Fresh Graft scandal Threatens FG… poised to consume Minister

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Our Correspondent

 

Controversial Minister of Interior, Abba Moro, has devised a fresh scheme to fleece Nigerians. Using the increase in the new fees charged for the Nigerian passport, he has formulated a new policy that would effectively extort billions from unsuspecting Nigerians every month.

In August, the minster illegally contracted a freight forwarding and courier company, Greater Washington Limited, to deliver passports to applicants at the cost of N2,000.
The fee has been built into the new fee of N19,550 charged for the Nigerian passport and every applicant is forced to pay the money whether she/he wants the service or not.

The new payment regime for the Nigerian passport commenced on August 1, when the federal government also rolled out the new 64-page passport for frequent travellers. Where the 32-page passport used to cost N8,750 for all Nigerians under the old regime, with the new rate, applicants aged 1 to 18 and 60 and above would now be the only ones allowed to pay the old rate of N8,750. All other applicants (aged 18 to 60) would pay N15,000.

This was announced by the Minister of Interior at the launch of the 64-page passport by President Goodluck Jonathan at the Presidential Villa on July 29. The minister said further that the 64-page passport would cost N20,000, while change of data for reasons other than marriage or divorce would attract a N30,000 processing fee.

What Moro failed to tell his audience, including President Jonathan, is that Nigerians would now be forced to pay N2,000 to have their passports delivered to their homes.
Our investigations indicate that the total amount paid for the passport is N15,600, including bank charges.

An applicant is expected to indicate if he prefers to pick up his/her passport personally or would like it delivered. However, whatever option is chosen, the N2,000 for delivery has to be paid. Many applicants who say they would pick up their passports because they do not want any delay are still being made to pay the N2,000.

By the new system, after filling the application forms and making necessary payments, applicants are expected to go to the Greater Washington office at the passport office where the application is made to submit contact address for the delivery of their passports.
However, there are many things wrong with the entire arrangement of having a private company deliver passports to citizens.

Our investigations revealed that the minister did not go through due process in awarding the contract to deliver passports to applicants to Greater Washington as there was no advertisement or bidding process. The company was exclusively the minister’s choice.

Also, what is now being made to look like a government policy did not arise as a result of a need because Nigerians did not demand that their passports be delivered to them in their homes. Sources in NIS passport offices said that there were never any complaints from applicants about personally picking up their passports.

Besides, if the new policy were to be given any consideration at all, then the Immigration Service would have been best placed to perform that task.
First, all Immigration passport offices across the country have both issuance and collection centres. More important, the NIS also has an office in all the local governments of the country and is already equipped to render the service. What would be required would be to strengthen its capacity to enable it to deliver.

This is even truer as investigations revealed that Greater Washington only has three members of staff and two motorcycles attached to each passport office in the state.
This is inadequate to service even the state capital. For instance, Kano State, with its huge land mass and population and Lagos, which has a vast population, will stretch the inadequate arrangements to the limits.

There is also the issue of applicants who apply for passports in places where they are not resident. For example, in the case of an applicant who lives in Kano but applies for a passport while on holiday in Calabar, Cross Rivers State, would the delivery company deliver his passport to him in Kano?
Another problem with the new system is that although it looks like Nigerians are given an option of choosing whether they would collect their passports personally or have them delivered, the reality is that whatever option applicant choses, he/she still pays the N2,000.

Our investigation revealed that at least in Abuja and Lagos where our reporters monitored the passport collection process, most people still go to physically collect their passports, meaning that they had paid Greater Washington for services not rendered.

An equally important point is that just in order to ensure that a private company benefits from passport issuance, the minister, and the federal government by implication, has sacrificed all the gains of the last 10 years to deliver a passport within 24 to 48 hours after application.
With the new system, the time an applicant gets his/her passport depends on how long it takes the delivery company to locate his/her address.

However, according to some officials of the Immigration Service who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, the most worrying aspect of the whole scheme is that a security document which contains the bio data of Nigerians is being handed over to a private company.
This, they observed could have grave security implications.

The officers pointed out that the passport is a security document and the most valid and authentic evidence of a person’s citizenship. It contains a microchip which holds all the biometric data of the passport holder as well as names and addresses of his/her guarantor.

In the hands of a private company whose staff might have ulterior or criminal motives, this could have grave consequences as such a person can access all the information about the passport owner by slotting it into a machine reader.

