Allegations of fraud at Lagos, Abuja international airports trail COVID-19 repeat tests on passengers from abroad | International Centre for Investigative Reporting

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ALLEGATION of fraud and other forms of sharp practices are trailing the COVID-19 repeat tests being carried out on passengers who arrived in Nigeria on international flights from abroad.

Nigerians in the Diaspora and other persons who are travelling to Nigeria are required to carry out a COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction test at least 96 hours before entering the country, and the result of the test is to be updated to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control’s Nigeria International Travel Portal.

However, since the resumption of international flights in Nigeria on September 5, passengers are presenting negative PCR test results before boarding aircraft travelling to Nigeria, they are also being made to pay for COVID-19 PCR repeat tests that would be carried out on them when they arrive in the country.

Passengers are required to complete online payment for the repeat test before travelling to Nigeria but those who are unable to do so are allowed to pay on arrival in Nigeria.

But many passengers, particularly Nigerians, who arrived in the country since the resumption of international flights are recounting tales of outright stealing, extortion and fraud perpetrated by government officials who supervise the enforcement of the COVID-19 guidelines at the Lagos and Abuja international airports.

Some of the passengers, who narrated their experiences on Berekete Family, a reality radio program on Human Rights Radio 101.1 FM, which was monitored live on air and on YouTube on Thursday, said they were defrauded by government officials as the money they paid for the COVID-19 repeat tests were not recorded in the official account of the government.

The affected passengers said they were forced to repeat the payments in order to undergo the test, which is a requirement for returning to their base outside the country.

Also, different amounts are being collected from passengers as payment for the repeat tests, going by the testimonies of some returnees who appeared on the radio program.

According to allegations made by one Ohiare, a Nigerian who phoned-in to the Berekete Family program from his base in Turkey, government officials at the Lagos and Abuja international airports tell the returnees that they can arrange people who would impersonate them and undertake the COVID-19 repeat tests in their place.

Usually, when passengers arrive Nigeria on international flights and show evidence of payment of the fee for the repeat test, they are assigned to any authorised laboratory, within their destination in the country, for the COVID-19 test.

Narrating the experience of one of his brothers who recently travelled to Nigeria from Turkey, Ohiare said “One of my brothers travelled to Nigeria last week. Before leaving Turkey he did COVID -19 test and it is free here and you get the result two days or a day before you travel and when you get to Nigeria you tender the result.

“But when my brother tendered his result at the Lagos airport in Nigeria they asked him to pay N51,900 for another test in Nigeria. When he paid the money somebody came and told him that ‘if you don’t want to do the repeat test yourself, we can send somebody to do it for you’. If you agree they will now tell you that somebody will go to the hospital where you are supposed to do the test to represent you.”

In the same vein, a guest in the studio of the Berekete Family program, one Ndubuisi Ekwulonu, a Nigerian who said he arrived the country from Sweden on September 10, narrated how he was defrauded through payment of the fee for the COVID-19 repeat test.

Ekwulonu said he paid N42,700 for the test but his name did not appear in the list of returnees who made payment, as indicated on a government portal.

He had to repeat the payment in order to obtain a negative COVID-19 repeat test result, a requirement for boarding aircraft to leave the country, as he is to return to Sweden on Saturday.

But, according to him, he has also been informed that the second payment was not captured in the system.

Ekwulonu, who broke down in tears at a point during his testimony, said he has spent almost N90,000 on multiple payments for the COVID-19 repeat test since he arrived in Nigeria on September 10.

Narrating his travails, he said, “Before I left Sweden, there was a form the Federal Government of Nigeria asked us to fill for the repeat test. I filled the form and decided to make payment when I arrive Nigeria. On getting to Nigeria, they asked me to pay and I paid with my ATM card. They debited N42,700 and gave me two options – one laboratory in Jabi and another one in Maitama, (in Abuja) for the test.

