TheCable goes undercover to expose COVID test racketeers at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, and the federal ministry of health who collude to endanger public health and try to rubbish the reputation of respected labs across the country. CHINEDU ASADU and TAIWO ADEBULU, who posed as potential travellers, report their strikingly similar experiences
Have you ever wanted something so badly you are willing to do anything to get it? That was me a week ago as I prepared to travel for an imaginary conference taking place in the United States.
The conference, which I totally made up, was supposed to be fully funded — covering all expenses except the crucial COVID-19 test.
After two visits to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and the federal ministry of health headquarters in Abuja, I secured two deals for fake COVID-19 test results — one received and the second underway — without having to visit any lab.
HOW TO GET A FAKE COVID-19 TEST RESULT WITH EASE
On the morning I first visited the airport, I walked briskly into the international travel terminal, but my steps were cut short by an official of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) who asked where I was travelling to.
“My flight is not due yet, sir. I am travelling next week,” I tell him as I wait for my gadgets to be cleared from the scanner. “I came to make an enquiry regarding the COVID-19 testing I need to do.”
He directs me to a co-worker, whom I later learnt works with one of the airlines, asking him to take me to the port health services (PHS) department. An airport worker whose name tag read, ‘Fache’, however, told me I do not need a COVID-19 test result to travel.
“Forget that COVID-19 test, people just dey use that one dey threaten you make them collect money for your hand,” he says in Pidgin English, handing me an assurance even Davido could not afford.
We arrive at the PHS department where a dark-complexioned woman in her 50s insisted that contrary to the man’s claim, I have to carry out the test to be allowed to travel abroad.
“We no dey do test for airport; go and look for labs and do it,” the woman adds, before taking her eyes back to the computer screen in front of her.
As we leave her office, Fache, now getting furious, said I was bent on “wasting” money, emphasising that people have been travelling without being tested for COVID-19.
“Na you dey expose yourself; I no know why you just dey talk all those things …people dey travel without am…. Na the yellow card na im be the important thing,” he adds.
But the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) will surely disagree with him. The centre’s travel protocol mandates international travellers to carry out the test before they travel. FAAN guidelines also stipulate the compulsory COVID-19 test.
There is one problem though. I do not have the N39,500 which private labs charge international travellers for COVID-19 tests.
I begin to seek help on how those involved would allow me to travel without having to pay such an amount of money.
“Na for immigration na im you go settle; for the new terminal. Just find any immigration officer; when you see any of them, lay your complaint to him. Once im don accept, you know what to do to stamp your passport,” Fache says, suggesting I give them about N5,000 when I asked.
“I can’t tell you; na you know how your pocket big; either na N5,000 or anything. You just try to make him happy make he clear you. That is period; you are free.”
‘HOW MUCH DO YOU HAVE? I WILL FORWARD THE TEST TO YOUR WHATSAPP’
At the new terminal, I approach a middle-aged FAAN worker who points me to the port health authority officials sitting by the entrance. At their corner, I rehearse my predicament: “I got an invitation to attend a funded conference abroad. Government-run laboratories mostly do not carry out the COVID-19 test for travellers while I can’t afford the cost for one in approved private laboratories. Please, help my life.”
The officials tell me there is nothing they can do in my case, and advise that I wait to go to government labs and hope they can get me one in time if I cannot afford the expensive ones.
In the minutes following, as I am speaking with the two male officials behind the desk to assist me, another asks me to follow their senior colleague who has just appeared from outside and leaves almost immediately.
Then the breakthrough. “How much do you have?” the man named Obiora Emenike asks as I hurry after him.
In Nigeria, when you are asked, “how much do you have” in an authoritative but caring tone, and the question is not from a trader, I can bet an earlobe it is most likely concerning a suspicious deal.
“Let me give you something like N10,000,” I answer him but he shakes his head vigorously and offers to receive N20,000 instead.
“That’s the only thing I can do for you. If you have N20,000 now, send it, I am forwarding your name to the lab now. Look at it, I am just forwarding it. Look at, they just sent me a name now. I am forwarding this person’s details,” he says, as he points me to a recent chat showing someone’s passport page, adding he will forward the details to “the doctor”.
