunerated. All their emoluments and entitlements must be paid promptly. In fact, officers and men should be made to receive payment for transfers and courses even before they report at their new places of posting and training. Hence, it should be made to be a very serious offence, punishable with severe sanctions, for any officer to receive payment for inter-state command posting or training without reporting accordingly. Indeed, the least ranking Immigration officer should earn as much as One Hundred and Fifty Thousand Naira.

Honorable Minister Sir, in order to fund a regime of attractive welfare packages to the personnel of NIS, it is strongly recommended that the Service retain between 10 to 15 percent of all the revenue it generates. Even as the Service is not principally a revenue generating agency, it has not been doing badly with its revenue profile. Adopting this measure could be a good way of encouraging the Service to perform optimally its security mandate and still proceed to pool reasonable funds into the coffers of the Federal Government. This measure will go a long way in placing more vital funds at the disposal of the Service to cater to the welfare of staff and improve its infrastructure and logistics.

Finally, let me seize this opportunity to urge the Honorable Minister not to follow the footsteps of some of your predecessors who were engrossed in chasing mundane shadows by involving themselves in minor issues of posting and trivial passport matters. In the past, we had seen Ministers who attempted to usurp the routine powers of the Comptroller General of Immigration by getting actively or passively involved with the posting of State Comptrollers, Passport Control Officers and some other positions considered strategic or lucrative, including foreign desks positions. It is absolutely necessary that you do not engage in such avoidable distractions, irrespective of the pressure. Simply allow the CGI to discharge such statutory responsibilities which are squarely under the purview of the NIS helmsman and hold him or her accountable. Getting yourself involved in such tasks is indirectly a way of promoting corruption. It’s indeed, corruption, on its own. In fact, you should aid the Comptroller General to eliminate all forms of external influence in the posting of Immigration officers as a way of curbing corruption in the Service.

Closely related to this is the need for you not lower your exalted office by conducting yourself in such a manner that places your interest in passport matters above other more critical responsibilities. In fact, your predecessor performed so awfully in this regard that he was travelling everywhere, even outside the shores of the country to commission passport systems that could barely occupy one room. Many saw this ridiculous engagement as outrightly downgrading for a Minister. On an occasion, one of the major Custodian Centres in the country had come under intense bandits’ attack while he was abroad performing the roll-out of enhanced e-passport, an assignment that the Comptroller General or DCG (Passport) should have conveniently and effectively discharged.

The Minister of Interior has more critical responsibilities to shoulder in evolving strategic policies, programs and projects to strengthen border control and security. Outside the NIS, the Minister of Interior has his hands filled with many more crucial tasks. There are a lot to worry about to improve the nation’s Correctional facilities and systems that are in complete decay. With the statutory responsibility of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) to protect and safeguard the nation’s critical and strategic assets and infrastructure, there’s fundamentally no reason why any Minister of Interior who knows his onus should be comfortable with making passport matters the centre or summit of his interest and attention.

Honorable Minister Sir, there’s no gainsaying the fact that you would have succeeded in etching your name in golden letters if you would magnanimously give due consideration and attention to the many areas I have highlighted in this open letter. Here’s wishing you success in your present office. God bless.

I remain,

Yours faithfully, J

oachim OLUMBA (retd CIS), KSJI

20th October, 2023

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