By Theophilus ABBAH
ENTRENCHED interests, from top to bottom, have turned border control into a money-making machine for those at the head of the Nigerian Immigration Service. Partnerships with a number of private companies siphon off monies paid to them by the state as well as by visa and passport applicants. Court judgements, a parliamentary probe and even petitions by the agencies’ own former senior officers have not been able to dent the scheme. With honest civil servants having left in frustration, and a former director attacked, smeared, and sacked, the scheme has persisted at the agency that controls one hundred and fifty Nigerian borders.
At the parking lot of the huge headquarters of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) on Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport road in Abuja, smart-looking young men in dandy pastel shirts and khaki trousers eagerly await the visitors who seek the country’s international passport, or alternatively visa extension, residence permits, and the like. One look at the disordered and lost-looking crowds at the entrance to the building immediately hammers home the need for what they have to offer: fixing services to navigate what follows. The extra 10 000 Naira (US$ 26) they demand on top of the official passport fee of N25,000 is a small price to pay to avoid what would otherwise be a torturous and time-consuming, often ill-fated hassle.
One also pays because the consequence for applicants unwilling to pay is instant cessation of services.
Remarkably, Nigeria officially does not even produce the expensive documents: these functions have been outsourced to private companies in so-called public-private partnerships (PPP’s). The country’s e-passport booklets are produced in Malaysia by the Iris Corporation and its Nigerian subsidiary, Iris Smart Technology Nigeria Limited; NIS only activates the booklets through biometric data transfer. In 2019, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, reportedly worried that the country’s international passports were being produced abroad, directed the Immigration Service to terminate the contract, but the action still has to be carried out, probably because of anti-cancellation clauses in the agreement. 1
The contracts cannot be cancelled
Commenting on the partnership with Iris, former deputy Comptroller of Immigration (DCI) at NIS and anti-corruption whistleblower, Iwe Unaowo Nta, said that ‘Iris Smart Technology was meant to ‘Build, Operate and Transfer’ the production of international passports to Nigeria,’ but that, ‘in actual fact, the staff of Iris Smart Technologies operate from the NIS facilities and supervise the job, while the staff of NIS carry out supportive activities’. He added that ‘NIS staff have the capacity to do this, but NIS cannot revoke the agreement for fear of being dragged to the International Arbitration Court for breach of contract’.
A twenty-million-dollar market
The IRIS story does not stand alone. Resident permits, visas, and other travel documents have been outsourced to other private companies2, too, and, ever since, these papers have also become much more expensive. Until 2018, the official cost of the residence permit, (known as the Combined Expatriate Residence Permit and Alien Card Fee, CERPAC, to be paid annually,) was the Naira equivalent of US$ 1 000. However, in 2018, the Ministry of Interior increased the fee to US$ 2 000 per residence permit per year, essentially because of the controversial concession of the printing of residence permit booklets to Continental Transfert Technique Limited, CTTL or simply CONTEC, a Nigerian subsidiary of the multinational security group CONTEC Global.
At the time, former NIS DCI Iwe Nta wrote to the authorities to oppose the price increase, he says because US$ 2 000 annually is ‘exorbitant’: ‘It is much more than what other countries charge.’ In Ghana, a residence permit costs US$ 500 annually and in South Africa, the equivalent of US$ 200.
All revenue was now remitted into the account of CONTEC
But the price increase wasn’t the only thing that was wrong about the concession. Also, contrary to the rule that all revenues collected on behalf of the Federal Government should be paid into the Treasury’s account, seventy percent of fees paid for residence permits were now remitted into the account of CONTEC. In 2019, the controversial agreement became the subject of a case at the Federal High Court in Lagos, filed by Senior Advocate Femi Falana, a prominent Nigerian lawyer who is popular for fighting political corruption and human rights violations. Falana had sought a legal termination of Continental Transfert Technique Limited’s contract and a ruling for payment of all fees into the Federation Account maintained at the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Available data for 2016 and 2017 from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics3 indicate that foreigners paid for 52, 414 CERPAC transactions in 2016; the figure increased to 56, 511 in 2017. In US$, this means that CONTEC, on CERPAC alone, raked in about $18 million dollars in 2016 and $20 million in 2017.