“What will the lab now do?”
Emenike and Dr Inyang (from 7:24) speaking on how the fake COVID-19 test result can be procured.
“They will generate a result for you; the normal result.”
“Oga please na, make I give you 10k.”
“No, don’t even negotiate it. That is the last price. If you have it… I am not the one, I will forward it to the doctor … na the office style na im we dey use.”
It was at this point he said they run the COVID-19 tests at the airport, contrary to the due process as claimed by the first PHS staff I met.
“If you want, I will go and do the test. We have (the) kit for the test here. But you will pay more because the kit is expensive. The kit …my boss came with one…. it is inside his car. If you want to do it, it is N35,000. If you go to the office (the lab) there, it is N40,000,” he says.
Before visiting the airport, I was told a cartel provides fake COVID-19 test results for N10,000. So, why is he insisting on N20,000?
I am asking him again to “help me” and reconsider the amount, but he smirks instead, saying he is helping me already “because normally, what we collect, the last price that man (the doctor) collects from me is N25,000; I am not collecting anything for my own. I will do it for you for N20,000”.
Okay, N20,000 it is.
But I still have a major concern: “I go need go the lab?” I ask, to which he responds, “you no go go lab again. I will forward it (the test) to your WhatsApp if you send me your number. This is 12:20 (pm), before 4 pm or 3 pm sef, it will be ready. They will generate your result for you (and) you will go (travel).”
He then returns to his WhatsApp, scrolling through mostly unsaved numbers and pointing to various persons whom he says also requested fake COVID-19 test results: “This one, I am still processing his own; this one is that one I showed you; this one just forwarded to me; look at it, one guy that went to Cyprus the other day, I just want to show you his own so that you will see what he confirmed; this one now, I am just processing his own this morning. I just forwarded it; this one, I forwarded his own on Sunday; this one just travelled to Ghana.”
And so the list goes on and on.
I give him the N20,000 cash and, about five hours later, while watching CNN New Day at home, I receive a WhatsApp message from him — you guessed right: There goes my negative COVID-19 test result.
At that moment, I remember the complaints of Boss Mustapha, chairman of the presidential task force on COVID-19, at a recent briefing: “The PTF has been evaluating the compliance of Nigerians with the protocol for testing by in-bound and out-bound travellers. It has been discovered that some of these travellers have indulged in presenting fake documents.”
Interestingly, the fake test result, which carries the name of 54gene Lab — one of the privately run laboratories carrying out COVID-19 tests in Nigeria — and which bears a signature purportedly by one Dr Ifeoluwa Awogbindin is like a genuine result issued by the laboratory.
But here is the 2020 wonder. Although I sent my details to Emenike on December 2, the result was postdated to show the sample was collected on December 3 and report received on December 4 — making it 48 hours before December 6 when I told him I am travelling.
The next day, at the 54gene Lab in Abuja, I am told that the test costs N39,500 — about the same amount charged by two other laboratories I checked out in the city — and that the result would take 20 to 48 hours to be sent to me. Awogbindin was also not on duty when I asked.
In an email to TheCable on Saturday, 54gene Lab denied having a hand in the issuance of fake COVID-19 results, threatening to sue anyone it finds using its name for such a scam.
“54gene provides only authentic COVID-19 test results provided the person getting tested has gone through the correct process which involves getting tested in one of our assigned testing centres after which the sample analysis will be carried out in one of our accredited labs,” Moyosola Kara, its director of communications in Nigeria, said.
“If a person purchases a fake result with our branding on it, where they are found, we will take legal steps. The issue of fake results affects all the labs offering COVID-19 tests, and we are all working hand in hand with the Presidential Task force to create ways to ensure that results cannot be duplicated.”
SO, WHERE DID THE FAKE RESULT COME FROM?
Back to Emenike at the airport. While he scrolls through his WhatsApp chats, my eyes catch a glimpse of some contacts also involved in the backhand dealing.
One of the contacts was ‘Dr. Inyang’. Not long after our meeting, he is talking to someone, whom I suspect is the medical doctor, on the phone, informing the ”doctor” he is sending the details of another person to him for processing.
