Spending only a total of N82,000, investigative journalist Adeola Oladipupo travelled from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos to the Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom and back to Nigeria, using a fake negative COVID-19 result obtained from a criminal network that colludes with staff of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) and the Lagos State Biobank (LSB). The racket ring’s operation is so sophisticated that in connivance with people in government agencies, including the Port Health Service (PHS), Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), it manipulates the Nigeria International Travel Portal and outwits the country’s supposedly strict travel system. This investigation found that officials who are the country’s first line of defence against imported cases of Covid-19 are endangering the Nigerian public through their indolence and double-dealings.
Few minutes before noon, when I arrived at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) terminal, there were pockets of people loitering on the walkway. With a checkpoint manned by armed policemen opposite the multilevel car park and officials of various security agencies occasionally walking by, one would think Nigeria’s busiest airport has no care in the world for illegal activities.
But behind the walls of the gateway to Nigeria, people who did not physically present themselves for Covid-19 tests and whose samples were not collected for laboratory analyses, travel out of the country with counterfeit negative results. Inbound travellers bypass all mandatory procedures on the Nigerian International Travel Portal (NITP) — a web portal set up to register in-coming travellers – which include uploading negative Covid-19 test results done at the country of departure and payment for post-arrival test before generating bar codes.
In March 2020, Nigeria, like other countries, banned international commercial flights in and out of the country in the wake of the global spread of Covid-19, a disease that grounded world economy, disrupted lives and killed more than a million people across the globe. However, on September 5, 2020, Murtala Muhammed and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International airports in Lagos and Abuja respectively were reopened for commercial operations, leaving three other international airports closed. The federal government later mandated travellers to present negative Covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test results before leaving or making entry into the country when airport operations resumed.
A BEHIND-THE-SCENES CRIMINAL RACKET FRONTED FOR BY LOW-LEVEL AIRPORT WORKERS
Although the Covid-19 racket syndicate prefers to deal with people they are familiar with, I found that at the international wing of the MMIA, touts and low-level airport workers act as agents for criminal networks. They look out for desperate travellers who would be willing pay to for COVID-19 clearance without questioning the source.
“I need a Covid-19 test result to travel abroad,” I told him. Ogundipe first replied by telling me to present myself at the laboratory. Then he paused to size me up – to determine whether I was a threat — when I told him that the test result was for my boss who could not be physically present to undergo the test and or have his samples taken.
TELL ME WHAT YOU NEED
Posing as the protocol officer of a nonexistent organisation, I roamed the premises of the MMIA for an hour, feigning desperation, which, to be honest, was made real by the scorching sun. Adewale Ogundipe, an airport taxi driver, approached me and asked what I wanted. He insisted on knowing what I wanted even when I told him he could not help me.
“I have been working at this airport for 18 years, tell me what you need,” he told me in Pidgin English before switching to Yoruba.
“I can help with it as long as you can pay. Your boss does not need to go to the lab and does not need to send samples. Just send some information such as full name, travel date, date of birth and address.”
He spoke the last few words in a hushed tone, moving close to me while scouring the environment suspiciously.
Upon telling him that I would bring more ‘deals’ if he got me a test result that would not be flagged fake by airport officials, he smiled and boasted that he had helped many people to get negative Covid-19 results with which they successfully travelled to countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and China.
THE DEALS INVOLVE LASUTH, YABA ISOLATION CENTRE
I would later get to know that whenever travellers approached this network of racketeers to ‘purchase’ Covid-19 test results, the process began at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), Ikeja, where civil servants connive with those at the Lagos State Biobank (LSB) to issue fake negative results to persons whose samples were not collected and did not undergo laboratory analyses. I also found out that a top Immigration officer at the Lagos airport uses his position to illegally help individuals travel in and out of the country without presenting test results and registering on the NITP.
“I do this deal with people who are at the top. Oga, relax your mind; people do it very well at the hospital in Ikeja and the Isolation Centre at Yaba,” Ogundipe blatantly said as he retrieved his phone from his pocket.
