By Chikezie Omeje
A possible review of the contract between the Nigerian government and the company that produces travel document for Nigerians has led to a scarcity that has affected the issuance of passports by the Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS.
Iris Smart Technology Nigeria Limited, ISTL, the company that supplies passports to the Nigerian government, had since last year demanded an upward review of the price Nigerians pay to obtain the document but the government has not approved the proposal.
ISTL, the sole supplier of the Nigerian passport, sent the review request to the NIS in early 2016, arguing that the cost of producing the Nigerian passport had gone up because of the poor exchange rate of the naira to the dollar.
The Immigration Service, it was learnt, made a recommendation to the government in March 2016 that the cost of issuing the passport be increased but the government has not acted on the matter.
The supply company is said to have partially stopped supplying the 32-page passport since the middle of last year, causing acute shortage in issuance for the NIS.
On August 11, 2016, ISTL’s Malaysian parent company, Iris Corporation, filed in the country’s stock exchange, known as Bursa Malaysia, that it has signed a contract of $42.49 million with ISTL to supply 2.5 million units of 32-page Nigerian electronic passport booklets.
The three-year contract, according to Iris, will ensure that the company supplies an average of 100,000 passport booklets to Nigeria every month.
The parent company also listed risks in the passport supply contract to include avoidable delays arising from non-compliance, which would affect the profit margin of the company as time would be spent trying to resolve such arising issues.
Iris Corporation, however, expressed confidence that it would seek to limit the risks involved through prudent financial management and efficient operating procedures.
Two months after Iris Corporation announced the new contract to its shareholders in Malaysia, Nigeria began to witness the scarcity of its 32-page passport in all the passport issuance offices across the country and other foreign missions where the passport is issued to eligible Nigerians.
The delays that Iris corporation anticipated had arisen immediately after signing the supply contract with its Nigerian partner as the expected increase in the cost of passport to Nigerians has not been approved by the Nigerian Government.
But the icirnigeria.org learnt that the supply company has more than the issue of price increase to worry about as the government is questioning why the Nigerian passport is being printed and produced abroad.
Competent presidency sources said that in reviewing the cost of the passports as requested by Iris, the federal government raised questions about why the documents were being produced abroad.
All the components of the e-passport are manufactured abroad as the production of booklet is done in South Africa by SAPPI, a pulp and paper firm, while the chip is provided by NXP, a Netherlands company that specialises in the manufacturing of secure connectivity solutions for embedded applications.
The printing and binding of the passport booklet, embedding of the chip as well as laminate for the data page is done in Malaysia before final delivery to Nigeria.
Our source said that the government has not taken any action on the upward review of the cost of passports because top officials of the Buhari administration are “not only worried about capital flight because of the huge amounts that it costs us in foreign exchange, they also worry that a security document such as the Nigerian passport is produced by foreign companies in foreign lands.”
According to the source, the issue might not be resolved soon as “the only thing tying the hand of government in cancelling the contract are our legal obligations under the signed agreement.”
Thus, for now, the scarcity that has hit the issuance of passports across the country might continue for a while longer.
At the Gwagwalada, Abuja passport issuance office of the Immigration Service, our reporter was shown a pile of files of 32-page applications.
An Immigration officer who wished to remain anonymous explained that the applicants had done the biometric capturing but there were no 32-page passports to issue them.
He said that applicants who urgently need the passport are advised to apply for the 64-page passport, which was available but cost more.
The 64-page passport was introduced in 2014 for frequent travelers who usually fill up the 32-page passport before its five-year expiration.
Though the official costs of 64-page and 32-page passports are N20,000 and N15,000 respectively, applicants in Gwagwalada office said they were asked by the immigration officers to pay N40,000 for the 64-page.
Going by the contract figures given by Iris Corporation, if indeed, the new agreement is to supply 2.5 million passports at $42.49 million, then it means that each booklet should cost $16.82 which amounts to N5,130 at the official exchange rate of N305.
The increase demanded by the company is therefore curious.
The Public Relations Officer, PRO of the Immigration service, Ekpedeme King, said that the scarcity of the 32-page passport was caused by the prevailing exchange rates.
King said that the NIS had forwarded various options to the Federal Government through the Minister of Interior on the solutions to the passport scarcity issue and assured that the Service was trying its best to address the shortage as much as it could.
This website gathered that one of the recommendations of NIS to Federal Government is to increase the price of the passport as the devaluation of Naira had affected the prices of products and services in the country.
In the beginning
The Machine Readable Passport, MRP, used by Nigerians before the coming of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration was produced locally by the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting PLC, popularly called MINT.
