Many people may be unaware of the verification of documents and the legal practice that has evolved around it but it has existed in Nigeria for over two decades.
Verification of documents refers to the process of investigating the authenticity of claims made by Nigerian immigration applicants to foreign countries. Different countries have different approaches but all seek to achieve the same goal, which is to establish the truth about the Nigerian émigré.
The document factory is the writer’s nomenclature for the subterranean process that produces fake documents and false records in Nigeria. A brief description of the process of verification is that the Nigerian immigrant provides the foreign country with claims (both oral and documentary) about their identity, education, marital status and family ties and the foreign country instructs its embassy in Nigeria to verify the authenticity of the claims. The foreign embassy employs Nigerian professionals (usually legal practitioners) to investigate the veracity of the claims. Documents like birth certificates, baptismal certificates, school certificates, hospital records, affidavits etc. are certified as fake or authentic by the issuing authority.
The participants in the verification procedure are (1) the applicants and their relatives, (2) the foreign country and embassy concerned, (3) Nigerian professionals engaged to advise the foreign embassy on Nigerian law. (4) Nigerian authorities/institutions that establish the authenticity of the claims from available records.
The contribution of applicants to the sustenance of the document factory is mainly in the procurement of spurious documents to verify their claims. Such documents, procured by offering pecuniary inducement to corrupt private and public officials are submitted to the foreign authorities in support of the applicants’ claims.
Two decades ago some foreign embassies in Nigeria did not have a reception area for visa applicants because the number of applicants did not require such arrangements.With the worsening economic conditions in Nigeria, however, larger reception areas were created to accommodate the growing numbers. After the attack on the World Trade Centre in the US in 2000 and subsequent attacks on Western embassies in the Middle East by Islamic terrorists, an attitudinal shift to immigration began in most Western countries which has manifested in the rise of Nationalism. Some foreign embassies left Nigeria because it was considered unsafe and corrupt. Others gradually distanced their diplomats from their Nigerian employees and the Nigerian professionals engaged in the verification process. The attention formerly accorded the process of verification was jettisoned for an expedient approach. In some embassies the supervision of the Nigerian legal practitioners, which was hitherto the responsibility of foreign legal practitioner/diplomats, was left to non-qualified personnel who are unable to understand the nuances of the Nigerian legal system.
Another negative effect of this new attitudinal shift was the emphasis on legally inconsequential documents. Documents not prescribed by Nigerian law like certificates of bachelorhood/spinsterhood, certificates of identification issued by local governments, birth certificates not issued by the National Population Commission, to mention a few, are submitted by applicants. While the acceptance of such documents predates the attitudinal shift, the insistence on their verification demonstrates the inability of the non-qualified personnel to ascribe the correct legal significance to such documents.
Again, the vacuum unwittingly created between the new personnel and the Nigerian legal practitioner was filled by distrust motivated by corruption stories about Nigeria in diplomatic circles. Unfortunately, the insistence on the verification of every spurious document submitted by an applicant not only assails the Nigerian professional’s integrity but wastes time and sustains the document factory.
The document factory also thrives where public records are regarded as a means of revenue generation. The search fee for a marriage certificate was increased by the Ministry of Internal Affairs from one thousand Naira (N1, 000) to fifteen thousand Naira (N15,000.00) in a country where the minimum wage was eighteen thousand Naira (N18,000.00).The search fee at the National Population Commission for the authenticity of a birth certificate is Ten Thousand Naira (N10,000.00).Court registries, school authorities, local government authorities all charge search fees ranging from one thousand naira to five thousand naira or higher, officially and unofficially. Even then, public records are notoriously shielded from scrutiny.
It was hoped that the promulgation of the Freedom of Information Act, would facilitate access to public records: “A public institution shall ensure the proper organisation and maintenance of all information in its custody in a manner that facilitates public access to such information.” – S2(2). Unfortunately with exorbitant search fees and undue restriction of scrutiny, the purpose of the Act is defeated.
An example of the deleterious effect of the document factory on public administration was the belief that Federal Marriage Registries are better equipped to conduct marriages between Nigerians and foreigners, which deprived State Marriage Registries of the income from such marriages. An attempted “take-over” bid by State Registries, however, failed in court.
To eradicate the document factory, all the actors must be involved. The foreign embassies ought to re-examine the significance placed on irrelevant documents. Nigerian authorities ought to be concerned about the negative image of the country’s public service particularly regarding the integrity of public documents and records and ease of access to information classified as public information.
An important recommendation is that all documents of a public nature issued by public and private institutions should contain a short statement of the enabling legislation.
Thompson, a legal practitioner, wrote from Lagos.