The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) organised a one-day National Seminar on ‘Instilling Integrity in Visa Procurement Process in Nigeria,’ on Tuesday, 17th June, 2014 at the Jevinik Place, Ikeja, Lagos. The organization of the seminar was timely and interesting. First, it was organized in fulfillment of the mandate of the ICPC which was set up by the Corrupt Practices and Other related Offences Act, 2000. The Act “seeks to prohibit and prescribe punishment for corrupt practices and other related offences.”
In this regard, the ICPC is charged with the responsibility of investigating and prosecuting offenders. It also has the responsibility of protecting all sources of information given to it regarding any act of corruption which essentially involves bribery and fraud, as well as gratification. According to the ICPC Act, an act of gratification includes any “money donation, gift, loan, fee, reward, valuable security, property or interest in property, being property of any description whether movable or immovable, or any other similar advantage given or promised to any person with intent to influence such a person in the person or non-performance of his duties.”
Consequently, the organization of the seminar is aimed at informing and educating the general public on the need for a corrupt-free Nigerian society, and particularly to warn on the possible punitive measures prescribed for engagement in corruption in the public service.
In the specific context of acquisition of visa in Nigeria, the general public is warned and invited to note that the use of false documents to apply for visa is a serious offence. In the same manner, patronizing touts and unauthorized embassy personnel is also a serious offence capable of attracting up to 14-year jail. Offering bribe to any public officer attracts 7-year imprisonment.
Secondly, the seminar attracted good stakeholders: representatives of diplomatic missions, especially those of South Korea and India; institutional stakeholders such as the Nigeria Immigration Service, Nigeria Customs Service, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the Association of Travel Agents of Nigeria (NATAN), etc.
Thirdly, the seminar underscored the problems of ignorance of the law, which is not tenable in the law court as an excuse for inaction or otherwise. Many Nigerians do not know, and those who do know purport not to know that they can be liable by acts of omission, by acts of others or neglect, or by complicity. For instance, the scope of a corrupt act is wide. It is not simply the act of giving or even receiving bribe or gratification that can be criminally. In fact, failure to report bribery transactions; or making false statements to the ICPC; or willfully making false petitions; as well as dealing with, using, holding, receiving or concealing gratification, etc constitute offences that attract jail sentences whenever found guilty. The ICPC is therefore calling on every Nigerian to seek by all means to avoid breaking the law.
Fourthly, and perhaps more interestingly, the issues addressed in the various papers presented at the seminar, were issues that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had been fighting tooth and nail over the years: The procedure of procuring a visa legally, the challenges facing the NATAN, modalities of acquiring Nigerian passports and ECOWAS Travel Documents, and the use of notes verbales, as well as the role of protocol officers in requesting for visa from a diplomatic mission. The critical challenge from the foregoing is the determination of the extent to which the visa scam can be meaningfully addressed. The issues are complex and not peculiar to Nigeria as a sovereign state. In fact, Nigerians are not alone in the visa scam.
Issues Raised in the Papers
Ambassador Aminu Wali, Minister of Foreign Affairs was represented by Ambassador Abdulazeez Dankano, the Director in charge of consular matters in the MFA. The Foreign Minister noted in his address to the seminar that “visa is an endorsement by officials of a foreign country that gives you permission to enter, pass through or leave their country. This means that a Nigerian travelling to a foreign country requires to obtain visa in order to enter, pass through or live in that country.” Therefore, the Foreign Minister believed that “it is absolutely unnecessary for anyone to use touts to secure visa or forged travel documents and risk being arrested here or abroad, thereby denting the image of Nigeria and Nigerians.” Without doubt, the MFA is doing well in the projection of a better image for Nigeria. The MFA issues notes verbales to foreign missions requesting the issuance of appropriate visas to Nigerians intending to travel out and who are adjudged to be eligible for the issuance of a note verbale. The MFA also issues Letters of Introduction to government officials and other families for non-official trips.
The position of the Chairman of the ICPC, Ekpo Nta, Esq., is noteworthy. He said any “travels between different countries are regulated by issuance of visas to potential travelers under different conditions…” Every government has a right to regulate who, and indeed, how and why anyone enters its country. More interestingly, Mr. Nta drew attention to the fact that the conditions required for the issuance of a visa can be cumbersome and complicated, as well as pose problems for a third party. As he put it, “the third party could be a registered knowledgeable travel/consultant, a friend, a family member, or even a crook.”
Consequently, in an attempt to restore sanity and integrity in the procurement of visa, Mr. Nta invited all Nigerians “whose passports were seized from different agents by ICPC to visit the Commission’s Headquarters in Abuja and collect their passports within the next two months. Failure to do so would result in ICPC handing over the passports to the Immigration Service for further necessary action which include blacklisting the bearers of these passports and barring them from travelling abroad until their status are verified.”
Another important issue raised by the Deputy Director of the ICPC Chairman’s Special Unit, Mr. Abbia Udofia, is the multidimensional manifestation of visa scam, which ranges from discrepancies at any point in the visa application process, false declaration and cloning of documents, misrepresentation of reasons for travelling, forgery of documents, to insertion of names of relatives or friends in requests for notes verbales by protocol officers and government officials and self-generation of notes verbales by private individuals.
Assistant Comptroller General in charge of Passports, Mr. T. A. Hundeyin, explicated the modalities for acquiring Nigerian passports and the challenges with which the NIS is faced. He distinguished between three major, and three secondary categories of passport. As regards the major passports, they are the Standard, Official, and Diplomatic, Passports. The standard or the Ordinary Passport is green in colour and it is traceable to 1948 when the British West African Passport was established. The passport, by then, had a brown colour. When Nigeria acceded to national sovereignty on October 1, 1960, the colour was changed to light green and then the pagination was reduced from 63 pages to 32. As explained by Hundeyin, “the qualification then for working in the Passport Office was only good handwriting as the passport was manually written. The mode of transaction was cash and was paid at the counter.” The story is now different: The current cost of a Standard Passport is N8,750 excluding bank charges.
