The Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mr. Mohammed Babandede, hails from Jigawa State. Born in 1963, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History/Islamic Studies and also has a Master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Prior to his appointment as CG, he was the DCG, Operations and Passports. He also served as ACG Passport at the Immigration headquarters between December 2012 and January 2014. He is currently the longest serving senior officer in the NIS. In this interview, he speaks on what his agency is doing to implement the Executive Order recently signed by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, and how the service is tackling immigration challenges under his leadership, among other issues. He spoke with Iyobosa Uwugiaren and Bolaji Adebiyi Excepts:
The Acting President Yemi Osibanjo, recently signed an Executive Order that is expected to facilitate easy ways of doing business in Nigeria. How prepared is your service in the implementation of those aspects affecting your agency?
Thank you very much. I’m glad to say that Nigeria is among the comity of countries with the ease of doing business. The Executive Order is expected to address three issues: transparency, accountability and efficiency in government. What the Executive Order is saying is: look, whatever you want to do as a government agency, you need to be transparent – in terms of fees, in terms of requirements, in terms of timeline. A situation where you apply for a facility in government and the requirements are not clear is not good for our system; the fees are not stated clearly, timeframe are not given. You may end up applying for a facility in government and it will take years and nobody will reply you. That is the idea of the Executive Order, which says that there should be transparency in government. Which means, all requirements for applying for passports, for visas, for residence permit should be clearly stated; items and where to apply for facility should be clearly identified so that you don’t change the items in the middle of the process. You apply for a passport and they tell you, you need five documents and in the middle of it, they tell you, no we need six or seven items. It doesn’t help the system. Prices should be clearly fixed and be stated so that at least, the people will know. I’m glad to say that the Nigerian Immigration Service did the best in terms of website. The first contact an individual has with an institution, institution like ours, is the website. You can apply for our services online, passport can be paid online. So, we have been able to update our website, www.immigration.org.ng to make it user-friendly and make things very clear to the public. If you go to the website, you can see that all our requirements for the services we provide, are very clearly stated with the fees. What government is telling us now is to give timelines in all the facilities we issue. In terms of that, we have complied. If you go to our website, you will see full compliance in respect of that. We have finalised all our documentations in terms of the facilities that we issue. So, on the issue of transparency, we have done well. For example, if we refuse to recruit a pregnant woman and she complains, we will tell her that what we had published the requirements in the newspapers; we don’t need to hide our requirements again. What the government is saying is that the publication of the requirements in the newspapers must be carried out, so that there will be transparency. People recently complained why we stated the requirements in our publication in the newspapers. Unfortunately, people don’t know that all the para-military agencies also comply with those issues we stated, but, don’t publish them. Now, we will publish them. So, I’m proud to say that, in terms of transparency, we are doing well. In terms of ports, there is an Executive Order of entry and exit of persons; that we should be clear on the issue of arrival. I’m glad to tell you today that unlike before, where all the companies will have to come to Abuja from Lagos, Port Harcourt, from different locations to apply for these facilities, we have stopped that. And we are now saying: don’t come. We have provided an authenticated email where you can contact us; that before automation you can send your application to AO@nigerianimmigrations.org.ng, we will process the application and then send the approval by email. You don’t need to come down to Abuja. It is your arrival in the office that creates the desire for corruption; you are stressed and you really don’t want to go back again.
