For as far back as one can remember, procuring the Nigerian passport has always been a daunting enterprise. This is due to the artificial bottlenecks the passport officials create all the way for prospective passport holders. The irony, however, is that the passport is a right of every citizen of a country. That means that whoever wants his country’s passport should be able to lay hands on one with minimum effort, provided he does not have issues with the security agencies. But, the experiences of most Nigerians who have reason to apply for passports are the exact opposite. All kinds of delay tactics are deployed, making it inevitable for passport seekers to engage the services of “agents” to facilitate the process. In the process, many unsuspecting and desperate applicants have fallen into the hands of passport touts, who fleece them of their money. The whole thing is a well-organised and well-run racket.
The introduction of the e-passport was expected to make the procurement of passports easier, but the situation has hardly changed. In fact, some would affirm that it is even worse. The new regime of passport issuance, taking advantage of modern technology that has become available, promised a quicker and seamless process. On the official website of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), the stated cost of passport for children under 17 and adults over 60 is N10,750, while others are required to pay N17,000. Nigerians were ready to accommodate the hike in the official fee, if only that would ease the problems usually associated with acquiring the vital document. But, the process has not become easier.
Acquiring the passport, even under the new regime, is as difficult as ever. Officials, working in concert with agents of corruption rings organised from the top, create artificial scarcities and delays in the way of citizens who want to obtain the passport and force them to part with extra sums outside of the officially prescribed amount, if they really want the passport. Most applicants part with double the official fee, paying as much as N32,000 before they can get their passports.
Immigration offices in many parts the country, especially the one at Ikoyi, Lagos State, are a beehive of activities, mostly populated by citizens who want to process the Green passport. It is not unusual for people to spend whole days on queues just to collect their passports, when the documents are finally ready for collection. Everyone knows that to acquire the Nigerian passport, you have to “know someone who knows someone.” It is the perfect atmosphere for racketeering, and it is always business as usual.
The sad reality is that many of our passport offices outside the country are not spared this problem. There have been many tales of the harrowing experiences of our nationals and foreigners alike who have had reason to apply for the Nigerian passport. It got so bad that at a time, some Nigerians had to embark on a demonstration outside one of our embassies to protest their sad experiences and the ugly treatment they receive from Nigerian embassy officials. This has severally portrayed the country’s image in bad light and it is time for the government and the supervising Ministry of Interior to act decisively to stop this national embarrassment. In a regime of change such as we profess in the country, the age-long racketeering associated with passport acquisition should no longer be acceptable.
We suggest that if government wants to be taken seriously, it should set up an independent and high-powered mechanism to monitor the goings-on in our passport offices. A presidential task force or something of that high calibre will be appropriate. The e-passport regime was supposed to make passport acquisition straightforward and easy to audit, but the determination of our officials to carry on as before has made that difficult. The many bitter experiences our people go through every time they have cause to apply for the Nigerian passport are regrettable and must be stopped in the long term interest of our country. Our recent marginal improvement on the ease-of-doing-business ranking can remarkably soar, if this problem is addressed and significant improvement brought to the process of passport acquisition in the country.