Who’s to blame for passport scarcity? - THE NATION
Nigeria international passport, ordinarily an essential commodity for Nigerians at home and the diaspora at large has become so scarce these days such that both old and fresh applicants have to wait in perpetuity to get it, reports IBRAHIM APEKHADE YUSUF
If your international passport has long expired chances are that you can’t easily get it renewed and if you’re a fresh applicant, there’s no luck either!”
That was the damning verdict given by Olusola Bello (not real name), a retired high school teacher, who has been waiting to get his international passport out of the Alausa Passport office in the past five months without success.
Sharing his experience, Bello, in his mid-60s, spoke of the humiliation he has had to endure in the hands of Nigeria Immigration Service officials, who according to him, created artificial scarcity so as to force unsuspecting members of the public to either grease their palms or not make any headway at all.
How the ordeal began
According to Bello, his international passport expired in December 2021, and when he sought to renew it in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown and restrictions made it impossible at the time.
Fast forward to September 2022, when he made fresh attempts to obtain it, he was told he had to apply online. Pronto, he completed the online registration and was expected to be placed on appointment. On his appointed date, almost in mid-December last year, he visited the Alausa Passport office but was told his name wasn’t in the system. He left disappointed. He resumed again last March and in fact met a fellow who also came to file his application at the same passport office whose document was ready for delivery.
Livid with rage, Bello informed our correspondent that he had accosted the lucky applicant who later confided in him that he was ‘assisted’ by one of the officials through whom he completed the registration process in a record time and got his international passport in less than two months.
There are many members of the public in the same dilemma as Bello, who have no inkling whatsoever how they can obtain their travel document with little or no stress.
When our correspondent visited the Alimosho Passport office at Sobo Busstop, along Akowonjo road, Lagos, last Thursday and Friday, there were hordes of crowd seated outside under the scorching sun with others in their numbers within the premises, most of who grew impatient having endured long hours of waiting for their turns on the queues to end.
Attempts to speak with the Public Relations and Passport Controller were futile as officials who spoke with our correspondent said they were not readily available.
Miffed by what they described as the uncooperative attitude of some of the officials, some of the applicants who either came for a renewal or fresh passport were really pissed.
A middle-age man, unable to take it anymore, literally lost his cool. “Look, I’m the CEO of my own company. I can’t come here and be treated like some unknown quantity. I won’t take it.”
That singular outburst literally added fuel to the already ignited fire as many others emboldened by him began a shouting match such that it took a yeoman’s efforts to control the surging crowd.
The official who obviously masked his disappointment with the unfolding scenario quickly shooed me towards the office of the Special Adviser to the Passport Controller, one Olatunde, who was obviously standoffish.
When yours truly informed him about the mission to the office, he looked up from his desk and said, “Mr. Man, you can see everywhere it is calm here, there is no problem.”
Asked to see the boss around or anyone else who could speak on the challenges or progress report at the Passport office, the aide said no one was available as a proper appointment was required to get them to respond to enquiries.
Investigation by our correspondent revealed that as part of efforts to address the delay in the issuance of passports, the Service launched the enhanced e-passport with other improved features.
The enhanced e-passport is a great improvement on the biometric passport technology adopted in 2007.
An official of the NIS, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak with the press, confirmed that the Service has been working hard to ensure full compliance with the three-week duration for renewal and six-week waiting period for fresh applications.
“The waiting period is for us to validate the addresses provided by the applicants. So, Nigerians should not forget that they have six months to renew their passports. They should not wait till it expires, and of course, if there are other emergencies, and there is a window for them.”
Accordingly, he said applicants not conversant with the passport acquisition procedure can seek assistance from either the Help Desk or Customer Service Unit for appropriate guidance.
The NIS has calibrated its processing and issuance procedures to eliminate third party transactions, which often escalates the cost of procuring passports.
CBN takes the blame
The Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) has blamed the scarcity of international passport booklets on the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) policy on forex.
The Comptroller-General of the Service, Mr. Idris Jere, said this at a public hearing organised by an ad hoc Committee of the House of Representatives in Abuja.
The NIS claim comes barely a week after the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, said that the NIS has never experienced a scarcity of passport booklets.
