Featured Nigeria Notes Wole Olaoye

Timely Passports & Concrete Roads

By Wole Olaoye

Let’s talk governance. There’s something to cheer for a change: Interior Minister Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo had promised to clear the backlog of 204,332 passports outstanding at the corruption-ridden Nigerian Immigration Service within two weeks. The goal was achieved in three weeks. By Nigerian standards, that achievement is a cause for celebration.

We all remember all the novel measures introduced to facilitate passport issuance during the Obasanjo administration (1999–2007). As soon as a new administration came in, immigration officials rolled back the changes and reverted to their default setting, designed to make the process of obtaining the Nigerian passport an ordeal that could only be mitigated by paying bribes.

It is difficult to fully appreciate the level of degeneracy in the passport issuance system if you have never been on the receiving end. In the past, a visit to any passport office showed how little respect the government had for its citizens. Like most public service outlets, citizens were dehumanised and fleeced at random. Little wonder that foreign embassies and consular offices took a cue and treated Nigerian applicants for visas like sub-humans.

Woeful Past

Stories of woe abound aplenty. There was the story of a lady working with a multinational firm who needed to attend a conference and sought the renewal of her passport. When she showed up to have her photograph taken, the officers on duty advised her to pay for ‘fast-tracking’ if she wanted to receive her passport in time. She paid the bribe, but the bribe-takers did not perform as promised. By the time she laid her hands on the passport, the conference had come and gone. She missed the conference.


An online medium, PRNigeria, recently told the story of Eklou Joseph, an Indonesia-bound student, whose narration gave a graphic picture of how the wheel of corruption in the passport issuance process rolled:

He said: “When my friend made his online payment, they frustrated him because they assumed he was trying to be clever by first registering online, instead of physically seeking their help for the registration…

“I didn’t bother to pay online, I came here directly and paid N150,000 for a 64-page passport with ten-years validity (which normally cost N70,000). The N80,000 I added to the N70,000 for my passport is for ‘fast-tracking’, meaning that the NIS officials will fast-track the processing of my passport and ensure that I get it in a week after completing my registration”.

He was subjected to ‘Nigerian roulette’ for months thereafter before his passport was produced. He said he felt ashamed for his country.


Frustration Abroad

As to be expected, the passport mess has also been exported abroad. There was the case of a student in the UK who wasted precious time attempting to follow due process by applying online for her passport. When nothing seemed to be working, she spoke to fellow Nigerian students, who advised her to stop wasting time and reach out to a particular middleman known as a reliable facilitator. Rather than do that and pay the required bribe, she called her parents in Nigeria, who spoke to somebody who knew somebody—and, pronto! The lady was given the name and number of an officer within the embassy, with instructions that her call was expected.

After making the phone call, she was asked to come the following day. By the time she was leaving the embassy several hours later, she had her brand-new passport in her hands!

Interior Minister Tunji-Ojo revealed that the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) had to work three shifts per day, including weekends and public holidays, to achieve delivery within the deadline. He saluted the ‘heroic’ efforts of immigration officers and called on applicants to come and collect their passports.

The minister’s achievement within such a short time showed that it is possible to fix the incongruities in Nigeria if there is political will. The minister didn’t import immigration officers from Pluto or Neptune. He used the same personnel who were lounging on the rot before his arrival in the Interior Ministry. Many analysts, however, disagree with the minister’s characterisation of the officials as ‘heroes’. What heroism is in doing a job for which you are paid?


All the same, I am not unhappy to re-echo the rambunctious celebration of my barber, who is hoping that his son will someday benefit from the new ‘quick passport’ spirit blowing through the NIS and join the Japa golden fleece train. Barber Adio thinks Minister Tunji-Ojo is a magician deserving of celebration. “Tiri gbosa for di minista!”, he roared.

Umahi’s Concrete Advocacy

Works Minister Dave Umahi is an engineer who, so far, seems to be engineering well (apologies, Jerry Gana). Since he took office, he has made it known to whom it may concern that he will not be a rubber stamp minister who’s only interested in kickbacks at the expense of the country. “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”, wrote Shakespeare, so this is not about judging a book by its cover. What catches my attention is that for once, we have a minister who asks questions and is ready to do things differently.

Against the traditional practice of constructing major highways with asphalt surfacing, he has, against the run of play, been advocating the use of concrete. He is convinced that our environment is more hostile to asphalt roads than those made of concrete and that the latter would be both cheaper and more durable. What excites me is that general science seems to bear Umahi out.

Experts in the field of engineering posit that asphalt has its own merits. It is petroleum-based (a mixture of aggregates such as sand, gravel, crushed stone, and a petroleum-based binder). It is flexible, can withstand extreme temperatures and is also easier and cheaper to repair than concrete. By comparison, concrete (a mixture of cement, water, and aggregates) is more environmentally friendly and can last up to 30 years with proper maintenance.


Festac Example

Our experience in Nigeria is that many major highways constructed with trillions of Naira begin to fail even before the full completion of the whole stretch. Sometimes, the problem may not be due to bad workmanship but to the wrong choice of materials. A verifiable example known to this writer is the highway from Amuwo-Odofin to Festac Town through the famous Apple Junction. Contractors used to pay an annual pilgrimage to that road unfailingly because the asphalt coat never lasted more than eight months. That was until then-Governor Fashola put a stop to the scam by ordering a fresh soil test, which indicated that interlocking concrete tiles would be the best option. The road has remained in pristine condition since then.

If that is the spirit Dave Umahi is bringing to his assignment at the Works Ministry, I have no doubt that he will find ready allies in the common people who, over the years, have borne the brunt of the government’s incompetence and corruption. It is better to have safe, well-paved highways with toll gates than to have free, sprawling death traps which only serve to depopulate the country.

  • Wole Olaoye is a Public Relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached at wole.olaoye@gmail.com, Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021

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