Inside NigeriaOpinion

VFS Global and SA Visa Racketeering, By Eniola Bello (Eni-B)

Eniola Bello

The waiting had been long, tedious and frustrating. I sat in a corner of a cubicle called a business centre, hot and tired and hungry. Soma, a young lady who had earlier been sitting beside me at the VIP Lounge, and who had joined me and five other applicants in the team of seven that were smuggled in from the business centre through the entrance gate to the lounge of the VFS Global to submit our documents for South African visa, had the presence of mind to include my ration in the groundnut she bought from a hawker. I feasted on it like a prodigal son. When it was almost 3.00pm, Ms. Adelola Domnica Oladipupo, the proprietress of the business centre and racketeer-in-chief, walked in with our reference numbers, shortly after which I received an email that my visa application had been dispatched to the South African High Commission for processing. I had wasted about eight hours of executive time simply to submit documents for visa processing.

I had thought I got to the Lagos office of VFS Global early enough. As early as 6.30am that Thursday morning, I was already at the office of the visa consultants to South Africa and about 10 other countries. Having arrived the gate 8.00am the previous day and had wasted two precious hours fruitlessly waiting with scores of other applicants to be allowed access through to submit our documents, my colleague Ijeoma Nwogwugwu had suggested I arrive there as early as 6.30am if I was to have any chance of getting my documents through. However, we seemed to have either underestimated the inefficiency of the visa consultants, or the desperation of the applicants. For even that early, there were already more than 100 applicants partly queuing, and partly crowding the entrance gate. As I looked around in utter helplessness, considering if I should simply return home and forget about attending the World Economic Forum, Africa in Cape Town of which I’d been invited and registered, one tall, ragged young man appeared from nowhere, offering to find a space for me among the first 15 on the queue at N6,000 token, I accepted the offer immediately. He pointed at a younger man on the queue, definitely far removed from the first 15, assuring me that I would take his place. He quickly warned off a lady who had sneaked up to me with another offer to place me at No.5 on the queue. “O sa mope were ni mi”, the tall, ragged fellow warned in that guttural voice associated with Lagos touts, the corners of his eyes narrowing, his hands flailing threateningly in the air. “I don dey here since 3.00am; make nobody come try me. Bastard!”, he ranted. He led me to a shed on the other side of the road, drew up a plastic chair for me to sit, and promised to return for me whenever it was about time to open the gate.

I looked around me as I sat down tentatively. The shed, though not particularly clean, still managed not to ooze offensive smell. It is a one-stop shop for any, and all, types of visa documentation, and more. There are emergency passport photographers, photocopy clerks, yellow fever card procurement agents, self-professed visa processing advisors, VFS information couriers, food vendors, petty thieves, marijuana sellers, mendicants, and even pimps. Everyone is taking advantage of the chaos and formlessness around the premises of the VFS Global, and the desperation of hundreds of visa applicants, to hustle and eke out a living one way or another.

At about 7.20am, the tall, ragged fellow came for me, assuring me that the gate was about being opened. I got to the gate to an unusual bustle. There were many others like me who had places secured for them on the queue, which, with the slight pushing and shoving arising from an apparent lack of space between the queuing applicants, I had difficulty taking my place. I stood back and watched. Obviously understanding my predicament, my ragged friend directed his ‘staff’ to continue fronting for me on the queue until the point of entry at the gate when I could take over the space. The information that the gate was about to be opened was no more than a false alarm, at the end of the day. I joined other applicants in standing hither and thither, refusing to return to the shed even when the gate was not opened several minutes after the 8.00am official opening hours. The sense of expectation began to take its toll when as at 9.00am, the gate had still not been opened, and there was no indication when, or if, it would ever be. There was no notice board, no announcement, nothing but snippets of unconfirmed information dropped by touts constantly moving up and down.

I decided to call it a day and as I turned to go, my tall friend reappeared again with a fresh proposition: there’s a lady in a nearby park who could get me into the building at a cost. More out of journalistic curiosity than the desire for the visa in itself, I decided to coast along. The tall one led me to the business centre located in a park a few minutes walk from VFS Global premises, told the lady generally addressed as Auntie Lola he’s brought her a client, nodding in my direction. Though the cubicle was a little crowded, the tall one found me a chair in one corner. Lola, busy on the computer apparently filling the application form for Canadian temporary residency visa for another South African visa applicant in the team of seven, asked for patience, that she needed to go check from the South African section if there would be space for more people. After what seemed like eternity, she opened her desk drawer, brought out an ID card she hung on her neck and walked out. She returned some 40 minutes later, asked for my passport data page, used the information therein to fill the Canadian application form for temporary resident visa and told us (there were two other ladies waiting for her) that her fee was N30,000. When one of the ladies attempted to beat down her fee to N15,000, she declined, explaining her own cut per person was N5,000, that she would still have to sort out the security men, the officials that would process our documents, and some others. Partly because I didn’t have enough cash on me, and partly to get her full name, I requested her account details so I could transfer N20,000 while paying the balance N10,000 in cash; she obliged her UBA account number and Oladipupo Domnica Adelola came up.

Payments made, she led us all in the team of seven to the queue for Canadian visa applicants, waited for us to walk through the gate while nodding at the security men, then led us to the VIP Lounge for South African visa applicants, got us seated on one side, consulted with one of the two ladies collecting the documents, came to tell us she was returning to base, and that we should call her should there be any problem. Lola’s carefully laid out scheme almost went unhinged because the young man responsible for checking all documents were in order before submission was apparently not in the loop of things. He collected my documents first, went through, found everything in order but for one little detail – the attached copy of my passport data page wasn’t signed off by the section manager, a signature without which the receiving officials were not to collect my documents. On taking my documents to the section manager to get her signature on my data page, she declined on the grounds that those documents didn’t pass through her ab initio.

With all of us in the team of seven in the same box, we called Lola to brief her of the developments, particularly as the lady at the documents collection counter she had handed us to was having second thoughts in the light of the complications arising from unsigned data pages. After some delay, Lola came to the lounge, had a brief discussion with the documents collection official, requested we leave with her our debit cards, pin code and all, so she could, in the light of the complication, go pay the visa, agency and lounge fees on our behalf. She requested we wait for her at the business centre as her accomplice at the counter hurriedly collected our documents.

As we waited for Lola in the discomfort of her cubicle from the heat of a sunny day, and the exhaustion from having not eaten since morning, a flurry of questions ran through my mind. Why is the South African visa process so problematic, a process handled by the same consultants in charge of the uncomplicated visa processes of 10 other countries from the same building? Why does the VFS Global in Nigeria prefer the open sesame (where visa applicants crowd their gate every working day for free access) rather than the appointment system, as is the case in the company’s offices in the UK for instance? With the unending delay and chaos in processing its visa, is the South African High Commission colluding with VFS Global to fuel a sense of desperation among visa applicants and ignite the fire of corruption? Why does our government allow all these countries treat Nigerians with so much indignity, right in our country, all in the name of issuing visas?

Despite all the trauma, there’s still no indication yet that the visa would be issued before September 2nd when I had booked to travel for the WEFA conference scheduled for September 4 to 6.

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