BROTHERS IN CRIME, BIRDS OF A FEATHER
The first person he called was a man he referred to as ‘Prince’. He later told me Prince is an officer of the Nigeria Immigration Service. When I inquired how the officer would get me the test result, Ogundipe said: “Test result is not needed. The officer will just hold the traveller by the hand up to the point where the plane will be boarded. Nobody will ask about Covid-19 test result because he is a big man. I can’t lie to you, this person is my elder brother; we even have the same surname.”
Although the officer became reluctant to participate in the deal when he was told by Ogundipe that I was not an acquaintance, he relaxed when I talked to him and confirmed that the deal would guarantee regular cash as it was not a one-off transaction.
“I just need you to send me a copy of the first page of the passport of the person that is travelling and the travel date,” the Immigration officer briefly said after he inquired about the organisation I claimed I was working with.
To find out the depths of the network , I pretended to be uncomfortable dealing with an immigration officer and then I inquired from Ogundipe whether there was another person I could do the deal with instead.
“Yes, there is someone else,” he said. “In fact, I prefer you deal with this person. He has connections with laboratories and here at the airport; he is a black market foreign currency exchanger.”
After several calls, the second contact, Ishola Muritala Muhammed — he goes by the aliases ‘Muri Dollar or Ishola Dollar’ — answered and was happy to do the ‘illegal business’ when told that it was not a one-off deal. He initially charged N50,000 for a fake Covid-19 test result but lowered it N40,000, claiming it was going to be issued by an authorised source whom he needed to ‘settle’.
Ogundipe immediately told me to tell my organisation that it would cost N50,000, so that he and I would share the extra N10,000. They agreed to my proposal to test them with one ‘deal’ before we begin a “long business relationship”.
SOME FAKE RESULTS FROM THE ARCHIVES
The first time we spoke on the phone, Muri Dollar would not tell me how he gets fake negative Covid-19 test results for clients. He only emphasised that the process was so simple that all I needed to do was send details to him via WhatsApp, then he would forward to other members of the network, especially a ‘doctor’. However, he agreed to meet me and send samples of results they had previously produced for travellers, as I requested. Before the end of that day, via a messaging mobile app, he sent four fake negative test results.
The negative Covid-19 test results, which appeared to have been issued through a legal process by the Lagos State Biobank at Yaba, falsely stated that samples were collected and screened. The results also showed that different lab and specimen codes were generated for each of the fake results by double-dealing staff at the test centres at LASUTH and the LSB in order to conceal the fraudulent activity from whatever system is put in place to prevent corruption.
The addresses on the fake Covid-19 test results showed that the criminal ring has clients in different parts of the country, with patronage not limited to Nigerian nationals. Foreigners also circumvent the legal process of obtaining Covid-19 test results for travelling.
ARABS, BENINESE PROCURE FAKE COVI9-19 RESULTS TOO
On December 10, Muri Dollar came smiling from ear to ear. In his accented voice, accompanied by constant gesticulation, he wasted no time to boast about his connections at the laboratory and showed pictures of some of his affluent clients.
Among the pictures he showed Ogundipe and I as we stood at the walkway leading to the MMIA terminal was that of a Nigerian referred to Muri Dollar by his daughter.
“The test that his daughter travelled to the US with, I did it. The man gave me N50,000 when I went to VI to give him the Covid test I did,” he said, intermittently swearing to his god in a bid to convince me that he was telling the truth. He also showed me pictures and chats of an Arab and his Beninese friend, both of whom he ‘supplied’ fake Covid-19 results to.
“With the connection I have and the people I work with, I have a steady means of getting a livelihood,” Muri Dollar said with a straight face.
As he showed me more fake Covid-19 test results and the WhatsApp chats of people who ordered them, he proudly told me that it takes two hours to get a fake result — genuine result takes between 24 and 48 hours and sometimes longer because of backlog of samples to be tested. He insisted that I could not go with him to the hospital at Ikeja, where some of the people he colludes with work.