In my search for Dr. Inyang, airport officials tell me he works with the port health services, but guessing it will be risky to request to meeting him there, I find my way to the federal ministry of health headquarters where I confirm that there is indeed a medical doctor by the name Kayo Inyang.
“He is our oga; he will do it for you,” a fair-complexioned lady tells me of the medical doctor when I told her I was looking for a way to carry out the COVID-19 test.
But she is also kind to tell me I should not offer to pay more than N25,000 when I contact the doctor, adding: “Others do N39,500 but yours is through referral.”
“He is not so popular; he is among the new ones. Just as everybody knows close-up, but there are other ones. You can get it fast; unlike the ones they queue and there is a crowd, he is not well known. Na we just dey refer am,” she adds.
As I leave the ministry with Falz’ ‘This is Nigeria’ playing through my air pod, I run a quick check on the doctor and discover he is currently a senior medical officer at the ministry.
Later that day, over the phone with him, as I introduce myself, he goes, “it is N40,000”; barely allowing me to finish as if he has been waiting for my call.
Like his colleague at the airport, he is not going to collect N10,000, saying it is “too small”, but not without a note of apology. After much persuasion to reconsider the price, he finally settles for N25,000.
“Just send your details, I will get your name in our system and give you your result. Send me your passport page, when you are travelling, then I will send you my account number so that as you are paying the money, I will send the result to you,” he says, adding on a final note: “N25,000 last”.
He also informs me I will get my result latest by 9 pm, and “you can use (it) and travel”. But because I still need to be certain the result will be a ‘genuine fake’, I ask him, “hope it will be authentic (and) they won’t stop me at the airport.”
Laughter comes rolling from the other end as if he is mocking my diffidence. “Do something so that you go and use it and travel. Nothing will happen to you. Don’t worry.”
He would later forward his GTB account via text message and, while I was signing off on the phone call with him, he immediately chips in: “Hello, hello, I have done this thing for many people and nobody has failed, so you will not fail. They have been travelling.”
And if they can, why can’t I?
Olujimi Oyetomi, spokesman of the federal ministry of health, has been contacted by TheCable.
Following a series of complaints on social media about corrupt airport officials who demand bribes and extort travellers with regard to the mandatory COVID-19 test, on December 3, I decided to visit the international airport to have a first-hand experience of the process.
A female official scanned me with suspicion when I asked her where I could do a COVID-test at the airport. After a barrage of questions about my flight details, I told her that I was travelling to Kenya for training in the next two days and needed a COVID-19 test result. I sounded helpless and desperate. She directed me to Gate C to ask the security officials where I could get help. “They will connect you to the guys who will help you out. Just make sure you settle them well. You know it is express service. But they will help you,” she assured me.
N20,000 FOR A FAKE COVID-19 TEST
The lanky security officer was reluctant at first. Then, he picked up his phone to make a call. From there, he ordered me to follow him and took me towards the offices opposite the entrance where he introduced me to one “Akorede”. I later learnt that Akorede was a member of the utility staff at the airport.
“Your money is N35,000 if you need an authentic COVID-19 test result. You know the guy who brought you too will collect his own share,” Akorede told me.
I asked him if the test result will be accepted for travelling; he assured me that he has done so many of it and no traveller has come back to complain that the document was rejected.
“It is legit. You have no problem. I have done like five today and we have done many before now. If you pay now, your result will be out in about 30 minutes. Unlike the labs where you have to go through rigorous testing and the result won’t come out until two days after, we will help you bring it out without any stress at all,” Akorede assured me again.
Then, we haggled over the price for a few minutes and later settled for N20,000. He asked me to sit while we exchanged contacts and he collected my details. He asked me to send the data page of my passport to his WhatsApp line and left to make calls. I told him I did not come with my passport, but he insisted I had to send my data page to be sure they were dealing with a real traveller, as he cast another cursory look at me. I sent an image of the data page.
“You will receive your result in 20 minutes time. Please, we only take cash. No bank transfer,” he stated, as he perused me once more.
