Friday, 3 October 2014
How Immigration Officers aid drug couriers, visa racketeers, other criminals
Some unscrupulous officials of the Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS, have been supplying passports in hundreds to criminals, including drug traffickers, visa racketeers and fraudsters trying to escape the long arm of the law, using the names of prominent Nigerians and their family members, a long running investigation by the icirnigeria.org has revealed.
While in one case, some unpatriotic officers were found to have supplied drug couriers with hundreds of passports, visa racketeers and other criminals have also been issued with multiple Nigerian passports, sometimes up to three, including diplomatic and official passports, in order to travel or escape from the law.
In 2013, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, arrested some men at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, MMIA, Lagos, who were attempting to traffic large quantities of cocaine.
Investigations showed that they were using passports issued in the name of family members of some prominent Nigerians. Searches in the homes of the arrested drug traffickers and their sponsors yielded even more passports.
In all, several hundreds of passports were found and seized, many of them in the names of the children of prominent Nigerians, including a member of the leadership of the Senate, ministers, heads of government agencies, icons of industry, notable businessmen and, ironically, the head of one of the anti-corruption agencies in the country.
When it realised that the case was beyond mere drug offences, the NDLEA transferred the case to the EFCC so that the anti-graft agency could properly investigate the sabotage of the process of issuing travel passports.
It appears that the EFCC investigation into the matter may have been stalled for some reasons as there are no indications that any Immigration officer involved in the racket has been prosecuted.
Over the last 15 months or so, several officers of the NIS from different states who were found to have been involved in issuing the passports have been invited to the commission’s head office in Abuja and interrogated.
However, none of them is yet to be prosecuted in spite of the overwhelming evidence against them.
The case of Immigration officers issuing passports to visa racketeers and other criminals appears to be even more scandalous as the most unscrupulous characters were issued with prized diplomatic passports without any concerns for what the beneficiaries would use the travel document.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, was commenced an investigation into allegations of production of multiple passports to visa racketeers by the Immigration Service over a year ago after repeated complaints by several embassies in Nigeria.
The embassies complained that apart from applicants presenting fake or forged travel documents, it was also discovered that they could produce passports in multiple names. Each time a visa application was denied, the applicant just went and got another passport in another name.
What the ICPC found was mindboggling. Apart from discovering several syndicates that specialise in forging all kinds of travel documents, investigators also found out that unpatriotic Immigrations officer had been supplying visa applicants with multiple passports. While even foreigners with criminal intentions easily got Nigerian passports, anybody who could pay the price could also get diplomatic and official passports meant for highly placed government officials.
The case of Faith Chinyere Okeke and Macellina Nwamaka Maduabuchukwu, two smart Nigerian ladies who beat all odds, including the law, to fulfil their dream of travelling abroad to seek greener pastures, is particularly interesting.
For reasons best known to them, the two friends chose India as their preferred destination. However, there was a snag; they did not possess the documents to apply for a visa to India. That is no problem, a friend told them. The friend said all they needed to do was consult some specialists in travel documents who would produce all that they needed to present to the Indian High Commission.
That is how Okeke and Maduabuchukwu got introduced to Johnbosco Okonkwo Temple, an experienced and master forger. For a fee, Johnbosco in no time produced the forged or fake supporting documents the ladies needed to obtain a visa. These include forged bank account statements, forged letter of introduction from a fake employer, forged invitation letter of invitation from an Indian hospital indicating that the ladies had a health challenge that required surgery, as well as a forged letter of referral from a Nigerian hospital.
Okeke and Maduabuchukwu presented these documents along with their passports, both issued on August 16, 2013 and expiring in August15, 2018 to the High Commission. Discovering the documents to be forged, the embassy alerted the ICPC whose operatives stormed the High Commission’s offices in the Central Business District, Abuja and arrested the two ladies.
Investigations soon led to the arrest of Johnbosco, the visa racketeer who procured the documents for both of them. Both agreed to stand as prosecution witnesses in the trial of Johnbosco. On that basis they were both released on bail. A Deputy Comptroller of Prisons (names withheld) signed the bail bond for both of them.
However, investigations by the icirnigeria.org show that both ladies, desperate to travel to India, went to obtain different sets of passports in new names which they still presented to the Indian High Commission with a new set of forged documents.
