Liberia: Sabotage at Passport Division; Many Applicants Turned Away Due to ‘Shortage of Booklets’
Monrovia – In his last Annual Message to the nation in January, President George Manneh Weah, realizing the hardships many Liberians were experiencing announced that his administration had dropped some basic commodities; including one in particular, which is a major requirement for travel, a passport.
Said the President at the time: “In the face of rising global prices, the government has been able to reduce the basic prices of fuel on the Liberian market. Fuel prices have been reduced as follows: Gas: 3.70 reduce to 3.30 and AGO has been reduced from 3.95 cents to 3.70. Likewise, the price of an ordinary passport has been reduced by 10%, from $50 to $45.”
$45 Price Drop Never Came into Effect
“In the face of rising global prices, the government has been able to reduce the basic prices of fuel on the Liberian market. Fuel prices have been reduced as follows: Gas: 3.70 reduce to 3.30 and AGO has been reduced from 3.95 cents to 3.70. Likewise, the price of an ordinary passport has been reduced by 10%, from $50 to $45.”
– From President George Manneh Weah’s Annual Message in January
Now, six months later, an investigation by FrontPageAfrica has found that some forces within the president’s circle may be sabotaging the price reduction to their own benefit and to the detriment of Liberians and the government.
Instead of the US$45, down from the US$50 paid prior to the President’s announcement, many applicants are being forced to pay more. But lately, many simply have not been able to because of a shortage of passports at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Officially, applicants, since the President’s declaration, have been paying the US$50 per book. Of that amount, FPA has learned, US$10, goes into government revenues while US$ 40 for the company producing the passport. Applicants looking to expedite the process can pay up to US$100 per book. Those outside Liberia who are unable to come home to process a new passport pay up to $US200 for what is called Recalled Passports.
The regular application process, prior to the shortage took between one to five working days while express took one day.
The shortage has in recent weeks brought unnecessary embarrassment to government. Two high-profile personalities, Mr. Abraham Darius Dillon of the opposition Liberty Party who is contesting the Montserrado County Senatorial seat and student activist Martin Kollie recently complained that they had received their passports and even suggesting a sinister motive on the part of the government.
Mr. Gbezohnga Findley, Minister of Foreign Affairs acknowledged when contacted by FrontPageAfrica Wednesday that there had been some issues but they are being addressed. “We had a small problem but it is being worked on and passports will be in the country this week. The producers and the contractors have been having some issues and we were forced to take some steps to address those issues. We have some passports available now and the rest will be here this week. All the backlogs we will start working on tomorrow(Thursday).”
For the past few weeks, applicants have had to deal with being told that printing machines are damaged and giving trouble. “It was only today that they didn’t allow applicants into the ministry’s yard apparently because people have now come to realize that the story of machine being down is a lie,” a staffer told FPA Wednesday.
“We had a small problem but it is being worked on and passports will be in the country this week. The producers and the contractors have been having some issues and we were forced to take some steps to address those issues. We have some passports available now and the rest will be here this week. All the backlogs we will start working on tomorrow(Thursday).”
– Gbezohnga Findley, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Applicants Frustrated by Shortage
Now, the shortage which had been kept under wraps is not in the full glare of the public.
Over the past few days, applicants like Theresa Davies have left the Foreign Ministry in frustration. Since applying in April, she has not been able to get her book. “I was supposed to travel for my daughter’s graduation in June, but I could not go again because there is no passports,” Davies told FPA Wednesday. “I thought I was going to get my book before the date but I was wrong”.
Due to the shortage, applicants looking to travel to regional countries like Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast are being given laissez–passer to travel.
Davies says, a relative of hers had a similar experience. “All those who paid for passport and are traveling to African countries are given laissez-passer. My cousin who paid for his passport to go Senegal was given laissez-passer free of charge to soften his heart. If the ministry is saying there is no passport shortage, why give people laissez-passer?”.