True to his words, I received a test result via WhatsApp and email a few minutes after. The result was sent by one Ibeh Felix and had the name of Medbury Medical Services, a member of the Lagos COVID-19 laboratory network. One Adebayo Bello, laboratory manager, signed the virological screening test result and I was declared “Negative for SARS COV 2 (COVID-19) as at 04/12/2020” — the result was even post-dated.
A VISIT TO MEDBURY MEDICAL SERVICES
In June, the Lagos state government approved seven private laboratories to commence COVID-19 testing. Medbury is one of the facilities approved as part of efforts to expand the testing capacity for COVID-19 in the state.
I proceeded to the address of the laboratory indicated on the test result to make more findings. When I asked to see Bello, the manager who allegedly signed the result, the receptionist told me that he does not work at the Lekki main office. She directed me to the Ikeja office of the company. For the test, she said it costs N50,400 and will be out in about 48 hours.
The Ikeja office was bubbling with activities as intending travellers trooped in to get tested for the virus. The lady who approached me at the entrance said Bello was a staff member of the facility but was unavailable at that moment. She confirmed that the lab charges N50,400 officially for the test, while it takes less than 48 hours for the result to be issued.
And here is the twist: when I entered the identification number of the result on the test verification platform of the company, it was successful — but it was issued in September to a different person.
In effect, someone else’s result had been manipulated by the fraudsters for my sake!
‘SOME PASSENGERS PAID N40K FOR THE TEST RESULT’
After a week, I informed Akorede that I had returned from Kenya and the COVID-19 test result he produced did an excellent job, as no one suspected it was fake. I also informed the airport official that a colleague would travel to Kenya next week and he would need his help for an instant test result.
“You are welcome. I told you no one will suspect the document. A lot of people have travelled with it. Tell your colleague to call me as soon as possible,” Akorede said. The colleague called him and he insisted the price had increased above N20,000.
“That is my WhatsApp number. You can send me your data page, email address, phone number and the date you are travelling so I can be doing it. Then if you come, I will just send it to you. It is N30,000.”
The reporter pleaded to pay N15,000 but Akorede insisted that he would not receive anything below N25,000 to get the COVID-19 test done and released in 30 minutes.
“No. It is N25,000 last. I want to assist you. I can’t do it below N25,000. Normally, the last price is N30,000. Some officials even do it for passengers at N40,000,” he concluded as the reporter agreed to pay N25,000.
PASSENGERS CONTINUE TO FLOUT COVID-19 PROTOCOL
Attempts made by TheCable to seek the reaction of Medbury Medical Services to alert them to the fraud were futile. Messages sent to the company’s verified email addresses were not responded to, despite a call to remind the organisation of the emails.
Recently, the Lagos state government vowed to sanction travellers evading COVID-19 test. In a statement jointly signed by Gbenga Omotoso, commissioner for information, and Akin Abayomi, commissioner for health, the state government said it will not fold its arms and allow people undermine the gains it has achieved in curbing the spread of the virus.
“This is not only worrisome but portends danger for public health and safety as the populace stands the risk of infection from any asymptomatic positive case who perhaps is not aware of his/her status,” the commissioners said.
“We are definitely not going to fold our arms and watch the gains made by us against the disease to be reversed by the irresponsibility of some citizens who choose to flagrantly disregard our guidelines. This is why we are set to take action against people who flout these protocols.”
During its last briefing, the presidential task force (PTF) on COVID-19 vowed to go after those behind fake COVID-19 test results.
“The first is the report on social media relating to the procurement of fake COVID PCR certificates. I am pleased to inform you that this is being investigated and technology-backed measures have been taken to limit such activities,” Boss Mustapha, secretary to the government of the federation, said.
Sani Aliyu, national coordinator of the task force, said: “Committee has been set up to investigate this and all those involved and found to culpable will be dealt with according to the law.”
Beside being the major entry point to the country, Lagos remains the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria with over 20,000 confirmed cases as of December 16, 2020.
Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the state governor, tested positive for the virus and is currently in isolation.
After the first part of the investigation, 54gene, a genomics research, services and development company, which is being impersonated, said it had created a portal for the validation of test results attributed to its laboratory.