EVEN without the discontinuities spawned by the Covid-19 pandemic, obtaining a Nigerian passport through the prescribed procedure was always fraught.
Visit any passport-issuing office in Nigeria, and you will find a seething, murmuring crowd of applicants who had been on the scene every working day during the previous week, the week before that, and in all likelihood the week preceding that, and are yet no closer to obtaining the prized document than they were the day they first set foot on the precincts.
It is not a task for the faint of heart, or the go-it-alone individual, no matter his or her dexterity in navigating all the bureaucratic hoops. Nor does it matter how punctiliously he or she is in filling out the application form.
It helps if you have a powerful sponsor, know, or can relate to, a key official in the chain who can see the matter through. If you don’t, the next best thing is to hire a consultant–pardon this necessary dignification – a riff on James Thurber – since we are discussing a momentous issue – who knows the territory inside out: how the place works, who reports to whom, which palms to grease and how to grease them without leaving fingerprints, and whom the officials trust to deliver without fuss and without ceremony.
You are virtually guaranteed to obtain your passport the very next day.
If you don’t have a powerful sponsor and cannot hire a consultant, then you will need luck of the rarest kind or spiritual intervention or both to obtain a passport months after filing.
Your application may be complete and valid in every material particular, but what if the official who should handle it is perpetually not on seat, or is on leave of absence for the next three months and nobody else in the house can handle your application, since it belongs in a very special category, and only an officer who belongs in that rarefied rank can handle it.
Unfortunate indeed, but the application cannot move until the officer returns. You understand, Madam?
Another scenario: Everything is shipshape, Madam, as shipshape as can be. There is just one small problem. Fewer than 100 passport booklets are available at this time, and the office has to practice extreme rationing until a new consignment arrives. It may happen tomorrow or next year, we just don’t know. With Covid-19, nothing is certain anymore. Nothing is given.
Contemplating these prospects, delivered with critical solemnity by the contractor, the applicant for a passport is reduced to asking rather diffidently whether it meant that nothing would avail.
But contractor and applicant know deep down that, in Nigeria, something always avails. They strike a bargain, and the passport that had at some point seemed like a forlorn quest becomes a splendid actuality, to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned, visible and invisible.
Why do passport seekers submit to this ordeal when they could head to a certain locale within shouting distance of Lion Building in central Lagos and within hours, obtain, on their own terms, no questions asked, and no “go come,” official passport as genuine as any such document ever issued by the Nigeria Immigration Service?
Because they know no other route? From lack of capacity to embark on that route? From an abundance of patience? From respect for the law and due process? From fear of the consequences if the whole thing came unstuck?
On to you, graduate students in sociology and social psychology. Something tells me that if you explore these questions with the rigour they call forth, you are more than likely to add a footnote – or even change one – in the literature on the Nigerian character.
To return to my theme: obtaining a Nigerian passport on foreign shores is just as fraught. The process is clean – antiseptically so.
There is almost no human contact until you appear for the “interview” for “biometric capture.” The process is electronic, online.
In the United States, they seem to have farmed it out to an Indian-owned entrepreneur who apparently runs some other business or businesses on the side.
You wish they had contracted such a sensitive matter to a Nigerian, and that the site was not so quick to lure you to other sites to purchase some junk merchandise or service.
But that is small matter compared to the unhelpfulness of the Chancery in Atlanta, Georgia. For an application filed in January, they give you an interview date for April.
They say you can ask for another date, but when you do so on a dedicated email platform, they tell you curtly that your request has been received.
You follow up and call a number indicated on the Chancery website. The phone rings and rings and rings, until a recorded voice tells you that the official you want to talk with is not available and that you should please leave a message. But before you can do so, the same recorded voice tells you that the mailbox is full and is accepting no new messages.
You call every day for one week running: same result.
In desperation, you take a chance and write a very courteous letter to senior official at the Chancery telling him of your experience and asking if he would kindly help sort things out. He does not give you the benefit, nor the courtesy of a reply.
I was about to write to the Head of the Chancery when the Covid-19 conflagration paralyzed virtually all transactions of an official or commercial nature.
On the Mission’s website, the April interview date has now been replaced by “Not available. Please contact Embassy/Mission.” But the Chancery has remained singularly unresponsive.
The only human contact I have had at the Chancery was with a clerk with another service unit. He was courteous, told me I had called the wrong number, but seemed eager to help.
Then, he launched into a long lecture on how the Mission was overwhelmed, and why the waiting for passports was so long and the appointment date could be changed only in the event of a death in the family, which, God forbid. But in the event, a death certificate, duly authenticated by a designated authority, had to be attached to the request for the change.
Seriously. I am not making this up.
Previously, to obtain a passport, you only needed to attach two copies of your picture to the application form and sign on the dotted lines.
They said the arrangement made it all too easy for persons engaged in syndicated crime to obtain multiple passports and to give Nigeria a bad name.
By requiring applicants to appear in person for “data capture” at the point of issuance, the authorities could be sure that the passport belonged to the person whose name and picture appear on it and to no other, so the authorities claimed.
Nigeria is the only country I know that insists on this arrangement which inflicts needless financial, physical and emotional pain on applicants.
That is reason enough for discontinuing the policy. But there is more. The stipulation does not work. It serves no useful purpose.
You can still have as many Nigerian passports as you can pay for, and under as many names as you fancy.
The United States passport is, next perhaps to its $20 bill, the most widely counterfeited document in the world.
Yet, you need only supply two pictures with your completed application, and sign on the dotted lines before an official at the local post office to obtain a passport.
You are not required to travel outside your place of residence. And the document is mailed to your home within weeks.
Our level of organisation, I grant, is not cohesive enough to permit that kind of arrangement.
But an arrangement that inflicts wanton financial, physical and emotional pain on passport seekers is a cruel abuse of Nigerians and their citizen rights.
Now is the time to end it, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Honourable Minister of Internal Affairs.
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