Special Report

September 16, 2023

Hell within: Hurdles of renewing /obtaining International Passports

Passport

Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo

By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features

Sheila Edwards got an offer for a sponsored trip to China. The Embassy of China was ready and those that would make the trip with her were also ready. It was going to be an all-expense paid trip and she looked forward to it.

But she had to get a valid international Passport as her old one had expired.
That was when her ordeal started.

After applying for the Passport renewal, the date she was given for capture was to be after the trip had taken off.

When she tried to explain the urgency of the trip she needed the passport for, an Immigration official asked her to go to Niger State where she would get her international passport seamlessly and even on the same day.

But she dared not go to Niger State because of the security question in the state.
To cut her story short, she didn’t make the trip.

Her case was not different from that of Charles who also applied for the renewal of his Passport online and it took him over six months to get it. Charles alleged that some touts expected him to part with extra money to quicken the process after paying the official amount online for the renewal.

But he didn’t do that and he waited the entire six months.

Those who had discrepancies or amendments to make even go through worse experiences.
It’s one lamentation or the other amongst many who applied.

It’s becoming increasingly easier for the proverbial camel to pass through an eye of a needle than to obtain a valid international passport in Nigeria or even in the diaspora.
Many intending Nigerian travellers have been subjected to tough times in their bid to obtain passports from the Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS.

While some people get lucky to get the international travel document, others remain on the waiting list after going through all the required processes.

A similar situation is obtained in many Nigerian embassies abroad.

A standing order

Just recently, the Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, gave a marching order to the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), demanding the swift clearance of over 200,000 international passports pending applications in two weeks.

Delays in the processing and enrolment of passports in Nigeria have been a source of frustration for citizens, causing significant delays in obtaining crucial travel documents.

The Minister noted that having to deal with about 200,000 backlogs calls for a national emergency.

He said: “As far as I am concerned, the issue of passport is a national emergency. I keep getting emails daily from Nigerians complaining. We cannot continue like that.

“It has become an embarrassment to His Excellency, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. I represent him here as your minister. That embarrassment is mine now. I am not changing my words. I need the backlog cleared in two weeks.”

During the meeting, the Acting Comptroller General, Adepoju Carol, and Managing Director, Yinka Fisher, assured the Minister that all necessary resources and measures would be deployed to ensure the expedited processing of these pending passport applications.

Adepoju disclosed that though the number of enrolments has spilled into 200,000 across the country, the agency had been able to secure enough booklets to clear the backlog.

It wasn’t the first time the federal government would declare a state of emergency on international passports.

The Acting Comptroller General of NIS, Caroline Wura-Ola Adepoju during a visit to Lagos last July said the declaration represents a call to action for all stakeholders to prioritize efficiency, transparency, and excellence in service delivery.

The Acting Comptroller General said the state of emergency was to address challenges faced by Nigerians in obtaining their passports.

Equally, the Senate had ordered its committee on Interior to find out the rationale behind the delay in the renewal and issuance of passports, following a series of complaints laid by Nigerians in renewing or getting new passports from the service.
“Following this, she paid an unscheduled visit to the Alausa passport office to assess the situation firsthand.”

She stressed that the NIS top management is fully committed to addressing institutional and technology-based drawbacks to ensure more efficient and streamlined service delivery.
Vanguard investigation revealed many causes for the problem.

Scarcity

One of the reasons given for the delay was the scarcity of passport booklets which engulfed Immigration for a long time.

The scarcity of passport booklets has been a recurring challenge for the NIS for many years.

Allegations of financial extortion rank high in the quest to renew or obtain fresh passports.

Amounts to be paid vary from a 64-page Nigerian passport with a 10-year validity to a five-year validity.

Applicants for the new 32-page passport with a five-year validity period are to be required to pay N70,000 officially. However, some applicants part with much more than that sum while the 64-page passport with 10-year validity has been gotten by some for as high as N250,000.

Although the federal government, through the NIS, has warned Nigerians to stop patronizing touts, touts remain prevalent in every Immigration office and applications kept piling up.

The situation got to the point that the NIS, under the watch of its former Comptroller-General, Mohammed Babandede, halted applications for new and renewal of passports to enable the service to clear backlogs of passport applications.

Last year, the NIS shut down all payment portals from May 18 until June 1 and sent out task force teams to all passport offices to enforce the clearance of passport backlogs.
But despite these measures, difficulties in accessing passports persisted.

Immigration offices across major cities in Nigeria especially Lagos are jam-packed with individuals who have unpalatable experiences to share.

It was also observed that applicants travel from other states to Lagos for the passports because they believe passports gotten from Lagos make travel visas easier.

The development was worse for those who needed to make amendments in the passports where for any discrepancy, one was required to go to Abuja.

According to Sheila Edwards,” The last time I renewed my passport was an emergency. After I was captured in Lagos, I realized that there was an error in my date of birth and because I needed to go for a Visa interview the next day and make a trip that week, I took it like that and traveled. When that passport expired, I needed to correct that error which I thought was a small thing and I was asked to go from Lagos to Abuja to effect the correction. I stayed in Abuja for five days, going to the Immigration office every day but returned to Lagos without getting the passport. I had to make special preparations to go back. You can imagine what I paid for my flights for these trips and stay in Abuja .”

Another applicant, Femi said he felt uncomfortable staying without a valid passport because he travels very often.

“I’m a businessman and travel very often and not having a valid passport at any time is a huge problem for me. It affected my business for a long time due to scarcity and when eventually I got renewed, I paid through my nose to get it.”

