For Nigerians who experienced the hell that attended the application for and issuance of Nigerian passports since 2019, it was a great relief when the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) announced recently that all passport issuing centres would clear existing backlog of applications on or before May 31, 2021. To make this happen, the NIS directed that requests for fresh and/or reissue shall not be entertained within the intervening period, except for locations in the missions abroad. The service also announced that a new passport application and processing regime would commence by June 1, 2021.
The new passport regime has begun as projected and the Ministry of Interior, which superintends over the operations of the NIS, is thumping its chest. It can say without fear of contradiction that the backlog of passports has been cleared, except in the case of those who used non-functional telephone numbers in their applications. The new order is part of the reform, which the ministry has brought to bear on the operations of the immigration service.
One of the key components of the reform is that applicants will only be booked for interview after a successful online application. Another critical aspect of the reform is that cash payments will no longer be entertained in any issuing centre. Then, unlike what obtained before the era of scarcity of passport booklets set in, passports can no longer be obtained on demand. Passport application, processing and issuance will take a period of six weeks after a successful enrolment. In addition, those applying for reissue are enjoined to do so six months before the expiration of the passport they are currently holding to avoid unnecessary pressure on the part of both the applicant and the issuing authority. According to the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, the six-week period for the processing and issuance of passports is ideal. It is in line with what obtains in advanced countries of the world such as the United States, where the issuance of passports takes between four and six weeks. The period provided, he said, also allows for enough time to investigate, verify and validate personal information supplied by the applicants. The objective is to ensure that Nigerian passports are issued only to Nigerians.
To ensure that the reform programme in the issuance of passports is carried through, the NIS, led by Muhammad Babandede, has put in place a directorate in charge of passports and travel documents. It has rolled out a document that meets international standards. The new e-passport, which was launched in 2019, is imbued with a number of security features aimed at preventing identity theft. It is also linked with the applicant’s National Identification Number to prevent multiple identity by one applicant. According to Babandede, the NIS is now fully equipped for the new passport and visa regimes. Its command and control centre enjoys online, real-time operations with a link to Interpol, thereby contributing to global security.
It is noteworthy that government and its agencies are not working in isolation in the effort to bring about enduring reforms in the management of Nigerian passports. I understand that it is doing this in collaboration with a private company whose technical know-how is central to the ongoing innovations. In the past couple of years, Iris Smart Technologies Limited (ISTL), an information and communication technology company with specialty in biometric identity management, database administration and chip technology, among others, has been providing consulting services to the Nigerian government. Under this arrangement, Iris has been providing solutions that have made it possible to have a new issuance process with central control, new identity management considerations, e-passport with ICAO-compliant chip that stores holders’ biometrics and biodata, among others. Over 12 million booklets have been issued so far under this arrangement. Above all, Iris has harmonized its operations with the Nigerian Identity Management Commission with a view to improving identity management. In fact, between 2019 and now, Iris provided the Nigerian government with innovative solutions that brought about enhanced security features in the passports, complete booklet redesign, polycarbonate data page and advanced chip technology. The NIS, working with IRIS, now has a 24-hour central data centre.
With these innovations and enhancements, the expectation was that passport processing and issuance in Nigeria would be anything but problematic. But we are all witnesses to the hitches that brought about scarcity of passport booklets to the extent that applicants had to wait for months on end to get passports. Indeed, many are still at a loss as to why Nigerian passports, which citizens of the country used to obtain with relative ease, suddenly disappeared from the issuing centres. What really went wrong?
Feelers from relevant government departments indicate that indecent politics crept into the mix. Passport booklets became acutely scarce because the technology company responsible for its production was unable to secure foreign exchange for its operations. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was believed to be responsible for the frustration the company faced in this regard. The terms of the agreement with the Nigerian government provide that Iris spends its own funds on the system’s architecture and booklets production but the proceeds from the issuance of the passports go to the Federal Government. Iris only gets paid for its services thereafter. This arrangement makes it possible for government to earn huge sums without spending. Given this situation, the concerned publics cannot but wonder why the CBN is reluctant to facilitate the operations of Iris. There is believed to be some clash of interest brewing underground. Only recently, the technology company cried foul following the CBN’s reluctance or refusal to issue letters of credit to importers owing to the volatile nature of the forex market at the time. The company was then forced to explore the I&E window as advised by the CBN. Regrettably, it was unable to garner enough forex for passport production. This led to the scarcity of booklets that became an embarrassment to the Nigerian government. The suspicion is that CBN prefers to see its subsidiary, the Nigerian Printing and Minting Company, handle the printing of this security document as provided by the act setting it up. But MINT does not appear to have the capacity at the moment. Besides, Iris has argued that the practice in countries like England is that private firms manage the e-passports. Countries have moved away from traditional printing. Besides, the passport has become a technology project whose most valuable feature is the chip. Since this chip belongs to government, there is really nothing to worry about if the passports are printed abroad. This incipient politics is at the root of the hardship that Nigerians faced recently over the production and issuance of passports by the NIS.
The push and shove over who, between CBN and Iris, controls the printing of Nigerian passports should not be allowed to fester so that the reforms that have been introduced in that sector will come to full bloom and ultimate fruition. This brewing politics of attrition should, therefore, be nipped in the bud.