Fred Ezeh, Abuja
In 2009, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) mobilised its members to Abuja for one of its conferences. It was also an event to celebrate the unprecedented transformation witnessed in Nigeria’s passport regime, particularly the introduction of the electronic passport, otherwise known as the e-passport.
That feat increased Nigeria’s global reputation particularly in the aviation industry. It also earned Nigeria a place in ICAO’s technical committee for key directory/public key infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the process that heralded the new e-passport regime started in 2003 when former President Olusegun Obasanjo, alongside some senior government officials fell in love with the unique Malaysian e-passport technology that had unique features and security.
Former President Obasanjo, on return from that trip, instructed that a tender for the redesign and production of e-passport for Nigeria be opened. The Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC) was equally invited to submit a bid for the project, which the company did. But the president was unsatisfied with what NSPMC submitted in terms of quality and standard, bearing in mind the Malaysian model he had seen. At that point, he expanded the bidding, allowing other local and international companies to compete for the contract.
Five local and international companies showed interest in the project. These include Obethur, G&D, De La Rue, Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC) and IRIS indicated interest in the project.
A private Nigerian company, IRIS Smart Technologies Limited (ISTL), was said to have submitted a more quality design and quoted a production cost lower than the government preferred company, NSPMC. The Tender Board was compelled to recommend the private company, ISTL, to the President for the award of the contract. The Tender Board was disappointed that NSPMC displayed low requisite expertise, efficiency and capability to design, print and produce high quality e-passport currently being used in Nigeria.
President Obasanjo then gave approval for an agreement between the Nigerian government and indigenous technology company, ISTL, for the provision of e-passport technology. The company was also asked to provide central processing equipment, security chips, wafers, associated peripherals, and software systems for both local and foreign passports issuing centres in various Nigerian missions abroad.
It was also agreed in the contract that the project would be implemented on a contractor-financed basis, wherein the Federal Government would not contribute to the funding of the project. ISTL, expectedly, would finance the project and the revenue generated from sales of the e-passport would be used to settle ISTL’s invoices.
After the “no objection” certificate was obtained from the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved the second agreement with ISTL for the production of e-passport booklets, also, based on contractor-financed agreement on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model.
The former Nigerian President, the late Umar Yar’Adua, flagged off the new process in 2007. There are currently 43 local and 43 foreign passport issuing centres that are linked to the central processing centre which also hosts the automated fingerprint identification system, the central database server and other subsystems.
The Managing Director of ISTL, Olayinka Fisher, noted that N3 billion loan was secured from the defunct Standard Trust Bank (STB) in 2003 to meet up with the financial terms of the contract, and out of the revenue generated, ISTL got paid for the goods and services delivered to Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) from only the naira portion of the revenue which is about 40 per cent of the naira revenue.
He stated that from 2007 to date, available records indicate that about 11. 525 million e-passport booklets have been issued to Nigerians both home and abroad, and the project has generated over N69.133 billion and $120.330 million. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in one of its publications, confirmed that NIS generated N39 billion in 2018 from issuance of passports.
He said: “The fact states that we have witnessed a significant paradigm shift since the introduction of the new e-passport regime in Nigeria. It has, undoubtedly, eliminated the scourge of fake passports. Nigerian travellers and bearers of the green passport are no longer subjected to embarrassment at international airports and other travel destinations as was rampant in the past.
“Also, gone are days when the Nigeria’s passport was printed and easily obtained at ‘Oluwole Street’ in Lagos. We have put the ‘Oluwole people’ out of business as regards the printing and sale of fake Nigerian passports. In the process, Nigeria has cleaned up its image and enhanced its brand reputation.
“Nigwerians in the Diaspora, which is an important community with significant visibility, are the greatest beneficiaries of the new e-passport regime. They no longer queue at the Nigerian embassies abroad in endless wait for passport renewal. They can easily renew their Nigerian passport with much ease and satisfaction.”
In his words, amidst the obvious milestone achievements and other programmes lined up to further strengthen the system and restore the credibility of Nigerian travel document, many people, who are obviously ignorant of efforts and technological investments in the system, are working with some unpatriotic interests to destroy the achievements made so far in the system.
They are, according to him, obviously unaware that an e-passport is technology-based and not a security-printing task as was the case during the pre e-passport era. Booklet production is only 20 per cent of an e-passport project, while security printing is only 13 per cent of the various components.
He said that many people have suggested a domestication of the project by establishing a local production facility in Nigeria, without knowing that such has been the priority of the technology firm handling the e-passport.
ISTL managing director had explained recently that the company had, before now, made a commitment to establish a local manufacturing plant for the production of the travel document, even though it was never a condition in their agreement with the government.
He said: “ISTL has always had it in mind to establish a local manufacturing plant in Nigeria and our preferred partner has always been the Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company. We have engaged them in couple of discussions to form joint venture company to implement the domestication of the e-passport booklet production. But unfortunately, they have been foot-dragging.
“After several aborted attempts, ISTL and MINT, on February 5th, 2019, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to give effect to the government demand for localisation of production, as well as long desire of ISTL on domestication.
“After the signing of the MoU was done by the relevant government representatives and ISTL officials, it became quite clear, during subsequent meetings, that each party had a different understanding of what constitutes the domestication policy of the government and that affected the smooth implementation of the MoU.
“We noticed that many of them were particularly concerned about the outsourcing production of the e-passport to private company that has earned Nigeria over N60 billion in revenue, even when government had no financial commitment to the project.”
He further explained that domestication of the manufacturing of e-passport booklets does not eliminate the need for foreign exchange and importation of some vital components.
He also explained that e-passport is an active electronic device as against the old machine readable passport which is mere printed booklet, and the chip embedded in the e-Passport has a security access module that allows for a “hand shake” with and amongst other devices and equipment within the e-passport network
Another unique features of the e-passport, according to him, is that the system does not allow the infiltration or use of non-prequalified third party devices or other booklets within the network.
He maintained that NSPMC is not a technology company but a security printer. Therefore, it cannot claim to be an e-passport solution provider.
“There are over N20 billion worth of systems and equipment at both local and international centres in the e-passport network that guarantee its security.
“Therefore, if a new booklet solution provider is appointed, the technology infrastructure would have to be discarded. The investment would be lost and a new network would be purchased and implemented at a greater cost to the Federal Government,” he said.