The second type of passport, official, has blue colour and costs less than the Standard Passport to acquire: N4,500. Generally, official passports are given to very senior government officials in the Home Service and are supposed to be used only in official capacity. The third type, diplomatic, has a reddish colour. It is meant for career diplomats essentially but are also given to political ambassadors as well as anyone so considered eligible by Mr. President. Several people want to have a diplomatic passport in order to be eligible for privileges and immunities attached to the status. Most unfortunately, it is not the possession of the diplomatic passport that confers the status. It is the recognition by governments that is essential. The Nigerian government can give a diplomatic passport to an individual. Unless the holder is so recommended to a receiving state and also so acknowledged, the holder remains a diplomat that is really not. For instance, for the French government, a diplomat is anyone that has been listed on the diplomatic list. Thus, to have been listed on the diplomatic list means one must have gone through certain processes of accreditation. A diplomatic passport is normally issued to facilitate official and diplomatic assignments. It is not meant simply as a means of travelling but to identify the holder as a representative of government with the necessary empowerment to engage in diplomatic activities.
Most unfortunately in international relations, several holders of diplomatic passports engage in activities incompatible with the status of a diplomat, they are always suspected and closely monitored. In many cases of suspicion, the rules of inviolability of their persons and cars, etc are not respected. What happens then is the application of reciprocal measures.
The other minor or secondary category of passports comprises the Seaman’s Certificate of Identity, Emergency Travel Certificate, and the ECOWAS Travel Document. Although all the six passports have the common feature of serving as means of identification, the truth remains that all of them have challenges in the areas of issuance and re-issuance. These include, in the context of the major passports, reasons of force majeure which have always prompted the need to re-issue new passports even before the expiration of the 5-year life span of the passport. The circumstances include exhausted pages, change of information or data, spelling errors, wrong date of birth, which might have not been intentionally done at the time of application, change in marital status or change in name, loss or damaged passport due to oil or fire, etc.
There are also operational challenges: absence of readers at land borders, lack of centralized identity, lack of manpower in information technology at the security and forensic levels, multiple payment for passports, etc. What is noteworthy about the issuance of passport is that one cannot hold more than one valid standard passport. It is not lawful to alter, tamper with or mutilate any passport in whatever manner. Holding a forged passport is itself very criminal. Acting as an agent to procure a passport for a third party is not lawful. As submitted by ACG Hudenyin, “any person found guilty… shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of ten years or a fine of two million naira or both.”
One additional point that should also be noted is that the requirements for the grant of visa vary from one country to another. So are they for the various types of visa. The Indian High Commission distinguishes between business, conference, employment, entry, journalist, medical, project, research, and student, visa. In other words, the categorization is determined by purpose and objective. While many embassies require payment for visas in Nigeria’s currency, naira, in their office premises, other diplomatic missions demand payment by electronic transfer. The amount is often dollarised but the local currency equivalent is computed for payment. Some embassies also require yellow fever certificates while some do not. The same is true of oral polio vaccination certificate. In all cases, however, no embassy wants to refund any visa fees after payment, claiming administrative charges.
Again, worthy of note is the problem of acquisition of visa by proxy. Ambassador Abdulazeez Dankano put it in a cautionary perspective: visa applicants going through touts risk not knowing the type of information given by the touts to the embassy. When the visa applicant eventually travels out and is then interviewed at the border and his/her answers are not consistent with the information already provided by the touts, there will be trouble. The visa will not entitle the holder to enter and the holder necessarily becomes a persona non grata, only due for immediate repatriation if not for prosecution. This is precisely the type of situation that the ICPC does not want any Nigerian to be found. But can this situation exist?
Towards a Visa Scam Free Nigeria
Visa scam is an aspect of the larger challenge of institutional corruption in Nigeria, and therefore, cannot be given an enduring solution unless the larger problem of corruption is first decisively dealt with. Dealing with visa scam as a component is possible, but not when the larger problem is not given a special manu militari approach. In Nigeria, corruption is consciously condoned and Nigerians do not appear ready to confront the main dynamics of political illness in Nigeria.
J.S. Cookey, the Chairman of the Political Bureau, noted in 1987 that corruption and indiscipline had become the bane of development in Nigeria. He traced the origin of this bane to 1967. In other words, since 1967, corruption has been an issue in Nigeria. Why is it so? Why, in the past almost 50 years, corruption could not be nipped in the bud? From the submission of Mr. Udofia, the ICPC got involved in the containment of visa scam when the US Embassy ‘forwarded about thirty suspicious diplomatic notes for investigation, which ‘revealed that more than half of the beneficiaries were not employees of the MDAs they claim to work with’ If accomplices are in the MFA, NIS, etc, who is to blame?
If the problem of visa scam is to be nipped in the bud, corruption as a bane must first of all be removed generally. In doing this, the rule of law must be applied to the letter without exception. Pardoning criminals under whatever guise cannot be helpful to eradication of corruption. People convicted in law courts are politically forgiven. There is no room for merit to drive national development. Research and development is poorly funded. These are some of the major dynamics of visa scam that must first of all be given priority attention. Let the rich pay appropriate taxes. Let corrupt people be given life jail with seizure and forfeiture of all properties they have. Without doing that, the efforts of the ICPC will not go too far.