A Nigerian living in Germany said one usually passes through hell to obtain a Nigerian Passport. She revealed that more than 1.5 million Nigerians living in Europe needed passports.

She equally revealed that Nigerians in Germany at a point, staged a protest in Oberhausen, Germany, over passport scarcity.

The NIS initially blamed the scarcity on the emergence of the Coronavirus that surged in 2020.

The service explained that when the lockdown that resulted from COVID-19 eased, there was a geometric turn-in in passport applications.

Japa syndrome

To japa, a local parlance which means to leave for good’ lately became the new catchphrase for unbridled migration by Nigerians in search of better-paying jobs or other life-supporting means.

Japa become a pandemic that many Nigerians are embracing.
People are leaving the country in droves because they can no longer bear the distressing issues prevalent in Nigeria and this is taking its toll on the Nigeria Passport situation.

A recent survey revealed that seven out of 10 Nigerians are willing to relocate to other countries for various reasons, with a good number of them recording success.

There is an increasing rate of emerging urge to leave Nigeria by the old and the young.
This also equally takes its toll on Immigration because those seeking to travel would require valid international passports to do so. Hence, the NIS is choked with requests for passports.

Many people are ready to pay through hell to get their valid passports but the financial requirements are not making things easy.

Many people are going back home to sell land, cars, and other properties to be able to pay their way and travel out.

However, an Immigration official told our reporter that some of the people who crowd the Immigration offices do not need a Passport.

“Some are not traveling anywhere but just want to belong to those who have international Passports. Every year, people come in here to renew their Passports and when you look through the old ones, you will realize they didn’t travel anywhere with them but they keep renewing.

“There are also many who keep changing their age and we have to be very careful here. If one commits a crime in another state or another country and comes back to change his Passport and put in a new age or a new name, if the long arm of the law eventually catches up with him, he can claim he is not the one. Maybe the person who committed the crime was 50 and had changed his age to 30. When they eventually catch him, he would say they are looking for a 50-year-old person but he is 30.

“So, before a change of data is permitted, it has to go through an excruciating process of scaling through the EFCC or DSS to be sure the person has not committed a crime somewhere and is looking for a cover.

“And there are also civil servants and footballers who keep changing their age to keep their jobs and keep playing football.

“All these pose challenges to obtaining passports. Somebody who used to be 50 years in the US or the UK will come back to want a new passport and would claim 30 years. What if they have committed a crime in other countries?”

Forex question

Many have also attributed the problem of getting International Passports to forex.

According to an NIS official who would not want his name in print, the company that produces the passports has been sourcing forex from the parallel market to fund the production of passport booklets.

This has led to a reduction in the booklets available to the Nigeria Immigration Service.
The official said that the company that won the passport production contract in 2003 in a competitive bid, defeated the Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company, a subsidiary of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

The company has been solely financing the production of the passports since 2003 and has been remitting the revenue to the federation account.

The company has also overseen the transition from machine-readable to electronic passports (e-passports) over the years.

However, some presidency officials have been insisting that The MINT can produce the booklets in Nigeria and “conserve forex”.

Also, The MINT was planning to enter into a partnership with another Nigerian company floated by politicians.

As a result of the political undertone, to access forex at the CBN rate became a problem, leading to a severe shortfall in production.

An official of the NIS revealed that “Contrary to what some people want the public to believe, Nigeria does not produce any of the booklet components, so they all have to be purchased from abroad. Therefore, the production of e-passport booklets locally in Nigeria does not conserve forex.

“All countries utilize forex to purchase e-passport components from different producers all over the world. Over 160 countries buy their polycarbonate passport covers from producers in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the USA, and other places.

“Our case is worse as we do not produce even the lowest grade of paper – newsprint, much less the highest grade of security paper. The MINT still spends millions of dollars importing prepared security papers for the printing of our currency. No matter who produces the e-passport booklets, there will be a need for forex, as over 90 percent of the components of the booklet have to be imported.”

NIN factor

Currently, the National Identification Number, NIN, has become a compulsory identification component for anyone who wants to apply for fresh or renewal of international passports in Nigeria.

The Nigeria Immigration Service has called on those applying for their international passports, whether it is their first application or renewal, to ensure that the data they submit matches that of NIN.

A journalist who applied for the renewal of his passport said he had some discrepancy in his NIN and was subjected to a torture process.

However according to an official of NIS, “What many people are calling international passport scarcity is that the data they submitted does not match their NIN. There is no international passport scarcity in Nigeria. The problem is data does not tally with NIN. The NIS issued a piece of advice via a statement on its verified Twitter handle to guard against Nigerians having problems during their passport application process.

“Before you begin your passport application process, it is important that the data you are submitting is the same as that on your NIN.

“The Federal Government has domesticated the production of Nigeria passports with the presence of the Ministry of Interior at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for the production of passports in the country.

“The agreement for the domestication of the production of passports entails that production of e-passports will be done in Nigeria alone and will no longer be done by foreigners. This makes it safe to project that digital technology will further transform the working environment of the Nigeria Immigration Service in the next 10 years. There is the decentralization of international passport centres in the 774 local government areas in Nigeria. It has become imperative that we review our operations and rejig our system, to be able to offer excellent services to our clients.

“We need to review a system from time to time to see if it helps best to serve and realize the objectives.”

60th Anniversary

The Nigerian Immigration Service is preparing for its 60th Anniversary and has embarked on sensitizing the public to embrace events for the occasion.

Hopefully, this would ginger the organization to work harder in erasing all bottlenecks in the system to enable citizens to obtain Passports seamlessly.