SIX FAKE COVID-19 RESULTS AT ONCE
At exactly 2hours 30minutes after collecting my details, which I faked for my safety, Muri Dollar called to tell me to meet him at the motor park close to the mosque at the international wing of the Lagos airport. He had returned with six fake negative Covid-19 test results — for me and five other clients. He told me he had dropped one result with an individual lodged at the hotel near the motor park at the MMIA. As I approached, I saw a woman glancing through the result she had collected from him. “Everything is correct,” she said before handing him a wad of cash and hurried away.
Happy that another illegal deal had been successful, he handed me the fake result and instructed me to verify the details on it as he tucked other results into his shirt.
“You went to LASUTH at Ikeja, but this result was issued by the Lagos State Biobank, how did you get this?” I asked. “Will it not be flagged by officials?”
“It does not matter,” Ogundipe explained. “Lagos Biobank is the central system. The information is sent to them from Ikeja.”
“Walahi, to God who made me!” Muri Dollar swore, with one hand slightly raised, as he removed his footwear and stood on the red dirt ground. “With the connection I have inside these places, this thing came from an authorised source. They just mix it with the ones they do. I assure you that the person that is travelling won’t have problems at the airport.”
Muri Dollar and Adewale walked away, excited that they had secured a regular flow of income after I handed N40,000 to the former and N7,000 to the latter. Fourty-seven thousand naira spent so far!
NCDC ANNOUNCING RESULTS OF UNTESTED SAMPLES
For months, corrupt employees in charge of COVID-19 testing at LASUTH and the Lagos State Biobank colluded with agents at the airport and other places to ‘hand out’, for a fee, negative Covid19 test results which look like they passed through the legal process of issuance but did not.
I discovered that several criminal rings operating at government and private-owned medical laboratories — comprising medical doctors, laboratory and information technology employees — cover their tracks by shuffling details collected from persons who want phony negative Covid-19 test results with those who went through the legal process of getting it.
The result details are forwarded to their cohorts at the Lagos State Biobank – an institution that serves as a central database and heads a consortium of Covid-19 laboratories in Lagos – for further processing before they are printed.
The crooked actions of many staff members and top officials in-charge of Covid-19 test results process in Lagos means that not all Covid-19 figures announced by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) for the State are genuine. Actual tests carried out are way below official figures on the NCDC website.
“Once I take the details of the fake test result to the hospital (LASUTH) at Ikeja, and they do it, they will send it through their system to Yaba (Lagos Biobank),” Muri Dollar told me in a phone conversation to inquire if I had challenges with the fake result he got me and to express readiness for more deals. “So Yaba will do some things on it before it will then be returned to Ikeja where I will collect it.”
The criminal ring I infiltrated is coordinated by someone who is referred to as ‘doctor’. Agents on the ground, including Muri Dollar, call him once there are requests for counterfeit negative Covid-19 test results. He then alerts accomplices at LASUTH and the Lagos State Biobank. The doctor is highly revered and in a position to issue orders, as a message I later received showed.
Muri Dollar, who has now abandoned the exchange of foreign currency on the black market – a job he did pre-Covid-19 – now ‘supplies’ at least five fake negative Covid-19 results every day, bringing no less than N250,000 into the coffers of the network daily.
Covid-19 test result racketeers also operate at government-approved private laboratories in Lagos. They have similar mode of operation with the criminal ring I penetrated. I spoke to a person who has connected several individuals to persons who run the fraudulent scheme at private laboratories. I also sighted three fake test results that appeared to have been issued by two government-approved private laboratories, including 54gene and Synlab. They had been successfully used to travel out of Nigeria. 54gene, in response to this investigation, said that it takes the counterfeiting of its results “extremely seriously” and it had built a validation portal to counter fake test results. Synlab did not respond to FIJ’s request for comments.
