For almost a year now, Nigeria’s Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) international passports have been scandalously scarce at the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) offices and the country’s missions all over the world. The singular reason for this unacceptable scarcity is corruption. Nigerians who have paid the statutory fees for the passports are subjected to unnecessary frustration as the essential travel documents are not available for collection on dates promised by the NIS. Racketeering and extortion by dubious staff of the Service have replaced efficiency, leading to loss of money, missed travel deadlines, missed opportunities, and damaging reputation for the country.
An investigation conducted by Daily Trust and published on Sunday, December 19, 2021 has shown that Nigerians are subjected to this absurd hardship because of a poorly signed, corruption-laden, unpatriotic and self-serving Public Private Partnership (PPP) e-passport production agreement between the Ministry of Interior and Smart Technology Nigeria Limited, whose parent company, IRIS Corporation, is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Since 2003 when government entered into this controversial PPP arrangement with this company, the country’s international passport has been printed in Malaysia, and all the vital information of Nigerian passport owners are warehoused in the Asian country, with all the national security implications that entail.
The controversy around the e-passport is not new, as the House of Representatives and Senate, in 2017, had separate public hearings where the ills, conflicts of interest, mismanagement, and fraud were exposed. At the House public hearing, the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), the Federal Government body that oversees PPPs, revealed that all the PPP contracts the Ministry of Interior entered into with several companies did not pass through the due process. For instance, ICRC said that critical documents such as initial business plan; copies of newspaper adverts through which IRIS Smart Technologies Limited was engaged; copy of BBP “no objection” certificate; copy of agreement between NIS and IRIS Smart Technology Ltd, signed in 2007; and the revenue generated over the years, were not made available when the regulatory organisation asked for them. They were all missing.
Worse still, the perpetual contract between the ministry and IRIS Smart Technology was found to be too strange to serve the interest of Nigeria. Under the contract agreement, IRIS Smart Technology was to set up an e-passport production factory in Nigeria. More than 15 years after the deal, the company has not established the factory, yet the Ministry of Interior has continued to maintain the PPP agreement that has continued to shortchange Nigerians. Strangely, the scarcity of the international passport is anchored on indebtedness of the federal government to IRIS Smart Technology Ltd. It beats the imagination how the indebtedness was incurred, because Nigerians pay exorbitant rates for the international passport, not into the treasury through Remita, but through a payment system under the PPP. So how did the federal government become indebted to this company?
Among its many key recommendations, the House Committee report unambiguously stated that the PPP deals should be terminated, and that IRIS Smart Technologies Ltd should, in a space of one year, establish an e-passport production facility in Nigeria. This should have been done in 2018, but it did not happen, four years after, leading to the current scarcity and hardship. As a corollary, the knowledge and technology transfer, a core component of the PPP agreement, did not take place as the e-passport production is not done in Nigeria. Unfortunately, even the House Committee report was not considered by the committee of whole; it is gathering dust somewhere in the Lower Chamber. More scandalously, the Senate Committee which held a parallel public hearing on the subject matter has failed to produce its own report.
We align with President Muhammadu Buhari who has directed the Ministry of Interior to revoke the contract for the e-passport production and ensure the essential security document is produced in Nigeria. The Ministry of Justice must urgently study the dubious PPP agreement and find a way of revoking it, even if it means liaising with the International Arbitration Court to state how the shell companies have violated the terms of agreement. It is unthinkable that with the Nigerian Printing and Minting Company, with the capacity to print multiple security documents for the country, Nigeria still outsources the printing of its international passport to a foreign firm which has breached the terms and conditions of the agreement.
Apart from revoking the contract, we call on government to probe how the exorbitant fees Nigerians pay for the passports have been shared among the parties to the PPP, and why the country is still indebted to IRIS Smart Technology Ltd. Nigerians should not be made to suffer unnecessarily to serve the interest of some corrupt public officials.