The Federal High Court in Lagos passed judgment in favour of Falana but NIS has appealed the case to the Court of Appeal, which is yet to hear it. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior and NIS have obtained a Stay of Execution injunction, which means that it is business as usual. A dismayed Falana commented that Nigeria keeps losing vast amounts of money while the revenue continues to be, in his words, ‘corruptly shared among the few persons who own CONTEC’.
Two years before Falana dragged NIS and CONTEC to the Federal High Court, in 2017, the House of Representatives Committee on Interior, chaired by the Hon. Jagaba Adam Jagaba, had already probed the revenue collection deal. In its report4, the House Committee mentioned ‘growing concern and complaints of continued inefficiency in service delivery, incessant outsourcing of the NIS services to expatriates and civilians and… unending contract agreements and possible loss of public revenue as the contract has become a conduit for siphoning public funds and growing national security threats as a result of foreigners and civilians holding and controlling sensitive national security infrastructure’.
‘A conduit for siphoning public funds and growing national security threats’.
The report revealed that the reasons why NIS outsourced its services, not just to CONTEC, but to several private companies, was because its own systems were compromised. There was ‘multiple acquisition by citizens and non-citizens; counterfeiting of parts and or whole document; image substitution, deletion/alteration of endorsements and information; compromise of the issuance systems; and non-networking of the issuance systems’. In other words, since NIS itself was too corrupt to do its own job, other companies were contracted to do it.
The House Committee also found that NIS, while ignoring reputable indigenous companies and government-run agencies, had contracted some of its ‘partners’ rather irregularly. For example, Comptroller General of Immigration Joseph Udeh, who ran NIS between 2005 and 2010, awarded the contract for online payment platform services to Socketworks Nigeria Limited, which was, according to the House Committee, promoted by a long-time friend of Udeh’s referred to as ‘Mr Chife’. ZAM was able to confirm that the CEO of Socketworks Limited Nigeria is Aloy Chife. The company appears to currently operate as SW Global, with Chife still cited as its CEO.
Socketworks and the sixteen dead job seekers
Working for NIS, in 2014, Drexel Tech Nigeria Ltd, a company owned by Ahmadu Mahmoud, a director of Socketworks, charged seven hundred thousand applicants for vacant NIS positions one thousand Naira each (earning US$ 1,75 million for itself just for processing applications), when the vacant positions were only four thousand. Extortion led to tragedy when all applicants were asked to go for a ‘recruitment test’ to institutions in each of the thirty-six states, which caused overcrowding and a stampede at the Abuja recruitment centre, in which sixteen job seekers died. Socketworks director Alhaji Ahmadu Mahmoud and former Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro, are currently standing trial with regard to the disaster.
The House report furthermore denounced a 2007 contract for chip-based electronic visa recognition, called e-Pass, given by the same Joseph Udeh to a company called Vlatacom. According to the lawmakers, the company was owned by a ‘brother-in-law’ of Mr Udeh, although the brother-in-law was not named in the report. Vlatacom’s contract had already become controversial by then because the company had demanded the equivalent of US$ 345 000 for the lease of a customized software license. Even more strangely, after the huge sum was paid, the House report noted that five years later, since 2012, ‘all maintenance, deployment, configuration and troubleshooting of the e-Pass applications and its associated hardware’ was carried out by ‘the ICT officers of the NIS and not Vlatacom’.
The selfish interest of officials
It was revealed further that ‘the amount demanded by Vlatacom (was) enough to build a new system from scratch. Also, additional to the lease, the company would still collect a lump sum of US$ 1 005 000 from the service (itself)’. All this while, according to former DCI Nta, ‘the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company could have printed these security documents’ itself but that ‘due to the selfish interest of officials who brought in Vlatacom (…) the printing of the documents is (now) outsourced and done outside Nigeria’. The House Committee concluded that the Vlatacom contracts should be cancelled and ‘all funds paid to Messrs. Vlatacom be recovered by government’.
Nigeria’s Code of Conduct for public officers
Under Section 6 of Nigeria’s Code of Conduct for public officers, it is unlawful for public servants to have interests in companies which do business with the organisations they represent. The section says: ‘A public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his duties and responsibilities’.
In the case of another contract, also mentioned by the House’s report, a company called New Works was hired by then serving NIS DCI Abubakar Kuso when he was simultaneously New Works’ Managing Director. Similarly, company documents obtained by ZAM show that the daughter of a retired deputy Comptroller General of Immigration and her husband are directors of a fourth contracted company, Greater Washington Logistics, that is supposed to deliver database services for the e-passport.
