The Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) recently launched the automated passport application process to ease the acquisition of the document by Nigerians. The NIS said the launch followed a live demonstration session hosted by the Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, during which the functionality of the new system to stakeholders from across the country was unveiled in Abuja.
However, the overhaul of the application system seems to be creating unintended problems that have left citizens frustrated and stranded. It is important, in our view, to commend the new minister of Interior in his determination to ease the process of passport acquisition. That attempt to modernise and enhance security of both the process and the document is creating a bureaucratic nightmare that demands an immediate intervention by the authorities.
We recall that the minister had made it a point of duty to ensure that the passport processing is seamless and digitized. To actualise that, he pegged the timeline for the processing of passport applications to two weeks. He even claimed that as of October 1, all the 204,332 passport backlogs had been cleared.
Sadly, we dare to point out, the new rules for renewing passports may have gone from lax to rigid overnight, stranding thousands of Nigerians abroad and at home. This is an indication that it may take awhile for the minister, in spite of his effort, to dismantle the human factor that had been the bane of the exercise of applying for and acquiring international passport over the years.
It is instructive to note that applicants are now required to provide identification letters from local governments which were previously only needed for first-time applicants. The increased red tape serves little purpose except to frustrate Nigerians who simply want to travel.
Much as we consider as noble government’s aim to enhance security and protect data, we also note that the reintroduction of paperwork, especially those that were once waived, helps no one. We are of the opinion that compelling the elderly or infants to obtain reference letters ought to be revisited. Imposing arbitrary requirements, in our considered opinion, only fuels disorder and corruption as desperate citizens look for shortcuts.
Given Nigeria’s insecurity, traveling to one’s hometown to obtain these letters also exposes applicants to avoidable risks. For instance, someone who lives in Lagos but is from Borno state and cannot afford flight, traveling all the way to one’s hometown by road comes with its own challenges.
Equally mismanaged, in our view, is the covert hike in passport fees. The fee for a five-year passport has been increased by N10,000, from N25,000 to N35,000, which has not been made public. Applicants discover the increase only at the counter. This duplicity has incensed Nigerians who expect transparency, not trickery, from public agencies.
In our opinion, the slew of new rules accompanying the passport system’s automation seems designed to satisfy bureaucratic ideals, not serve the public good. Efficiency and convenience, which are supposed to be the intended benefits of modernization, are absent. Instead, passport offices stand idle under the weight of flawless policies that do nothing but slow issuance to a crawl.
The presumably noble goals of security and data integrity cannot justify erecting barriers against the very people meant to benefit from the exercise. What Nigerians desire is nuanced policy attuned to ground realities.
It is, therefore, necessary to urge the government to immediately reassess its passport overhaul, increase transparency by announcing updated fees, and relax needless documentation rules. We make bold to suggest that automation should simplify, not complicate the process. We urge the authorities to deploy technology to reduce processing times, not erect barriers even as they set licensing requirements that balance oversight with individual needs.
The situation at the passport offices also highlights the value of public-private partnerships. It is pertinent for the country to study passport reforms in countries like Canada that successfully outsourced issuance to efficient private managers.
The profit incentive delivered both security and faster service, addressing the needs of citizens and state. Hybrid models with judicious privatization of non-sensitive functions could significantly improve Nigeria’s system. In recommending this alternative, we are not unmindful of the inherent difficulties that could defeat the purpose. What is required, in this instance, is a minute supervision regimen to ensure that the public is served optimally.
Nigeria, we insist, deserves 21st-century travel documents befitting its status as Africa’s largest economy. This means an efficient, convenient, and secure passport regime. Citizens should feel served, not obstructed, by public agencies. Only by aligning policy with practical realities can Nigeria achieve its aim of frictionless, tech-enabled travel documents.
The seeming passport fiasco shows that poor planning could create problems rather than solve them. Nigeria must go back to the drawing board, align policy with practical realities to achieve frictionless, tech-enabled passports.
The government’s duty, it needs restating, is to facilitate, not frustrate, the free movement of its citizens. We appeal for an immediate revision of the passport processes. Only then can the excercise fulfill its purpose of enabling safe and efficient travel for all.