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The Federal Government may have a good intention in conceiving the new 24-hour passport processing centre. But barely a month of the pilot phase at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, residents have raised fear over official bureaucracy and extortions.
It is barely a month into the launch of the 24-hour express passport office by the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) but applicants are already calling expressing cautious optimism as Nigerians will have to pay higher fees to obtain an international passport.
In this part of the world, customers are not kings, especially when the government is involved in service delivery. So, when the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, launched the automated fast passport processing centre at the Maitama Passport Express Centre (MPEC) in Abuja and revealed the plan to build at least a centre in every local government area, government’s ability to maintain such service gnaws the mind of residents.
Already, there is a gradual build-up in the rush for the travel document by passport seekers. Most of them are young people, willing to pay the price at the private centre, rather than go through a more arduous process at the Immigration head office in Sauka or the Gwagwalada passport office.
But the fear is that the new centre would soon be compromised through racketeering and official extortion of applicants.
Inside the passport office
At the new centre, visited recently, it was a flurry of activity inside the passport office itself, which was sectioned into offices with the largest see-through glass office accommodating already screened applicants on rows of spaced leather seats.
About 15 applicants were seen seated at the data capture section after being screened through the process as at the time our reporter visited the centre.
At the reception office, an officer approached applicants: “Do you have your National Identity Management Card (NIMC) slip?”
“We need photocopies of your NIMC slip, your age declaration or birth certificate, certificate of your indigeneship; either local government or state. That is all we need,” the officer said.
“The payment for the booklet depends on the type of booklet. The 32-paged booklet is N28, 000 here, (as against the official 25, 000) and because this is an express office and you get your booklet on the same day that you get captured. You also pay an additional N30, 000 through our POS, as we do not accept cash.”
He explained that since the office operations started, all booklets issued were done within 24 hours and to fast-track the process for applicants, a NIMC office has been opened within the premises where interested individuals could obtain a NIMC slip at the cost of N3,000.
For Adeyemi Peter, the option of an express centre is not a bad idea because sometimes, applicants come into Abuja from states where there are no booklets, with the hope that they will get them at the immigration head office.
He said: “Some of these applicants spend days or even weeks waiting to get their passports and they spend a lot of money for accommodation in hotels but with the express centre. It saves them the extra cost, stress and time, so I am of the view that it is a good move on the government’s part.
The only fear is that the system could get compromised or contaminated as we see and experience in other passport offices in Abuja and across the States.”
Some applicants are, however, doubtful of how long transparency in operations at the centre could be sustained looking at the various corruption and financial allegations that have tainted the passport process in the country.
A resident, who identified himself as Michael, believed that everything currently appears hunky-dory, but as more Nigerians become aware of the office, things may take a turn in terms of racketeering in the process.
“People don’t know about the smoothness of the process yet. They think it is cumbersome so they are not rushing it but later, things may be different. We keep hearing that the passport booklets are scarce. So, before you know it, things will return to what we use to see in the other passport offices.”
Authorities give assurance
Comptroller-General of Immigration, Muhammed Babandede, had said that Nigeria was overdue for an express passport centre, and in line with global best practices as practiced in many developed nations including West African countries like Ghana.
He explained that the opening of an express passport office offers more options for Nigerians and gives opportunities to those in an emergency and for applicants to decide according to their budget, how to access the document.
He said apart from easing emergency challenges, it is also a means of taking from the rich and giving it to the poor as the center is a private center, meaning that it is for special customers that can pay for such special services.
“In London, there is a passport express centre, therefore, the applicant decides if he wants it today or tomorrow, and pays for the extra service. Even in nearby Ghana, they have an express passport office.
“When I was appointed CG, I asked for permission to visit London and other countries to understand issues around immigration and I also visited Ghana while on the assignment, I discovered that all these countries have express centres.
“We also have individuals, who may request our services to be extended at their convenience, and we charge them for it because it is also a way of earning more income for the agency. Instead of giving money to an officer illegally to hasten the process, we officially take the money into the government’s coffers and the prices are affordability.”
It, however, remains to be seen if the agency can regain the trust of Nigerians through its new 24 hours passports office or once again, compromise will set in even as many hope the sanctity of the new office stands the test of time-based on strong resolve and will of the government.