There was conflict of interest and gross abuse of office.
The House Committee, in its report, concluded that ‘the whole public private partnership (PPP) agreements should be terminated, with the exception of Iris Smart Technologies Limited (ISTL), and those in default of the Enabling Act be prosecuted (if the legislation provides for it). For emphasis, the CONTEC projects, (the) New Works project, Vlatacom projects, Greater Washington Ltd GWL project, Online Integrated Solution Ltd (OIS) project (…) Border security and management is a matter of national sovereignty and a responsibility of the State. Concessioning these roles to private entities is an abdication of responsibility by the State’. The House also recommended that Joseph Udeh, Abubakar Kuso and then Interior Minister Abba Moro should be investigated for ‘conflict of interest and gross abuse of office’.5
The recommendations were never implemented. The companies have continued to execute their contracts with the NIS without correcting the issues raised by the investigative panel. To date, it is unclear what amounts have been recovered on behalf of Nigerians, if any.
Outright money grabbing
Dr Daniel Makolo, a former Chief Superintendent at NIS and now an immigration lawyer, has been trying to fight the corruption at the agency, but has been victimised as a result.
‘I wrote a heavily-worded memo to the top officials of the NIS (in 2017). I warned them that corruption was bringing the (service) into ruin. There is nepotism, conflict of interest, and outright money-grabbing. Instead of addressing the issues I raised, I was arrested, investigated by the Department of State Security for over twenty days. My house was raided. I was suspended from work and later sacked’.
In a letter dismissing Makolo from the services of NIS, dated April 28, 2018, and signed by an individual named Onuh J.Y, Director/Ag. Secretary, the agency claimed that the officer was fired for ‘your persistent acts of serious misconduct bordering on refusal to accept posting, refusal to obey lawful superior orders, absence from duty without leave, false claims against government official and other acts inimical to the image of the Service and unbecoming of a Public Officer which breached the provisions of the Public Service Rules’.
‘This was all because of my anti-corruption drive’, comments Makolo. ‘At first I was posted to a very remote border post where staff of (my) rank should not be posted.’ After protesting the posting, NIS suspended him, stopped his salary and locked up his personal residence at Immigration (Living) Quarters in Abuja.
Makolo is presently seeking redress in a case at the National Industrial Court of Nigeria. He has also written to the Nigerian Federal Government’s Secretary and to the Vice-President’s office. ‘The Vice-President replied, acknowledging my mail. But I’m being persecuted. At the moment, I don’t have a house to live in because I disagreed with the corrupt system’.
In 2017, Nigeria’s Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) also faulted the PPP deal between NIS and the companies. It found that, contrary to the provisions of the law, neither the Ministry of Interior nor NIS sought or obtained approval from the Federal Executive Council before it entered into the arrangement, and that NIS did not submit a host of necessary documents.
Efforts by ZAM to reach the agency to ask if any action was going to be taken to enforce its verdict and repeal the PPP arrangements, were left without response.
Former NIS DCI Nta, however, explained that there was a ‘delicate legal entanglement in the PPP arrangement’ in the sense that ‘any attempt to alter the contracts (which still run for another 15 years, TA) would lead to international legal battles’ and that, if ‘any Comptroller of Immigration would contravene the agreement, Nigeria’s assets abroad could be targeted. That’s why even the current Comptroller General, Babandede, who is opposed to the agreements, cannot change it’.
Nta explained that the agreements between NIS and the private companies are generally so skewed against the Nigerian state, stipulating, for example, ‘endless tenure with no completion period and no timelines for the programmed exit’ (as cited by the House’s investigative committee) that Nigeria, if it cancels the contracts, may very likely indeed lose out in international courts of law.
The contracts stipulate endless tenure.
As an example of this, Nigeria, already in 2008, lost a case against CONTEC because of such lopsided contract clauses. When the Nigerian branch of CONTEC Global, a multinational company registered in the UK, took Nigeria to the Arbitration Court in London over what it said was a breach of contract, the judgement obliged Nigeria to pay CONTEC 29 billion Naira, over US$ 70 million, with accruing interest in damages. While it is not clear what clause was breached exactly,6 an insider who has worked at NIS for over twenty years told ZAM that the dispute at the Arbitration Court in London centred around a contractual order for 300,000 residence permits to be produced by CONTEC every year for the first three years of the arrangement, 1999 to 2001.