INDOLENT AIRPORT OFFICIALS AND A SYSTEM THAT CAN’T DETECT FORGED RESULTS
To uncover why the racketeers brazenly assured me that their fake test result would not be flagged at MMIA, I boarded a flight to the United Kingdom with a counterfeit negative Covid-19 test result. At the Lagos airport, I found that the Port Health Service (PHS), a unit of the Federal Ministry of Health whose function it is to scrutinise health documents, were too lazy to perform the job for which they earned a salary. And despite knowing that some travellers coming in and out of the country use fake Covid-19 test results, the Nigerian government did not put in place a system to detect such results.
Pulling into the MMIA terminal to board a flight to Dubai and then to the UK, except that people wore nose masks, the scenario depicted a pre-Covid-19 era. Boarding procedures were normal and the negligent attitude to work, typical of many public workers in Nigeria, was obvious. Throughout the process of getting cleared to travel, the PHS officials did not ask for my Covid-19 test result. Even the airline did not request to have a look. Some passengers on the flight told me their test results were not checked by any official.
The nonchalance of officials appears to be habitual as I gathered from several travellers who have used the MMIA that Covid test results are not inspected. Even when they are checked, they are often given a ‘passing glance’ and anyone whose Covid-19 test result reads negative is allowed to go through. People with fake Covid results easily escape being spotted because test results in Nigeria do not have security features that would assist officials at the airport in sighting counterfeits. It is a mere paper with graphics so simple that it can be imitated by anyone with basic computer graphic skills, while the government has no technological system in place to verify the authenticity of Covid-19 test results presented at the airport by travellers.
Although some Covid-19 safety measures were adhered to on the flight, widespread use of fake negative test results, a fundamental failure in the country’s effort to prevent the spread of the disease, leaves an opportunity for one who is infected but not showing symptoms to get on the plane, contaminate things and endanger passengers who slacked in protecting themselves, believing that everyone who got aboard was genuinely tested and found negative.
In September, Dr Sani Aliyu, the national coordinator of the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19, admitted that the government was aware that travellers use fake results at airports and was working to find solutions. Five months after, it is not clear why the government has not adopted advanced technology to spot counterfeit test results.
Daily, many air passengers present fake Covid-19 test result to officials at the airport. In January 2021, I observed a traveller get a fake negative test result from Synlab; it was subsequently used to travel to the United Kingdom. Officials at the airport did not detect that it was fake.
Despite the disturbance Covid-19 caused to the economy, many Nigerians believe the disease is a scam and a tool which the political class uses to defalcate. This perception is reinforced when officials who should enforce Covid-19 protocols derelict their duties and conspire to exploit the disease for illegitimate gains and when the government is not organised and innovative in its efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.
WHY TRAVELLERS SEEK FAKE COVID-19 CERTIFICATE
On its website, the Lagos State Biobank states that it takes five minutes to collect samples for Covid-19 test and the result, which costs N50,400 would be ready within 24 to 48 hours. It, however, may take less time but costs more at many private laboratories in the state.
One of the questions I sought to answers to is why travellers attempt to get counterfeit negative Covid-19 test results. While for some, money was the issue, for others, it was the delay in getting the result. One traveller who used fake result to travel to Europe told me she did not want the Covid-19 test to return positive because of the malaria symptoms she had.
Tracking people who had acquired fake test results was difficult, as many had travelled abroad. One person whom I established contact with through a source, refused to talk to me. He later told my source that he did not want the fraud to end.
Abdul (not real name) told me why he got his wife a fake negative Covid-19 result for her trip to the United Kingdom: “It’s the fear of contracting Covid-19 at the testing centre, the uncertainty of getting the result in time and the insincerity of the government.”
In May, his friend died after taking two Covid tests, which returned negative. He developed fever a day after undergoing the second test and died at an isolation centre in Lagos within three days. “We suspect that he contracted the disease during the test. I believe that the tests done by advanced countries are safer than those done in Nigeria.”
Disappointed to have learned late that it was possible to travel with a Covid-19 test result that has been altered such that the name originally on the result is edited and replaced with someone else’s name, he firmly told me that his sister would use the test result his wife travelled with. “Money is their (government) problem. Nigeria is not really interested in getting the actual number of Covid patient and treating them,” Abdul claimed.
