The prolonged scarcity of international passport booklets in the various immigration offices nationwide as well as foreign missions abroad has taken serious toll on Nigerians with huge implications for the economy. In this report, Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf, Gbenga Omokhunu, Chris Oji, Precious Dikehowa and Ernest Nwokolo capture the agonising experiences of hapless citizens in their tireless wait for the elusive international documents.
LIKE the characters depicted in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, both old and prospective travellers are not so sure how much longer they have to wait to get their international passport documents ready due to the acute scarcity of passport booklets at the various passport offices nationwide.
Independent checks by our correspondents at the various units and commands of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) across the country was disturbingly revealing as most of the offices had not issued passport documents since December 2016.
From Lagos to Abeokuta in Ogun, Oyo in Ibadan, Asaba in Delta, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Kano, the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the story is the same as Nigerians recounted their ordeals in their quest to process their passport documents including fresh issue and renewal. This is just as some of the immigration officials overwhelmed with the enormity of the crisis at hand showed empathy as best they could while others decided to cut deals and take advantage of the terrible situation to fleece hapless Nigerians to no end.
Nigerian passports are issued to citizens to travel outside the shores.
Nigeria now offers only electronic passports for new passport applications. These electronic passports, known also as the e-passport, are classified as either Standard or Official e-passport, depending on intended use.
In applying for Nigerian passports one is required to either be at the physical location of the Nigeria Immigration Services, or by making submission through its website. Nigerians living in other countries are often advised to contact the nearest Nigerian embassy or consulate for guidelines about how to renew or obtain a passport.
As regards the standard e-passport guidelines, an applicant who wishes to obtain it is expected to come for an interview with a local government letter of identification, birth certificate, or age declaration, and a recent passport-sized colour photograph, which must show applicant’s full face down to the neck, without any discoloration.
The service also issues official passport which is primarily reserved for certain classes of government officials and Nigerian diplomats, it is also obtainable through the same processes.
Crux of the matter
Iris Smart Technology Nigeria Limited (ISTL), the company that supplies passports to the Nigerian government, had since last year demanded an upward review of the price citizens pay to obtain the document but the government has not approved the proposal.
ISTL, the sole supplier sent the review request to the NIS in early 2016, arguing that the cost of producing the Nigerian passport had gone up because of the poor exchange rate of the naira to the dollar.
The Immigration Service, it was learnt, made a recommendation to the government in March 2016 that the cost of issuing the passport be increased but the government has not acted on the request.
The supply company is said to have partially stopped supplying the 32-page passport since the middle of last year, causing acute shortage in issuance for the NIS.
On August 11, 2016, ISTL’s Malaysian parent company, Iris Corporation, filed in the country’s stock exchange, known as Bursa Malaysia, that it has signed a contract of $42.49 million with ISTL to supply 2.5 million units of 32-page Nigerian electronic passport booklets.
The three-year contract, according to Iris, will ensure that the company supplies an average of 100,000 passport booklets to Nigeria every month.
The parent company also listed risks in the passport supply contract to include avoidable delays arising from non-compliance, which would affect the profit margin of the company as time would be spent trying to resolve such arising issues.
Iris Corporation, however, expressed confidence that it would seek to limit the risks involved through prudent financial management and efficient operating procedures.
Two months after Iris Corporation announced the new contract to its shareholders in Malaysia, Nigeria began to witness the scarcity of its 32-page passport in all the passport issuance offices across the country and other foreign missions where the passport is issued to eligible citizens.
The delays that Iris Corporation anticipated had arisen immediately after signing the supply contract with its Nigerian partner as the expected increase in the cost of passport to Nigerians has not been approved by the federal government.
Competent presidency sources said that in reviewing the cost of the passports as requested by Iris, the federal government raised questions about why the documents were being produced abroad.
All the components of the e-passport are manufactured abroad as the production of booklet is done in South Africa by SAPPI, a pulp and paper firm, while the chip is provided by NXP, a Netherlands company that specialises in the manufacturing of secure connectivity solutions for embedded applications.
The printing and binding of the passport booklet, embedding of the chip as well as lamination for the data page is done in Malaysia before final delivery to Nigeria.
Our source said that the government has not taken any action on the upward review of the cost of passports because top officials of the Buhari administration are “not only worried about capital flight because of the huge amounts that it costs us in foreign exchange, they also worry that a security document such as the Nigerian passport is produced by foreign companies in foreign lands.”
Going by the contract figures given by Iris Corporation, the new agreement is to supply 2.5 million passports at $42.49 million, then it means that each booklet should cost $16.82 which amounts to N5,130 at the official exchange rate of N305.
The increase demanded by the company is therefore curious.
Findings by The Nation revealed that the Federal Executive Council approved the extension of the contract of Iris in May 2015 to supply the passport booklets over a period of four years.
