About five months ago, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria took firm decision to stamp out extortion and touting at the major airports in the country. Chinedu Eze writes that despite avowed determination to cleanse the airports of such ills, obnoxious acts still go on at the Lagos airport
When the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) said it was determined to end extortion at the airports in the country, especially the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, the major gateway of the nation, many industry observers expressed doubt because extortion has become entrenched phenomenon at the airport.
But FAAN went ahead and arrested some airline officials who were extorting money from passengers. The first known culprit was a staff of Arik Air who was arrested at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos.
FAAN in a statement said it was determined to stamp out the illicit acts and had taken steps to address the situation, which had soiled the name of the country in the international community.
Few weeks later the agency announced that it had stepped up efforts to clear aerodromes of touts with the arrest of 90 persons over alleged touting and other nefarious conducts at Lagos and Abuja airports.
Among those arrested, according to FAAN, were workers of Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO) Plc, Patovilki Nigeria Limited, Lakewood Services, and other airport workers.
FAAN said 89 out of the 90 culprits had been handed over to the police for prosecution and disclosed that the raid came after cases of car vandalisation; thefts and extortion were reported at the MurtalaMuhammed International Airport in Lagos.
The federal government lent its support to what FAAN was doing when it threatened to sanction security agencies including heads of military and paramilitary organisations at the Lagos airport over alleged extortion. This was in response to the report on December 8 last year; that no fewer than six officials of various security agencies were caught on camera extorting air travellers by CCTV installed by FAAN.
But on February 3, 2022, a Nigerian man resident in Canada, who identified himself only as Chris, revealed how Immigration and airline officials at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, frustrated and tried to truncate his return to the North American country after visiting home in January 2022 with his four-month-old daughter. So the extortion and harassment of passengers has not stopped.
THISDAY Investigation revealed that although significant effort is being made by FAAN to sanitise the airports but the security agencies at the airport, especially the Nigeria Immigration Service, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the Nigeria Customs Service, Quaratine and sometimes Aviation Security (AVSEC) officials of FAAN still extort air travellers at the international terminal of the Lagos airport.
It was learnt that most Nigerians who are travelling for the first time are harassed and made to pay money to Immigration officials, an act they term to ‘dis-virgin’ their passports. A source told THISDAY that Immigration officials have hawkish eyes towards virgin passports, which are passports that were procured newly without visa or immigration stamps, indicating that the person has not travelled abroad before.
Some Immigration officials are alleged to take advantage of such passengers’ ignorance and are intimidated into paying money to these officially and the currency is always dollars.
“Once you have a virgin passport when you present it to them they will ask you to go and see their supervisor. They will motion you to the inner office. When you get there they tell you that you won’t travel unless you “sort them out.”
“I was once a victim. When they asked me to go and see their supervisor, I refused. He wanted to bypass me and attend to the person behind me; I stopped him and insisted he must attend to me first. We pushed it until I brought my other passports from my bag. They knew then that it was not my first time.
“There was this lady who was travelling to the US to meet her husband. She was travelling on Emirates. They stopped her and insisted that she settled them. Luckily she was able to get my number. I asked her to give the phone to Immigration officer attending to her. The officer refused to take the phone. I asked her to put it on Speaker. While it was on speaker I told the officer that if the lady missed her flight I would make sure he was removed from that airport. He said I would not do anything. After about 10 minutes, he left the lady.
“Many passengers have missed their flight because Immigration has refused to allow them to go. The Immigration officials are not afraid because they know that the places you will go and report them are aware of what they do at the airport. But the most annoying is the one they do to students. They stop students who are travelling alone and extort the money given to them by their parents. This is said,” the source who is a senior airline official and who has worked many years at the Lagos airport, told THISDAY.
But reacting to the allegation, a senior Immigration official told THISDAY that the allegation that Immigration officials extort passengers at the airport is not true. He went on to explain that there was a classified circular from the federal government that directed Immigration at the airport not to allow young Nigerians, especially the girls not to leave the country, except there is convincing evidence that there is concrete purpose for the trip.
“Many of those girls destroy the image of Nigeria by what they do when they travel abroad. Many of them go into prostitution, including newly married women. They travel overseas, engage in prostitution, earn some money and use the money to buy things and return to the country.
