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Begging, Extortion: Officials’ Pastimes At Nation’s Airports

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For many years now, travellers through the Lagos airport and other airports in the country have constantly complained about the level of extortion at the airport. From the officials at the point of entry through the terminal and airline officials designated to check in passengers, there are traces of outright begging and extortion. In this piece, ANTHONY AWUNOR examines the menace

On a daily basis, thousands of Nigerians and foreigners travel in and out of the country and most of them go through the airports, whether local or international. These airports are manned by security personnel who must interface with the travellers by all means.

Unfortunately, investigation has shown that most of these travellers face embarrassments, arising from the attitude of some unscrupulous security officials on duty in form of either, begging or extortion. Sadly, most air passengers are always in a haste to catch up with their flight arrangements. They therefore play along even when they are displeased.

Narrating his experience, a regular traveller, Mr. Manny Phillipson, told LEADERSHIP that he had an ugly encounter with some of the security officials at the airport, adding that the situation was indeed worrisome especially at both the departure and arrival wings of the MMA.

Phillipson said “The immigration and customs deliberately beg for money and valuables. They sometimes ask you to give out your wristwatch or necklace when you can’t part with money. I’ve been offered option of either parting with money or a valuable gift. They sometimes even go as far as searching your baggage should you claim you do not have anything to offer.”

Describing it as bad and shameful, the transportation expert suggested that “government and the relevant authorities should address the habit. A country’s airport is a replica of the attitude of the people of that country. One therefore could rightly conjecture that the state or status of a country’s airport could be likened its people.”

Another international traveller who is based in Vienna, Austria, Jasper Abili, has his own story to tell. According to him, the officials at the airport are always asking for money.

He said “If you are coming in, the customs must get money from you. When going, its immigration officials that would deal with you. Once they finish checking your international passport, they will ask for money before the NDLEA guys start with you.”

Relating his experience to LEADERSHIP, another international traveller, Prince Emmanuel Ohai, said “I travel quite a bit and can tell you that the staff at the Nigerian Airport are mostly unprofessional and poorly trained. Aside from the obvious poor maintenance of the airport facilities which are evident once you use any of the toilets. I have observed that the cleaning staff members in these toilets are more into begging for alms than doing the job they were hired to do. For example, instead of putting the soap and tissue papers in the dispensers, their preference is to hold unto these items and make it available to the airport users on demand. This gives the airport cleaning staff an opportunity and advantage in begging for alms. Usually once you ask “Where is soap?” The airport cleaning staff then presents it while bowing and saying “Good day Sir/Ma”

After you have finished using the soap what usually happens next is that you get a proposition such as “Anything for me? From this airport cleaning staff who is supposed to be paid a salary. This is what Nigerians and non-Nigerians go through at the Nigerian airports.

Lamenting the situation further, Ohai who is based in United States of America stated that “The airport security staff is not exempted from this “alms begging” culture at the airport.

Another dimension, Ohai pointed out is the poor conduct of the airport security staff, including Customs, Immigration and Police and their tendency to offer expedited airport boarding and escort services to family members and expatriates for a fee.

Stating that it is impossible to find such situation at any other airport in West Africa, Ohai pointed out that one thing that has contributed to this practice of giving preferential treatment to bribe paying passengers or family members is the long tenure and age of the security staff at the airport.

He said he is aware that only the well-connected staff who are mostly in the twilight of their career are the ones that get posted and are retained at the airport for long periods of time, saying that in contrast, Lomé-Toikin International Airport is staffed by mostly youth under the age of 30 years.

Speaking further, Ohai noted that “on a recent stop over there, I was pleasantly surprised how professional the airport security staff were. I did not get the “Yes sir- Yes Ma” fake greetings that we have become accustomed to by the by and large corrupt Nigeria Airport staff who appear friendly but demand bribes and gifts for doing a job that they are paid a salary to do. I will recommend that the Nigerian authorities should make a two-week internship training at Lomé-Toikin International Airport Togo part of their orientation for new airport staff being deployed to Nigeria’s airports.

Decrying the activities of the black market dealers at the Airport, Ohai said, “Sometimes they are bold enough to accost passengers for currency exchange transactions right there inside the arrival hall. The currency black market business just as the cattle breeding business are ethnic centric businesses which enjoy support from powerful people in position of authority”.

These little things, he pointed out affect the overall image of the country by foreign visitors.

Proferring solution for the menace, Ohai said “I would say it is obvious that there is a serious conflict of values and interests in the attitude of Nigerians towards duty and country. In order to solve these perennial issues, it is my opinion that power needs to be devolved with regional authorities being able to project the culture of their own localities. What we have now appears to be a clash of cultures and values and the unitary style of Government we practice now seems to be overwhelmed with the challenges of a collapsing monolithic economy. If power is devolved, the Lagos State Government or Ikeja Local Government will be responsible for running the Murtala Muhammad Airport as against some Federal Government Agency in Abuja that is also saddled with the responsibility of running other airports in the country. At some point, the number of airports in the country will overshadow the resources of the Federal Government agencies that are saddled with the responsibility of running these airports.

