October 10, 2021

The interesting evolution of Nigerian Passport [OPINION]

Japa: We issued over 2m passports to Nigerians in 2023 – Immigration

Nigerian passport booklets


By Dapo Bruce

I recently acquired a new Nigerian passport. I got a 64 page enhanced e-passport with 10 years of validity.

This passport is different from the last one I got five years previously. Looking at the cover the difference is not easily discernible until you look closely.

Then you notice that even though the cover design is very much like the so-called ECOWAS e-passport which was first issued in 2007, the gold colour has a glittery feel and the paper feels different to the touch as if you are touching fine sandpaper.

The enhancement continues inside. The data page is no longer a laminated inside cover, it now feels like, plastic, for want of a better example, a driver’s licence. The Nigerian Immigration Service describes it as “polycarbonate technology”. The inner pages of the booklet have also been aesthetically enhanced with images that tell the story of Nigeria.

I was still admiring my new passport when I stumbled upon a piece in The Nation on how young Nigerians planning to emigrate should start planning to get their passports. After reading the piece and with time on my hands, I decided to do quick research on the Nigerian passport.

The history of the Nigerian passport is an interesting one in which a little known Nigerian company with 35 years in the technology sector called Iris Smart Technologies Limited (ISTL) is playing a prominent role in its evolution.

The first time a passport was issued as a travel document in Nigeria was in 1948 after the 2nd World War and the document was then called the British West African Passport. It was just brown paper and consisted of 63 pages. This was the travelling document we used until independence.

The first time a passport was issued as a travel document in Nigeria was in 1948 after the 2nd World War and the document was then called the British West African Passport. It was just brown paper and consisted of 63 pages. This was the travelling document we used until independence.

Nigeria issued a fresh passport in 1960, I suppose, in its capacity as a newly independent country. This time the travel document was green in colour in keeping with Nigeria’s Green-White-Green national colours and consisted of 32 pages. At the time of issuing that passport, the authority to do so resided with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It was also a simple document with scant security features. In fact, names and details were written by hand and back then for you to work in the passport office you needed one major qualification – good handwriting.

That passport was in use for a long while until something significant happened in 1988 when the authority to issue passports was transferred to the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) and following that decision, steps were taken to redesign and update the passport but it took a while for all the pieces to fall into place.

Ten years after transferring the authority to issue passports to the NIS, Nigeria released new passports in 1998. That was when the NIS introduced the redesigned and updated Machine Readable Passport (MRP).

This was in line with International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) recommendation and specifications. The contract for the MRP booklet was awarded to Nigerian Security Printing & Minting Company aka The Mint, who in turn outsourced it to three other foreign companies.

The MRP had MR zone but it had weak security because it allowed proxy issuance, multiple issuances and was susceptible to identity theft because age, picture and pages could be altered. My first passport was an MRP which I got in 2001 and I still have it. It was green and had 32 pages and back then you had your passport number perforated in at the top of your passport.

Something happened in 2003 and changed the Nigerian passport in very significant ways. The world was changing. Technology was advancing. 9/11 had happened and the world of travel had changed.

The global travel industry was paying closer than usual attention to international passports which is a key document in facilitating movement across borders. The time had come to make it not just a travel document but a technologically secure document with more than just a name and photo.

That was how biometric parameters became a key feature of international passports and even visas. Biometrics was essentially an eastern European and Soviet forte. Before the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism, communist states were essentially police states with strict controls over citizens. Much of that control and scrutiny was carried out using biometric information to monitor people.

With the collapse of communism, technology was imported into the West and soon became widely used. ISTL was among the first to use Biometric technology in Africa and Nigeria albeit for a different reason. They used it for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to enhance the voter registration process in 2003/4.

In 2003, President Olusegun Obasanjo was on a state visit to Malaysia and during his visit was shown the Malaysian passport which had just been released and had innovative biometric components. It had chips containing the owner’s data embedded in it. He was interested in the passport because the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) was in talks to produce a common travel document for the region, the so-called ECOWAS passport.

Obasanjo paid a visit to the factory producing the Malaysian passport and right there in their premises put a call through to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Mohammed Shata. The President requested him to make a trip to Malaysia to acquaint himself with the new technology.

That visit would lead to a charge for the Mint to upgrade the Nigerian passport. The Mint followed the directive but the passport they produced was of such poor quality that the President asked the Minister to request for an open bid from capable companies.

The top five contenders were world-renowned security printing firm De La Rue as well as Oberthur, G&D, ISTL and of course The Mint. At the end of the competitive bid, ISTL emerged best in Technical and Commercial, meaning they had the best quality as well as the best price.

The first passport produced by ISTL was issued in 2007 and launched by President Yaradua. It was an upgrade in the true sense of the world. Gone was the MRP and in its place was a true e-passport with biometric information encoded in chips embedded in the passports. By that feat, Nigeria became the first African country to issue an e-passport.

It was also among the very few in the world to do so. The passport was so technologically innovative it received a commendation from the ICAO which held its 2009 conference in Abuja and offered Nigeria key positions on its technical committee.

Also, a new business case was built around passport administration. The solution provider ISTL, provided the funding for the project and the FGN has not invested a kobo in the project to date.

Many companies would have rested on their oars as the accolades poured in but Iris Smart Technologies Limited well aware that technology evolves on a daily basis with criminal elements always seeking ways to circumvent the system introduced the enhanced e-passport in 2019 with longer validity, added security features especially the polycarbonate technology once again making the Nigerian passport one of the most secure and technologically superior in the world.

Bruce, a public commentator, writes from Lagos.

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