Biometric Liberian Passports Contract Undermined? Ghana Firm Accuses Australian Company

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Accra, Ghana – Further investigation by FrontPageAfrica has found that Buck Press Limited, the Ghanaian company under contract to produce biometric passports for Liberia is taking to task, OeSD, the Austrian Company with which it has a 5-year B.O.T contract to provide safety standard Supplemental Access Control for electronic passports and electronic access chips and encryption for Liberian passports, for creating an artificial shortage of Passport booklets in Liberia by withholding release of Passport Booklets Ordered by Buck Press.

Buck Press is a wholly-owned company, which is incorporated under companies Code (Act 179) 1963 and is licensed to engage in security printing and specialized stationery supplies. The company had its certificate of incorporation (No. 16930) and certificate to commence business in August 1980. Buck Press has been in active operation since 1987, providing printing services to the private and public sectors. Over the years, the company has produced and delivered ballot papers, bio-metric passports, company financial statements, calendars, annual report brochures, text books and many others to corporate bodies and government organizations, including Liberia.

Buck Says OeSD Undermining Deal

Responding to a FrontPageAfrica inquiry Monday, a representative for Buck Press Limited, explained that OeSD as a means to take the contract behind Buck Press has created artificial shortage of Passport booklets in Liberia by withholding release of Passport Booklets Ordered by Buck Press. “Contractually, the Austrian Company has also initiated talks behind Buck Press with some members of the Government of Liberia to undermine the contract between Buck Press and GOL,” the statement to FrontPageAfrica said.

Buck Press, Government of Liberia (GOL) and OeSD (an Austrian Company) signed a 5-year B.O.T Contract on 16th September, 2005. But Buck explains that OeSD, not long after the contract was signed, backed out of the Contract, insisted on a SOVEREIGN GUARANTEE issued by GOL.

At the time, Buck said, OeSD stated that the European Union had declined Insurance Cover for Liberia as a result they could not continue the project without a SOVEREIGN GUARANTEE.

When Buck Press switched from Biometric Passport to E- Passport at the request of GOL, OeSD increased significantly its price per booklets to Buck Press but Buck Press did not pass on the increase to GOL.

With the current contract between OeSD and Buck Press Ltd, OeSD (an Austrian Company) is to supply 175,000 chip Passports under the contract, the Austrian Company is to print in each slot 30,000 booklet under Works Order. Both Companies has signed a working Order. The recent Works Order signed confirms that OeSD is to supply in a slot 30,000 Passport booklets for which Buck Press pays as per agreed terms. Though Buck Press has honored its obligation per the agreed terms of payment, the Austrian chose to supply in 5,000 Passport booklets per each shipment.

To date OeSD has supplied 16,000 Passport booklets out of the 30,000 Passport booklets contracted under Works signed by both Companies.

FrontPageAfrica reported Monday that in the wake of the recent shortage of passports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had notified Buck Press of its intentions of cancelling the contract. The company’s representatives have reportedly been summoned to Monrovia for a meeting on July 29 during which notice of cancellation is expected to be finalized.

A copy of the “Notice of Cancellation” from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the printing press obtained by FrontPageAfrica outlined a number of contract breaches from the company which made the deal nearly impossible for Liberia to continue, signed April 7, 2017, it gave Buck Press Limited an immediate Notice of Cancellation of the Contract

Among the reasons given, the government through the Foreign Ministry said Buck had failed to establish Passport Application Centers in all Liberian Foreign Missions despite its agreement to do so at the signing of the extension in 2017.

On Monday, Buck said the cancellation has put the company in a bid with OeSD now withholding passports over the Liberian government’s cancellation notice. “It is on record that the CEO of (the Austrian Company) Claudia Schwendimann has categorically in a communication to Buck Press said that she is waiting for clear instructions from the Government of Liberia before she will release Passport Booklets printed under the contract and paid for by Buck Press,” Buck said Monday.

Buck went on to dismiss suggestions that it has been delinquent in it payment to OeSD, saying Monday that to support and  to help create the artificial shortage and to strengthen her effort in taking the Contract from Buck Press, OeSD has refunded monies paid for by Buck Press.

Buck Press further explained that it took great risks in signing the deal when everyone turned its backs on Liberia and invested heavily.

Deteriorating Passport Situation Prompted Contract

Under the terms of the contract, Buck Press was to provide 400,000 Passports to the Government of Liberia, including project infrastructure. 

Ironically, whilst the Liberian government at the time, signed the contract with Buck Press, the Government also signed another  contract with Blackwell to also supply passport booklets in addition to passport booklets Buck Press was also supplying, meaning that two contracts were running at the same time. 

It was later on that the Liberian government abrogated the contract because the respected specification was not up to the ICAO standards. 

At the end of the brutal civil war, Liberia’s passport situation had deteriorated after passport booklets that were being kept in the vaults of the Central Bank and Liberian Bank for Development and Investment had gone missing.

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 refused to give Visas and entry to most people who had Liberian passports because the international community had lost faith in the Liberian Passport, which by then had no credibility.