To Abdullahi Mohammed Moshood, a PR and media communication expert, it is a different story. According to him, no official has begged or extorted from him, simply because he always travel in a group.

“I have not really been extorted. Most of my trips are embarked in group. So it’s a kind of difficult”.

From all indication, the menace thrives most at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMI), Lagos. With about 6,273,545 and 6,367,478 passengers passing through the terminal in 2010 and 2017 respectively, the airport seems to be a cash cow for the officials who perpetrate the crime.

Ready to tackle the issue of touting, begging, extortion and above all, security breach at the nation’s airport, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria had last year listed only six agencies approved to interface with passengers at the country’s airports. These agencies are: Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS), The Nigerian Customs Services (NCS), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), State Security Services (SSS), Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit (EOD) and Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Services (NAQS).

To make the strategic development work, FAAN immediately reconfigured the affected agencies’ orientation at the airports as follows: Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS) and National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) will now operate at Arrival and Departure halls; Nigeria Customs Services (NCS) will operate at the Arrival Hall only; the State Security Services (SSS) and Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Services (NAQS) will operate at the Cargo Terminals only, while the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit, (EOD) will be operating at the baggage hall.

The authority also gave a directive that all agencies are required by law to be in uniform while on duty and must be fully kitted at all times with their name tags conspicuously visible and must remain within the confines of their responsibilities.

One year after this important notice was issued to airlines, passengers and the general public, LEADERSHIP can confirm that security agencies including the Police, Army, National Security and Civil Defence Corp (NSCDC), Aviation Security (AVSEC) and other paramilitary personnel are still found at various parts of the airport.

For instance, from the officials at the point of entry to the terminal, to the airline officials designated to check in passengers, one can still find some security officials that are not authorised to function at their various duty posts.

As at the moment, to enter Lagos International Airport, passengers are met with officials known as aviation security personnel. Some of them even find their way inside different areas of the terminal. Airport users sometimes mistake these officials for immigration or customs officers, but they really are not. They are merely airport security men charged with the duty of overseeing threats to security and easy flow of human traffic. Their job is also to prevent people without evidence of travelling from gaining access to the airport terminal.

Making clarification on the matter, the General Manager, Corporate Affairs of FAAN, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu told LEADERSHIP on Wednesday that there are lot of compliance by the sister agencies.

Yakubu said “There is a lot of compliance by the sister agencies. There is also a lot of sanity in our airports. We are all working together to ensure smooth facilitation of passengers”

Before now, only touts are associated with begging and extortions at the airports before airport staff joined the fray.

FAAN has, however, been able to tackle the issue of touting. The agency has made serious efforts to ensure that airports are touts free, long ago before ever the Executive Order was issued. As part of its plan to implement the Executive Order, FAAN had few years ago commenced the process of ending touting and other vices at airports across the country.

Earlier, Yakubu had explained that eradicating touts at the airports are part of efforts to implement the executive order signed by Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo.

Osinbajo had ordered that touting by official or unofficial persons be brought to an end at all the ports of entry to the country and that all duty staff must be properly identified by uniform and official cards. He also instructed that all off duty staff must stay away from the ports except with the express approval of the agency head.

Speaking on their compliance, Yakubu confirmed that FAAN had been able to tackle the issue of touts at the airport, just as she made it known that the airport is now free from touts. She also advised travellers not to patronise touts but to always go straight to the counters to purchase their tickets by themselves, stressing that such step is better than relying on mere touts. To serve passengers who don’t like going to the counters, the FAAN GM said that the authority has opened up passengers’ support services for such category of passengers at the airports.

“If you go to the airport now it is very sterile. We have been able to handle the issue of the touts; you know we are working with the police. Nobody that has no business in the airport should get into the airport now. It is either you have a boarding pass or you have staff ID or a visitors’ card. If you don’t have any of these documents, you are not allowed into the airport. We are working with the police, when we arrest we hand them over to the police, for the police to take them to the court. It is not FAAN that releases them. Now they are being fined and they must pay a fee. I am not sure about the amount but they are made to pay as fee; some are even being remanded now and they know it is no longer business as usual. We now have sniffer dogs in front of MMIA; anybody found milling around the airport without any business is arrested. I tell you, we have been able to deal with the issues of touts,” Yakubu said.

Similarly, the NIS had early last year tagged the counters of its personnel at the airport.

LEADERSHIP gathered that the Comptroller General Immigration Service, Mohammed Babandede, ordered the move for proper identification of officers especially those who have contact with passengers.

The NIS, however, stated that the move was part of the ease of doing business policy of the Federal Government, which came to effect in July 2017. The service also declared that its officers were up and doing in the discharge of their duties, not just at the airport, but in all their commands.–

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