ABUJA — It is no secret it is hard to get a visa to the United States from Nigeria. These days, the process is confused by local 'touts' who sell speedy interview appointments for hundreds of dollars, while most people have to wait several months. Embassy officials say they are not sure how they manage to crack the system.
In August, Wole Olaoye, an editorial board member of Leadership, a Nigerian newspaper, booked an interview online to get a U.S. visa. He had been asked to give a lecture for his college alumnae association on January 15 in Washington D.C.
The earliest date he could get was January 17. He postponed the lecture.
Embassy officials say part of the hold-up is that they need more staff, which they are working to get. Olaoye says the process is also confused by the presence of local 'middlemen' or 'touts' that sell swift visa appointments for hundreds of dollars.
"There is a weakness in the system of U.S. visas in Nigeria right now," said Olaoye. "And that weakness is being exploited by smart guys, who think they are smart, but as far as I am concerned all these middle men are fraudsters, because they are selling what does not belong to them."
After he booked his appointment, Olaoye wrote an editorial for the Daily Trust, another prominent Nigerian newspaper, with the headline: "The U.S. ambassador must hear about this!"
As it turns out, the U.S. embassy knows. Not only that, embassy officials are also frustrated.
"It only costs $160 for a U.S. tourist visa," said Carol Cox, consular chief at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja. "If you have paid more than that, you have paid too much. We understand the touts are out there. We are trying to thwart them. We are trying to discourage their use. Really, we ask that people book their own appointment."
The problem, she says, is that the embassy often does not know how their system is being manipulated.
But in some cases, they do figure it out when the person shows up for the appointment. For example, students can get emergency appointments if they need to start their semester in the United States. If a non-student shows up for that appointment, which may have been set up by a tout, they will be sent away without an interview.
Touts also sell paperwork intended to trick consular officers, like fake U.S. hotel reservations. Cox says these travel packages can hurt their chances of ever getting a visa if they are discovered.
"We know that there are packages that people purchase in order to try to fool us," said Cox. "We are actually fairly savvy on a lot of the packages. It is very frequent that the fake packages will backfire on the individual."
Cox says they consider selling these packages a crime that could result in a permanent ban from the U.S.
In his article in the Daily Trust, Olaoye says getting a U.S. visa these days is as hard as "trying to wring out honey from the bowels of a rock."