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Why African passports are more expensive, but less powerful?

By Marie Toulemonde
Posted on Friday, 16 July 2021 16:18

Across Africa, passports are often more expensive than elsewhere, open fewer doors and are manufactured by foreign companies. Here's out detailed look at passports across the continent.

No less than 110,000 CFA francs (about $194). This is how much Cameroonians have to pay for their passport as of 1 July. This is a 46% increase from the previous rate and makes it the most expensive identity document in Africa.

It is all the more difficult to justify this sudden and significant increase – a switch to biometric technology – to the public because this Yaoundé-issued passport is still much less powerful than that of other countries.

This is the case for much of the continent.

Until November 2020, the DRC passport cost no less than $185. Furthermore, the conditions under which the contract for its manufacture was awarded to the Belgian company Semlex, gave rise to a scandal and accusations of corruption against the Belgian company’s agents and people close to former president Joseph Kabila.

How much does your passport cost? Is it ‘powerful’? And who makes it?

Check out our infographic below to find out.

According to the ‘Passport Index 2021’ ranking of the most powerful passports*, which was compiled by the Canadian financial firm Arton Capital, no African country is in the top 10 worldwide. Only three countries on the continent offer a document that allows you to visit more than 100 destinations around the world. They are Seychelles, which is still in the lead (22nd worldwide), with 105 accessible countries, followed by Mauritius (99) and South Africa (82).

*Based on the number of countries that accept visitors without a prior visa or visa on arrival

The Belgians and the French are ‘all-powerful’

In Africa, only a handful of countries have the necessary infrastructure to manufacture their own passports. As a result, the market remains largely dominated by France and Belgium.

Passports and their ensuing scandals

Preparing these documents is a matter of sovereignty and raises many questions about use of personal data belonging to nationals from countries that use foreign companies. These particularly lucrative contracts also present heavy political stakes and are often non-transparent, leading to multiple scandals. Here are the main ones:

 

In June 2015, Kabila signed a five-year contract with Semlex to produce biometric passports in November of that same year. It is worth noting that no public tender had been carried out. The price set for an individual passport was exorbitant – $185 – 32% of which was paid to an offshore Dubai-based company that belonged to someone close to Kabila and 26% to the Belgian company Semlex, according to the results of an investigation that Reuters conducted in 2017.

Faced with the uproar elicited by this contract, Félix Tshisekedi promised not to renew it after it expired in June 2020. It was nevertheless extended by six months and finally passed, in November, into the hands of Locosem, a subsidiary of Semlex. The price was lowered to $99.

 

In Comoros, Semlex also concluded a contract to supply passports and other documents in 2007. The company boss, Albert Karaziwan, is accused of having used his connections within the government to obtain certain benefits.

At the time, Karaziwan was even appointed special adviser and ambassador-at-large by former president Ahmed Abdallah Mohammed Sambi. Since 2008, hundreds of foreigners have also reportedly received Comorian diplomatic passports manufactured by Semlex. Among them are people close to Karaziwan as well as oil and mining executives, at least two of whom are accused by the US authorities of having violated sanctions against Iran.

In September 2020, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that Semlex had paid Lucien Victor Razakanirina, a former senior Malagasy government official, at least €122,000 in ‘unexplained expenses’ between 2007 and 2009. According to the OCCRP, the aim was to obtain a lucrative contract to produce passports.

Through our investigation ‘Business, Family, Homeland’, which was published on 24 June, we revealed that Jean-Yves Le Drian – France’s foreign affairs minister – had pushed for the French company Oberthur Technologies (now Idemia) to be awarded the contract to manufacture Mali’s biometric passport in 2015.

 

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