“This was confirmed when there were undercover investigations by some Nigerian embassies abroad. Sometimes we have reasons why we should not allow some people to travel but they are usually very desperate and that is when they could do anything so that they should be allowed to go. That is when what they call extortion takes place,” the official said.
However he admitted that many Immigration officials at the Lagos airport currently do not have the requisite experience and exposure because those who have the experience “have been transferred out of the airport and replaced with inexperienced and unexposed persons who will tell you point blank that they came to make money.”
The Immigration official also alleged that those who act without tact are the officials of NDLEA and FAAN officials, adding, “The officials of FAAN scamper everywhere impersonating other security operatives and harass passengers.”
THISDAY learnt from official of FAAN at the international terminal that FAAN officials don’t have interface with passengers, except aviation Security personnel (AVSEC), noting that FAAN has succeeded to a large extent in instilling discipline among officials who work at the airport but admitted that such corrupt acts have persisted because the agency does not have control of the other agency workers and that none of them had been caught by CCTV and FAAN had not received call from passengers to level accusation against such officials.
This has been confirmed by the General Manager, Public Affairs of the agency, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu.
“It is wrong to say that FAAN officials impersonate officials of security agencies at the airport. It is not possible because we don’t interface with passengers, except AVSEC. We have telephone numbers plastered everywhere at the airport, directing passengers to send message or call the numbers if they have anyone asking them for money or if there is any other kind of infraction. If we get such information we arrest the person involved.
“We have CCTV installed at strategic places. We have sniffer dogs and we have security operatives. Just call or send us messages to the advertised numbers. We work with ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission). We have directed that the badges on officials are made bold so that a passenger can easily see the name of the officer you are dealing with. If you get us the name we investigate it. Even at the car parks we have CCTV. Most of the extortion happens at the screening area while going to the boarding area and FAAN officials are not there after the screening point,” Yakubu said.
Evaluation and Recommendation
The CEO of Centurion Aviation Security and Safety Consult and also former Commandant of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd) told THISDAY that he has doubts that FAAN would succeed in the effort to stamp out corrupt practices at the airport.
“I will commend FAAN if it succeeds or if its efforts are sustained; can the efforts be sustained? I doubt it; it can only be for a while. The National Civil Aviation Security Programme (NCASP) designates FAAN to coordinate the security agencies working at the airports. Before now, how effective has its coordination been on over six government security agencies working at the airports? The over six government security agencies have more personnel than all the FAAN AVSEC personnel in any of the airports and each has head of their operations at the airports. The question I ask always is, does FAAN still have airport security committees for each of the airports? How then would the Customs Federal Units come into the airport without the knowledge of the Committee or the Customs Airport Comptroller? If he were aware of the invasion, did he inform the committee and therefore the airport manager who is the chairman of the airport security committee?” he asked.
Ojikutu was referring to the recent incident where Nigeria Customs Service official breached airport security by forcefully opening security gate at the Cargo Terminal of the airport. He reinforces the fact that FAAN does not have full control of the activities of other security agencies, which is against the recommendation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). THIDSAY learnt that at many occasions these security agencies had rebuffed FAAN’s directives and unilaterally taken actions that suit their whims and against international recommended practices
Ojikutu also said that as long as there is a disconnect between the government security agencies working at the airports, FAAN’s efforts to sanitise the airport extortion and touting among government security agencies staff cannot work well without the serious intervention of the National Security Council that would consider the airport security as a function of the national security.
“Annex 17, 3.1.5 (ICAO recommendations) is very clear about what each member state must do to harness the airport security. We need to establish a national aviation security committee as against the established national civil aviation security committee and therefrom, an aviation security agency that should have a unified control and administration over all the government security agencies working at the airports,” Ojikutu said.
He emphasised that “the situation where the government security agencies working at the airports carry guns and are under different command and control is a trend that can bring disaster one day to the airport and cause embarrassment to the nation.”
THISDAY learnt that sometimes FAAN expresses the hopelessness of the situation, knowing that some of the security agency officials extort money and harass passengers and lacking the power to intervene, “is frustrating and at the end of the day, it is the airport and FAAN that are called out by the travellers,” FAAN official lamented.