By Reuben Rine
Apart from the numerous airstrips built mainly by the Nigerian military and multinational oil companies, Nigeria has 31 airports out of which only 5 are functional for international travels. With the soaring number of licensed pilots, aeronautic engineers/technicians and cabin personnel who mostly manned local airlines, Nigeria is a destination for over 22 foreign carriers with a Bilateral Air Services Agreements with over 78 countries across the globe.
Nigerians are considered some of the most widely traveled people around the world. The air transport subsector in Nigeria accounts for the second-highest share of modal contribution to transport output after the road sub-sector. In 2018, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported that a total of 17.23 million passengers passed through Nigerian airports; with 12.79 and 4.43 million passengers flying through the domestic and international wings respectively.
Although airports are Nigeria’s gateways, it is disheartening to note that several illicit activities, unprecedented extortion, and organized corrupt practices persist at an alarming rate. These practices have continuously soar unabated over the years. Airport officials and attendants, security personnel and touts (which have no stake in air business) continuously devise emerging techniques to dubiously extort unsuspecting passengers. There is no doubt that a racketeering syndicate exists in Nigerian airports especially in the international wings.
Having used different domestic and international wings of Nigerian airports over the past couple of years for both local and international travels, I hereby write this opinion article to the unravel the fraudulent practices existing in the nation’s airports and to call the attention of relevant agencies into seeking redress, orderliness, and decorum.
“Oga, happy new year! What did you bring for me? You know you are my first passenger today, abeg, show me love. Oga, show me love…” These were the words of a check-in officer of the airline I used in my recent trip to the United States via Lagos Airport. Before handing over my boarding pass, she repeatedly demanded gratification from me with her facial expression indicating her gestures to be a normal routine. This never came as a surprise though, as I earlier witnessed a similar trend right from the entrance of the airport.
Just as I sent in my luggage to be screened through the scanner at the airport entrance, I was asked by a retinue of security operatives to still open my luggage for manual search although no alarm was raised by the scanner. I later understand they mostly do this in order to extort money from unsuspecting passengers. Fortunately, for me, I met a Hausa speaking security personnel which I greeted in the Hausa language since I fluently speak Hausa as well. After exchanging pleasantries, the officer demanded to know my State of origin and Local government area, after which he asked me to go without any search.
A writer previously reported how two Chinese nationals had their bags screened via the scanner at the airport entrance. “I saw an official in a navy-blue shirt flagging the Chinese nationals for inspection. Some words were exchanged and money changed hands. The two were then allowed to pass through security. The same instance then happened to a Nigerian lady, but she refused to play ball with the official manning the scanner at the entrance, so her luggage was searched on the floor”.
Unlike airports in some countries that I have visited across Africa, Asia, Europe and America, Nigerian airports are always overcrowded with a needless number of security operatives. The agencies with personnel manning the airports are the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), State Security Services (SSS), Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit (EOD), Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), and Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS). Apart from these known security operatives, several individuals with no known identity operate within the airports. They appear to be kind and willing to assist passengers only to make spurious demands for gratifications and payments after ‘voluntarily’ rendering their ‘assistance’ to passengers.
After refusing ‘showing love’ to the check-in officer and the entrance security operatives, I met an officer of the SSS who spoke softly to me after going through my international passport. On noticing Akwanga as my place of birth as indicated in my international passport, she spent needless time reeling out stories on how she stayed and worked in Akwanga some years back. Finally, she also demanded for ‘peanut’ (gratification) before returning my passport. With smiles on my face, I walked past her without a response.
While using the Abuja airport in 2017, an immigration officer who voluntarily ‘assisted’ me fill up an immigration form insisted that I give her some money. After much persuasion, I handed over a dollar bill to her. Surprisingly, she angrily demanded more after knowing fully well that I was a student. On my return for vacation through the same airport, my two big bags were not searched by the customs and NDLEA officials the moment I identified myself as a student. “No be your type we dey look for” were the words from one of the officials, presuming to get barely little or no gratifications or ‘tips’ from me.
Similarly, my interactions with several other passengers revealed that high demand for gratifications in the form of cash and/or other belongings are routine practices in our airports. A passenger told me how she constantly shared 500 naira notes to airport officials at each checkpoint. Several times foreigners were ‘threatened’ to be sent back once they refuse to play along. Most passengers part ways with their money and belongings in order to evade security checks and shunt queues. This practice may further threaten our national security.
Having mastered the art of extortion through lies, subtly cajole, intimidation, harassment, threats, persuasion, etc, airport officials, security personnel and airline assistants continuously give Nigeria a bad name. Any help rendered to passengers by airport officials is often accompanied by demands for payments or gratifications. Sadly, the phone numbers available to passengers urging them to report any act of corruption are always nonfunctional, they are either not connecting, switch off or not available.
It is noteworthy to state that these “master extortionists” and “beggars” are mostly stationed at the international wings of Nigerian airports and they often target first-time and/or amateur travelers. It is so disheartening to also note that you have to “settle” or pay some individuals within the airports before you are allowed to charge your phone, get a comfortable chair/seat or even use the trolleys. Also, it has been previously reported that a number of check-in officers do rob people of their valuables, especially money if included as part of checked-in baggage without a secured lock.
With the alarming and overbearing demand for gratifications in Nigerian airports, the earlier approved Executive Orders aimed at facilitating the ease of doing business in Nigeria is a mirage. The government’s aim of saving time and cost and promoting transparency and efficiency in the business environment is long defeated by these sharp practices in Nigeria’s gateways.
The fight against corruption should start from Nigeria’s gateways, the airports. The indiscipline airport officials constitute a grave threat and danger to Nigeria’s image, culture and business space. Also, Nigerian airports need no countless retinue of needless security operatives who themselves constitute a nuisance to the airport operations. There is a need for automation (as the case is in the United States) from the airports’ entrance to the checks and boarding sections. This will reduce the number of airport officials, hence curtailing corruption. There is a need for a complete overhaul of the Nigerian airports’ operations.
Reuben Rine is a Public Affairs Commentator/Analyst.