An open letter to the Minister of Interior – a plea for better service at the passport offices.

The Ikeja Passport Office

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings. – Gandhi (1957), An Autobiography

Dear Minister,

Sir, please accept my apologies in advance, for writing to you openly. I considered what would be the best way to reach your exalted office but could think of no better medium than this.

I write to you sir, because we share a mutual interest – the love for Nigeria and care and concern for the plight of its citizens. Sir, I am sure you have these interests at heart because the House of Assembly would not have confirmed your nomination as a Minister if it is not so.

I am concerned, sir, that the current processes at the Passport Offices are not the most efficient and can be made better. Your processes are killing people, they fuel corruption, waste time and de-humanize us, sir. I hope you are still reading sir, as I intend to show you clearly what the experiences of the average Nigerians are at your passport offices and how I came to the above conclusion. Unlike others, I will also go the extra mile to proffer solutions, per-adventure you will consider and implement them.

Reviving...after almost dying

She died..and lives to tell a story.

Knowing that you are an honorable man, I am inclined to believe that it is most likely that you are not currently aware of the situations at the passport offices. In the alternate case that you are aware, I want to believe that you already have your team of eggheads working on resolving the problems associated with this institution that has become a national embarrassment. My letter would then just be a reminder of how urgent that this needs to be resolved.

The unnecessary hardship and treatment that Nigerians are subjected to at the passport office is a grave cause of concern. From any point you look at this, we simply cannot continue to subject our citizen to the sort of treatment currently being meted out at the passport offices and demand better treatment and respect from the consular offices of foreign nations. Let me digress a little, and use an actual experience to buttress my point. A couple of years ago, I sat in a meeting requesting a foreign contractor to comply with some level of Environmental Standards in a project that we were about to execute. The contractor’s project manager retorted that we should not hold them to standards higher than what our Nigerians have demonstrated. He mentioned that he had gone around the country and had seen heaps of rubbish all around with blocked sewers and then questioned our morality in asking him to treat his wastes and effluents before discharging them. My eyes were blood red because the truth hurts. In any case, we made him comply with our standards which were far higher than the Nigerian requirements. Sir, from the above, you will understand why it becomes difficult to expect foreign entities to treat us with respect given the way we treat our citizens.

Added to this is that time is money. Now, let’s forget about the inconsequential me and talk of my Igbo brother from Alaba. He was there too, seeking a passport to pursue his honest trade of importing goods into the country and selling them. He depends on his daily sales for his livelihood and yet he had been made to abandon this to come and spend hours at your offices for a service that shouldn’t take 30mins to provide. Please think of the impact of these wasted hours on the national GDP and our productivity as a nation. This makes us uncompetitive for business sir. With us, were students, some barely old enough to know what was right and wrong. They were there, under the sun, learning from the school of hard knocks. These leaders of tomorrow must have left with the impression that obtaining a passport is a herculean task and that it was normal for a sea of people to be sun dried and soaked in their own sweat to obtain services. What an impression on their young innocent minds!

Time to pray

It was mid-May 2017 and the location was the Passport Office, Ikeja. I had been informed that to pick up my passport, I had to arrive early at the office. I have had a bitter experience getting my data captured a couple of days earlier and had arrived Ikeja at about 7:30am to pick up the passport.

Now the very first challenge was to get a parking space for my vehicle. This was absurd as the Passport Office has a car park. Of course, this has been converted to the waiting area for passport applicants as there is no other place they can stay. Parking, itself, became a drama but after circling the block a few times, I eventually negotiated a space and parked the vehicle. I spent some time relaxing in the car and finally took the less than 3 mins walk to the passport office. I arrived at 8:15am, the office does not start attending to people until 9am. The sight that accosted me was a shock, how come these many people had arrived at the passport office that early? Two categories of client were waiting for the office to be opened – those coming for data capture and to pick up their passports. I was directed to join a line, by the time I registered my name, I already had 186 other Nigerians ahead of me, that early morning.

The wait had begun. How long I was going to wait for, I did not know. So I went ahead and confirmed two other appointments that I had for 1:30pm and another for 3pm. At around 9am, some of the smartest dressed crop of uniformed men and women came out to address the crowd. Sir, by this time, the Equatorial Sun was already out, drenching us with humidity and heat. The Customer Relations Officer was impressive. With her impeccable English she doled out a set of useful information that went on and on. Not many people were listening, they had more serious issues to contend with. The heat was not friendly and the shades were grossly inadequate.

