Decentralisation of Passport Centres and the Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria

Nigerians have been clamouring for more efficient ways of processing passports as the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) appears to be overwhelmed by the avalanche of applications and the human traffic that throng its headquarters to apply for or renew international passports, as well as visa.

Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola seemed to have hearkened to the yearnings of the public following his comments at the recent inauguration of the newly established Maitama Passport Express Centre, Abuja. The minister declared that there are plans to replicate the same soon in the 774 local government areas (LGAs) for NIS to start issuing passports to applicants in the country within 72 hours.

This plan is a welcome development as Nigerians have been known to pass through the herculean protocols in the quest to get their passports processed, renewed, or in trying to get a visa. However some pundits have opined that it is not a question of making a pronouncement on a policy in Nigeria that matters, but the crux of the issue lies in the implementation and execution of such a policy. Lack of infrastructure, inadequate manpower, paucity of funds, poor electricity supply, poor internet connectivity, and telecom services as well as fear of abuse of private data are some obstacles that would contend against this programme.

Considering this massive expansion, there is a need to boost the manpower and logistics of the NIS to enable the agency function optimally in the 774 LGAs. Relying on current level manpower which is grossly inadequate would be counterproductive.

However, the minister has allayed all fears. He stressed that from the commencement of the world-class facility, they will offer Nigerians services of convenience and pleasure with the passport being available within a maximum of 72 hours of a successful application and the applicant would be notified within 48 hours where there are issues.

The minister’s pledge of getting passports within 24 hours at the high premium service and 72 hours at the ordinary premium service, albeit with added value and a little bit of extra cost, is equally good if only there will be the political will to see to it logical implementation.

Experts also want this to be replicated in embassies in the process of getting Nigerian visas, as well as making it easy for Nigerians with expired passports in Diaspora to renew them. With a Nigerian passport, one can travel to about 46 countries either visa-free or with a visa on arrival.

On 4 February 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari, officially launched the new Nigeria Visa Policy 2020 (NVP 2020) as the new guidelines for entry and exit of migrants. The new plan is geared towards the attainment of the Federal Government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) and adoption of Security, Economy and Transparency (SET) as the government’s policy thrust on ERGP. When it becomes fully operational, it should enhance the ease of doing business in Nigeria, boost tourism, address current immigration-related challenges, and expand opportunities regarding bilateral and multilateral relations with other countries.

The NVP 2020 expands the classes of visas from six (6) to seventy-nine (79) to accommodate additional travel requirements for expatriates intending to travel to Nigeria. The NVP 2020 classifies travelers to Nigeria into two broad categories: Visa Free / Exemption and Visa Mandatory.

The good news is that applications for Nigerian Visas can now be completed online from anywhere on the globe, while travelers can access four classes of visas namely: F1A, F1B, F1C, and F1D.

F1A is for citizens of member-states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) who do not need to obtain a Nigerian visa to enter the country based on ECOWAS free movement protocol.

F1B is for citizens of Cameroon and Chad whose governments have Visa Abolition Agreements with Nigeria.

F1C is for holders of official travel documents from some international organisations with visa waiver based on certain entry conditions. These organisations are the United Nations, African Union Commission, ECOWAS Commission, and African Development Bank.

F1D is for holders of Diplomatic and/or official passports from selected countries based on bilateral/multilateral agreement on the principle of reciprocity and certain entry conditions.

Based on the NVP 2020, the following 13 countries come under this category: Brazil, China, Cuba, Kenya, Namibia, Mauritius, Rwanda, South Africa, Singapore, Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey, and Venezuela. Qualifying citizens of these countries can enter Nigeria visa-free for a maximum of 90 days and for single entry visits only. However, visa-free entry is not valid for employment purposes.

Analysts have said the government’s implementation of the NVP 2020 is a welcome development as interested individuals and stakeholders have anticipated improved change since the initial announcement was made in February 2020.

The new classes, accordingly, would enable effective monitoring of visitors, data analysis to enhance security, and potentially ease travel plans of investors to promote national growth.

Consequently, intending visitors and current residents have to familiarise themselves with the new categories and fees to ensure accurate applications and avoid penalties or discomfiting travel situations.

The Comptroller General of the Nigeria Immigration Service, (NIS), Mr Mohammed Babandede, had on 1 January 2018 announced at the meeting of the database harmonisation committee held in Abuja that anybody that intends to apply for passport renewal or wants a fresh passport but residing outside the country will first have an identification number from NIMC or it will be denied.

Up until now, Nigeria has not been able to establish a central database like several countries around the world where all the agencies of government and organisations could have access to data in carrying out the documentation of its citizens. This is including the issuance of passport and visa.

However, Nigerians living abroad are not expected to fly to Nigeria to obtain an identification number before applying for the issuance of a new passport or when renewing an old one in their countries of residence.

But sources from NIMC said that National Identification Number (NIN) registration exercise abroad is being carried out in collaboration with private data management companies.

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Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the chairman of the Nigerians In Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM), has also advised Nigerians abroad to visit the website of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) to enable them register for the National Identity Number.

Another source said that “any Nigerian who resides abroad who wishes to come home can obtain or renew a Nigerian passport at the same relative price paid by Nigerians in Nigeria. But if the Nigerian residing abroad chooses to use their foreign passport to travel to Nigeria, they must then obtain a visa just like every other holder of a foreign passport wishing to travel to Nigeria.

“This is not unique to Nigeria. This is the same rule that applies with every country that allows its citizens to have dual citizenship.”

By and large, it is expected that as the new initiative to decentralise the issuance of passports to all the LGAs is being carried out, NIS will take a cue from the new NIMC and make the renewal of Visa and Passports for all Nigerians in the Diaspora seamless.

Anthony Nwakaegho