According to him, such a claim is “a lie and an excuse by a few corrupt officials of the service to extort the applicants.”
Contradicting the Minister’s words, the NIS DG said the foreign exchange regulation policy of the government and the CBN’s refusal to grant access to forex for the importation of the passport booklets are causing the scarcity, thereby delaying the process of issuance and renewal of the document.
Challenges facing NIS
Speaking on the factors causing the delay in the issuance and renewal of international passports, the NIS boss said: “We generate forex from the sale of passports, but we do not have access to buy the same booklet, and that is a challenge for NIS.
“The factors responsible for the scarcity of passports include the inability to set up passport-producing factories in Nigeria as its production is done abroad.
“The major seven components used for producing passports are sold in the international market, and the assemblage and production are done in Malaysia.”
He said that Irris Smart Technology Ltd., the foreign company responsible for producing the passport, had done well given the conditions.
He added that the presidential directive to commence the production of passports locally by the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting (NSPM) was a welcome development. He, however, recommended that a proper exit plan be put in place for a smooth handover from Irris Smart Tech to prevent any breach of contract or production process.
Earlier, the Managing Director of Irris Smart Technology Ltd., Mr. Yinker Fisher, said that before the advent of the e-passport system, the Nigerian passport was marred with embarrassing irregularities and inconsistencies under the watch of NSPM.
According to him, as a result of lack of capacity, NSPM outsourced the process to three companies, which led to so many irregularities, including passport colour and numbers.
While making strong recommendations for Iris Technologies, Dr. Sule Ya’u Sule, Bayero University, Kano, recalled that since the outsourcing of the production of Nigeria’s e-passport to a highly qualified, competent, and engaged private company, Iris Smart Technologies Limited, the problems associated with the issuance and administration of Nigeria’s passport have become a thing of the past.
“This Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in passport production and administration has become a reference point in the synergy of the public and private sectors and a foretaste of what is to come. Without investing money into passport production, the federal government earned over $290m and N80b from this passport project in revenue. This sum is expected to rise as more Nigerians apply and receive new passports.”
Iris Technologies has shown that Government Projects can be conceptualized and executed by a team of professionals. They identify a problem, brainstorm on it, and jobs are completed faster and better. They can withstand pressure and still deliver on the agreed timeline.
Minister passing the bulk
Meanwhile, the Minister of Interior last week said that the efforts of the NIS at sanitising the process and bringing integrity to passport applications are being sabotaged by a ‘few’ corrupt officials of the NIS.
Explaining why there have been delays in the process of issuing the Nigerian passport, Aregbesola said, “One of the challenges facing NIS as regards passport applications are the few corrupt officials of the service who are undermining the efforts of the service at sanitising the process and bringing integrity to passport applications.
“These unscrupulous people are making the situation difficult by the day; if people do not tolerate them, they will not exist again. They are the ones spreading the rumor that there are no booklets in order to continue to extort the applicants.
“We did not have a shortage of booklets at any given time; we have enough booklets to meet the needs of the people. There are more than enough booklets in our production schedule.”
He, however, appealed to Nigerians to stop patronising the touts and report any NIS officials manipulating applicants for money.
Reps to the rescue
The House of Representatives had a few weeks ago commenced an investigation into the proposed domestication and processing of the Nigeria International Passports.
The Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Hafiz Kawu, said that the investigative hearing followed a resolution of the House to investigate a company, IRIS Technology Limited that was awarded a contract to produce twenty million booklets of the passports.
Mr. Kawu said the investigation was to unravel the root cause of the scarcity of passport booklets in Nigeria.
In a remark, the Comptroller General of Immigration, Mr. Idris Jere, who said that to bridge the booklet gap, zonal offices were created across Nigeria and abroad, explained that the scarcity of passport booklets was as a result of scarcity of forex.
He said the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) would welcome any suggestions that will end the issue of passport booklets scarcity.
Responding, the Managing Director of IRIS Technology Limited, Mr. Yinka Fisher told the committee that the company was given the contract to produce twenty million booklets and has produced six million so far.
He alleged that the Nigeria Security and Mint and the Central Bank of Nigeria were sabotaging the company’s effort leading to scarcity of passport booklets.