By ADEWALE ADEOYE
The sun was struggling to break through the thick, cumulous cloud when I arrived at the Immigration office with my family.
The sun won as the cloud soon retreated, giving way to a brighter day. That was late last year. But midweek in April this year, the sun lost the contest to the fiery cloud that ushered heavy downpour. The crowd was huge. There were not enough spaces to shelter the numerous visitors. I bent forward, removed my suit to shelter cold and shivering kids.
The reception was too dense and could not have taken the mammoth crowd all seething for Nigerian passport with one mission: Get out of Nigeria.
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It simply shows that if Nigerian public servants work with nationalistic spirit borne out of selflessness and genuine commitment to duty, hope for a greater country that all of us would be proud of will no longer be a fleeting illusion.
Throughout my many visits spanning months since last year, the human cacophony did not change.
Each day, the heavy human traffic file in a row: Women, children, armed and defenceless people alike. Some of the women were pregnant, some held on to their infants, strapped on their back. Oldies were not left out, in their 60s, 70s and at least one old woman admitted she would clock 80 in June.
Students, workers, military men and police, retired, peasants, cobblers, able, and people living with disabilities.
There was a middle- aged man. His destination is ‘Just any country in America’.
Caleb had travelled to Libya by road, spending four months, passing through Niger, Southern part of Algeria, through the terrible corridor manned by armed Tuaregs before ending up in Sirtre, a city in Libya. He knew no one in the Arab country. He soon found himself in the camp of deportees, ninety per cent of who were Nigerians holding the fake passports of different countries, manufactured in Nigeria, hoping the Libyan authority would deport them to the country which passport they held.
The fake passports were manufactured at Oluwole, a crime hub in downtown Lagos.
But this time, unlike before, the Libyans bundled them back to Southern Algeria, through the same illegal, harrowing route they had endured, back to their homeland, Nigeria, which they loathe with bitter passion.
A group of three friends told me they wanted to relocate to Gambia. One middle aged woman sought Malta, two young men wanted Cyprus and a man living with disability told me his dream was to get out of Nigeria to ‘anywhere in Europe or North Africa’.
A young mother of two said she lost her husband to the murderous bile of herdsmen in Jos. She relocated to Lagos in search of greener fortunes. She had worked for three years as a waitress in a bar. She claimed she had saved enough money to ‘move out of Nigeria to just anywhere in the Middle East preferably Dubai.’
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For each day I visited, it was one sordid story of people scrambling to leave their fatherland.
A 60-year old Muktar from Southern Zaria told me ‘I just want to get out of Nigeria’. How, when, where, he had no answers, but first, he needed a passport.
The number of retirees wanting to leave the country is most intriguing. One of them told me he came from Ihiala in the South East. Having lost three children to armed bandits in the North all he wished was to spend her last days with her only surviving child who relocated abroad in 2021.
Funny enough, workers in the financial institutions, I met. At least one of them claimed to be a Bank Manager.
I called him aside. He told me: ‘I don’t have peace of mind. Each time my children go to school and I go to work, I’m troubled until they return. My neigbour’s daughter got missing. I just realise life is becoming so insecure in Nigeria.’
He said following the cash swap introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Godwin Emefiele, some of the banks have sent many workers packing while pressure is mounting on workers to bring in reluctant depositors.
Another man from Ibadan in his 40s said he belongs to one of the “slaves” in a bank hired and placed on a salary but only 60 per cent of the salary is paid to them. The consultants take the remaining 40 per cent.
‘I just want peace of mind,’ he said. Many Nigerians now seek mostly economic refugee abroad, even though many are constantly repatriated.
The International Organisation for Migration this week said about 3,363 Nigerians were evacuated between January and May this year from different countries including Mali and Libya.
Of all the state institutions, it appears the Immigration is one of the most overwhelmed in meeting the daily requests for services from Nigerians.
I was told the situation in other Passport offices across the country is similar if not the same. There are eight Zonal Passport offices in Nigeria, 36 state commands, and five other special commands with a presence in 774 local governments and 45 missions abroad.
In 2022, Immigration produced some 1.7m passports, some 80 per cent more than earlier productions in the preceding years.
The passport is also wearing new, beautiful look. I was told there are more security features than before. There is an interesting aspect that caught my attention. Immigration and the country’s image.