Now, we really want everybody to apply by email. Before the end of the year, we want to do automation, where you can go to the system, pick application form, process it and submit. After processing the application, we will send it to you via email. But, for now, we are doing it by email. Many companies, public relations officers and others are not happy because, they don’t have money to apply for transport to come to Abuja. Also, we were able to deal with our officers at the various borders, and at the airports. We are saying do not spoil the name of the country. Because, you are the very first people to receive a visitor and you are the last people to see the person going out. The way we interact with passengers is the way people feel about our country. As he/she departs, he goes with the memory he/she got at the airport. The airport has been sanitised now. I visited the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos two months ago, under what I call ‘under cover’’, I was there. I was wearing FAAN uniform to see how the officers will work. Thereafter, I transferred some of them; some of them were queried; some, their tags were removed, while some of them are no longer working at the airport. This is the era of change and they have to change because, they know I will be there anytime. And every time I travelled, I don’t take a shortcut. I follow the queue like every other person. You will agree with me, you are free to interview the passengers, the difference between then and now is how passengers are being treated in our airports today, compare to some months ago. The changes are tremendous – not only in our airports, but even in land borders; we have done the same at the Seme Border. We have removed the officer at Seme Border for demanding money and for texting the officers to bring him returns. We have removed him and things have been sanitised. I’m glad to tell you that Seme Border, Idiroko Border and others are receiving passengers… I assure you that I will visit such other locations but not in uniform, not as a comptroller-general. I will visit as a passenger. They are aware that I can come anytime. So, they are very serious with their work. In terms of compliance with the Executive Order, we have done well. We have compiled the documents. We will present it to the public very soon.
Just a follow up. We have always had this directive but, we discover that after sometime, everything will just fizzle out. How are you ensuring that this directive is sustained? How do you get your men to be part of this process you are trying to put in place, so that it’s not just an interim issue?
The reason things of this nature failed before is because you don’t bring it to the public. When you educate the public that, if you want to get residence permit for your expatriate, you need a particular period of time to get it, people will fall in line; that, the law allows that after the expiry time you can apply direct to the minister for your permit. That is what the Executive Order says, it is not only in the Immigration but in all agencies providing public services in the country. It will be in the public domain. The documents we have produced, which will be launched very soon, will be made available to the public. If you apply for a passport, these are the requirements. There is a period required, seven to eight hours, and after that period and we don’t text you or write a letter to you, you have the right to apply to the minister telling him that approval to your request has not been granted. But if we have difficulties, we will write you. We will make the document available to the public. I always say that changes are not validated by those who do it but by those we serve. So, we need to validate these changes through the public. The public needs to say: look, things have changed. I assure you it will last because the public will not give up in looking for what is right. The media also need to bring it to the front burner of our national discourse by making sure that the agencies involved comply with the Executive Order.
Another issue that has to do with the Executive Order is also the issue of different agencies at the port, both at the land borders and the airports. The order requires that you have one-stop-shop, how is that coming out?
As far as we are concerned, the immigration will always keep to the global best practice. We have said this on several occasions. We have also argued it several times before the Executive Order was given. The process is very simple: you arrive at the airport, I’m not given you examples of international airports like, Gatwick, Heathrow and Frankfurt, I’m just giving you examples in countries like Ghana and Addis Ababa; on arrival at the airport, you meet immigration officers at the counter, no other persons are allowed to receive you, not touts. You just land and meet immigration officers at the counter; you pick your bag; the next people that you will see are the customs; you have the choice to either pass through green or the red, if you want to declare your items you go through red; if you want to pass the green, the customs have the right to use equipment, and if they suspect something, using dogs, they can put you aside and search you. When you are leaving the airport, you put your luggage in the scanner. That is the practice in every airport in the world; that, when you are departing you put your luggage in the scanner and if you are coming in, you also put your luggage in the scanner. So that every agency that is interested in goods and items could use the scanner. If things work well we don’t need many agencies to be present at the airport; they don’t need to be physically present to do their jobs. They can do surveillances, some of the secret services can travel around with the passengers to see what is happening. Cameras are around, we don’t need to have a system where multiple people will need to check your bags and check your passport; there is no need for that.
Do you have the equipment that is required to handle these services?