Also, Fidelis (not real name), travelled to an African country using a fake Covid test result because he could not get a genuine result for the urgent trip. The government required travellers to have undergone PCR test at least 72 hours (when the policy was in effect) before departure. Through a contact and for N73,000, he got a test result issued by 54gene, a private laboratory which is part of the Lagos Covid-19 laboratory consortium. He never went to the lab and no sample was collected.
“I don’t think so. They made Covid-19 test difficult for people,” Fidelis said when asked if he felt bad that he compromised government’s effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
In the African country he went to, he got his result the same day he was tested at the airport. A day before departure, he was tested at the hotel and he got the result before leaving the next day.
“Simplify the process for people and they will obey,” he said. “These thieves are profiting from all the bottlenecks created by government.”
THE RING HAS ACCESS TO NITP DATABASE
Some hours before the return flight to Nigeria, at a time the United Kingdom announced the discovery of a new and more transmissible variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, prompting some countries to tighten procedures for inbound travellers while others banned flights from the UK, I discovered that the ring had complete access to the backend of the Lagos Biobank, the country’s travel passport database, and the Nigerian International Travel Portal (NITP), a tech platform which the Nigerian government had put in place months ago to “ensure safe travel and reduce the risk of a spike in Covid-19 cases”.
Before I left Nigeria, Muri Dollar, the agent of the syndicate, had boasted that not only could his collaborators ‘supply’ fake negative Covid test results, they could as well circumvent government’s Covid-19 travel policies and mandatory procedures for retesting on the 7th day of arriving in Nigeria.
“Do not fill any online form,” Muri Dollar told me, referring to the NITP. When informed that the government had instructed all air travellers to register on the platform or entry into the country would be denied, he said “forget that one”.
“We have done it for many people, we’ll do it for you and there will be no problem,” he said. “I will send a code to you once they send it to me. It will cost you N35,000.”
When I insisted he verified the instruction, he reluctantly called ‘doctor’ to get confirmation that the NITP form should not be filled . Muri Dollar called back after some minutes to inform me that no online form should be filled. All the racketeers asked for was country and date of departure. Other details such as name, date of birth, sex, address, email and mobile number were pulled from the fake information I sent for the fake test result with which I travelled to the UK.
I was not asked for vital information — including passport number, which I never gave at any time in the investigation, and Covid-19 PCR test result, which I had done hours before departing from the UK. All these were officially required for one to be registered and issued a bar code from the portal. I paid the fraudsters N35,000 for the deal — below the official price of almost N51,000 for a 7th day post-arrival test. The money was obviously not going to any legal coffers.
The NITP, a web portal launched by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19, is hosted by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and co-managed with the Port Health Service of the Federal Ministry of Health and other government agencies. On the portal, all travellers to Nigeria are required to perform three actions: fill a health declaration and self-report form, upload a negative Covid-19 test result conducted in the country of departure, and pay for a retest to be done on the 7th day of arriving in the country before an access report containing a QR code would be issued. The QR code will be presented before boarding flights to Nigeria and on arrival for verification and approval by the Port Health Officials.
An air traveller landing in Lagos gets three emails from the Lagos Biobank after registering on the NITP. The first confirms that one has been referred to the agency; a second contains a QR code and shows that “not paid” is sent when one completes registration; a third email with the same document but displaying “paid” is sent after one makes the payment. I, however, did not get any of these emails.
About 20 minutes later, Muri Dollar sent a message via WhatsApp containing a code and called to relay instructions on what to say at the airport in Nigeria. He said the code was sent to him by a ‘doctor’. The words in the message suggest it was initiated by someone who venerates the ‘doctor’ and has access to the backend of the Lagos Biobank technology system. It also suggests that the ‘doctor’ is someone who holds a top position at the Lagos Biobank and could give shady orders without being questioned. “Sir, it’s already generated sir,” read Muri Dollar’s message, followed by a code generated from the Lagos Biobank, Mainland Hospital. “Lab code (specimen) generated – DHS/**/12/*****.”