After her came the Special Assistant to the Passport Officer, also with his own “sermon at the passport office”. Seriously, their words were impressive and showed an awareness and understanding of the trauma through which most passport applicant were going. I can’t say that much for their actions. Our waiting continued, and all these while we remained standing on our feet. At least that was true for the majority of the applicants. The seats provided could barely accommodate 100 people yet, the people at that office would be around a thousand.

I thought that the experience could have been made less painful. If the Immigration Office was that determined that we must go through this suffering, it could make it less painful by keeping us entertained. In any case, we did get entertained by the various characters that mill around the office. Looking at the faces of the people there was great distress, hopelessness. Yet Nigerians are the most tolerant of all people, except for the particular case of the mosque where a gentleman got angry and requested to be treated with respect.

The crowd at the office

The wait was long, tortuous but finally it was mid-day. I remembered the late Fela’s song – suffering and smiling. 49 sitting and 99 standing. Only two fans were provided to cool the multitude and these, that were well at work, had seen better days. Soon, the inevitable happened. It was 12:10pm and right there, while requesting for a drink, she fell. Straight backwards and hit the bare cemented floor. She could have died, bidding bye-bye to the world in your facility as a result of exhaustion. A Nigerian in her mid-thirties with a bulge in her tommy suggesting she was some months pregnant. The intervention of hangers-byes in pouring water on her brought her back to life. The fate of that pregnancy, no one knows. No, not yet. Then came your men, officers of the Immigration Service. It was funny what their response was – they took her details and attended to her immediately. I thought in my mind that it won’t be a bad idea for us all to collapse or die so that we could get deserving attention.

Oh, how religious your folks were sir! It was 1:10pm and the preparation for the mosque service has begun, the little sun shade provided by the tent had to be vacated so that it could be converted to a temporary mosque. When did having prayers in a public institution become the norm and civil servants are allowed to abandon their duties to observe this, when they were not making use of their lunch hour? Into the hot blazing sun we headed. I am sure that the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) wasn’t that wicked and would not have asked the majority of people to sacrifice their comfort for the minority to pray.

It was 1:32pm when numbers 150 to 200 were called so that the search for their passports could be made. I joined the line and made it inside the building. More than 5hrs since I arrived at the gates of the office, I got to sit down for the very first time. Sir, on entering the office, I got accosted with gross inefficiency in your system. In the collection office, there were 8 of your able bodied men and women saddled with the simple process of releasing the passports. There we were, sitting down, waiting to be called to pick the passports but these guys were spending more time chatting on their phones and discussing with their colleagues than they were in attending to us.  Of course, it is from the phone calls that they get the various “side-kicks” through which they augment their living. Why would we matter that much?  Yet, as I came to be told, the Ikeja Office has better service turnaround period than its Ikoyi counterpart.

Nigerians, like you & I

At 2:15pm I got called to pick my passport and eventually walked out of that room with my new passport at about 2:20pm. By this time, I had a pressing need to use the rest room. I inquired from your men and I was directed to a corner of the building meant for men to do their thing. I entered the space and all the available 4 slots were locked up. It was the height of the insult. Here I was, having been kept at your premises for upwards of 6 hours, a Nigerian from whose taxes this office is funded yet was prevented from making use of a rest room. Is it that someone in your team is that insensitive that a facility in a public office has to be sealed up from the public for whom the facility is created to serve? I was told that there was a nearby facility for which I would need to pay N100 to use. I just gave up. Isn’t it the height of inhumanity to have such a large crowd here at the instance of the passport office and not provide convenience for them?

Sir, if it lacks measure, it is difficult to control. Do you have the data on the output of your Passport Offices across the nation? For instance, how many passports are issued monthly on the average?  If this information is available, then we have a solution to the problems of the offices running out of passports. How? Simply implement the stock re-order level concept. Do you have the information on how many employees it takes to issue one passport? If you do, then we can manage the seemingly large numbers of your staff that are actually acing as a clog to productivity. How? Compare he figures to what obtains in South Africa, Egypt and some other big economies in the world. Do you know how many hours are spent, on average, by each applicant in your offices to obtain a passport?  If you do, then we can judge the efficiency of the different offices and provide incentives to encourage the efficient ones and punish the less efficient.

As promised sir, in the next part of this letter I will provide suggestions on how to address the noted problems in this establishment and make it one that we all as Nigerians can be proud of. I really appreciate your having taken time to patiently read this letter and am hopeful that you will do the same for the next part as well.