By Enyichukwu Enemanna and John Ikani
Obtaining a Nigerian international passport has in recent times remained one of the most difficult and complex processes to undertake especially for the travelling public.
The prolonged delay usually encountered from the time of application, data capturing and actual production was usually an arduous task a lot of people never wanted to go through.
Many described it as the proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle, be it for the renewal of an existing passport or an application for a fresh one, it was riddled with an avalanche of hiccups which left applicants frustrated.
In fact, a 2021 survey by SBM Intelligence revealed that the least-owned government identification in Nigeria was the international passport. Less than a tenth of the 6,954 respondents had passports because it was too stressful to obtain.
So frustrating was the process that applicants who sought to expedite the process by paying beyond official charges (or greasing the palms of middlemen) often suffered the same fate as those who trod official routes.
Such was the fate of 22-year-old Halima who admitted paying 70,000 naira ($71) last year instead of 25,000 naira for an expedited passport to be produced in just 2 weeks, as opposed to waiting for months like others.
“2 weeks sounded like a good deal because I had travel plans,” she told Heritage Times [HT].
“Alas, it wasn’t until a month after that I was invited for biometrics capture and excruciatingly waited for nearly three months to finally get the passport. I was even told I’m lucky that it could have taken up to 5-6 months.”
A new dawn
There seems to be a ray of hope as the federal government embarks on a journey to clear the backlog of applications across the passport centres in the country and going a step further to introduce measures that will ensure that unnecessary bottlenecks associated with the process are significantly reduced.
The appointment of Dr. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo as the Minister of Interior by President Bola Tinubu has been likened to fitting a round peg in a round hole as he seems to be wielding a magic wand that has brought about an appreciable turnaround.
A passport officer at the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) Headquarters Abuja who spoke with HT on the condition of anonymity, because he is not authorized to speak on the matter, said before the minister came on board, it took between four to six weeks for passport applicants’ biometrics to be captured from the date of submitting application.
He said, “When an applicant submits an application to obtain a passport, it takes between a month and six weeks before an appointment date for biometrics capturing could come.
“For instance, if you apply today (Nov. 8), you are not likely to get an appointment till December 22. That is how it used to be but now it’s much more easier.
“If you apply now, in the next one week, you will be invited. In some cases it could be less, especially where there are not many applications on ground”.
Enter the game changer
When Dr. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo was appointed as Nigeria’s Minister of Interior on 16th August 2023, Many thought he would not be any different from his predecessors who reduced the ministry to a national centre for determining and announcing public holidays.
There was nothing to herald that the 42-year-old would be a game-changer. To start with, he was a career politician and a lawmaker strutting his stuff at the Nigerian House of Representatives, representing Akoko North East/Akoko North-West Federal Constituency of Ondo State on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Critics were even quick to point out that he would have been better off as a “mere top management civil servant at the Federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology” considering his background in ICT where he holds certifications in CompTIA Network Plus Engineering, Britannia Hardware A+ Management as well as Ethical Hacking and Counter Measures.
However, since assuming office on 21 August 2023, Tunji-Ojo has been consistent in shutting critics and winning the hearts of Nigerians at home and abroad by initiating and catalysing measures for expedited passport processing.
Notably, Tunji-Ojo inherited about 204,332 passport applications yet to be processed. On September 7, he issued a 2-week ultimatum that later spilled into three for all applications to be processed so that applicants could have their passports.
As of Oct 1, that task was fully achieved and he vowed “Never again are we going to have backlogs of passport production. We want to ensure that nobody waits for more than two weeks to get their passports.”
The minister has also held series of strategic meetings with the Nigeria Immigration Service with the cardinal aim of producing results. With the support of service providers, the printing machines were increased to four in passport offices that had two. According to him, “Our service providers gave us the machines at no cost.”
One of such is Iris Smart Technologies, a third-party company in charge of the production of passport booklets. Apart from raising the number of printing machines, personnel of the immigration service also ran three shifts, working 24/7 to make sure that the backlogs were cleared. They worked during holidays and weekends in a bid to achieve results.
Diasporans aren’t left out of the recent transformative initiatives as the Minister on Tuesday announced the creation of additional e-passport offices in Italy, Greece, Austria & Switzerland with a view to “streamlining passport processing and acquisition for Nigerians residing in the diaspora.”
“Who would have thought passport processing issues could be resolved within a very short period of time, this is remarkable progress,” remarked Daniel who gleefully brandished his passport as he stepped out of the NIS Headquarters at Sauka, Abuja.
“The entire process took me just a month,” he said adding that “this is my first time applying. My sister wasn’t this lucky when she did hers last year.”
For Prince Adedoyin, the feeling of renewing his passport in about 2 weeks was surreal. “I can’t lie, the New Minister of Interior is showing workings [sic]. I applied for renewal last upper Friday, no premium and they told me it was ready on Monday. I just picked it now [sic].”
However, Aminu a graduate had reservations about the transformation, stressing that it might be short-lived.
“When I read about the ongoing transformation with regard to passport application and renewal, I rushed down here to renew mine. It’s a great initiative but I fear it wouldn’t be sustainable. Nothing good lasts in this country.
“Thankfully, I am currently financially buoyant and applied for a 10-year renewal because I don’t want anything to do with officers of the NIS until I turn 40 in 2032,” he remarked with a grin on his face.
“We are just getting started”
For Tunji-Ojo, the mission of ensuring that international passports become one of the widely owned government identification documents in Nigeria is just getting started.
“By 2024, Nigerians will be able to complete the application process online and have their passport delivered to their homes, offices, and other locations of their choice,” he told an excited congregation at the opening ceremony of the International Week of the University Of Lagos, titled, ‘Breaking the Borders of Partnership.
“Do not pay anybody to help you facilitate your passport, it is N35,000 and N70, 000. By February, everybody will get their passports at their door steps”, the Minister said.
The way Tunji-Ojo figures it, “Passport is a right and not a privilege. The reforms you are witnessing are just the beginning. We are just getting started and the hard work is ahead of us.”