“When asked if online registration had been done, just say yes and show them (officials) the code and tell them payment for the retest had been made online and it will be done at the Lagos Biobank. The code will be inputted in the system and they will see that it’s true. That is what the ‘doctor’ said I should tell you.”
Although Muri Dollar refused to disclose the identity of the ‘doctor’, FIJ’s investigations show that the ‘doctor’ was sent N20,000 from the first portion of the money I sent to him through a mobile money platform, while N15,000, the second tranche, was transferred to one Olawale Fatoki Mutiu.
The message the racketeers sent to me contains only a set of numbers and not the date and time when the post-arrival Covid-19 test would be done. “What is wrong with you? Do you want someone who does not have Coro (Covid-19) to go and do the test? Time will be wasted at the laboratory…” Ishola Dollar replied, sounding slightly agitated that I asked about the need to go for the retest.
I compared the fake code the criminals sent me with the one a traveller received after registering on the NITP, they do not look alike. But I was assured there would not be issues at the airport because things had been “sorted”. I boarded a flight to Nigeria to find out how criminals outwit the NITP system.
LAGOS AIRPORT, HOT SPOT FOR CONTRACTING COVID-19
“We are one of the few countries that do double testing, that have a travel portal where you can go in and enter your details including your health questionnaire and pay for a test,” Sani Aliyu, the national coordinator of the PTF, said at a press briefing in December, confidently adding that Nigeria’s system for travels aimed at preventing the importation of cases of Covid-19 was “one of the strictest”.
But that is not true. The racketeers, working with accomplices in government agencies, bypassed Covid-19 travel policies by manipulating LSB’s and NCDC’s systems and the travel passport platform controlled by the Nigeria Immigration Service, FIJ’s investigations showed.
In the wake of the new virus variant, like all passengers travelling to Nigeria from the UK through France, I was mandated to take another Covid-19 test before leaving the airport in the UK. However, at the arrival hall of the MMIA in Nigeria, it was crowded and there was disregard for Covid-19 safety protocols by both officials and travellers, a contradiction to what I saw at airports in the UK and France. The Lagos airport is a potential hot spot for contracting Covid-19.
In December, Cynthia (not real name), began feeling sick days after arriving Lagos from an African country. She had to bring forward her 7th day post-arrival test to the fourth day because of the symptoms and an imminent travel out of Nigeria. She later tested positive for Covid-19. She had been paranoid about the disease since March 2020 and the chance that she contracted the disease in that country is slim, as the two tests she did before departure returned negative.
“Nigeria has so many opportunities for me to have gotten Covid,” she told me on the phone.
“The airport people were not wearing gloves; many were not even wearing masks; people who were wearing masks were not covering their noses.”
“These people, if they are infected, they infect us too because they are the ones handling our passports; there are no safety precautions. No one did temperature checks for me when I arrived at the airport. Travellers who just arrived at the Lagos airport have to go through a walkway to the car park lined with people not wearing masks, yelling in your face to ask if you want a taxi.”
Considering the disregard for Covid-19 safety protocols at the airport, Cynthia disagreed with the idea that people were importing the disease into Nigeria.
“We are probably the ones infecting people coming,” She told me, noting that many countries require travellers to have negative test results before leaving. “But Nigeria is porous. Guides to ensure the disease is not spread at the airport are not observed.”
I understood Cynthia’s irritation when I observed the lassitude of officials at the airport. While people who had not registered on the NITP were lumped together in a corner, I joined the queue of those who had registered online and were waiting to be verified and approved by the PHS officials. There was no adherence to physical distancing rule and the use of nose mask was not enforced.
For three hours, I stood in the queue, listening to the complaints of people. Some grumbled about the heat and poor flow of air; others yammered about the sloppiness of the procedures.