Well, I will not speak on behalf of FAAN. It has contacted many of the agencies operating at the airports to ensure that the equipment is purchased. But one thing is very clear: there is no need for physical check at the airport, it is very embarrassing. And you see that when you are boarding an aircraft, somebody with hard glove will be searching your bags from all corners; even with the search they can’t find anything. If there is machine to do that it will solve the problem. My emphasis is not in machine alone, machine doesn’t solve the problem. There would have to be the right people to check the machine; if you have a scanner and the person checking the scanner is busy making phone calls or is tired and has worked for 10 hours or doesn’t even have the experience to man the machine, it doesn’t solve the problem. It then becomes a useless machine. So, we need to do training; we need to ensure we put the right people in the right places. There should be a shift duty, so that workers will be on the alert. That is what government is targeting and I am sure that government is ready to buy this equipment at our various airports. But among these agencies, particularly the security agencies, there is an agreement on who should perform different duties in line with the execution of the Executive Order and in terms of human being, we are leading. That is why when Kaduna Airport was to be used as an alternative to Abuja, when Abuja was closed, we launched the arrival form and departure form same day and the airport harmonised the arrival and departure forms; this is how it is done globally. Unlike what is being practiced before, if you want to enter Nigeria you will see three forms: customs, immigration and health; you will be frustrated. But today, we’ve let that go, we have developed a single form, which will satisfy customs, health and NDLEA or any other party, and that single form has been put in place. But when you talk about goods and general security at the airport, the customs and the FAAN are also there. What I’m saying is, if government is committed and buy the right machines and train the right people, it will reduce the number of officers moving around the airport doing anything, checking things physically, and yet, drug pushers still pass through the airports; illegal immigrants still cross the border just because we are not automated. I hope with automation, things will change.
One of the challenges we have in Nigeria today is the porous situation in our borders. How are you rising up to the challenges?
We have a lot of challenges because we have a land border, which is large. There is immigration security concern globally; it is only in this country that we are sometimes relegated, and we don’t get the right support that we need. If you want to control the entry of the wrong persons, threat and terror, we need strong security in our borders. The border security is a security for the entire nation. So, I’m glad to say that this administration is very concerned. We have our own strategies. When I came on board we organised a strategy retreat in Kano. You can’t start a system without a retreat. During the retreat in May 2016, we developed a road map for our strategy, and the questions we asked ourselves are: where are we going to test our resources? Do we go to the land border and put all our resources? Do we control after entry, and who do we invest in with these our resources? These are the three forms of control in immigration globally.
In some countries, they say the best way they can control their resources is to have a strong visa regime because many visitors hardly come except by air in small countries. Like UK, it is mostly island; so, they invest a lot in visa regime. How to apply for visa, who will screen it and their investment is at the airport, because, majority of people who come to the UK come by air. But, we are different; we have big land borders, most of the people coming are our neighbours. The threat to our security is coming mostly from North Africa, mostly Libya. The insurgency is going on globally. So, we believe strong borders manned by immigration officers are the best solution. That is why we have developed a border strategy, which we are going to launch very soon. The minister will launch it in Kano; we have done trainings for border commanders, border control officers and drivers. This is the first time we thought the drivers will be placed for strategic patrol. We are not going to do patrol, where you see officers at various check points along the road. We want to patrol the flanks of the borders, where you see immigration officers on the road, looking for migrants. Thank God the government has invested in the project with over 165 vehicles for the patrol. We are launching the patrol unit with socialised officers and with the border control commanders. But we are not going to invest in the border and we don’t have the capabilities and the manpower to make sure illegal migrants do not enter our country. Thank God for our strategy, we have launched the immigration regulations and the regulation has given us a permit to register people compulsorily, non-Nigerians, at their state of residence or their local governments, where they are residing. When I say residence, I mean wherever you sleep. That’s the definition by the law. If it is the factory that is your residence, you will be registered. This law has been passed and this year’s budget makes provision for it. And if God permits and the budget is out, we will be able to make the facilities available, where every non-Nigerian must register where he resides. We don’t have much data for now because those who escaped through the borders can be registered once they have spent 90 days. It also makes it compulsory for any person who provides the residence for foreigner to report after 90 days, otherwise, it will be an offence. So, you can see that the strategy is not only to control at the border. This year, we also launched the biometric visa. You remember a case of a Lebanese, who changed his name and wanted to get visa to enter Nigeria, and this can be avoided if it is biometric. This cannot be our burden if its biometrics. If you have biometric visa system with photographs, you can change your names several times, but, you can’t change your biometric. We can get you. It’s like our e-passport. Our e-passport has biometric features. That is why people now find it very difficult to beat the system. If we put your fingers on our system, we find out who you are. And by the time we improve our biometric visa, we will be able to control our border effectively.
