30 Oct 2014

How Immigration Officers Collect Bribe At Airports - by Bayo Olupohunda

Travelling out of Nigeria presents another layer of experience of how corruption has eaten deep into the fabric of agencies responsible for facilitating air travel at our nation’s international borders. 

This time, my encounter with the officials of the Nigeria Immigration Service and sundry agencies at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos last week was a harrowing experience. I saw the brazen manner at which they coerce, solicit, persuade and even harass Nigerian and foreign travellers and visitors to part with money or other valuables. It is sickening and saddening to see immigration officers shamelessly solicit for bribes without respect for their uniform. What is happening at our international airports is a national disgrace.

As I observed their desperation and shameless activities, a few questions came to mind: Why are these officials so shameless as to not realise that by being at an international airport, they represent the face of our country? Do they not realise that they are the first point of contact for any visitor coming into our country? What impression will foreigners have of our country when immigration officers harass people and demand bribes openly without shame? Can they not at least respect their uniform?

But no, officers of the NIS, the Nigerian Police, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and other sundry bodies at the airport do not seem to care the damage they are doing to our country’s image. The mess at the MMIA, in particular, is so brazen that it filled me with revulsion. As the reality of the rot confronted me, I was too ashamed to be a Nigerian. As I beheld their dishonest activities, I, ironically, even felt shame on their behalf. Unfortunately, it seems they have lost their moral values. As they engage in their disgraceful act, they do not even care if they are being watched.

On the day that I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, for this year’s CNN African Journalist of the Year awards, I saw why Nigeria is regarded as one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Corruption has eaten so deep into our country that it will take an unprecedented incident to rid us of the cankerworm. What is happening at the MMIA is the true picture of who we are as a people.

I arrived at the airport early to begin the process of checking-in. At the airport, my ordeal began at the entrance to the Departure Lounge. I alighted into the waiting hands of every manner of officials–immigration, police, customs, NSCDC and others posted to ensure free flow of traffic. Then, the extortion began. “Fine guy, where you dey go? Nah America or UK? Abeg find us ‘something.’ Your boys dey hungry!” Imagine elderly men calling themselves “boys” because of a few tips. As you wonder why it was any of their concern to know your destination, they surround you, blocking your way and continue to harass you for money. As I was being pestered, a few of them chased after a white lady like a vulture after a carcass. She ignored them. One man threw a few naira notes on the ground, the way an alm giver drops for a beggar, as he hurried off. They scrambled for it like street urchins.

Their demand for money was intimidating – bordering on harassment. Add this to the trouble you have to go through as you grapple with your luggage, then you will understand the chaotic situation outside the Departure Lounge. As you manage to beat the first checkpoint, you approach the entrance to the Lounge only to be confronted by another set of police, NDLEA, immigration, Customs officers who have set up another “checkpoint” to extort money from travellers. These ones are more forceful. They want money and want it fast. They even demand foreign currencies. They ask you to give them “anything” including your valuables. Meanwhile, a guy was kept on the side who was pleading that he be let in. He had no money. The mobile policeman told him to part with his wristwatch! It was incredible! The young man was shocked. As you manage to beat the second toll point, you begin the process of checking in your luggage. That also comes with another demand for bribes. One hefty guy at the Kenya Airways counter who frisked my luggage stopped midway to demand that I “settle” him. I told him I had no money on me. His countenance changed immediately like one who saw a ghost. He said I must find him something because every other passenger did the same. I stood my ground. He softened his position when he saw I was not ready to play ball. He grudgingly released my luggage.

After I completed the checking-in, I loitered around for a while to “kill time” before I began the final boarding process. I surveyed the airport. The chaos at the complex was indescribable. The Departure Lounge was bedlam – disorderly like Oshodi market of old. Outside, people milled around the place freely. They had no form of identification. Inside the lounge was even more chaotic. It was unbearably hot. The cooling system did not work that day. I have no way of knowing if it actually works at all any day. When it was time to begin the final checks, I proceeded to the immigration point. The immigration officer who stood at the first screening point demanded to see my passport. I handed it over. He barely looked at it but yet held on to it. “Oya, find me something”, with the tone of a bandit poised to kill if not obliged.

I told him I didn’t have any money on me. He probed further. I parried his questions. When he saw I won’t budge, he handed me my passport. Then, came the next point, where the two immigration ladies pointedly demanded money before they could stamp my passport. They kept smiling as they held on to the passport. I refused to part with any money. Then, their faces dissolved into a frown. They handed me the passport. “Oga, you be miser o”, they both chorused. I did not answer them. I observed an elaborately dressed woman squeeze some money into the hand of a pot-bellied immigration officer nearby. He hailed the “Alhaja” and wished her a safe journey. He did not care that people were watching. When I got to him, he insisted I gave him some money. He said travelling abroad is a privilege. That I should consider myself lucky. I told him I was not a first time traveller. But he still insisted. This time I was cornered. To hold him off, I told him I am not carrying Nigerian currency.

He said it doesn’t matter. “I take dollars, pound or Euro, even Japanese Yen. Which one are you carrying?’’ He inquired. Again, I deliberately delayed. When he saw I was wasting his time. He hissed, stamped my passport and waved me off. I soon discovered that the demand for bribes increased with intensity as you neared boarding. Finally, I made it through the last check. It was excruciating. The extortion at the airport is a shame – a national embarrassment.

My advice to travellers: Do not give a bribe to any pestering airport official if you are asked. We must all discourage any act that is a clear dent on our country’s image. By contrast, at the Julius Nyerere Airport in Tanzania, the mostly young Immigration officers checked my passport, stamped it, smiled and told me to enjoy my stay. No bribe, no harassment for money. Why are we so corrupt?

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