By Omoniyi Salaudeen
The two-day public hearing on the alleged incessant malpractices associated with diplomatic postings and deliberate draining of resources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the missions recently held by the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora Affairs in conjunction with Nigerians living abroad via Zoom offered an opportunity for concerned groups and individuals to ventilate their frustrations and encumbrances in Nigerian missions abroad.
With a no-holds-barred approach adopted in the discourse, the outcome was not only revealing but also startling. According to the reports, Nigeria maintains 97 embassies and high commissions as well as 12 consulates abroad. But interestingly, all of the missions operate different procedures and uncoordinated fees for issuance of passport, which are neither paid into the federation account nor coffers of Immigration Service. Not only that, applicants have had to wait endlessly before they could pick up their passports even having paid a long list of outrageous charges in the form of money order. This procedure, many participants submitted, had made the process clumsy, shoddy and susceptible to corruption.
In February, a coalition of Diaspora groups in Canada had to cry out for intervention of the House of Representatives when the High Commission released a new guideline with a long list of exorbitant administrative service surcharges for issuance of passport.
These included 50 (CAD) for fresh/renewal, 200 for expedited issuance (wait and get), 400 for lost passport (caution fees), 70 for letter of certification of passport. Others are Emergency Travel Certificate (1) with expired Nigerian passport 50 (CAD), (11) lost passport with police report 100 (CAD). All of these charges are exclusive of the main fees paid to the Immigration Service and must be paid in money order.
In a reference letter no NHC/OTT/ADM.42/X titled: presidential directive on the implementation of administrative charges at Nigeria Missions, dated February 2, 2021, the Nigeria High Commission in Canada explained that the Federal Government had approved the immediate implementation of the administrative charges at all Nigerian Missions for effective management and efficient service delivery.
It reads in part: “The High Commission of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Ottawa, wishes to notify the general public that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has approved the immediate restoration and implementation of administrative charges at all Nigerian Missions, for effective management and efficient service delivery.
“Kindly note that the above charges are administrative charges/fees and are different from the main fees. The charges are non-refundable. Mode of payment shall be by money order, payable to the Nigeria High Commission, Ottawa, only.”
It was in response to these outrageous charges that the Chairman, Nigerian and Canadian Business Network, King Wale Adesanya, solicited the intervention of the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs, which culminated in the public hearing involving the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema, Chairman, Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri Erewa, as well as Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Service, among others.
A letter addressed to the Committee on Diaspora Affairs, read: “On behalf of Nigerians living in Canada, we request, the House of Representatives, Committee on Diaspora Affairs interposition on the subject of the Nigeria High Commission implementing new surcharge for the services listed through the communiqué No NHC/OTT/ADM.422.X, stating that Nigeria High Commission, Ottawa plans to charge additional fees for passport renewal and replacement starting on Wednesday, February 10, 2021.
“It came as a shock to us in Canada that the same service will henceforth cost over $200 extra on top of the normal payment of about $90 paid directly to the NIS portal.”
In a separate interview with Daily Sun, he said the decision to involve the Committee followed several failed attempts to prevail on the High Commissioner to do a downward review of the charges.
With the new charges, according to Adesanya, it would cost not less than 700 (CAD) to get a replacement for a lost passport. “We feel that paying additional money into a foreign account, after paying for our Passport directly to Nigeria Immigration Services is not a transparent way of showing accountability. We also feel that paying by money order to any local account will only encourage corruption, unfair service selection and favoritism. All these will reflect negatively on the Nigerian Government. The additional fee will also create grave inconvenience for Nigerians living outside the city of Ottawa,” the letter added.
And as it turned out, the outcome of the public hearing revealed a great deal of discrepancies in the processing procedures, arbitrary and outrageous surcharges, endless waiting and general lackluster attitude of staffers of the High Commissions. Only the UK and US where there is passport and visa processing centres outside the commission offices represent an exception.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, while setting the tone for discussion, stated that there was hardly a country he had visited that there were no embarrassing stories in the country’s missions. His words: “I visited many missions, right from my time as Minority Leader to House Leader and I can recall such stories.
“Be rest assured that it is not the intention of the House of Reps to act in a manner that singles out any one individual or group, neither is it our desire to take punitive action as a matter of politics.
“We will conduct a thorough review of what is, by every standard, one of our nation’s premier institutions. And we will work with all who bear a responsibility to try to fix what needs fixing and rebuild what is broken.”
Similarly, the Chairman, Committee on Diaspora Affairs, Yusuf Buba Yakub, in his keynote address to the audience at the public hearing, noted that most Nigerians were not happy with the process and collection of passports, adding that it was high time the issue was taken seriously and addressed.
The Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mohammed Babandede, whose office has been largely circumvented by the foreign missions in the processing of passport, could also not hide his emotion, saying varying surcharges imposed on applicants by the commissions were cumbersome and unnecessary. He also disclosed that such payments were made into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressing the need for harmonised fees under a single system.
He said: “Nigerians should not pay multiple fees for passport and visa. It is like you go to a supermarket to buy a handset. They told you the packaging of the handset cost N2, you paid. Moving the handset to you from the store, you paid another N3. This should not happen. Let the customer pay a single fee.”
According to him, Emergency Travel Certificate surcharges vary from $150 to $250 in some commissions. These fees, he said, were not paid into the federation account or consolidated foreign account but to the ministry of foreign affairs.
He, however, assured to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to achieve a harmonized system. “I will work with my minister to make sure we harmonise all systems so that applicants can pay one single fee under one system. We have discussed with the minister, every mission should have a website and the website should be connected to the Immigration Service to make processing of passport easy and seamless. Let us allow ministry of foreign affairs to develop a single system that will be transparent with one condition,” he said.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, while responding to the issues, also expressed his readiness to work with the relevant agencies of government to address the concerns raised by groups and individuals. He said: “Government is listening and set to act immediately,” promising to coordinate efforts with the Nigeria Immigration Service to bring about the necessary changes.
On her own part, Dabiri stressed the need for “enhanced communication and rapid response to the issues of concern. “Diaspora issue is on the front burner and nobody can take Diasporans for granted. I assure that communication will improve so that we can tap into the enormous resources of our sisters and brothers abroad,” he said.
While commending the Committee on Diaspora Affairs for providing the opportunity for the meeting, Adesanya pleaded for an immediate suspension of the surcharges pending the time when the various fees would be harmonized into a single system with a seamless process.
“We like the idea of a single payment system that will be directly online so that people can go to the embassy and pick up their passports. There is no need for two layer system. And I hope that Dabiri and Minister of Foreign Affairs will work together to synergise and harmonise this payment,” he said in his contribution on Zoom.
Speaking further with Daily Sun on the sideline of the event, he urged the authorities to always factor in the people in Diaspora in their plans so that they could contribute their quota to the development of the country.
“If there is a need to generate revenue, they should make charges moderate and uniform across all embassies in the world. They should work with the people in the diaspora, identify their needs and carry them along in foreign affairs so that they can continue to contribute to the growth of the economy of the country. You know how much is being contributed in terms of remittances annually. They should let us return to the old era of seamless process when people could apply for passport and up it up the same day,” he stated.