“The good thing is that we were all certified Covid-19 free by the country we departed from; there is more risk of contracting the disease here,” one traveller said with a smirk.
At the desk of the Port Health Service, an official who had no nose mask but wore a Santa Claus cap, then asked whether I had registered online and requested for my code when I replied in the affirmative. I was sure that I would be detected when the official insisted on seeing the code after I attempted to read it out. “That’s not what I’m looking for,” the official said, when he sighted the code. He then requested for my passport, inputted the number and said I was free to go.
“You see, I have registered and paid,” I deliberately told him, hoping he would object. But he did not; he just urged me on and attended to the next person.
For my passport information, which the fraud syndicate never asked for, to have been used to pull and confirm details of a fake NITP registration and payment, revealed the depth of connivance between corrupt officials in various government agencies and fraudsters.
At least four agencies — the Lagos State Biobank, the NCDC, the Port Health Service of the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Immigration Service — would be involved for the fraud to succeed as the official would not have requested for my passport details to access the information, which he could not get with the fake code I was given — if it was not standard procedure. Also, he would have disapproved my entry and asked me to go and register if he did not find that I had ‘registered and paid’.
The Lagos State government was yet to respond to request for comment as of the time of publishing this report. The Nigeria Immigration Service and the Federal Ministry of Health did not respond to mails by FIJ requesting comment.
When contacted, Dr Chikweze Ihekweazu, the director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, said: “Travel testing is done by private laboratories. The capacity in public laboratories. The capacity in public laboratories is for public health purposes only and remains free of charge.
“We have informed airlines and members of the public to utilise only results from private laboratories for travel-related purposes. There are over 30 laboratories now accredited for this purpose across the country. No public health laboratory in Nigeria is approved to test travellers.”
Technology experts agree that adopting a strong and advanced technology would make it difficult for Covid-19 test result racketeers and their accomplices to operate freely. They also believe that the backend of the NITP has been compromised.
“The NITP is structured in a way that if you don’t finish a step you don’t get to the next stage,” Gbamila, a computer programme expert, told FIJ.
“If you are supposed to make payment before something is supposed to happen, you have to make that payment before that thing happens.
“Systems like that are actually quite complex to deal with it. It is possible to hack any system and bypass them, but then you have to dedicate a whole lot of resources, especially for something like this that is national.”
The multi-million-naira racket ring has the resource to enlist government officials with access to the backend of the travel portal to ensure the system does not detect irregularities.
“So when you put your passport and then the numbers are not correlating, it should flag it because it is tech and tech can actually do anything,” Femi, a freelance software engineer, said about the international passport used to pull details of a fake registration on the NITP. “So it means that they probably have influenced the developers or the engineers to go ahead and tamper with these things so as to benefit from one side.”
With new variants of SARS-CoV-2 springing up and different countries undergoing second and third waves of the Covid-19, it will be an exercise in futility if the Nigerian government imposes only restrictions but ignores real problems of Covid test result racketeers, sloppy vigilance and corruption by officials at government-owned agencies. There is enormous danger to public health if one who is infected manages to circumvent the NITP, avoids Covid-19 retest and mixes with the populace.
AND THE ILLEGAL TRADE CONTINUES, INTERSTATE
According to Gbamila, the government needs to fortify the security of the travel portal so that persons who intend to manipulate it for personal gains will have a tough time doing it.
“One of the biggest threats to technology is the human factor. There is always a back door to every code. The people who wrote the code and insiders know the backdoor and all they need to do is to exploit the vulnerabilities of the system,” he said.
With the Nigerian government focused on purchasing Covid-19 vaccines while security agents – acting on President Buhari’s executive order – continue arresting persons who do not wear face masks, the racketeers continue to operate unhindered.
“You now see that we are genuine. Don’t forget our deal. We are ready to supply as many results as you want,” Muri Dollar told me. “You don’t need to come. I just got orders for COVID-19 result from Ibadan now which I am going to do and send back.”
This investigation was published with development support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)
Be the first to receive special investigative reports and features in your inbox.