“It is unbelievable that the Nigerian government can hand over something as sensitive as the biometric data of its citizens to private individuals. No country in the world that I know has ever done that because it could have grave security implications. For me I think it is wrong for a private company to handle such sensitive security document,” said one Immigration officer.

The officer might not be exactly correct as a few countries actually send new passports to applicants by post or other means. This is true for the United States and Britain. In the latter, for example, applicants have the option of their new passports being delivered by post, by special courier service if it is required within 24 hours and they can also personally collect them.

But for those who get their passports delivered by post or courier service, they specifically request for this service and willingly pay for it. More importantly, it is done through the postal service because that system works in those countries and street addresses are well delineated.
However, in a country like Nigeria where town planning in major cities is muddled up, such a delivery system would be impossible to execute.

An Immigration officer also recalled that in the past when Nigeria first contracted the Combined Expatriates Residence Permit and Alien Card, a document issued to all foreigners living in the country to an Indian firm, Contec, many countries, including the United States of America, United Kingdom and France, initially refused to cooperate because they refused to hand over the bio data of their citizens to nationals of a third party country.

It was impossible calculating how much Greater Washington would be making from this delivery deal, but it would be in billions. In Lagos State alone, with three passport offices in Ikoyi, Festac and Ikeja, it could make more than N110 million in a month. Information gotten from serving and retired Immigration officers indicate that the Ikoyi passport office issues up to 1,000 passports daily, Festac about 500 and the Ikeja passport office about 350, totalling1,850 for Lagos State. With each applicant paying N2,000, the company would earn some N111million in a month and a total of N1.33 billion in a year from Lagos State alone.

That figure would be by far more than that during annual Christian and Muslim pilgrimages as demands for passports usually shoot up in these seasons.

The Chief Operating Office, COO, of Greater Washington Limited, who is directly in charge of passport delivery operations, Taiwo Ajumobi, spoke to our reporter in Lagos on Tuesday and confirmed that the company is working with the Immigration Service in delivering new passports to applicants. He clarified, however, that the company has a dual mandate– address verification and passports delivery.

According to him, the company helps to verify the addresses submitted by applicants which aids the Service in determining the genuineness of the application. He also said that the company had been delivering passports to applicant since August when the new policy commenced although he conceded that the delivery process is still not efficient.
“It is true that some people are not yet enjoying the delivery service, but everyone that has applied for passport from August 1, we have carried out address verification on them without them knowing. The process is this; if someone puts an address on the passport, we will go there to verify it, if it is a fake address or a nonexistence place for instance, we feed the immigration with that information, and that might affect the issuance of the passport,” he said.

However, contrary to our findings, Mr. Ajumobi contended that the N2,000 charged for delivery of passports does not go to the company but is paid to the Immigration Service.

The spokesman of the NIS, Chukwuemeka Obua, declined commenting about the new passport delivery system, insisting that only the Interior minister could speak on the matter since it was a policy issue.
“That is a matter of government policy and only the minister of Interior can speak on that. It is government policy. Even the CG (Comptroller General) of Immigration might not be able to speak on that,” Mr. Obua said when confronted with the Greater Washington delivery system.

Efforts to get the Minister of Interior personally react to this story failed as he was said to be abroad. His spokesman, Ubong George Udoh, who said he too could not speak on the matter agreed to receive a questionnaire for his principal to which answers were provided by emailon Wednesday.

However, some of the minister’s responses directly contradict Mr. Ajumobi’s position or icirnigeria.org findings. For example, while the Greater Washington COO said that the N2,000 charged for passport delivery is not paid to the company but goes to the Immigration Service, Mr. Moro said in his response that “The sum of Two Thousand Naira (N2,000.00) only is the total cost paid by applicants for address verification, delivery and database hosting’ and that the “money is accessed in line with the public private partnership agreement involving all partners which include Federal Government of Nigeria, NeGST and Greater Washington.”