“I chose the one in Maitama but if you put the address of the laboratory in Google Map, it will take you to one laboratory at Emab Plaza. When I got to Emab Plaza, they said they don’t know what I am talking about. After, I was directed to the isolation centre at THISDAY Dome. When I got there they said I should go to the Ministry of Health at the Federal Secretariat. I went to the Ministry of Health and I was told to go to an event centre. I got to the event centre and found the laboratory there.

“I showed them my receipt, that I have been directed to do the test there and that if I don’t do the test I cannot leave the country. The people at the laboratory then forwarded my payment details to Lagos through the computer system. After waiting the whole day they said there was no response from Lagos. I came back very early the next day and when they checked the system they said my name was not on the list they gave them of those that paid.”

Ekwulonu added that some other passengers who returned from Sweden with him on the same flight were also had the same experience.

He added, “Luckily for me, two other people that were on the same flight with me came to the laboratory but they couldn’t find their names on the list. Even my friend who also came back from Sweden couldn’t find his name. The people at the laboratory now told me that if I want to do the test, I should pay another money. I paid another N42,700 and they did the test. I am supposed to leave Nigeria on Saturday but they have now sent me a text message calling me again to pay another N42,700 to do the test. We were about 200 passengers on that flight from Sweden. Almost N90,000 have gone out of my account for the test yet they are saying they can’t find my name.”

When contacted over the allegations, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria said it was not involved in the COVID-19 repeat tests, which is a requirement for international flights.

The agency said the NCDC and the Federal Ministry of Health are the ones responsible for the COVID-19 tests.

General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Henrietta Yakubu, in an SMS in response to enquiries from our correspondent, said, “FAAN does not charge for COVID-19 test please. It is NCDC/Ministry of Health. We are only managers of the airports not an health institution.”

Responding to further questions, Yakubu said FAAN was not the police, nor the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission.

However, it would be recalled that in August, FAAN had said it was investigating allegations that some officials at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, were collecting bribe from returnees on evacuation flights during COVID-19 clearance.

International flights into and out of Nigeria was suspended on March 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the suspension was lifted on September 5.

When contacted, an official in the public affairs unit of the NCDC, Emeka Oguanuo, drew attention to a press release, dated September 14, 2020, in which the organisation denied reports of fraud in COVID-19 tests for ‘air travellers’. But the September 14 statement did not specify the nature of the alleged fraud it was refuting.

However, the NCDC, in the statement attributed to the Director General, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, said the repeat test was introduced to protect Nigerians from the coronavirus disease, especially since many returnees flouted self-isolation regulations after returning to the country.

“The decision to make repeat tests mandatory in Nigeria was based on a review of data by NCDC and the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19. The goal was to find the right balance between protecting Nigeria from more infections, while supporting the restart of international travel. From May till August 2020, evacuation and emergency flights were allowed into the country following an initial restriction on international flights. Of the number of people who returned to Nigeria, 5 per cent tested positive within 14 days of arrival in Nigeria. In addition, several people flouted self-isolation guidance on return.

“Based on this data and the current capacity in Nigeria, it was decided that all travellers to Nigeria must be tested after seven days of return to the country. This was to enable early detection and to reduce the risk of further transmission of the disease,” the statement said.

The NCDC added that although public laboratories have been set up to provide free tests to Nigerians, all travel-related testing can only be carried out in private laboratories.

Seeming to shift the blame for the alleged fraudulent activities involved in the repeat tests to the private laboratories, the NCDC statement added, “The private laboratories that provide testing for COVID-19 are commercial entities, independent of the Government of Nigeria.

“The PTF-COVID-19 has ensured that the prices indicated by these laboratories are as subsidised as possible.

“All payment received on the travel platform are sent directly to the laboratories where the passenger has chosen to be tested, chosen from a list of private laboratories approved for testing COVID-19 in Nigeria.

“No payment is received by NCDC for any purpose, whatsoever. We advise that passengers should not make payments outside of the official platform.”

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