The former minister of interior, Abba Moro who announced the new contract in May 13, 2015 said that the contract “for Iris Technology was renewed for a period of four years and for the production of 10 million e-passport booklets in their various categories of 32-page, 62-page, and their counterpart of diplomatic and official passports.”
The personal Assistant to the Minister of Interior, Osaigbovo Ehisienmen, told our reporter that it might be difficult for the government to cancel the supply contract with ISTL because it could have legal implications.
He added, however, that the Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau, might also not have the unilateral power to approve the increment in the price of the passport as suggested by NIS without presidential approval.
Our reporter who visited the ISTL office in Maitama, Abuja was denied entry into the premises of the company. After filling the visitor’s form, he was told that the company’s Public Relations Officer (PRO), was away from Abuja.
The Nation however gathered that the company has supplied over six million e-passports to Nigeria and also claimed it generated over N5 billion as revenue for the federal government.
Tales of woes across the country
This is not the first time Nigerians are experiencing shortage of passport booklets. The case of one Miss Blessing Okonkwo, an intern in one of the media houses in Lagos readily comes to mind.
The young woman had won an all-expense paid trip to attend a one month capacity building course in Germany. But the only snag was that she had no international passport. Pronto, she went to the Passport office in Festac town but was told that the jacket was not available. After combing all the other Passports offices in Lagos without success, she was later advised to visit Ibadan, where she managed to get it but of course, she had to pay through her nose!
Today, however, the situation is worse off. The Nation can authoritatively report that there is acute scarcity of travelling passport documents at the various Passport offices nationwide.
At the Gwagwalada, Abuja passport issuance office of the Immigration Service, our reporter was shown a pile of files of 32-page applications.
An Immigration officer who wished to remain anonymous explained that the applicants had done the biometric capturing but there were no 32-page passports to issue them.
He said that applicants who urgently need the passport are advised to apply for the 64-page passport, which was available but costs more.
The 64-page passport was introduced in 2014 for frequent travellers who usually fill up the 32-page passport before its five-year expiration.
Though the official costs of 64-page and 32-page passports are N20,000 and N15,000 respectively, applicants in Gwagwalada office said they were asked by the immigration officers to pay N40,000 for the 64-page.
Same old story
The Service has not been able to totally come out of the confusion over the shortage of the 32-page passport booklets.
Findings revealed that the situation has gone from bad to worse as travellers find it more difficult to purchase and the Service is struggling to cope with demand as it did not have sufficient stock of passports booklet.
A highly placed source told The Nation that a possible review of the contract between the federal government and the company that produces travel document for Nigerians has led to a scarcity that has affected the issuance of passports by NIS and that up till now the situation has not been resolved.
At the NIS headquarters in Abuja and its office in Gwagwalada, our correspondent saw several 32-page applicants lamenting.
Some of them told The Nation that they had done the biometric capturing but there were no 32-page passports to issue them.
A prospective traveller who spoke to The Nation under anonymity said he was told by one of the officers at the passport office to seek help from higher authorities if he really wants to travel urgently due to the shortage of the passport booklet.
The development, he said has kept him confused due to the fact that he does not know anybody any senior official to lobby.
The NIS spokesman, Sunday James, while reacting to the development confirmed the shortage saying that it is only the 32 page passport booklet that is scarce.
He said the 62 page passport booklet is available for purchase adding that anyone who wants to travel urgently should go for it.
He assured that government is resolving the issue of the exchange rate and that the 32 page passport booklet will be available soon.
James said the Comptroller General of NIS, Mohammed Babandede is not relenting in his quest to ensure that the issues are resolved.
His words: “Immigration wishes to acknowledge that we had a challenge recently with the issue of passport because the passport booklets are produced outside the country because of the security features. And it is under a Private Public Partnership (PPP) project.
“The CG is very much concerned and he has said that our service is first citizens friendly and that the issue will be resolved soon.”
At the Federal Secretariat, Enugu, the Passport Office has become a kind of pilgrimage centre as every morning of the working days applicants throng there in search of the elusive travelling document.
This scenario has been on since December last year due to the shortage of passport booklets in the Enugu office of the NIS.
As at the time of filing in this report, scores of people who were living abroad and whose passports had expired while on visit home to Nigeria “are hardest hit,” according to an immigration official.
The official, who asked not to be named, said all applications for new passports as well as renewals hinted that all applications are put on hold as there were no booklets as at now.
Even those captured on their computer since January are still waiting to receive their passports.
The official, however, said there were exceptions particularly in emergency cases where it concerns applicants on health grounds and government officials travelling on official duties.
“These categories of people are taken into consideration on compassionate grounds. The problem of the shortage of passport booklets stemmed from the headquarters at Abuja. It is what they supply that we distribute.
“No passport booklets as at now. You can see several Diaspora Nigerians who came home and got stranded because their passports expired here and could not renew them as a result of the scarcity.
