Truths and untruths about passport scarcity
It is common knowledge that the press milks on bad news. This is especially true of the Nigerian press, particularly when reporting on government business. In the name of keeping the government on its toes, the press typically looks out for whatever is wrong or done wrong. And, to be honest, there are many things to criticise in the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In this regard, the word “scarcity” has become a buzz word in reporting on the perceived underachievement of the administration. It sells better to write about fuel and Naira scarcity than about their regular supply, more so when there indeed was unnecessary and ill-timed scarcity of the two commodities.
The above notwithstanding, not all scarcities propagated in the press and social media are true. One such scarcity is passport (booklet) scarcity. To be sure, some officials of the Nigeria Immigration Services may have created and touted artificial scarcity, often to generate enough anxiety for applicants to want to cut corners. But the truth is that, since the previous system of booklet supply and passport production was replaced, there have been enough booklets for passport production at least for three months ahead of schedule.
As indicated above, this does not mean that bottlenecks do not exist. However, such bottlenecks have been reduced to a minimum, leaving only a negligible fraction to the machinations of unscrupulous officials and touts, whose goal is nothing but extortion. Beginning in early 2020, new administrative processes were established, culminating in full digitisation of the application process and the introduction of the enhanced e-passport. As is typical of Rauf Aregbesola, Minister of Interior from August 21, 2019, he announced in advance the new processes to expect with customary enthusiasm. He did not mind the resistance to change by some of his officials who were benefitting from the old system.
Today, passport issuance, from application to collection is in three clear stages. Stage I of the application process is divided into two phases. The first phase is the completion of the online application for new and renewed passport through the NIS portal, including the payment of specified fees. On the portal, applicants are free to choose any passport office convenient for them, either because of proximity or because of the waiting period for biometric data capture, otherwise known as “appointment date”. This date is automatically specified for each office on a given day and the applicant is free to choose any available time. There is considerable variation between the completion of the application and the date for biometric capture, within each passport office, and from one office to another, depending on the volume of applicants.
The second phase of the application process is the biometric data capture. While the first phase could be completed in the privacy of the applicant’s chosen space, the second phase must be completed on the appointed date in the chosen passport office and in the presence of a designated official, because that is where the applicant proper is identified and his or her picture taken. Even more importantly, that is where the NIN, order of names, and other data are verified. Many applications stall at this stage, if discrepancies are detected. The application will not be processed until they are corrected.
Stage II is passport production. This is where the passport page, with verified biometric data, is attached to the passport booklet. Both the booklet and the passport page are products of the most advanced technology in passport production today. In fact, Nigeria is among the first five countries in the world and the first in Africa to employ the technology involved in the production of e-passports, each with as many as 25 security features!
In order to enhance the speed of passport production, the Ministry of Interior embarked on two inter-related processes. One is to speed up the process of booklet production, while the other is to speed up the production of the passport page and its attachment to the booklet. The passport page is fully digitised. As a result, there is no shortage of supply. However, there could be delay in production due to increased volume of applicants.
In order to reduce the waiting period for biometric data appointment and the bottleneck in passport production, the Ministry embarked on large-scale decentralisation of the process beginning in 2020, by establishing passport production and front offices in strategic locations throughout the country. This involved installing appropriate computers and relevant software as well as training necessary officials in the ICT knowledge required to operate them.
Similarly, passport booklet scarcity was solved by changing the suppliers and employing Public Private Partnership with new technical partners, who regularly restock the NIS store from time to time. Thus, it is worth repeating that, as I write, there are enough supplies in the NIS store for passport production for the next three months. This is the development, which gave Aregbesola the boldness to assert that there are no passport booklet shortages. It is also the foundation of the new timeline for passport collection, namely, three weeks for reissue or renewal and six weeks for new passports.