Cost, security mar plans to produce Nigerian passports locally
Despite the current chronic shortage of passport booklets across Nigeria, with backlogs of up six months, cost and security requirements defeat Africa’s most populous country’s dream to produce its own passports locally.
This chronic shortage of passport booklets has been attributed to the unpaid mountain of debt that the Nigeria Immigration Services (NIS) owes foreign partners. It has also led to the renewal of talks about the local production of booklets.
The passport booklets are presently being produced by Iris Smart Technology Nigeria (ISTL) through its parent company, Iris Corporation, based in Malaysia, but it has refused to supply the product due to the alleged huge debts running into millions of dollars.
The Federal Government of Nigeria had in 2019 through the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company — responsible for printing Nigeria’s currency and other important security documents signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with IRIS Smart Technologies Limited to domesticate the production of international passports (e-passports).
However, concerns have been raised as to how prepared Nigeria is technologically and security-wise to produce its own passport booklets as most developed countries across the world still outsource the production of passport booklets as a result of security concerns.
For instance, Italian passports are made in Rome by the State Mint and Polygraphic Institute, which has been a public limited company since 2002 but with the Ministry of Economy as the sole shareholder.
Germany’s Berlin Federal Print Company, a state-turned-private company, has the contract with its government – and also makes passports for China and the United Arab Emirates.
Gemalto, a Thales Group company based in France prints passports for countries like Sweden, Turkey, and the UK.
Apart from Nigeria, Iris Technologies also prints passports for Senegal and Solomon Islands.
Stakeholders in the industry say the persistent scarcity of passports in Nigeria may not necessarily be because passports production are done overseas but because of the high foreign exchange rate and because technical partners are not paid despite the fact that Nigerians pay so much to get these passports.
They suggest that these challenges could be mitigated if the Central Bank of Nigeria, (CBN) provides dollars to foreign partners at the official rate and the Federal Government pays foreign partners as at when due.
John Ojikutu, aviation security consultant and secretary-general of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI) told BusinessDay that for many developed and developing countries, printing international passports and national currencies abroad have been long age practices.
Passports are well classified national documents that compromising their technical production can threaten the national security of the nation especially if they get into the hands of unwelcomed foreigners or terrorists including the home-grown ones, Ojikutu said.
He explained that the reason several countries outsource passport production is connected to ensuring the security of the nation and not only to avoid counterfeits.
“There have been instances of counterfeit monies found with persons of questionable character but the CBN authorities have methods of detecting them.
“There were instances too in the early 1990s when large quantities of dollars were reported to be found in the house of a highly placed Nigerian in Jos, the US government had to send a team of investigators to confirm if the money found was genuinely US dollars or counterfeits,” the security consultant explained.
He said Nigeria has a government printing press under the CBN which prints other less classified national security documents like postal stamps.
Ojikutu who hinted that the cost of producing passports outside the country can be prohibitive noted that it is for this reason that many countries are resulting in cashless spending and the usage of e-traveling systems which are cost-effective with databases properly linked like that of the BVN, driving licence and NIN.
Passports are made by passport-printing companies that ensure they follow the standards set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) document 9303 ‘Machine Readable Travel Documents (MRTD).
Doc 9303 sets the standard for how passports should be made and what kinds of security features they should include in order to avoid an attack.
Passports are made with special paper bound together using secure technology. Due to the intricacies of the design and the high priority on security, makers of passports are often companies with well-advanced technology infrastructure and they can be in any country.
It is also possible for the various components of a passport to be sourced from different companies or countries.
For example, a company in the Netherlands is responsible for the biometrics and security details inserted into Nigerian passports, while South Africa provides the ink used for the printings done in the passports.
BusinessDay’s checks show that Nigeria’s major reason for deciding to domesticate passport production which is to save cost may have been defeated as Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Plc., (NSPM) quoted exorbitantly for the passports clearance which is at least twice the cost of world-renowned printers.
This has been the major reason domestication of international passports has not started, two years after NSPM signed an MoU with IRIS Smart Technologies Limited to domesticate the production of international passports (e-passports).
Seyi Adewale, chief executive officer – Mainstream Cargo Limited told BusinessDay the domestication of passport booklets in Nigeria has lingered for a while because of the exorbitant quote by NSPM and realisation that the projected production capacity of NSPM cannot meet demand.
Adewale further disclosed that Nigeria initially made an order but did not include the chip into it and so needed an update before local production can commence.
He said for local production to be possible, CBN needs to provide the foreign exchange needed to pay international suppliers, which it agreed to a maximum foreign exchange provision per month.
He said all these bottlenecks made Nigeria opt to issue temporary passports or travel documents pending its resolution.
However, a source at NIS said that with all these bottlenecks, it may be economical for Nigeria to continue to outsource passport production as long as the Federal Government through the CBN can provide foreign exchange at the official rate to technical partners and create better modalities for payment.