The suspension of the biometric capturing of the new enhanced electronic-passport by the Nigeria High Commission in London, the United Kingdom, is already generating controversy.
Findings by this newspaper have confirmed that the concerned government agencies are already working behind the scene towards addressing the looming conflict.
A source at the interior ministry, who craved anonymity for not having the authority to comment on the matter, alleged the high commission’s office of kicking against the new passport regime “because it abrogates the hitherto existing underhand dealings where applicants pay as high as 120 pounds as service charge.”
A spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry did not respond to enquiries on Monday.
At the weekend, the high commission’s office issued a directive for the suspension of the enhanced e-passport processes, citing confusion created allegedly by the linking of the National Identity Number (NIN) issued by the National identity Management Commission (NIMC) with the NIS system.
In a statement issued on its website and dated Friday, March 25, 2022, the Commission said the suspension would take effect beginning from Monday, March 28, until the challenges are resolved.
The Commission said the deplorable situation in passport issuance and renewals shortly after the coronavirus-induced lockdown was eased had degenerated into tension which, it said had been “responsible for multiple ugly incidents recorded in the Mission, thus exposing the entire staff to danger,” including breaking of vehicle screens, knife attacks on vehicles’ tyres, assaults on staff, and general insecurity in the Mission’s premises and its surroundings.
It, however, noted that in May, 2021, measures were put in place to restore order, and that the measures had received cooperation from Nigerians in the UK. “The smooth operations widely acclaimed by Nigerians existed till 22nd November 2021.”
The statement reads in part; “At the launch of Enhanced E-passport operations in London on 23rd November 2021, Nigerians in the United Kingdom were quite optimistic of improvements in service by the Immigration Section, on the issuance of passports.
“However, the issuance, renewal, and operations since the introduction of the new Enhanced E-passport have been fraught with many challenges, particularly on the issuance of National Identification Number (NIN) and the appointments for biometrics capture.
“The Mission feels and shares in the pains of teeming Nigerians since the launching of the new Enhanced E-passport scheme in the United Kingdom by the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola. The staff of the High Commission are currently being assaulted on a regular basis on account of attendant frustrations, particularly by Nigerians who travel long distances from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham, etc to the Mission in London without positive resolution of their respective consular issues.”
The Commission said the decision to suspend the process was taken after a meeting with “relevant stakeholders” including “members of the Nigerian Council of Elders in the UK, comprising Pa Adebayo Oladimeji, Arc Otunba Mobolaji Falase, Dr. Boma Douglas, Chief Fred Ajiduah, in concert with the Chairman of Central Association of Nigerians in the United Kingdom (CANUK) – Mr. Ayo Akinfe, leading the Executive members of the Association. Nigeria High Commission was led to the meeting by the High Commissioner…”
“Consequently, the biometrics capture on the new Enhanced EPassport at the Nigeria High Commission in London is hereby suspended with effect from Monday, 28th March 2022, until these challenges are resolved, in the interest of the Nigerian Community in the United Kingdom. Whilst we regret the inconveniences the suspension may cause, the Emergency Travel Certificate window and visas for British- Nigerians are available as a stop-gap measure,” the statement concluded.
But officials at both the Nigeria Immigration Service and the interior ministry, who do not want to be quoted, have described the Nigeria High Commission’s claims as untrue.
The media aide to Rauf Aregbesola, interior minister, Sola Fasure, denied the claim of inefficiency of the new enhanced e-passport issuance and renewal system.
He, however, declined further comments on the matter, saying the two concerned ministries will iron out the differences in the interest of Nigerians.
“I don’t want us to drag this matter. You can go and conduct your investigations and see if the new system is working or not. But I can assure you that whatever the issues are, the government will resolve them in the interest of Nigerians.”
Also speaking, a high-ranking official of the NIS, who said this newspaper should await official statement from the agency, and declined to speak on the record, however, offered some insight when he alleged that the new enhanced e-passport has stopped the high commission from generating “illegal funds under the guise of imposing service charge.”
“The truth is that before now, the Commission was charging 120 pounds as service charge for a passport worth 80 pounds but since the introduction of the enhanced e-passport, that was no longer possible. We knew there would be resistance because embassies rely on these illegal revenues to survive since they claim they are not properly funded,” the official said.
The source added that only the comptroller-general of immigration is empowered, apart from the President to take such a critical decision on travel documents.
The official added; “Even the stop-gap documents they want to be issuing do not belong to the Commission. It is the responsibility of the NIS and so how can you charge fees for what you don’t own?”
Statistics of applications
Another official of the Nigeria Immigration Service, who also does not want to be mentioned, saying the development may degenerate into inter-agency conflict, said between November 2021 when the e-passport was launched in London and March 25, 2022, a total of 5,400 applications were received and that 5,200 had been processed and delivered.
The source said the new e-passport enables the applicants to engage in the process personally and that it is by appointment, which the official noted is the standard practice globally.
The source said; “Passport issuance globally is like visa issuance, it is on an appointment basis. But there are clearly provisions for emergency situations. The delay in the 200 cases that were not delivered are mainly due to the synchronisation of NIN with our database because that is what the government wants.
“It is to the advantage of the country that we have a single identity number. We agree that there could be teething problems but these issues are not insurmountable, 200 cases out of 5,400 are very minimal and we are resolving them as well.”
The source cited the situation with the registration for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), saying JAMB had in the past jettisoned the use of NIN over complaints but that it later adopted it since it is the government policy.
“Today, I am aware that even with the adoption of NIN, JAMB was able to register 1.8 million candidates within record time without issues. Such is the system and I hope the Commission will see reason and stop extorting Nigerians,” the official added.
Foreign affairs ministry yet to respond
Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry, Francisca Omoyuli, said she will find out the details of what transpired and react appropriately on the allegations and other issues raised.
She said since a short message detailing the information requested had been sent by the reporter, she would inquire and revert.
However, many hours after her promise, there is yet to be any response from the official as of the time of filing this report.
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