Getting Nigerian Passport With Tears
By Simon Kolawole
By their PRO you shall know them. Sometime in February this year, I got a distress call from a friend’s wife in the UK. She said there was a spelling error in her new Nigerian passport which she needed to correct urgently because of some critical deadline she had to meet. She had gone to the Nigerian high commission in London and the official who attended to her said the change could only be effected from Abuja. I confidently told her not to worry, that it would be corrected. Fellow Nigerians, it took three months to fix a one-alphabet spelling error! We were thereafter told to rejoice and be glad, because correcting a spelling mistake took one applicant two years!
When she called me, I had confidently contacted Mr Sunday James, the PRO of Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), about the issue. I was that confident because Mr Ekpedeme King, the previous PRO, always swiftly and admirably responded to requests for assistance. James first blamed the applicant for not detecting the error before the passport was printed but graciously requested for some documents. After that, I never heard anything from him again — till today. All calls, SMS and WhatsApp messages went into “voicemail”, as we jokingly say in Nigeria. My friend’s wife must have noticed my embarrassment as my confidence began to sag like a teenager’s trousers.
I sought for help elsewhere. Someone helped to contact another NIS official in Abuja. The official requested for the slip issued to the applicant at the high commission when she did her biometric capture. That was how another problem started. She had submitted the slip on collecting the passport. I asked her to go back to the high commission to request for a copy so that she could scan to Abuja. She travelled down to London and met the official, who became very hostile and started talking condescendingly to her. He refused to make a copy available, telling her cynically: “You will still come back to me here! Nobody can help you in Abuja without me!”
Apparently, my friend’s wife was just being too British: the man wanted “something”. That was how the process got stuck for several weeks. Abuja said nothing could be done without the slip because it contained the server access information. I was surprised. I thought the name and passport number could be used for that purpose. I was told it was a third party that was processing the applications in the UK and access was limited. But miracles still happen. Along the line, things changed about the procedures and the technical issues. The official successfully processed the correction in Abuja. My friend’s wife, unfortunately, missed her deadline but at least she now had her passport.
I was, therefore, not surprised when Mr Jeffrey Ewohime went berserk at the high commission in London last week over his Nigerian passport. Before I got to know the details of the incident — which turned out not to be in his favour — I had told myself: “Finally, somebody has lost his cool!” It was going to happen at some point. I have received dozens of complaints from Nigerians living abroad on the avoidable difficulties and humiliation they experience when processing their passports at Nigerian missions. We seem to be exporting our inefficiency, arrogance, incompetence and impunity to other countries as if there is Nobel Prize on offer.
What Ewohime did is indefensible: no matter your anger and frustration, you cannot go about vandalising cars. There should be a boundary. Even when we are weeping, our eyes can still see. The tide turned against Ewohime when the NIS issued a statement that the passport had been issued since June 6, 2019, that he did not leave any self-addressed envelope for delivery and was late to the high commission on the day in question only to go gaga when he was told they had closed. That is the official explanation. We await his side of the story. However, when it emerged that he had a previous conviction for assault, it became difficult to rationalise his behaviour.
Unfortunately, the dark part of Ewohime’s history has been deployed to overshadow the real issue at play — the untidiness of NIS officials in dealing with passport applications home and abroad. This is an irony because since Mr Muhammed Babandede was appointed the comptroller-general in 2016, he has displayed the attributes of a modern public administrator. He has introduced and implemented progressive ideas in three years, improving customer experience and drawing encouraging testimonies over service delivery. He has doubled both the pagination and the validity of the green passport. Suffice it to say I appreciate his efforts in a difficult system such as ours.
Nevertheless, the Nigerian factor must always creep in. If you want to apply for the passport in the UK, for instance, one of the elementary mistakes you must avoid is to call the high commission. Chances are nobody will pick your call. And if someone manages to do, maybe once in a week, he or she will talk to you in a way that will make you feel like a bag filled with rotten potatoes. Someone told me that was also his experience with the Atlanta mission in the US. Another mistake you shouldn’t make is to send an email. You won’t even get an auto-reply, much less anything addressing your enquiry. These are not some Stone Age stories. I am talking about 2019.
A friend sent this message to me sometime in March: “My daughter was in Atlanta two days ago for her passport and she was told it will be ready in May… The worst part is the shabby treatment being meted out to people at the Nigerian embassy in Atlanta by one Mr Pius… He screams, insults and messes up people’s emotions and his colleagues know him to be like that. He makes errors every now and then in inputting information and delays people unnecessarily!” I don’t know where this notion came from — that the moment you are a government official, you should be regarded as a tin god and you have the licence to talk to anybody anyhow. It is so commonplace.
Meanwhile, there are several instructions on the website that are not good for your health. You would have raised your blood pressure above acceptable limits before you realised it. Someone told me that because he read the instruction that the applicant should produce two passport-size photographs, he started running helter-skelter, found a photo booth, took pictures and ran back to the high commission. When it was his turn, nobody asked for the photographs; they simply snapped him on the biometric machine. Another person complained to me that the website says there is no fast track. He discovered the service was available when he appeared for biometric capture.
My cousin who lives in the US went to the mission for a passport renewal early this year. She paid for the fast track. Week after week, she called the embassy’s phone numbers for update. Nobody picked. One day, someone picked and talked to her in the most unfriendly tone, without even providing answers as to when the “fast track” would deliver her passport. The delay went on for more than a month before I decided to wade in. I did not bother to call the PRO this time. I called someone else in the hierarchy and the passport was delivered to my cousin at her US residence the following day. What this tells me, clearly, is that there is a dysfunctional link in the chain.
It would be unfair to single out the immigration service for admonition — there is hardly any agency in Nigeria where you are guaranteed civilised customer service. It appears the wrong people are always saddled with the jobs that require emotional intelligence. I actually don’t know of many agencies that reply emails or pick calls promptly and resolve issues with warmth and a sense of responsibility. How can you send an email and never get a response? How can you call a number on the website of an agency and not get a response? This is a sign of a deeper rot in the system. Picking calls or replying emails should be one of the easiest duties you can expect an agency to perform.
In 2004, President Olusegun Obasanjo tried to improve service delivery by ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) with the establishment of Service Compact with All Nigerians (SERVICOM). This was to promote “effective and efficient service delivery” to ensure customer satisfaction and to manage the performance-expectation gap between government and citizens. Each agency is supposed to have a SERVICOM charter and a SERVICOM unit or department. The agency still exists, apparently, and is still trying to stay relevant but it is clear to all and sundry that service delivery is still not taken seriously in the public sector in our country. It is too glaring.
Many Nigerians think the Ewohime incident, no matter how unjustifiable, was borne out of frustration and he deliberately targeted the vehicles of the high commission officials as proof that he knew what he was doing. He was a rebel with a cause, they said. Some even think this may be an indication that Nigerians are getting fed up and will take the law into their hands one day as they continue to get frustrated by the service they get from government. I hope it will not get to that stage before the government begins to do what is right. Rather than snigger at Ewohime, therefore, government should seize this opportunity to assess and improve its service delivery.
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