Immigration officials are the first ambassadors and public immigration officials of any country. They are the first to be encountered by visitors from all over the world. Unruly and corrupt immigration department puts any country automatically in bad light. Though many Nigerians are looking for passports, those who spoke to me said they did not experience bribery in the course of their attempt to secure the International Passport, which is quite unusual in a country rated as one of the most corrupt.
This position may not be 100 per cent correct but it appears the work ethics by the Passport officials remain remarkable.
Many visitors who spoke to me said the issuance of passports are delayed but that they did not experience demand for bribes from the Passport officials at Alausa while they equally commended the quality of human relations of the immigration officials unlike the tradition in the past or the possible situation in other parts of the command.
This is an aspect that interests me. I then took time to monitor immigration officials throughout my months-long visits.
My findings reinforce my belief that in spite of the high rate of corruption and ineptitude in Nigeria, in this country, there are still dedicated, honest, and diligent public servants.
Public service through honesty is possible in Nigeria
I observed that the immigration officials are having a tough time dealing with the upsurge, yet they handle the situation with politeness.
The increasing number of Nigerians seeking International Passports should automatically aid corruption at the Alausa immigration offices, I thought. If your experience differs, please forgive me. I’m writing on my own experience spanning months.
I find at Alausa Immigration office dutiful, diligent and fairly honest officials.
On the several occasions that I visited the Passport office, the leadership impressed me.
Interestingly, the person in charge is a woman. I was informed the work ethnics at Alausa was initiated by her giving renewed hope to almost a crestfallen country. Various researchers have proved that women are less corrupt than men. Alausa Immigration office has further established this truth.
I left with the impression that Nigeria can change. Leadership can be made to be responsible and dedicated to human dignity.
We only need few examples to inspire millions of Nigerians.
I was told the Passport Control Officer, Mrs G. Chukwumanedo, is the silent motivator and the motivation can be seen by all visitors.
I do not know what the ‘G’ stands for; probably Grace or Gloria. A group of Asians that I met at the office told me her interaction was the one any great country should hope for.
I was motivated to monitor her. She resumes before 7.30 a.m. On each occasion, she would come out to address the crowd, workers and visitors, before the start of duties. She would tell the crowd to be orderly, pleading with them to remain patient that each of them would be attended to.
She sternly warns them that the office does not condone any form of bribery or corruption. She then would warn visitors to learn to use their International Passports for the good of Nigeria.
She told them the office would give priority to children and the elderly.
She would then preach a sermon on ethics, orderliness, good behaviour and that holders of Nigerian passports are the country’s ambassadors. This is fascinating. I have never encountered such in my long history of visiting passport offices across Nigeria.
Mrs Chukwuma Edo has taken public service to new heights. After her lectures on ethics, she retires to her office to see everyone wishing to see her, the poor, the ordinary men and women and people of influence who must wait in the vast reception to be called in one after the other. Even in the face of immense pressure, she never caved in.
For her, the day must start with thanksgiving and prayers led by her. She would take the praise worship to the delight of people of all faith, officials and workers.
She would then ask Muslims and other faithful to pray. After that, she retires to her office to receive an endless stream of visitors from morning until sundown. I am impressed by her energy. I am fascinated by her work ethics. It strengthens the struggle for more women inclusion in leadership in Nigeria.
If the Chukwuedo model is implemented, Nigeria will move a bit far away from her current red light district of corruption in international rating.
Visitors express great impression about her diligence. On one occasion, while I was waiting with others at the reception, one angry, growling journalist forced his way into her office, shouting and banging anything on sight. He had been pursuing his passport for months and wanted a solution ‘Today’.
Mrs Chukwuma gave her full attention, explaining to her the processes and the reality of the challenges they sometimes face. She then stood up to accompany the journalist to the necessary officials.
It simply shows that if Nigerian public servants work with nationalistic spirit borne out of selflessness and genuine commitment to duty, hope for a greater country that all of us would be proud of will no longer be a fleeting illusion. At Nigeria’s immigration offices at country’s airports, corruption, and ineptitude remain. If the Chukwuedo model is implemented, Nigeria will move a bit far away from her current red light district of corruption in international rating.
*Adeoye is a multiple award-winning journalist and 2001 CNN African Journalist of the Year Awar Winner.