“We are putting all applications on hold currently until we receive enough supply of the booklets from Abuja,” explained the official.
At the Rivers State command, the same scenario played out as the officials lamented that the booklets have been out of stock for a long time now.
One of the applicants, Mr. Anthony Wuzor said for more three months now Nigerians have taken to the public with complaints about the difficulties they faced while trying to acquire a passport or make renewals.
Another applicant, who simply gave his name as Mr. Donald said the unavailability of e- passport at the Rivers command office is a serious issue.
He said the situation is precarious to those who are in need of medical attention, stressing that the passport ought to have being available at any giving time.
Donald said: “This is not the issue of scarcity, the passport is not available, I just called Abuja now, and I confirmed that the situation is the same. Though, someone in Abuja has agreed to make it available for me with N25, 000. Of course, I have no option.
“Even when you see the passport, the price is high but I believe that it is all about the economic tricks. What they want is to make the price high by creating this unnecessary pressure, but let the world know that this is just document that should be made available at all time.”
An immigration officer who wished to remain anonymous explained that some applicants had applied but there were no passports to issue them.
In Ogun State, travellers and intending applicants seeking to obtain the document are going through a terrible nightmare.
The e-passport and the process of obtaining it was conceived to engender administrative efficiency and prompt delivery of passport to applicants as well as curb activities of touts at NIS offices.
While the menace of touts could be said to have been checked significantly since the launch of the system, but that can’t be said of quick delivery of passport.
A visit by The Nation to the headquarters of the Ogun State Command of NIS at Oke-Mosan, off Kobape-Siun Road, Abeokuta, revealed that the hitherto surge of numbers of intending travellers that troop to the place seeking e-passport had thinned out.
The Nation gathered from a source that no new passport has been issued in Ogun State since the beginning of 2017, save probably to applicants connected to highly placed individuals.
A woman, Mrs. Ola Makinde, resident in Abeokuta said she had applied to renew her e-passport which in NIS parlance means re-issue, but has not succeeded.
She said she had visited the place over seven times in the last two months and each time she was told by NIS officials that there was no booklet yet.
However, during the week the Comptroller of the NIS, Ogun State Command, Oluwatoba Bayeroju, said the scarcity of booklets was responsible for the delay in the issuance of passport to applicants.
He, however, revealed that more booklets have arrived at the Command, assuring that the backlog of applications would be cleared in a few days.
He told journalists in Abeokuta that nobody in the Command was hoarding the booklets. According to him, despite the scarcity people who applied for the travel document on valid health grounds, got theirs without delay.
The Comptroller confirmed that the passport booklets are produced in Malaysia adding that the problem of foreign exchange also crept in to affect the business of getting the supply of the materials from the Malaysian producers.
Bayeroju denied extortion allegations on the part of NIS, Ogun Command, saying “most applicants patronize touts rather than going through the normal procedure.”
At the Ikoyi, Festac, Ikeja offices of NIS, our correspondent gathered that there are backlogs of applicants still awaiting their passport documents months after applying for either a fresh issue or a re-issue as the case may be.
At the Ikoyi Passport office, a fellow who simply gave his name as Dapo, and who incidentally is a member of one of the trade unions in the country confided in our correspondent that he had been trying to renew his passport in the last four months without success and had to force his way to the Passport Control Officers’ office last Thursday to express his misgivings as his visa appointment was now late for a trip to attend the ILO conference in Geneva later this month.
Like Dapo, another applicant, who gave her name simply as Miss Toyosi, told our correspondent that she had been trying to renew her passport at the Ikeja office since January this year without success.
Toyosi, who claimed to have bought a ticket ahead of her planned vacation to the US in mid April, was already counting her losses as there was no hope she would be able to obtain her travelling document before her trip.
“This people seem to have run out of excuses as the only thing I have been hearing these past months is that there is shortage of booklets. I don’t know what to do,” she lamented.
Following several complaints from various quarters on the e-passport saga, the Senate ad hoc committee investigating alleged misuse, under remittance, and other fraudulent activities in the collection, remittance and expenditure of internally generated revenue by MDAs recently invited the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Danbazzau (rtd) and Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris over alleged shady deals in the production and sell of e-passport.
Also summoned by the committee to shed light on the multi-billion naira production of e-passport included four companies.
They are to appear before the Senator Solomon Adeola led committee to explain their roles on e-Passport production and other immigration related issues that the companies performed on behalf of the Service.
The firms were said to have entered into public private partnership (PPP) arrangement with the NIS over the years.
The invited companies included Contec Nigeria Ltd, Greater Washington Nigeria Ltd, Newwork Solution and Investment Ltd and Iris Smart Technologies which works on e-passport production, expatriate residence permits and alien card and related immigration.
However, as the scarcity of passport booklets persists, many citizens are waiting with bated breath.