Cry (for) the Nigerian Passport

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The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

In March this year, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) devised a ‘Naira 4 Dollar’ scheme to make remittances through formal bank channels more convenient for our nationals in the Diaspora. With many countries now tapping into remittances from their Diaspora populations to increase inflow and shore up their national economies, it is a smart move. For instance, on Monday, the Mexican Central Bank revealed that remittances to Mexico (mostly from their Diaspora citizens in the United States) hit $4.15 billion in March this year, the highest on record and an increase of 2.6% from the same month last year.

Unfortunately, while Nigeria recognizes the importance of contributions from the Diaspora to the national economy, the federal government has not done much to incentivize them. If anything, the authorities seem to be making even the simplest of things rather difficult for them. From New York to London to Paris, Bangkok and Ankara, obtaining or renewing a Nigerian passport has become a serious problem. That is because, out of desperation, the federal government is looking at this all-important travel document as another source of earning revenue without counting the reputational cost.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution directing that the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) “shall within 72 hours, issue international passports to thousands of Nigerians who have applied, paid, and have been captured but are yet to be issued their international passport booklets.” It is one of those meaningless resolutions that simply plays to the gallery without understanding the real issues. It is also typical. Like their resolution to investigate the remote and immediate causes of “the export of a cargo ship of 7,200 refrigerated penises from Nigeria to China” – a satirical ‘news’ published on a website whose motto, ’where facts don’t matter’ should have been obvious to our lawmakers and reveals the lack of rigour in their work.

Meanwhile, as things stand, there are several challenges associated with issuance of Nigerian Passports that will require the intervention of both the executive and the legislature. Incidentally, our Diaspora citizens are not even complaining about the outrageous fees being charged. They just want to be able to process and collect their passport within a reasonable time as it is done in other countries. That is not too much to ask. On the issue of charges, Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama recently explained: “The $100 they (Nigerians in the US) said has been added is voluntary; it is just for those who want to have their biometrics done without an appointment. If you wait for your appointment, you will get it (done) and not pay. But if you want it the same day, then pay $100.”

Onyeama is not telling the complete story. Let’s begin in the United States where a Nigerian Passport can be obtained in Atlanta, New York and Washington DC. At the three consular outlets, a fresh passport costs $336 for a 32-page booklet and $367 for a 64-page booklet. The breakdown is as follows: Production fee for express service ($100), appointment fee ($100) and administrative fee ($30). The balance of $106 and $137 respectively is for the booklet. Renewal of passport costs the same amount and the breakdown is same. But to reclaim a lost passport, it costs a whooping sum of $707 because a ‘caution fee’ of $370 must be paid! An Emergency Travel Certificate (ETC) costs $150.

In Paris, France, a resident passport 32-page booklet costs $445.31 and $627.08 for non-resident. Meanwhile, a resident seeking a 64-page booklet will pay $476.31 and a non-resident, $658.08. Renewal of passport costs the same amount but to replace a lost passport, a 32-page booklet for a resident costs $757.97 and non-resident, $939.74. For a 64-page booklet, a resident will have to cough out $788.97 and non-resident, $970.74. An ETC in France costs £250. In Sweden where a fresh passport (renewal and replacement of lost one) can be obtained only in Stockholm, a 32-page booklet costs $106 and a 64-page booklet, $137. An ETC costs £120.

In Bangkok, Thailand, a 32-page booklet (for fresh, lost or renewal) costs $173 and $204 for a 64-page booklet. An ETC costs $67. At the Rome office in Italy, a 32-page booklet costs $242 while a 64-page booklet goes for $273. Same fees are charged for renewal of passport or replacement of a lost one. An ETC costs £120. In Athens, a 32-page booklet costs $106 for all categories of passport and $137 for a 64-page booklet. An ETC goes for £50 with a proviso that it varies depending on the type of visa.

In Vienna, Austria, a 32-page booklet for resident costs $225 and for non-resident, $180. A 64-page booklet for resident costs $246 and $317 for non-resident. The costs are the same for renewal of passport. For a lost passport, a 32-page booklet for resident costs $404 and for non-resident, $523. A 64-page booklet costs $435 for resident and $554 for non-resident. The ETC costs 250 Euro comprising such charges as ‘reciprocity’ and ‘TWP/STR endorsement’. In Turkey, Ankara, a 32-page booklet for a resident costs $225 and non-resident, $280 while a 64-page booklet for resident costs $246 and for non-resident, $317. The charges for renewal of passport are similar. But for a lost passport, a 32-page booklet for a resident costs $404 and for a non-resident, $523. A 64-page booklet for a resident costs $435 and for a non-resident, $554. An ETC costs £60.

