Congo ban on non-biometric passports sparks outcry

Democratic Republic of Congo’s decision to ban semi-biometric passports by October 16th has sparked criticism with many saying they were not given sufficient time to prepare for new passports. The new passports are among the most expensive in the world and a Reuters investigation showed that one-third of the sticker price goes to a company believed to be controlled by a close relative of President Joseph Kabila.

SHOWS: KINSHASA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (SEPTEMBER 26, 2017) (REUTERS) – A sudden decision forcing all Congolese nationals to travel on biometric passports from next month has provoked a backlash from lawmakers already vexed by revelations about the documents’ high cost.

In Kinshasa, travel agents say they are scrambling to help their customers, many of which will be stranded abroad if the ban comes into effect on October 16th.

“I wonder what’s going to happen to those who are already outside the country and who will be coming back on October 16th. For example, those who travelled to the US and who will travelling back via Belgium or France after October 16th, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Eunice Misamu, a manager at a travel agency in Kinshasa.

Even though Democratic Republic of Congo sits near the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index, the passports it introduced in 2015 are among the world’s most expensive.

A Reuters investigation in April showed that $60 of their $185 purchase price goes to a company registered in the United Arab Emirates whose owner is believed to be a close relative of Congo President Joseph Kabila.

Despite a subsequent outcry, Vice Foreign Minister Aggee Aje Matembo Toto said, from Oct. 16, citizens would no longer be able to use non-biometric passports, some of which are not due to expire until 2020.

Those that tried to would have their document confiscated and replaced with a photocopy, he said in a statement that justified the change on security grounds.

In Kinshasa, the decision continues to make headlines, with Congolese citizens expressing their displeasure.

“We are all being penalised because we have a passport that we bought two years ago, a passport that is still valid until 2020. But today, they are telling us that our passports are invalid and that scares us. Because it’s costly and now we have to find money to buy a new passport, while we already have one that is valid,” said one resident Cedrick Mbuyi.

“It’ s really difficult for us. First of all, it’s not easy to obtain a passport. When I applied for my passport, it cost me 250 USD, and I struggled to get that money at the time because I was a student, so this is not good,” said Beni Mapamboli.

The abrupt ban taps into a climate of political instability fed by militia violence since Kabila last December refused to step down at the end of his mandate.

Economic analysts such as Ali Kitenge called the decision knee-jerk, and said the outcry over the ban and the logistics may force the government to postpone the exercise.

“I don’t think these passports will become invalid, and I can bet that the government will have to postpone this nonsensical decision, which has created a lot of debate. But if it’s compulsory for those who have to travel to get the new passport, then it will cost them a lot and they will be forced to spend a lot to acquire a new passport. Like I said earlier, officially it will cost them 175 USD, but by the time they go through the whole process, they will have spent 250 USD. It’s not good for those who will have to spend all that money, or for the image of the country, this has exposed our government and how amateurish this decision was, and that’s regrettable,” said Kitenge.

According to a Reuters report published in April this year, much of the money to acquire the new passport does not go to the state. Instead millions of dollars go to a private company in the Gulf – and sources say it is owned by a relative of President Kabila.

Reports in the Congolese media and by activist groups about the wealth Kabila has accrued over his 16 years in power have also stoked resentment, while his supporters say he and his family have broken no laws.