Nigeria: Extortion At MMIA Continues Unabated

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Many Nigerians with international travel experience would notice that it is only in Nigeria's international airports that security operatives conduct physical search of checked-in bags on the screening table.

THISDAY investigations have showed that in many airports in the world, including airports by less endowed countries in Africa, these bags are searched with modern scanning equipment from X-ray machines to full scanners.

In the United States and other advanced nations, trained dogs are sometimes used by security officials to sniff out prohibited goods, including agriculture produce banned by the US government. There is nowhere a group of security officials would line up, put bags on the table and conduct physical searches as it is presently done in Nigeria.

Security experts who spoke to THISDAY admitted that the process is cumbersome, it wastes time and it is not efficient. Above all, it provides security operatives-passengers interaction which is avoided in "thorough security apparatus" because it creates opportunity for interaction, bribery and extortion. The experts said it is a porous process because "the officials may not have the patience and the dexterity to search every bag thoroughly because "our investigation reveals that prohibited goods are still smuggled through the airports in checked-in bags."

A source from the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) told THISDAY that the table of extortion cannot go away "because that is a source of livelihood to those security personnel and those who sent them to the airport. FAAN has severally made efforts to remove that table but what we got were threats. We have a place downstairs where checked in bags are screened, but they will not go there because there will not be any opportunity to meet with passengers and collect money from them."

THISDAY visited the screening tables last week Thursday at the international wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos during the processing of Asky, Ethiopia and Meridiana Air flights. A female passenger, who carried a lot of dry foodstuff was asked to move the bags to quarantine for examination, issuance of certificate by government that would confirm that the agriculture produce in the bag were for human consumption and they are allowed to be taken out of the country. The woman was told that after the testing and certification (which would take several hours) she could come back to board her flight.

The woman argued that there was no place the directive given to her by the security operatives was in any notice at the airport. She said that she saw the notices indicating what should not be travelled with at various places at the airport, but none indicated the process of taking foodstuff to the quarantine for certification that food stuffs are taken out of the country. The security official lowered his voice and said: "That is the law and we must abide by it. But because this is your first time we can allow you but you have to appreciate us for doing that for you (there were about five security officials at that table)". The woman later gave out some money and the bag was passed.

Industry security expert, Adebayo Babatunde once told THISDAY that one of dangers of extortion and collection of bribery by security officials at the airport is that it gives rise to insider threat and makes a mess of security apparatus of any airport. He noted that with compromised security personnel, an airport could be deemed to be permanently porous.

THISDAY investigation reveal that FAAN, which manages the airports has its Aviation Security personnel who are trained with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) certification but they tend to be overshadowed by other security operatives at the airport whose intention appears to be making money through extortion.

The security operatives at these screening desks include officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service, Nigerian Police Force, Department of State Security (DSS) and Nigerian Customs Service.

Aviation expert, Ayo Obilana at the Aviation Round Table (ART) breakfast meeting late last year observed: "An average traveller at the Nigerian airport goes through 15 checks. We are the only country that still operate "dash" table (security operatives use to open and check passengers' luggage), which is table of extortion. The tables have no reason to be there. These 15 checks can be reduced to three. The tables are a big disgrace to the country. When the security personnel there are told to remove that section of checks they blackmail government officers by bringing prohibited goods they claim were discovered on that table."

The expert noted that pliable security apparatus becomes gullible to pressures by terror groups.

Also, a former Managing Director of the FAAN, Richard Aisuebeogun said that insider threat is a great challenge to airport security because terrorists could use money to secure insider collaborator or through religious or political belief.

A FAAN official told THISDAY that security operatives bribe their superiors to be posted to the airport, "that is why when we write against some of them they leave the airport and be recycled and they come back."

He said that it is only in Nigeria that security operatives stay at the departures and mix with passengers while screening bags because luggage screening is done with scanning machines at the baggage hall.

"Screening is done at the baggage hall but here, when they take it down to the hall they just move them to the carts and take them to the aircraft. Two years ago we had insisted that the security officials be moved to the hall, which is located at the pavement but NDLEA refused and said that the scanning machine at the hall cannot identify one of the substances they look for; whereas what they need to do is to get change or improve the software." The FAAN official said.

Experts have therefore advised that given the heightened terror attacks all over the world, the federal government should review security apparatus at the airports.

Authors: All Africa

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