Nigerian new passport regime offers big hope, raises old questions

By Felix Khanoba

The regular rituals of Nigerians trooping to Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) offices almost every day in quest for passport appears to have finally come to an end. 

This is made possible with the coming on board of a new passport issuing regime which came into force on 1 June, 2021. 

Before now, Nigerians, home and abroad, have been going through hell to secure the document that should be steadily available. 

 The new system, recently announced by the Comptroller General of Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) , Mohammad Babandede, is part of a  bundle of reforms that promise to deliver the important travel document to new applicants within a record time of six weeks. 

Other critical features of the reforms include applicants carrying out  applications through the immigration website, book interview/appointment after a successful online application and the outright ban of cash payment to anyone at any Issuing centre. 

Many Nigerians have hailed the fully automated system as a new dawn of transparency and the end of the road  for few bad eggs in NIS, who have perfected various diabolical means to rake in a good sum of money from applicants through extortion and illegal charges. 

But the present  euphoria in NIS for enthroning a foolproof passport application system is being dampened by questions in some quarters on the rationale of producing the passport papers abroad. 

Yes, one of the reasons for the delay in issuing passports in Nigeria has chiefly been laid on the doorsteps of  shortage of booklets, which are produced abroad. 

Nigeria is eager to break free from its forex problem, major data of individuals may likely being exposed to foreigners in the cause of production and using a company within the shores  of the country will boost the nation’s economy, these three points have all been adduced as reasons NIS should look inward for local production of passports. 

But many Nigerians seem to be unaware of the nitty-gritty of  passport production. 

Although NIS issues the passports, the production is handled by Iris Smart Technologies Limited (ISTL), a Nigerian company.

 Under the contractor-financed arrangement, Iris spends its own funds on the systems architecture and booklet production; NIS fixes the cost of acquiring the passports; applicants pay to the accounts of the Federal Government of Nigeria; and Iris gets paid for its services thereafter. 

But Iris has not been finding it easy getting forex to ensure seamless flow of passport booklets into the country, no thanks to some tight measures put in place by the Central Bank of Nigeria. 

In December, the CBN said it would not be able to issue certain letters of credit for some time and asked importers to explore the I&E window. While the CBN rate then was N380/$, I&E was hovering around N455. Also, the gap between demand and supply was such that if you wanted $1 million through I&E, you might not get more than $250,000. 

With the CBN not treating passport production as priority, Iris, it was gathered, went to the I&E window and, after two months, got only 25 percent of what it applied for. By the time the company went to the open market to buy at N490, applications had started piling up globally.

Many pointed accusing fingers to CBN, insinuating that since the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting (NSPM) Plc, also called The Mint, is a subsidiary of the CBN, maybe there is a kind of cold war going on. 

“The Mint was established in 1963 to print security documents; logically, passport booklets should be part of its portfolio. So, why can’t it handle the printing of the booklets?,” Nigerian seasoned journalist and public affairs commentator, Simon Kolawale, had queried in one of its recent write-ups. 

In July 2019, Nigerian government announced that the federal government had cancelled “all e-passport printing contracts abroad”. Of course, that came across as suspicious because the government did not have any e-passport printing contracts abroad. 

The contract was with Iris, a wholly Nigerian company. In the announcement, Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, said  the printing of the booklets would become the sole responsibility of The Mint. Publicly, the argument was that the new arrangement would “conserve forex” and safeguard “national security”.

Sources, however, revealed days later that the plan was to get The Mint to partner with a newly formed private company for the production of the booklets, which would also still see documents being fully produced outside the shores of the country. 

The game plan as it was later uncovered was that some top government officials were backing the  new company that would go into partnership with The Mint, despite its lack of capacity to print the booklets. 

Now the shocker, despite The Mint’s boast that it can print anything printable, till today, NSPM outsources the production of the Nigerian visa vignette to a German company. The materials for the printing of the naira are still heavily imported, with The Mint only putting finishing touches.

But even at that, the Federal Government was said to have given opportunity to NSPM to prove its self-acclaimed security documents printing prowess in 2003 only for it to fumble. 

It was tasked to churn out the first set of e-passports when the project was launched in 2003 and it reportedly failed the test woefully. The booklets it produced were said to have not met international standards. 

The development prompted  the federal government to conduct an open international bid in 2005. Three foreign companies participated, along with Iris and The Mint. But while Iris quoted N690.08 per booklet, The Mint put its bid price at N1,500. In the end, Iris’ bid was rated the best, financially and technically, among the five competing companies. Iris got the job.

The Mint, by the way, used to “print” the machine-readable passport (MRP) booklets before the e-passport project started 18 years ago and outsourced the production to at least three foreign companies. 

While printing passports locally as being championed in some government quarters is not a bad idea, Nigeria at present does not have the capacity to embark on such a venture. 

Nigeria needs to develop its Information Technology infrastructure as producing passports goes beyond printing passport booklets. 

Other components of passport such as chips, polycarbonate and covers cannot be sourced from the country, hence, there is no company in Nigeria, private or public, that can produce passports without resorting to enterprises in other countries, a development that would also consume forex. 

Another issue that has also been raised for the need to  totally localise passport production is in the area of “national security”. 

It is argued that printing the booklets in Malaysia, as we currently do, can lead to data breach.  “Printing a booklet abroad is just like buying a safe or combination lock from Alaba market: you pick the security code yourself. NIS, not the printer, codes the passport booklets. The UK recently awarded the production of the British passport to Gemalto, a Franco-German company — not its own Royal Mint or De La Rue, the foremost British security printing company. There was no talk of national security, ” Kolawale had also said. 

Nigerians must also realise that a passport is not just the paper but contains security features like individual National Identification Number (NIN), among others. 

In fact passport is now about technology, not paper and ink. Cost of printing is probably just 10 percent of the entire outlay. The key security is in the chips, not where the passports are manufactured.

While it is expected that the new passport regime in NIS  will finally put an end to the pains suffered by applicants and further boost the ease of doing business in Nigeria without any security or economic threat to the government, anything that will cause distraction  on this new order must be discouraged and rebuked with full force.

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