This was a completely unrealistic order, since Nigeria had never issued even up to 90 000 residence permits per year. However, it was, the insider said, due to the contractual ‘shortfall,’ that CONTEC was able to seek ‘redress’ in court, with the damages to be paid as a result. In the court case, which was only weakly resisted by former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, staff members of NIS testified against their own government. After this debacle, the Ministry of Interior then still went ahead to enter into another visa deal with CONTEC, which again included exorbitant fees.
CONTEC has also not been paying tax.
CONTEC has also not paid tax to the Nigerian government since it has been operating in the country. The director of enforcement of the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) told the House’s investigative panel in 2017 that ‘though CONTEC has been filing returns it has not been paying tax and when requested to, they insist that accruals from the contract which (were) a result of debt settlement were not taxable’.
Defending himself at the House’s public hearing, former Interior Minister Abba Moro, now a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, claimed that ‘the Minister of Justice rather than the Interior Minister was the one who midwifed the negotiations’ and that he (the Interior Minister) signed out of ‘confidence he had in the office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice.’ In turn, former justice minister Muhammed Adoke, currently in court over a deal involving the much-published Malabu oil scam in Nigeria (7), appeared, in a comment to ZAM sent on Whatsapp, to blame others for the CONTEC deal and disastrous court case. ‘The (CONTEC) case was done in (Adoke’s predecessor) Anoodooka’s time’, he wrote, adding that ‘we went to Washington for the negotiations (after the verdict, TA) and got the award reduced (…) The (then) Minister of Interior and his Ministry, for reasons best known to them and the contractors kept fighting themselves (after we left the) office’. It is not clear whether the award was in fact reduced in negotiations between CONTEC and the Nigerian state. The court verdict with regard to the N 29 billion has not been revoked.
The current Comptroller General of the NIS, Muhammed Babandede, has in a recent report lamented the situation, writing that ‘the payment to foreign and local technical partners (was) US$ 92 million, representing over eighty percent of the revenue the NIS generated from 2018 to 2020’. He would not grant an interview to ZAM.
‘It’s a rip-off’.
Jagaba Adam Jagaba, commenting in March 2021 on the outcome of the report, said: ‘I’m no longer a member of the House of Representatives. We did our work, submitted our report to the House; we made recommendations that the PPP (agreements) should be reviewed or scrapped because the NIS should have the capacity to do the job being given out on concession. It is a rip-off, and today I still stand by our report and its recommendations. There’s nothing I can add to it’.
The current Chairman of the House Committee on Finance, Mr James Faleke, vowed to probe the ‘technical partners,’ saying: ‘We will invite all your partners to appear before this committee (… ) And when they’re coming, they should come with all their tax remittances documents from personal income tax, withholding tax, company income tax and Value Added Tax, all from the day they signed the agreement till this day’.
Checks by ZAM at the National Assembly in March 2021 show that this probe is yet to take place.
- In late March 2021, the Nigerian national daily The Punch reported that Iris Smart Technology had threatened legal action against the NIS over plans to terminate its contract for the production of the international passports.
- The public-private partnerships (PPP’s) involve Continental Transfert Technique Limited, Iris Smart Technologies Limited; Socketworks Nigeria Limited; Greater Washington Logistics Limited; Iptelcom Network Limited; and Vlatacom.
- See: Nigeria Bureau of Statistics: Immigration Statistics-2017
- The report, though obtained by ZAM, has never been gazetted by the National Assembly, making it difficult for the public to get access.
- See the motion tabled by the House in the Order Paper of 29 November 2017.
- Details of the judgement can be found here.
- The former minister has been in and out of court over some of the controversial roles he played during his tenure from 2011-2015. See for example ‘EFCC Drags Etete, Adoke To Court Over Malabu $1.1b Oil Deal’ on The Elites Nigeria.
This report is published with permission from ZAM Africa
EDITOR’s NOTE: This report is updated to reflect that Drexel Tech Nigeria Ltd, a company owned by Ahmadu Mahmoud, is involved in the extortion of applicants for NIS jobs, and not Socketworks.