This time, they got lucky and obtained a visa to travel to India. Both are now in that country living with two Nigerian men. When our reporter called one of the men, Chibuzo Akwueku (Phone no: +918826971496), he pretended to be an Indian on the line. However, when our reporter greeted him in his native language, he responded but eventually denied knowing the two ladies. The other man, Ogochukwu Okafor Goodman’s phone number (+019926064288) repeatedly failed to connect.
Okeke and Maduabuchukwu have both been declared wanted by the ICPC for jumping bail and the Nigerian government, it was learnt, is in the process of officially requesting for their extradition by the Indian government.
The story of Bartholomew Tumbu Formanka is even more telling of how corrupt Immigration officials are. Formanka, like Johnbosco, was arrested by officials of the ICPC for procuring fake and forged documents for visa applicants. He ran a well organised visa racket and is said to have serviced most of the embassies in Abuja.
Formanka is a Cameroonian but he holds a Nigerian passport in that name. Obviously a criminally minded man, he also posed to be a Nigerian to register a company with the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC in Abuja.
The Cameroonian was sentenced to a 12 month jail term on September 25 by Justice D. Senchi of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, High Court on a two count charge of making a false statement and conspiracy to make a false statement to obtain a Nigerian Passport.
He was first arrested in Lagos in 2013 after he had evaded the law for months and had been in custody since November 2013.
He was arraigned, along with Kaka Dada Zackary and Sunday Week, on October 22, 2013 before the FCT High Court on a five count charge of forgery and conspiracy to make false statement.
But, apart from the case for which he has been convicted, Formanca is also facing another court case for illegally obtaining a Nigerian passport. Curiously, nobody was charged with the accused for producing or procuring the passport.
As his sentence is to run concurrently since the day of his detention, the convict will be out of jail in a couple of months.
A third case investigated by the icirnigeria.org involves a businessman with three different kinds of Nigerian passports. Jacob Chukwuneku Ibudeh is a Nigerian with business interests in the construction and interior décor industries. However, he was married to a woman who was a specialist in visa racketeering. When Ibudeh lost his wife, he took over her racketeering business and started processing visas for others using forged documents.
Apart from processing visa applications for his clients, the smart businessman added value to the services he provided by adding the procurement of the Nigerian passports for them. So, from the passport to all the support documents you need to present for a visa, Ibudeh was the man to go to.
As a mark of his mastery of and success at the visa and passport racketeering business, Ibudeh himself possessed three different types of Nigerian passports – diplomatic, official and ordinary passports.
While the ordinary green passport is issued to every Nigerian citizen, the official passport is given only to top government officials of a certain seniority or civil servants going abroad on specific official assignments and involves a tedious process which includes an official letter from the office of the Secretary to the Federation to the Immigration Service confirming that the applicant is, indeed, a top government functionary.
As for the diplomatic passport, only certain categories of persons, including elected officials and diplomats can have it.
The three passports were recovered from Ibudeh when he was arrested during a raid on touts and visa racketeers at the Indian High Commission by operatives of the ICPC last year.
He had not satisfactorily explained how he came about possessing three Nigerian passports when he jumped bail and disappeared about six months ago. He has since been declared wanted by the ICPC.
Investigations by icirnigeria.org revealed that most of the abuse in the issuance of the Nigerian passports occur at the headquarters of the Immigration Service in Abuja, where passport racketeering is lucrative.
And, part of the reason why this is so is that the headquarters still handles the issuance of all categories of passports, most of which should be done by passport offices in the state commands.
Ideally, the NIS should handle the issuing of special passports such as the diplomatic and official passports as well as handle cases of citizens by naturalisation or registration. However, it still deals with cases of expired passports. Also, the reissue of lost, stolen or damaged passports or change of data can only be done in Abuja.
Our investigations show that one of the reasons for the deep corruption at the NIS headquarters arose from political influence in the recruitment of personnel into the Service.
It was learnt that not only do political office holders and senior administration officials influence their wards’ recruitment into the Service; they also dictate where such people are posted. And, the passport office at the NIS headquarters is regarded as one of the most rewarding postings.
So, there is a lot of pressure on the leadership to post those sponsored by influential Nigerians there. Such privileged officers who enter Service with only the aim of making money do everything to manipulate the system to do just that.
Ordinarily, it should be difficult for anybody to manipulate the passport issuance process as there is in place a very good system aimed at preventing abuse.