The minister’s reference to the deal with Greater Washington as a public private partnership, PPP, is curious as that system is adopted for the financing of projects which the government has no financial capacity to handle on its own. However, in the passport delivery deal, government is not hamstrung for funds and the Greater Washington is not investing in the project but is actually just merely expected to render service and earn huge profits.
Explaining the company’s role in the new passport issuance process, the minister said the Greater Washington is to “Verify addresses given by e-passport applicants”, “Deliver passports upon issuance to applicants’ and “Keep data base of all the verified addresses for future reference”

There is an apparent disconnect between the government driving the policy and the company implementing it. For, while Ajumobi asserted that the courier firm helps verify applicants’ addresses to aid the process of authenticating the genuineness of an application, the minister said that the verification of address would be done upon delivery of passports.

“The company has expertise in courier services and as such has the capacity to verify addresses supplied by applicants at the point of delivery of their passports. The service was initially intended to take the format of verification before delivery but because of envisaged delays this may cause, the option of verification upon delivery sufficed,” the minister said, explaining how the system works.

 

The minister’s explanation of the rationale for the new delivery policy was at best tenuous.
“There were instances where some holders of Nigeria passport were involved in some criminalities like money laundering, drug trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism etc and in the process of tracking them security agencies like Nigerian Police, INTERPOL, EFCC, ICPC, DSS etc may rely on the information at the disposal of the NIS to their jobs believing that e-passports are authentic travel documents to fall back on,” he reasoned.

The second reason, Mr. Moro said, was “in the interest of the holders in cases of lost, death abroad or other similar cases, the addresses of those concerned could easily be traced”.

The import of the minister’s comments is that one of the reasons for coming up with this policy is to build a credible database that would contain essential information and biometrics of Nigerian.
This runs against the directive of President Jonathan that duplication of biometric data must cease. The president gave the charge on August 29 when he launched the National Electronic Identification Scheme.
In a new scheme decreed by the interior minister, Abba Moro, applicants are being forced to pay N2, 000 for the new Nigerian passports to be delivered to their homes, a service they did not demand and never get.
Describing the situation where different agencies of government have their own biometric database as wasteful and inefficient, the President warned that “the regime of duplication of biometric data bases must now have to give way to harmonisation and unification with the e-ID scheme, which shall be the primary data base.”
“Proliferation and duplication of efforts is neither cost effective, nor security-smart. It is important to remove obstacles that may impede the NIMC from the discharge of its constitutional functions and statutory obligations,” he said further.

Also significantly, if what the new passport delivery scheme is supposed to achieve is to “keep database of all the verified addresses for future reference”, the Immigration Service would be duplicating an existing database system. In essence, it would also be duplicating an existing problem that caused heartaches for many people in the Service.

The current passport database of all Nigerians is managed and controlled by IRIS Technology, the technical partner invited to help in the production of Nigerian e-passport. The company, with a Belgian parent company, was supposed to train Nigerian Immigration officers and hand over the passport database to the NIS to manage but has not done so.
Some Immigration officers are worried that rather than taking over the database controlled and managed by IRIS Technology and handing it over to the NIS, what the government wants to do is contract another private firm to manage another passport database.

To the icirnigeri.org question why a private company and not the Immigration is handling the project, Mr. Moro has this to say:
“The NIS could have done this job but because of the security challenges facing our country especially the insurgency and the onerous tasks of manning our vast and expansive borders, the staff of the NIS are overstretched. Many are deployed to the newly established Special Border Corps, JTF and other areas of our mandate making it near impossible for the same staff to engage in courier services. The e-passport project right from the outset was a public private partnership driven project of the Federal Government. “Secondly there is no budgetary provision for the NIS to embark on this project.”

So, a private courier company is better equipped than the NIS in surmounting security challenges and delivering passports to citizens?
It is not the first time that Mr. Moro would be using his office to unilaterally contrive a policy that would shortchange Nigerians while enriching a private company. In a similar fashion, the minister contracted the recruitment exercise into the Immigration Service to a private, Drexel Technology Nigeria Limited, which he handpicked.

The company had charged every job applicant N1,000 but nobody provided any logistics or arrangements for the exercise scheduled for major cities although it earned nearly over N500 million from the exercise. It was gathered that the NIS did not receive a penny to organise the exercise.
Stampede at some centres claimed over 20 lives and left many more injured. About 6.5million applicants paid to write the test to fill 4,000 available vacancies.

Competent sources in the NIS said that the leadership of the immigration had warned the minister that handing over the recruitment into the Service to a private company would not work. The Comptroller General of the NIS reportedly wrote to the minister five times trying to dissuade him to no avail.

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