By Helen Ovbiagele Woman Editor
Several days after a friend and her daughter returned to the country from their vacation in Asia and in Europe, the latter was going to travel to the United States of America.
Her parents drove her to the international airport in Lagos, where, after going through the usual routine of having her luggage checked by Customs, she checked in at the airline’s desk, filled the relevant paper, and proceeded to Immigration. Her parents hung around a bit to see her join the queue, then they left.
When it was her turn at the desk, she was astonished when the officer told her that she couldn’t travel because the relevant data seen on her Ecowas passport was not visible on the screening machine.
“But sir, I have been using this e-passport for the past three years,” she protested, “and even this year, I’ve traveled out four times, using this same passport. How can the date suddenly become invisible, sir?”
“Look, you can’t travel with this passport. This one is condemned. You have to go get another one,” said the officer with finality. “Now, please move aside so that I can attend to other travelers.”
“Oga, please understand my case. This is not a new passport, and this is not the first time I’m using it. I’m going to keep an appointment in the U.S.. Can’t I be allowed to travel this time, and I can sort out things when I return to the country? I’ve already checked in my luggage, and by now they must have loaded it onto the aircraft.”
“Sorry, I can’t do anything about your situation. You can’t travel. You can go sort out your luggage issue with the airline you were going to use. Please stand aside for other travelers. Next, please!”
Almost in tears, the young lady went to other officers standing around to plead her case. She met with a brick wall, as none was willing to help.
At 3 a.m, her parents were astonished to get a call from her saying that she couldn’t take her midnight flight out and that she was still at the airport, because Immigration said her passport was defective.”
“I can’t understand this,” said her mother. “Isn’t it the same passport that you’ve been using?”
“It is, mum.”
“Okay, we’ll come fetch you in the morning.”
When the parents sought for an explanation from the Immigration officers who were on duty at the time they arrived, they were told that several other travelers had the same problem that night and were not allowed to travel. Their data couldn’t be seen on the screen.
“In fact, sir, there are guidelines about how to handle the e-passport,.” said one of them.
“Really? What are these guidelines?”
“Er, like, you shouldn’t use a stapler on it, or put it in a back pocket where you may sit on it, or even put it in a folder. There are other guidelines. We have a leaflet on them.”
The officer then called on a colleague to bring one of these. None was found. The young lady’s father asked whether it was possible for her to be issued a new passport on the premises, or would they have to go to the centre in Lagos where they had got that one.
“Sir, it’s only in Abuja that a replacement can be got. If she arrives there early, she can get one the same day and return to Lagos. Officers there are aware of this problem, so, they cooperate and can be pretty fast in issuing a new one.”
My friend’s daughter flew to Abuja the next day. She was attended to, but found that the fee exceeded what she had earmarked for it. So, she had to add her return fare in order to get the passport. Her parents had to ring round friends in Abuja to loan her some money for her return ticket. Success story, in that she got the passport. She told her mother that at the passport office in Abuja, there were several other people with similar problem as hers, and among them, one lady from Sweden, and a man from Australia.
I know about this problem myself because two relatives of mine had it recently. One had had his e-passport issued in New York only two years ago, and had used it to several countries since then, but this year, he was told he couldn’t travel with it. He was terribly upset because he was traveling out for a medical appointment. They let him go on humanitarian grounds. Another one was traveling to South Africa on an official assignment. He had to make some phone calls before he was allowed to travel. When he returned, he raced to Abuja to get a new one.
In fairness, none of these people reported that bribes were demanded or offered. We thank God for that. But the million dollar question is why should we have this sort of embarrassing problem with the e-passport? Someone told me that she learnt it’s a certain batch of these passports that were affected, and that Immigration was aware.
If this is true, why didn’t they recall the passports affected? In human-friendly societies where there’s accountability and a keen sense of responsibility, any defective product is recalled for exchange or compensation. Foods and drugs companies in the western world do this all the time. The other year, makers of Toyota cars recalled a particular series of the Camry they discovered had a defect. Surely, we can do the same with all honesty!
Also, if there are indeed guidelines for handling the new e-passport, they should be included in the booklet, or displayed boldly outside passport offices nationwide.
We can even go a step further and get an officer to announce this over a loudspeaker to those on their premises, every day; just a one minute explanation. They can use a recorded message.
Finally, since this problem of defective e-passport will continue to surface, why can’t a re-issue occur where the first one was issued? Why should a victim go all the way to Abuja from his/her base? This is not fair at all. Not all of us can afford an airfare to Abuja. You can’t make it a day return by road from every part of the country, or the world, so, you will need accommodation for the night.. Who will pay for that? Why should we be saddled with huge extra expenses for a situation that we didn’t cause?