The MINT is the Nigerian Government’s official currency and other security documents printer but the NIS stopped to issue the MRPs to Nigerians after the launch of the e-passport in 2007.
It was Obasanjo who introduced both the e – passport and Iris Corporation to Nigeria.
As President, Obasanjo paid a state visit to Malaysia in 2003 and visited Iris Corporation office where he witnessed a demonstration of the production of the e-passport.
He was impressed by the security features of the e-passport and invited Iris Corporation to spearhead the implementation of Nigerian e-passport.
ISTL was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission on 20th May 2003 to help the country produce the e-passport.
With Obasanjo’s influence, the company entered into a Public Private Partnership, PPP, with the Federal Government for the upgrading of Nigerian passport to e-passport.
The partnership ensured that the company designed, installed, operated and maintained the complete database system at its own expense and recouped the cost of investment as well as make a profit through the issuance of the passport.
The NIS on the other hand would provide the officials to register applicants, issue passports and deal with Nigerians on all issues relating to the passport.
Obasanjo was able to convince the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, leaders to adopt the Nigerian e-passport initiative in the proposed harmonization of a travel document for all ECOWAS member countries.
The need for a common passport for ECOWAS was initiated in 2001 to facilitate easy movement of people and goods across the sub-region.
Subsequently, ECOWAS adopted the Nigerian passport as the standard for the common passport for the citizens of member countries. The harmonised ECOWAS passport, which came in three types has the Nigerian green colour as the standard passport, the official passport in blue while the diplomatic in red.
On May 17, 2007, shortly before finishing his second term in office, Obasanjo launched the harmonised ECOWAS passport and Nigerian e-passport at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and Nigeria became the first country in Africa and 54th country in the world to issue its citizens e-passport.
Few months after Obasanjo launched the first Nigerian e-passport, the NIS in conjunction with the new government of Musa Yar’adua launched the rollout of e-passport to Nigerians on July 25, 2007, to replace the existing Machine Readable Passport, MRP.
The difference between Nigerian MRP and e-passport is that the former is printed with all the holder’s information on the identity data page on the back inner page of the passport and can be scanned with an optical reader, while the e-passport has its data page in the front inner page with the addition of a small integrated circuit, chip embedded in the back inner page of the passport.
The chip adds digital security features, including biometrics that shows the passport is authentic and the information in the chip, has not been altered. These features prevent counterfeiting and better link the passport to its owner.
MINT Edged Out Against National Interest
An investigation by icirnigeria.org revealed that the first contract with ISTL did not include the printing of the passport booklets. The initial contract was for MINT to produce the passport booklet while ISTL to provide the technical security component consisting of the chip and laminated data page.
However, through maneuverings by ISTL and government officials, the contractor signed a second contract with the Federal Government to supply the entire passport, including the booklet, taking away the job from MINT.
Even though the e – passport is now used by many countries, the MRP is still a standard travel document for the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO.
In fact, less than 100 countries are currently issuing e-passport to their citizens. It was in December 2015 that ICAO set the deadline for all countries using non-MRP to migrate to MRP.
Apart from the chip, investigation by this website showed that the only features that ISTL added to MRP were the water colours on the pages of the passport and blurred coat of arm embedded in the data page with the laminate.
A senior manager at the MINT’s head office in Abuja, Danladi Boki, confirmed to our reporter that MINT had acquired state of the art facilities to print the passport before the production was taken away from the company.
Boki, who said he had been in service for 33 years, pointed out that the MRP which was printed by the MINT in the past is the ICAO certified travel document and that the security printing firm still has the capacity to produce it.
He, however, speaking further, promising to introduce our reporter to the official, a Professor, he said, who headed the company’s production department and would be better placed to speak on the issues raised.
But subsequent efforts by our reporter to speak to the Professor failed as Danladi did not take call from him again.
Meanwhile the NIS spokesman said that the Service did not sign the contract with ISTL to supply the passports, pointing out that it was a deal handled by the Interior ministry.
He said the government must have considered the possibility of printing the booklet in Nigeria and the quality before committing to another contract with Iris to supply the booklet.
Senior Special Adviser to the President on Media and publicity, Femi Adesina, who spoke to our reporter on Thursday said that he did not know anything about the contract with ISTL.
No Reason Whatsoever To Print Nigerian Passport Abroad
There are many Nigerians who frown at the country’s travel passport being printed abroad because of the possible security implications, particularly at a time when the country is trying to recover from the image problems it suffered in the past.
A legal practitioner and security analyst, Marcel Oru said the printing of Nigeria passport showed that the “system is failing.”
He lamented that Nigeria could not print its security document in the country after 56 years of independence.
“Printing of our passport abroad is totally unacceptable. It shows that the Ministry of Interior has failed to live up to expectation. Nigerians working there have also failed us if they cannot print the security document in the country,” he stated.
