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Opinions of Friday, 17 September 2010

Columnist: Agyapong, Elijah

Ghana passport acquisition ‘saga’

One could aver without any reservations whatsoever that over the years the Ghana Passport Office has won itself quite a disreputable reputation in the country. However, for a number of reasons most Ghanaians, including government officials, seem oblivious of the ordeal citizens go through to secure passports in Ghana.
While some Ghanaians have utterly no ambitions to travel outside the country, there are those whose passport applications are processed on their behalf and those that merit preferential treatment because of their status and affluence in the society. People in the above categories might find this piece uninteresting, but anyone who once filled an application and went through the normal process for three months to acquire a Ghanaian passport will certainly appreciate how indispensable it is for our government to address such inadequacies in the system.
For almost a decade, I vividly recall my own experience when it became necessary to apply for a passport in Accra. The options were either to fast-track the application by paying 500,000 old cedis or sentence myself to three-month anxiety if I decided to pay just the standard 50,000 cedis fees. Unfortunately, the former was way out of my budget, so I settled for the latter but was certainly thankful my application was not queried, which could have prolonged my anxiety. The absurdity of this trend is rather unfathomable: impostors pay 500,000 cedis or more to have passports in a week or less, but innocent citizens wait no earlier than three months, sometimes more, to secure their passports. What am I insinuating here? Your guess is inline if corruption or bribery somehow echoed in your consciousness. Then the inevitable question is what sort of scrutiny and document verification is possible in a week for some folks that have to last three full-moons for others?
Readers will agree with me that the problems of our bureaucracy are “convoluted” beyond what anyone could possibly discuss, but the issues confronting our Passport Office are at present very appropriate for public deliberations even as the office is currently undergoing a significant transition.
Pursuant to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) deadline, Ghana joined other eight West African countries in the issuance of the ECOWAS harmonized biometric passport in April this year. Information from credible sources reckons that the impressive policy will ensure, among other things, a significant reduction in identity theft and fraudulent activities associated with the old passports. Although we commend the incumbent government for the new policy, its implementation leaves much to be desired as the Passport Office continues to be saddled with problems reminiscent of the previous conditions. We could only wonder whether the Passport Office is adequately prepared for the transition or whether the government of Ghana was only apprehensive about adhering to ICAO’s requirements without ensuring the necessary structures were in place to sustain the change.
The dearth of information about the policy’s implementation is of grave concern as little is known of any timeline for decentralizing passport application to regional centers to ease the burden on the main office in Accra. Presently, passport application and collection remain centralized at the Central Production Facility/Center (CPF) in Accra contrary to what was initially proposed at the launch of the project in March 2010.
It is inconceivable that in the 21st century Ghanaians have to travel from all over the country to have their biometrics taken in Accra; applicants are then given future dates to report for the collection of their passports. Moreover, readers who have not been following the new development should note that the Passport Office has assigned specific days it services each of the ten regions of Ghana. Thus, if someone from the Brong-Ahafo Region travels to the CPF and for whatever reason could not have his/her biometrics done at one visit, the person would have to return to Accra the subsequent week. So for how long should Ghanaians hope for the regional Passport Application Centers (PAC)?
Quite recently, my joy online carried a news headline, “Passport Applicants go wild" by Kweku Antwi-Otoo of Asempa FM, in which some disgruntled Ghanaians stormed the Passport Office in Accra about their delayed passports accusing passport officials of extortion. This incidence came as a surprise to some of us because it was least anticipated after the new policy took effect. But in a way, it lends credence to the earlier question raised about whether the Passport Office is adequately prepared to administer the new passport policy. The government cannot achieve its current objectives in entirety without a complete overhaul of the passport administration and ridding it of unscrupulous officials who perpetrate such fraudulent activities.

Credit: Elijah Agyapong