The foregoing are examples of what Nigerians pay to obtain a passport. When people pay such outrageous fees, the least they should expect is a stress free process and timely receipt of their passports. Sadly, the stories in many of our embassies reflect the way we mismanage our affairs at home. Following a recent THISDAY editorial which queried why, despite the problem associated with the production of Nigerian passports, the NIS has refused to collaborate with the government-owned Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC) to ease their process, I got a call from the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola. He explained that the issues are far deeper than what the editorial canvassed. He suggested I meet with the NIS Comptroller General, Mr Mohammed Babandede so he could explain what the challenges are.

My meeting with Babandede was quite revealing. According to him, the contract for the system architecture for the production of e-passports was awarded to Iris Smart Technologies Limited (ISTL) in 2003 under President Olusegun Obasanjo. This was at a time that production of booklets and embedding of chips were not included. When the decision was taken to upgrade with as many as 12 new security features, bids were accepted from five companies: ISTL, Gieseoke & Deviant F2E Dubai, Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC), Francis Charles Orberthur Security and Sagem S.A. of France which eventually did not respond to the Ministry’s invitation. At the end of the exercise, ISTL had the best evaluated tender in terms of price and technical competence. The company’s bid was N690.08 per copy, NSPMC’s bid was N1,500 and with that, lost out.

From January 2020 to the end of March 2021, according to Babandede, 976,483 passports were issued to Nigerians in the 42 diplomatic and consular missions abroad and 43 local offices across the country with an outstanding backlog of 244,336 booklets. While this represents 80 percent performance, it doesn’t capture the dismay of those who miss their scheduled travel for important appointments simply because they could not secure their passport.

On the perennial shortage of booklets, Babandede said the Nigerian passport is a wholly contractor financed project with no seed money provided by government. The challenge, he explained, is that revenue generated abroad is paid directly into the country’s JP Morgan account for remittance into the Consolidated Revenue Account. The implication is that NIS relies solely on the money generated from passports in Nigeria for all its operations across the world! Aside the fact that “the dollar component paid by passport applicants abroad goes directly to JP Morgan account with no share apportioned to the NIS”, Babandede also accused the CBN of “a deliberate effort to block ISTL from accessing foreign exchange for the importation of booklets.”

These are issues the federal government needs to resolve. It is a shame that in this day and age, we cannot provide passports for our citizens even when they pay outrageous sums of money for it. At his media briefing last week, Aregbesola admitted that his ministry has had challenges in recent years on the issue of passports. “These include, shortage of booklets, touting, racketeering, inflating the cost, passports being issued to ineligible persons and so on. Then there are Covid-19 related challenges such as the suspension of public interface by our missions abroad as a result of the directive of the host government” said Aregbesola.

While craving the understanding of Nigerians because “other person-to-person necessities like data capture are beyond our control”, Aregbesola also promised to “embed security operatives – seen and unseen – in all our passport offices. They will wear body cameras. They will detect and report any form of solicitation, inflation, improper communication, extortion, diversion, hoarding and other corrupt practices. Those caught will be dealt with according to the law. An ombudsman will also be created to receive complaints and reports from members of the public on officers trying to deviate from prescribed guidelines and subversion of the process.”

I have no problem with these measures. But if we are ever to resolve this disgraceful lack of availability of Nigerian Passports for deserving citizens, it will require more than the usual ‘fighting corruption’. We need a presidential intervention to deal with what is at the root of it. The money realized from passport applicants abroad cannot continue to be a source of revenue for the Federation Account without it being ploughed back to produce the booklets. The details can be worked out between the NIS, CBN, NITL and the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Interior as well as the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation. But the only enduring solution to this national embarrassment is for the NIS to be allowed to use the dollar component of revenue generated abroad for the continuous supply of passport booklets, especially to our Diaspora citizens.