First, the process is rigorous and has in build methods of preventing abuse. An application must come with a birth certificate and indigeneship certificate and go through security verification, document fraud screening, approval system, background check and address verification. But unscrupulous officers sabotage all these processes.
Immigration runs an Automatic Face Identification System, AFIS, which detects and automatically rejects any duplication of data or biometrics. So if a person with a passport applies for another one using another name, address and other data, the system will reject the application, providing the previous data as reason for the rejection.
However, the database used by the system is not managed or controlled by the Immigration but by a technical partner and consultant named IRIS Technology Limited. The company was brought in to help the country migrate from the Machine Readable passport, MRP to the e – passport and produces the Nigerian passport and thus keeps the database of all passport holders.
Our investigations show that unscrupulous Immigration officers collude with personnel of AFIS Technology to sabotage the process by manipulating the data management system to illegally issue passports to underserving persons.
What happens, it was gathered, is that corrupt Immigration officers collect money from persons desperate to own a Nigerian passport and then approach database managers at IRIS Technology to remove the existing data about an applicant from the database. The application is then made with new data which is used in issuing a new passport to the applicant. In this manner, one person can acquire as many passports as he/she can afford.
Another way by which the process is sabotaged, it was discovered, is that applicants are allowed, during the fingerprint and biometrics acquisition process, to use the wrong fingers to register.
Usually, an applicant is required to register his/her thumb and index finger. However, some Immigration officials allegedly allow applicants to use a different set of fingers. So, one person can use this method to obtain up to three or four passports.
The spokesman of the Immigration Service, Chukwuemeka Obua, acknowledged that dealing with corrupt officials is a major challenge faced by the NIS but asserted that the new administration is dealing with the issue. He said that the current passport reform embarked upon by the Service was partly to address the issue of corruption in the issuance of passports.
“Since he took over, the Comptroller General has made it clear that any officer caught in any fraudulent act will be dismissed. One of the first places that he fixed as CG was the passport offices. As I speak to you, over 200 officers are facing orderly room trial. So if out of 22,000 men of the NIS we find a few officers corrupt in a place like this it is not unusual. But the CG has made it clear that if we catch you it is summary dismissal,” Obua stated.
He, however, pointed that the Service is not entirely to blame because many applicants present forged documents such as birth certificates and indigene’s certificate which the authenticity of which the NIS cannot disprove.
This website was later able to get the Comptroller General of Immigration, CGI, to grant an interview and respond to many of the issues. In the exclusive interview (Read full text in Interviews section) with theicirnigeria.org, the CGI confirmed that some of his men were under investigation in connection to the issuance of the passports to drug couriers.
The Immigration chief said that the officers who issued all the passports had been traced and that at different times they had being invited to Abuja from the states where they serve to answer questions from EFCC investigators.
“We found out the people that acquired them, authorised their acquisition and we called them state by state and one after the other…If they were cleared fine but if they were found to have colluded to beat the system, they would have to face the consequences of their actions,” the Immigration Comptroller General stated.
He said that the investigation was still going on and that any officer found guilty would be dismissed and prosecuted in line with the Passport (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act.
On passport racketeering, the CGI too conceded that there are bad eggs in the Service, but assured that they are being flushed out of the system as they are discovered.
“I can never sit down here and tell you that Immigration officers are 100 per cent clean. There must be some who collude but whenever I hear of case, I will investigate it,’ he said, adding, “I cannot tell you that manipulating the system does not happen but we are dealing with it. We have dismissed several officers for passport malpractices.”
He pointed out, however, that many of the problems with the passport issuance processes are out of the hands of the Immigration Service, arguing that it has to work with documents issued by other agencies, which it cannot verify.
“There are many things that are out of our hands. We do not have any fool-proof birth registry. So, if you tell me you were born in Ogbomosho, I will take it because if I go to Ogbomosho to check the record from all the clinics, I may not see it,” he said.
Parradang also said that he had started the process of ensuring that all passport databases are domiciled and managed by the Immigration Service as he had asked all consultants, including IRIS Technology to open data centres at the NIS headquarters in Abuja. Immigration officials, according to him, would be trained to handle such data in the future.
The EFCC did not respond to queries on the matter as the commission’s spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren, said that he did not have any facts about it. He said he would confirm from the chairman of the agency, Ibrahim Lamorde, but lamented that he was not in the country. A week later, as at the time of filing this report the EFCC boss was still out of the country.
This report was first published by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.