The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Home Affairs, deserves the support of all Nigerians in its attempt to fully digitize the processing of the Nigerian International Passport before the end of this year. When and if the plan does eventually come to fruition, Nigerians will not only be relieved of the stress they normally experience when seeking to obtain or renew their passports; the feat will bring the country closer to standard practice in the global community. The international passport is not only a proof of citizenship, it is also a means of exercising one’s fundamental right to freedom of movement; an essential travel document that Nigerian citizens are required to possess, especially when traveling out of the country for work, business or pleasure.
However, over the years, as the passport demand increased geometrically while the offer process lagged arithmetically, the passport quest can be described as a nightmare for applicants. An average applicant needs a lot of patience and perseverance with passport office staff and officials. It is not uncommon for the atmosphere at the passport office to be tense and anxious as applicants continually wait for the passport to be issued even after the completion of the filling process.
This archaic scenario is obviously the flaw that Home Minister, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola is seeking to remedy when he said that the Nigerian passport issuance process would be fully digitized by the end of 2022, adding that the application process will not would be more business as usual. He explained this at the start of a two-day capacity-building workshop held for passport control officers from across the country and from foreign offices. The workshop aimed to ensure effective and efficient service delivery to maximize the gains from passport reforms by the federal government.
Highlights of the latest reform, according to Aregbesola, include the government’s decision to completely cut off all forms of contact between applicants and immigration officials, leading to corruption in the process; the maximum processing time for new passport applications is now six weeks, while passport renewals would no longer exceed three weeks. One of the goals is to eliminate corruption and passport racketeering among immigration officials. It is instructive to note that the Minister’s assurance that Nigerians would be able to follow their passport application process online through the passport portal is already working; and this should reduce the unnecessary congestion often seen in passport offices.
Indeed, the ministry’s initiative is long overdue, as smaller countries, even in the West African sub-region, are already implementing digital passport processing. Any organization or agency dealing with a large number of human beings must necessarily adapt their situation to limit the challenges. Nigerians are eagerly awaiting the end of their difficult and agonizing experience of obtaining passports.
By promising Nigerians an easy and transparent purchase of international passports, the minister must seriously galvanize the immigration department and passport offices to act accordingly. This is because the idea of government reform of passport issuance and renewal is not new; it would appear that government resolve wears thin before a reasonable standard is reached. The government must make conscious efforts to maintain the current plan lest it go along the lines of the previous ones, much to the chagrin of Nigerians.
A current challenge now is what the Minister rightly noted as verifying and linking passports with the National Identification Number (NIN). It is important that a synergy is developed by the Ministry of the Interior with that of the ministry and organizations concerned by the NIN offer. There should be no reason for the delay in issuing passports. In fact, the government should have considered the challenges associated with the NIN link and ensured that everything was in place to ensure a smooth transition.
In this new era of technology and the 21st century, Federal Government agencies should have little difficulty operating portals containing information on Nigerians from sister agencies. There should be a central pool for citizen data, which would make it easy for any government agency to get vital details about any citizen. The challenge of linking NIN with passports should not become an excuse for passport office officials to justify the delay in obtaining the passport.
Nigerians will remember the strong words of the Minister (Aregbesola) when he addressed passport officers: “We have adopted a maximum processing period of six weeks, it may be less but it should not be more. If it’s more, it’s rare, it’s caused by an external factor, not you (passport office officials). It is good to control the flow of people at the passport office to promote efficiency, just as the department would do well to strive to reduce the waiting time for a new passport and its renewal. This can be done with the use of technology.
The minister had warned the few deviant immigration officers of the consequences of their greed and acerbic practices. Passport applicants should also follow due process and not cut corners because, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Now is the time for the Home Office to embrace technology in its entirety in order to put an end to the malfeasance that has accompanied the issuance and renewal of passports in the country. Such an action will improve Nigeria’s image and bring relief to Nigerians who are probably among the most traveled people in the world.