The Murder in Akwa Ibom

“I thought I was going to a modelling job, but instead I was lured into a gang rape trap.” Kelly, not her real name, was 17 when she was approached on Instagram by a woman who posed as a modelling scout. She was invited to meet for a video shoot in central London, but when she arrived, a man she had never met was waiting for her. “He told me he was the manager and took me to an upstairs apartment where he forced himself on me,” she said. “The modelling scout I had been talking to online then came in half an hour after with condoms. It was clear that it all had been planned out between them.” Kelly’s story comes after 1,200 online grooming crimes were recorded by police across the UK during the April to June lockdown period. “I heard the lady on the phone to other men saying ‘she’s here’. It was obvious that they had planned for other men to come to gang rape me,” Kelly said.

The foregoing story, published last December by the BBC, illustrates the danger that daily confronts female job seekers in the internet age. But the main concern here is: If this can happen in societies where there is law and order and security agencies have the capacity to detect and punish such crimes, then it is obvious that many of our women and girls have fallen victim to traps set by criminals who use the internet for their nefarious activities.

Last week, Miss Iniobong Umoren, a 20-year old resident of Uyo, Akwa-Ibom State, posted on Twitter that she needed a job. Not long after the post, she was declared missing. Through a friend, it was revealed that she had set out to meet one Uduak Akpan for a job interview that ended in rape, murder and burial in a shallow grave. With the suspected culprit arrested and now in custody, we hope that the police will get to the root of the crime, apprehend other accomplices (there are stories that it is a ‘family business’) and ensure justice for the victim.

Sadly, this is a growing problem in Nigeria. Yesterday, I joined Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, Professor Ayodele Atsenuga and others at the three-day virtual training for the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission ICPC investigators and prosecutors handling sexual harassment cases. I spoke on perspectives of sexual harassment in the educational sector and also stayed for the entire session. I benefitted from the interactions moderated by Mrs Bunmi Olugosa, an Assistant Commissioner and SA Legal to the ICPC Chairman who coordinates the series of quarterly engagement on how the commission can use the instrumentality of the law to deal with sexual and gender-based violence both on our campuses and within the larger society. In his opening remark, ICPC Chairman, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, highlighted why the commission is at the forefront of tackling what he described as a gross abuse of power that reduces the dignity of our women and girls. What came out clearly from the interactions is that we have a huge problem that requires a multi-stakeholder approach if we are ever to successfully tackle the menace of gender-based violence in Nigeria.

Ordinarily, the place for victims to file complaints of such crimes is the police. But that is actually where the problem becomes magnified. For this reason, women shy away from drawing attention to their pain because of the stigma that follows reporting such incidences. The challenge is now compounded by criminals who ply their trade using social media. On 21st July 2012, Cynthia Osokogu, the last child and only daughter of Major-General Frank Osokogu (rtd) flew to Lagos from Abuja to meet with ‘retailers’ she befriended on Facebook. She was drugged, raped and strangled. Over three months between July and September 2019, Gracious David-West, lured eight young ladies with high-risk lifestyles across Lagos, Imo and Rivers State to hotels, had sex and then strangled them. In the typical Nigerian fashion of blaming the victim, the then deputy commissioner of Police in Rivers State, Chuks Enwonwu, narrowed the crime to the lifestyle of the victims, sparking a serious protest in Port Harcourt by women.

While I commiserate with the family of the late Iniobong, there are lessons in the tragedy for everyone. I believe the Nigeria Police should invest in technology that can enable them to detect and take out some of these online criminals who prey on vulnerable people. But this is also a challenge for the larger society. Most at risk are children who use the internet, especially in this age of remote learning. Last October, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, released a statement titled, ‘Internet Predators: Warnings & Prevention for Families During the Pandemic and Beyond.’

Allow me to conclude with an admonition from the US Attorney: “Parents don’t know all the apps or how to use them, but sexual predators do. Just as parents taught kids to be safe at home by locking the doors at night, parents must learn how to keep kids safe online. We must educate ourselves and talk to our children about the risks inherent in the open access the Internet provides. Talk to your kids about what sites they are visiting, what apps they use, whom they are texting and messaging, what kinds of pictures they take of themselves, and what kinds of pictures other people send to them. Encourage them to share with you anything (that) makes them uncomfortable, whether an image, a message, or a solicitation. Showing that you care will go a long way with a child, and that in turn will go a long way in keeping them safe.”

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com