Africa: The Long Wait – Why Africans Must Be Patient When Applying for a Passport

Getting a new passport is quick and easy in many African countries. But, in others, thousands of people spend a long time waiting for their papers — often simply because there aren’t enough blank books.

When Tanimu Garba needed a new passport in November, the 23-year-old drove to the immigration office in his hometown of Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria. But he was soon disappointed.

“They said I couldn’t get my passport immediately,” he told DW. “Even if I pay for it and even if I have the documents, they [were] not certain when I was going to get it because they are not printing.”

Nigeria had run out of blank passport books. The Maiduguri immigration officials advised Garba to try again in the capital, Abuja. Traveling by road from Maiduguri to Abuja is dangerous, so Garba bought a plane ticket, booked a hotel, and paid the 55,000 nairas (€120, $132) express fee for his new passport.

Garba didn’t have the document in his hand until the beginning of March. But, according to the Nigeria Immigration Service, the bottleneck should have since eased after the country received a large shipment of blank passports.

Many Africans put up with a lot to get a new passport. Waiting times of several months are the norm in many countries. More urgent and expensive requests often take even longer.

“I [chose] the express; they gave me two weeks,” Nana Akyiaa, an entrepreneur from Ghana’s capital, Accra, told DW. “But then it [took] close to a month. Apart from that waiting, it was okay.”

Malawi’s passport system grinds to a halt

And then there are cases like Malawi’s: Most citizens wait months for passports in the landlocked country in southeastern Africa.

In December, the government terminated a $60 million (€54.4 million) contract with Kenyan service provider Techno Brain Global after reports of corruption surfaced. The company sharply rejected accusations that the contract benefited Techno Brain at the expense of Malawians.

Since 2020, the Malawian government has issued passports with digital security features intended to facilitate passport control in international transit better. However, the Department of Immigration continues to use the Techno Brain system on a transitional basis — but only for emergency applications, spokesperson Willington Chiponde told DW.

“We are only accommodating those who have emergency reasons for leaving the country,” Chiponde said.

In other words, Malawians who cannot prove that they urgently need to travel will not receive a passport until further notice. Chiponde said they do not have official figures on how many citizens have been turned away so far. But, first, a new passport supplier must be found, and a contract drawn up and signed.

When asked how long this might take, Chiponde remained vague: “It’s not a matter of many months. We are working with weeks. But we don’t just want to say these are the weeks people should expect [to hear from] us because we know a due process has to be followed.”

Corrupt cooperation partners?

Several African countries work with Belgian company Semlex to produce biometric passports. The investigative reporting network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) took a closer look at these relationships and revealed a series of alleged corruption cases in 2020: Semlex allegedly paid an influential government official in Madagascar at least €120,000 before the company was commissioned to produce passports for the country.

In 2020, the Democratic Republic of Congo canceled a deal with Semlex that offered passports for $185 apiece in one of the poorest countries in the world.

DW reached out to Semlex for its response but got no answer.

In Zimbabwe, however, Semlex is the latest player in the passport business. Last year, news platform ZimLive reported that the government had concluded a multimillion dollar deal with Semlex without a prior tender. ZimLive quoted the Minister of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Kazembe Kazembe as saying there were no additional costs for the government: “They invest their money and are remunerated by the profits,” he said.

According to the report, Kazambe could not guarantee that the current price of $60 per passport would remain permanent.

Muhammad Al-Amin and Isaac Kaledzi contributed to this article.

This article was translated from German.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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