The Curious Story of Nigeria’s Passport Shortage

Published: 23/Sep/2021
Source: West Africa Weekly

State-sanctioned racketeering, ethnic nepotism, a complete failure of due diligence, and how an indicted cocaine trafficker has come to control the supply of passports to Nigerian citizens.

David Hundeyin

“We acknowledge and apologize for the challenges faced in the past few weeks regarding passport booklets availability. I am glad to inform you that booklets are now available and are being distributed to all our passport issuing centres.”

With these words on March 31, former Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) Muhammad Babandede verbally signed a cheque that the NIS would subsequently fail to cash. Through the course of his tenure as CG, Nigerians had become used to chronic passport booklet shortage and the associated black market arbitrage, but the shortage had become acute by 2021. He needed to make a statement to reaffirm his competence.

Speaking at the commissioning of the Maitama Passport Express Centre – itself a masterclass in formalised black market arbitrage – Babandede made that statement, and then some. A special team would be dispatched to “facilitate enrollment and production” of passports across Nigeria and its foreign missions. New passport offices to service air passengers would be sited at the airports in Lagos, Kano and Abuja. The new “premium passport processing centre” in Abuja would cut the length of passport issuance and renewal from several weeks to just 72 hours.

Ultimately, Babandede’s statement turned out to be just that – a statement. From when he made these pronouncements until his retirement earlier this month, passport booklets continued to be a scarce and expensive commodity in Nigeria. Several factors were blamed for the baffling inability of Africa’s most populous country to provide passports for its citizens. Chronic corruption at the NIS; disputes between the NIS and a private contractor responsible for printing booklets; scarcity of forex to pay for security printing materials; even an alleged unofficial government policy to stem brain drain by making passports hard to access – all these have variously been blamed for this state of affairs.

As is so often the case in Nigeria, no theory or explanation should be dismissed out of hand, which is why when I set out to find out what is really behind the perennial shortage of these little green booklets, I was prepared for anything. Or at least I thought I was. What would emerge as I sank my teeth into this however, was not a story about supply chain disruptions or government inefficiencies. It was nothing like I had ever seen before, which is saying something.

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Themes: ID Documents and Passports
Regions: Nigeria
Year: 2021