Oru pointed out that there are companies in Nigerian which can print the passport and wondered why Nigeria is going outside the country to print a security document through a private firm.
“Printing passport is not a rocket science. I know that there are companies that can print passport in this country. We have NIPOST and MINT. Why do we go out? What are these institutions for? We have people working there that they pay money. What do they do?”
A journalist and security analyst, Ben Okezie also criticised printing of the Nigerian passport abroad, saying that he did not know any other country that prints its passport outside the country. He noted that it could comprise national security.
“Printing of Nigeria passport with the assistance of foreign firm, one will not say there is something wrong with it but when we start compromising Nigeria security and not looking at the security implications of certain agreements that institutions go into with foreign partners, it is not in the best interest of the country,” he said.
He observed that the MINT has the capacity to produce the passport but that government officials would prefer to print it outside in order to cut deals.
“MINT has the capacity (to print the passport). I know that going outside is to favour some people. I know that going outside is to get some kickbacks from the foreigners. Whenever something is going to be positive in Nigeria, there are some people who will look for a loophole to see how they will make money out of it.”
A former Commissioner of Police, Olayinka Balogun is, however, of a different view as he opined that Nigeria could not produce everything it needs locally, stressing that it might be cheaper to manufacture abroad.
He, however, pointed out that “if the security need is higher than whatever commercial gain, then it is better to produce at home so that we can preserve our security notion. So also that we may develop. We have to start somewhere. There are so many things we don’t need to import. So let’s make do with what we have.”
Options For Federal Government
The current scarcity of 32-page passport will continue unless the federal government approves the option of increasing the price of the passport or subsidise it to enable Iris to continue to import the passport.
Our presidency source has said that the Federal Government is not likely to adopt any of these two options.
The scarcity may affect the 64-page passport which has been available since it was launched in 2014 if urgent measures are not put in place by the government.
Checks by icirnigeria.org showed that the Federal Executive Council approved the extension of the contract of Iris in May 2015 to supply the passport booklets over a period of four years.
The former minister of interior, Abba Moro who announced the new contract in May 13, 2015 said that the contract “for Iris Technology was renewed for a period of four years and for the production of 10 million e-passport booklets in their various categories of 32-page, 62-page, and their counterpart of diplomatic and official passports.”
The personal Assistant to the Minister of Interior, Osaigbovo Ehisienmen, told our reporter that it might be difficult for the government to cancel the supply contract with ISTL because it could have legal implications.
He added, however, that the Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau, might also not have the unilateral power to approve the increment in the price of the passport as suggested by NIS without presidential approval.
Ehisienmen said that he did not know details of the contract with Iris and directed our reporter to NIS, which he said could answer the questions regarding the passport.
The NIS in turn referred our reporter to the interior ministry, insisting that it was the awarding party.
Efforts by icirnigeria.org to get ISTL position on the scarcity of the passports and the contact with Federal Government failed as the company refused to respond to our inquiry.
Our reporter who visited the ISTL office in Maitama, Abuja was denied entry into the premises of the company. After filling the visitor’s form, he was told that the company’s Public Relations Officer, PRO, was away from Abuja.
Checks by icirnigeria.org showed that the company has supplied over 6 million e-passports to Nigeria and also claimed it generated over N5 billion as revenue for the Federal Government.
Fruitless Investigations Of Passport Contract By House Of Reps
The House of Representatives has conducted two separate investigations into the contract between ISTL and the Federal Government but no definite action has been taken by the government in reviewing the contract.
The first investigation by the House was in January 2008. Then Chairman of the Sub-committee on Internal Affairs, Warman Ogoriba, said that it was querying the transaction, as the Obasanjo Presidency did not seek the consent and backing of the National Assembly before entering into the agreement with ISTL .
Ogoriba queried why the printing of the booklets and the purchase of laminate could not be given to local printers like the MINT, noting that the contract was lopsided in favour of the Malaysia firm.
The second investigation by the House commenced in March 2016 when it conducted a public hearing on the contract for the supply of the passports. Adams Jagaba, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Interior led the investigative hearing.
The Former Minister of Interior, Abba Moro who spoke at the public hearing said that the agreements with Iris were not judiciously implemented because NIS personnel were not properly trained to take over from service providers in accordance with the letters of the agreements.
Moro told the committee “I have read some of the agreements. In some of them, it is to train our personnel to take over from the organisation involved in the PPP. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reasonably implement the agreements.”
The committee has not come out with the report of the public hearing.
With no action coming from the government on approving the new cost of issuing passports, there will, certainly, be continuous scarcity of the travel document for Nigerians.