Taking into consideration the deadly activities of the insurgents in the North East for example, are your men well-equipped to patrol the borders without endangering their lives?
In the North East, our men are part of the Joint Task Force (JTF) team. We have gallant officers. Last year we rewarded gallant officers who had contributed to the on-going war against insurgents. Some of them were those who escorted the UN team and repelled Boko Haram’s planned attack. The military will supplement our efforts in the interim. Military cannot patrol borders otherwise they will become threat to the community; people will start running when they see military patrolling. In the secured places, the military will leave us with the patrol. In Borno State, we are working jointly with the military.
Sometimes ago, you complained about inadequate funding to buy equipment you need to do your job. What has this government done to address the issue?
This government is very transparent in terms of budgeting. When they promised fund, they release it. What I saw last year was fantastic; they extended the period of capital budget. We have been able to purchase 165 patrol vehicles this year. We have also purchased communication equipment that will be attached to the vehicles. We can now have direct surveillance with the borders through some of the equipment we purchased. Funding can never be enough but we have to do it gradually. Investment in our borders is investment in our economy and security, and I am sure the government knows this.
The activities of herdsmen are currently threatening the internal security of Nigeria. Many security experts have said that many of these herdsmen are foreigners. How do they enter the country via borders without the attention of your men?
A lot of herdsmen stories are politics, I am sorry to say this. Yes, it is happening but they are mainly caused by communal clashes. But we are aware, and it was agreed by ECOWAS that herdsmen can move freely; it was agreed by our nation. In the past, the herdsmen had their routes; they had their trans-movement certificates, but things have changed. Their movement is now caused by environmental factors and development. Look at Abuja, 30 years ago it was a cattle area but things have changed; we now have houses. We are doing better; we are doing ECOWAS card biometrics, as directed by ECOWAS in 2014, so that we can monitor their movement. We have presented it to the Federal Executive Council for approval. Once that is done, we will start producing the cards. When we have these cards, and we can patrol the borders effectively, we will be able to monitor the movement of herdsmen and every other trans-national organised crime.
How come non-Nigerians find it very easy to obtain Nigerian Passport?
Since we came on board, I doubt if it is still happening. But the truth is that it is very easy to get papers. (You need) Age declaration, birth certificate, and state of origin to process passport. But we have many cases in courts of non-Nigerians who attempted to obtain Nigerian passports with fake documents; we are prosecuting them. But the planned registration of non-Nigerians will help address the problems.
Why are Nigerian passports not printed in Nigeria?
There are a lot of politics to it. When we introduced the e-passport in 2007, companies were asked to bid for the job and many companies bid, including Iris Smart Technologies. The agreement signed by the Ministry of Interior and Iris Smart Technologies was with Nigerian company. But some of these companies do not have the technology to produce the passport in Nigeria and they assemble them outside the country. And the federal government is not happy about it. I have been directed by the Honourable Minister of Interior to chair a committee to address the issue with IRIS Smart and we have agreed that the printing of Nigerian passports must be domesticated in Nigeria. And Nigeria Printing and Minting Company has been requested to submit a proposal to this effect for evaluation. It is all politics; we don’t have the papers to produce the passports in Nigeria, we will still have to import the papers they use in assembling the passports. But assembling the passports in Nigeria will give more jobs to our people.
Many Nigerians abroad have complained about difficulties renewing their passports. What is being done about this?
We have resolved the issue of passport booklets about three months ago. The company printing them have imported the booklets, they had some challenges with foreign exchange and we also need to capture these booklets. But the mobile unit is addressing that. We now visit the foreign missions to do the capturing. Recently, some Nigerian students in Turkey had problems with the authorities there over expired passports. We sent our men there and within a few days, we were able to capture over 500 Nigerians and renewed their passports. The issue is being addressed.