The interim government of the late Charles Gyude Bryant contracted Blackwell a Lebanese company who supplied the missing Liberian Passports to upgrade the then hand-written passports to modern high security passports. However, because the Blackwell passports failed and did not meet international standard, the government of Liberia was left with no alternative but to cancel the Blackwell contract because it did not  meet ECOWAS Biometric standard. Besides, according to sources privy to the discussions at the time, the Blackwell passport was poor quality had insufficient standards of security.

“OeSD as a means to take the Contract behind Buck Press has created artificial shortage of Passport booklets in Liberia by withholding release of Passport Booklets Ordered by Buck Press. Contractually, the Austrian Company has also initiated talks behind Buck Press with some members of the Government of Liberia to undermine the contract between Buck Press and GOL.”
 – Buck Press Limited

Buck explained Monday that because the two Contracts were running at the same time, it could not achieve the contractual quantity of 400,000 booklets and during the contractual period only 40,000 Passport out of the 400,000 booklets were issued leaving a balance of 360,000 Passport booklets still to be personalized under the contract. 

Buck Press said it could not recoup its expenditure made on equipment, personnel, computers, software, support and maintenance, etc. under the contract. “The unrealized 360,00 personalize Passport was converted to Restated Biometric Contract which was entered into between GOL and Buck Press in 2011,” the company said.

Regarding the restated biometric passport contract entered into on January 05, 2011, Buck Press explained Monday that under the terms of the deal, it was contracted to deliver and personalize 360,000 biometric Passport. “Out of this, 80,000 booklets were to be personalized locally whilst 180,000 booklets were to be personalized abroad at fees decided by the committee.”

E-Passport Costly, Buck Says 

According to Buck, the Passport fee is usually determined by a committee made up of LRA, Finance Ministry, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Audit, Buck Press and chaired by Foreign Affairs Ministry. And under the Restated Contract, the passport fee for passport personalized locally was $50 whilst Government of Liberia gets $24…… and Buck Press get $24 xx. In the year 2017, the GOL of Liberia through its Foreign Ministry called for a review of the Contract. At the Review meeting GOL through its Foreign Ministry requested Buck Press to provide chip passport at the same price to GOL.

Buck noted that all over the world, the provision of chip passport requires expenditure higher than that of in providing just Biometric passport. “Hence chip or E- passport cost more than Biometric Passport. Even so, for African brotherliness Buck Press accepted to provide the chip passport at the same price without increase.”

Addressing allegations from the Liberian government that it failed to create Passport Application Centers, under the terms of the Restated Biometric Passport Contract, Buck Press says it was requested to establish a number of Passport Application Centers. However, in order to do this, the GOL was required to provide space, suitable and reliable electricity supply and make it ready for Buck Press to deploy its engineers. “Buck Press has always been ready but it has not always been so with GOL who have to take time to make the space available,” the company said.

According to Buck, the Liberian government identified places like Washington, London and Brussels for PACs but as soon as London Mission for example was identified and made ready, Buck Press upon notification by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs deployed its engineers without delay. The same also was the case from Brussels’s Mission.

According to Buck, the setting up an Application center takes between 5-7 days and selection or identification of a Mission in which the PAC is to be set up is the sole responsibility of GOL. Buck Press said it can only go and do the set up at the invitation of the Government of Liberia and not on its own. 

To date Buck Press says it has set up 7 Passport Application Centers in the following locations:

Washington, New York, Brussels, London, Accra, Abuja and Beijing. “It is reported that it took about 6 months for the Ministry of Foreign affairs to operationalize Brussels Mission after Buck Press has already set it up.”

July 29 Meeting Key to Resolving Saga 

Regarding the Extension of the Biometric Passport Contract, Buck Press explained that the quantity of Passport booklets to be personalized could not be achieved under the Restated Contract so both Buck Press and GOL reviewed the Contract for further terms. “It was during this renegotiation that the GOL requested Buck Press to provide Chip passport at the same price of $50 per booklet. Under this Contract 175,000 booklet were to be personalized as chip passport. To date Buck Press has supplied over 74,000 chip passports to GOL leaving a balance of 100,000 chip passport still to be supplied under this Extension Contract.”

Addressing the complications in the reduction of passports from USD 50 to USD 45, Buck Press acknowledged that following the proposed reduction announced by the President George Manneh Weah recently, a series of committee meetings chaired by Cllr. Deweh Gray, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had been held in Monrovia to consider three Modalities to be worked out for consideration. “Finally, one of the modalities has been agreed on awaiting signature and implementation.

Buck Press Delegation has been in Monrovia on several occasions and send several reminders to the Deputy Minister of Legal for an update and signing of the Contract for its implementation.”

Recently, a delegation from Buck Press was in Monrovia to sign its part of the said Contract. However, the company says to date, the contract for the reduction has not been affected for reasons beyond Buck Press control.

The next few days, starting with a crucial meeting on July 29, in Monrovia, could prove pivotal as the Liberian government sits down with Buck Press and OeSD in a bid to find common ground to a complicated saga putting hundreds of passport applicants at risk of experiencing lengthy delays with a process likely to linger for some time, if the current dilemma is not resolved.

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