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To curb extortion at passport centres

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Ikoyi passport office

Given the propensity of Nigerians for foreign travel and the inadequate official response or capacity to procure the international passports seamlessly, reports of irregularities in getting passports at special (private) centres set up by government is hardly surprising. It is an indication that the root cause of the difficulty in procuring the passport must first be identified and cured, before any expectation of easy procurement can be met.

Without doubt, the Federal Government may have good intention in conceiving the new 24 hour passport processing centre. But barely a month of the pilot phase at the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, residents are raising fears over official bureaucracy and extortions, according to reports.

Going by the explanation of Comptroller General of Immigration, Muhammed Babandede, the setting up of an express passport centre may not be a bad idea. He had noted that Nigeria was overdue for an express passport centre in line with global best practices as practised in the developed countries and even Ghana in West Africa. He also explained that the opening of the express passport centre offers more options for Nigerians and gives opportunity to people in emergency and for applicants to decide according to their budget on how to access the document.

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However, there are fears already that the new centre may become afflicted with the problems of extortion and other incidences of corruption endemic in the normal passport centres. It does appear that the real problem is insufficient availability of the scarce passport booklets, which creates room for extortion of passport applicants. Desperate applicants will be willing and ready to pay above normal fees to get their passport when immigration officials keep hammering on non-availability of passport booklets. Incidentally, that factor of non-availability has lingered for a long time in passport offices without government being seemingly able to find lasting solution.

Indeed, despite Babandede’s efforts to justify the new centre by his reference to international best practice, there would have been no need to set up a private express passport processing centre if the booklets are readily available at passport offices; and the process of procurement orderly. With the situation as it is, a special centre would merely amount to another avenue to extort Nigerians, even the more, since the charges at the centres are a bit higher than those at the regular passport offices because of the express service. But if the booklets are not readily available such that people go through the same experience, then the purpose of the new centre is defeated.

Already, indications show a gradual build up in the rush for the travel document by passport seekers, mostly youngsters who are willing to pay the price at the private centre, rather than go through the more arduous process at the Immigration offices. The fear is that the new centre would soon be compromised through racketeering and official extortion of applicants.

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For instance, although, the payment for the booklets depends on the type of booklet, the 32-page booklets at the centre costs N28,000 as against the official N25,000. In real terms, the applicant pays N30,000 through the POS, since the centres do not accept cash.

And rather than ask for the applicant’s NIN, the centre insists on the applicants showing their NIMC slip, which many don’t carry about. Consequently, an NIMC office has reportedly been opened within the premises where interested applicants could obtain their NIMC slip at an additional cost of N3, 000. All these point to extortion of applicants.

Thus, the fear that the system would be compromised or contaminated is rife as the same experiences in the other passport offices replay at the centre. As the officials keep stressing that passport booklets are scarce, it is obvious that before long, things would return to what obtains at the other passport offices.

Babandede had said that apart from easing emergency challenges, the special centre is also a means of taking from the rich and giving to the poor as the centre is a private centre, meaning that it is for special customers that can pay for such special services.

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The root of passport racketeering and extortion is the scarcity of booklets. It has been reported that Nigeria’s passport booklets are produced in Malaysia and that the contract was sealed when the exchange rate of the naira was low. Given the high cost of foreign currency now, the immigration is finding it extremely difficult to meet up with the demand for passport booklets by Nigerians, especially, as the cost of acquiring passport has not been reviewed to reflect current exchange rate.

The solution lies in producing the booklets locally. The Nigeria Security Printing, Mint is, or ought to be well-equipped to handle the production of passport booklets for Nigeria. The capacity of the Mint should be increased to produce all the passport booklets needed in the country.

Unconfirmed reports say there is shortage of passport booklets because the Malaysian firm that produces the passports stopped production at a point and was asking for a contract review following the drop in the value of the naira.

From all indications, the problem of scarcity of passport may not be solved merely by hiking the cost of acquiring passport. A sustainable and viable solution is for the Federal Government and the Nigeria Immigration Service to join hands and ensure that the passport booklets are produced locally.

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