Authorities at the ministry have been tightlipped over why there is no passports available in the country.
The ministry’s Legal Affairs declined comment, referring FPA to the press and public affairs office, where several attempts at getting an answer have come up empty.
One source told FrontPageAfrica last week that the government recently credited money from the International Bank(IB). The money was intended to send to Bulk Print in Ghana, the firm which has had the contract to print the passports for several years now.
“I have no idea why the company has not printed the passport but the money has not gone to Ghana. As I speak to you, there is no passports in the country and the passport session is still taking money from citizens and giving them date to come for their passport, but I see confusion when the date comes and people can’t get their books.” The source who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been authorized to speak on the matter.
From NTGL to Now – Genesis of a saga
Access to Liberian passports have been a major subject of controversy.
In the aftermath of the civil war and in 2004 during the National Transitional Government of Liberia led by Charles Gyude Bryant, the situation had deteriorated because passport booklets that were being kept in the vaults of the Central Bank and LBDI had gone missing.
This was compounded by the fact that Liberian passports were being issued illegally in the Middle East to mainly Lebanese business men who could also not get Lebanese passports because there was war in Lebanon. The Lebanese did not qualify for Liberian passports even though some of them lived in Liberia.
The United States government began refusing to give visas and entry to most people who had Liberian passports because the international community had lost faith in the Liberian Passport. Simply put, Liberian passports had no credibility at the time.
In a bid to resolve the matter, the Bryant administration contracted Blackwell a Lebanese company who supplied the missing Liberian Passports to upgrade the then hand-written passports to modern high security passports.
Consecutively the Bryant NTGL ordered Biometric ECOWAS Passports from Osterik Passports a German company and Bulk Press a Ghanaian company in order to fulfil the ECOWAS Protocols signed under a Public-Private Partnership agreement.
The ECOWAS passport eventually became the National passports because the Blackwell passports failed. The PPP Project passport was in conformity with ECOWAS standards but the Liberian government had to cancel the Blackwell contract, eventually because it did not meet ECOWAS Biometric standard. Besides, according to one source, the Blackwell passport was poor quality and had insufficient standards of security.
As part of the PPP arrangement, the German company, Osterik, was responsible for all passports, security and IT system and Bulk Press was responsible for providing personnel to man the IT and Biometric system Liberia.
The PPP project was so constructed in a way that the Ghanaian company Bulk Press would collect all the application fees into IB bank. Bulk Press would then pay GOL its share of application fees to the Liberia Revenue Authority and pay the German Company – Osterik Passports.
According to one source, Bulk Press did not abide by the contractual terms and have been many months in arrears to Oterik Passports, even though they have been collecting all the application fees in advance.
The actual passport application fee has steadily risen from $25.00 in 2005 to $50 in Liberia and $200 abroad now with 90% of the application fee going to Bulk Press while GOL receives $1.45.
“I have no idea why the company has not printed the passport but the money has not gone to Ghana. As I speak to you, there is no passports in the country and the passport session is still taking money from citizens and giving them date to come for their passport, but I see confusion when the date comes and people can’t get their books.”
– A source who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been authorized to speak on the matter.
From US$50-$US45 – A Tight Rope
While President Weah has expressed a desire to give a pro-poor dividend to Liberian citizens by reducing the cost of the passports from $50 to $45, the ongoing shortage has dampened that effort.
Multiple sources have confirmed to FrontPageAfrica that some people in the government and the president’s inner circle are putting up resistance to the change.
FrontPageAfrica has learned that Bulk Press, which also prints ballot papers for the National Elections Commission(NEC), is reportedly insisting that it gets 100% of the application fees from a new contract.
FPA has learned that the Public Procurement Concessions Commission have been resisting the reduction of the application fee of passports.
It is still unclear whether the President was aware about the inner workings of all this when he made his announcement to decrease the cost of passport. What remains clear, one source said Wednesday is that a lot of people with interests are unhappy with the price of passport decreasing, even for a dollar.