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For the third time, Kenya has postponed the deadline for phasing out the old generation passport and the introduction of the biometric e-passport.

Kenya, together with its East African Community (EAC) partners, is doing away with the “analogue” passport and replacing it with an electronic document. The new document has a chip that, according Immigration officials, stores the passport holder’s information and travel history, thus conforming to international passport security standards that require passports to contain a tamper-proof electronic chip.

The rollout, however, has been shambolic, with various deadlines extended since 2018. Immigration Director General said that the latest extension is a result of the East African Community having changed the deadline for all member states to November 2022.

On 4 February 2021, Interior and Government Coordination Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, under whom the Immigration Department falls, announced a 10-month extension of the deadline for the voiding of the old generation travel documents. CS Matiang’i said the Covid-19 pandemic had forced the Immigration Department to scale down operations. The new deadline was set as at December 31, 2021.

“Barring any unforeseen circumstances, this is the last extension and Kenyans are advised to make the necessary arrangements and acquire the electronic passports at the earliest opportunity possible to avoid travelling inconveniences,” the Cabinet Secretary said.

“For the avoidance of doubt, starting January 1, 2022, the old dark blue passport will be null and void and no Kenyan will be able to travel internationally without a valid East African Community biometric e-passport,” he added.

The e-passport journey

The decision to phase out the old generation passport was first made public in April 2015 and the electronic passport was to be launched in December 2016. However, then Immigration Director Major (Rtd) Gordon Kihalangwa later announced that the e-passport launch would be pushed to April 2017. This date was moved to September of that year due to “unforeseen circumstances”.

“Due to circumstances beyond our control, the launch will now not happen as stated,” Kihalangwa said in a statement at the time, noting however that he was confident that the new deadline would be met.

It was said in some quarters that the postponement was to allow other EAC member states to be ready for a simultaneous rollout as spelt out in a directive of the Heads of State Summit in March 2016.

Deals within EAC

The 17th Ordinary Summit of the EAC Heads of State had directed the partner states to commence issuance of the e-passport by 1 January 2017 and to phase out the current machine-readable East African and national passports from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018.

When this failed, the 35th EAC Council of Ministers meeting directed member states to commence issuance of the e-passport by 31 January 2018. This, the EAC said in a statement, was in consideration of the different levels of preparedness of the member states.

During the Council of Ministers Summit, Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda said they were ready to start rolling out the document, but Tanzania and Uganda asked for more time to finalise preparations.

Tanzania said it was upgrading its systems and was sourcing for a contractor to install the additional infrastructure, while Uganda said it was planning a public-private mode of financing for the production of the booklets.

“Burundi reported that through Public Private Partnership arrangement, it had completed the process of procuring the EA e-passport booklets and was ready to commence issuance by 3rd April 2017. Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda reported to commence issuance of the new international EA e-passport not later than April 2017, while the United Republic of Tanzania would be ready to commence the issuance of the e–Passport by 1st January 2018,” the EAC brief on 7 April 2017 said.

According to the EAC, the e-passport is expected to boost the free movement of people across the region and it will be in line with the implementation of the Common Market Protocol, which guarantees the right to move freely between EAC member countries.

Article 9 of the protocol on travel documents provides, “A citizen of a Partner State who wishes to travel to another Partner State shall use a valid common standard travel document. 2. The Partner States which have agreed to use machine‐readable and electronic national identity cards as travel documents may do so. 3. The Partner States which have agreed to use machine‐readable and electronic national identity cards shall work out modalities for the implementation of paragraph 2.”

Among the challenges member states are facing in the rollout is the cost and controversies surrounding the tendering process.

For instance, the EastAfrican has reported that the installation of new technology to print the e-passport and the phasing out of the old generation passports will cost the Kenyan government about US$5 million.

Among the challenges member states are facing in the rollout is the cost and controversies surrounding the tendering process.

“The technology installed by the Pakistani government will print a maximum of 2,000 passports per day, up from the current 800,” the Kenyan daily covering regional affairs said in a September 2017 report.

E-passport tender

However, as early as 2015, there were reports of tender concerns in connection with the e-passport. The Daily Nation of 9 May 2015 reported concerns “over a Sh1.5 billion e-passport tender after officials directly engaged British firm De La Rue and Pakistani government agency Nadra to do the work”.

According to the Nation, the projected budget to buy the e-passport booklets and production software was likely to shoot up from KSh1.5 billion in the first year to KSh5 billion in the third year.

There were concerns as to whether Kenyans would get value for their money.

In the arrangement, De La Rue, which also prints Kenyan currency, was to manufacture the 145,000 booklets, while the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) was to develop the software.

On its website, Nadra confirms it undertook the job, enabling Kenya to issue machine-readable passports.

“The implemented technology and business logic has enabled Kenya with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) compliant data acquisition software for passports. Passport data is synchronized with their identity system,” it says.

There were concerns as to whether Kenyans would get value for their money.

Nadra further says that a total of 775,000 machine-readable passports have been issued to Kenyans, and that it provides technical support and software upgrades when required.

The company does not indicate the timeframe within which the passports were issued but in May 2019, Kihalangwa, then Immigration Principal Secretary, told Parliament that the department had issued 800,000 passports ahead of the then August 31 deadline.

Kihalangwa said the department was serving an average of 4,000 passport applicants daily, with Nyayo House centre in Nairobi handling 2,000 applicants a day, while the Kisumu and Mombasa centres were processing 1,000 each.

“So far, we have issued almost 800,000 passports and we expect a very good number will have been done by 31st August,” he told the National Assembly Committee on Administration and National Security. In June of that year, Matiang’i said one million Kenyans had transitioned to the electronic passport but 1.5 million Kenyans were still holding the old generation document.

Kenyan diaspora

Kenyans in the diaspora, however, have  complained of the limited number of centres at which they can renew their passports. This is despite President Uhuru Kenyatta directing in March 2019 that Kenyans living abroad be issued with the e-passport in their countries of residence.

It is estimated that 3 million Kenyan nationals live and work abroad.

Speaking during his state visit to Namibia, President Kenyatta said he saw no reason why Kenyans living outside the country should incur huge financial costs to travel back home to Nairobi to acquire the new passports.

“Why should these people be made to pay money to fly to Kenya just to get a passport and go back to work? Form a team that will go from country to country to register Kenyans in the diaspora,” President Kenyatta said in Windhoek, responding to complaints from Kenyans living there.

Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu were the only centres issuing the document at the time but in June 2019, the government opened other centres in Nakuru, Eldoret, Embu and Kisii to complement those in the three cities.

Abroad, Kenya launched centres in Pretoria, Washington DC, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Beijing and the United Arab Emirates.

Operations in London, however, delayed, as the systems and infrastructure had not been set up.

“We are aware of the complaints [from Kenyans in the UK]. The Immigration Department has said infrastructure will be in place by August 10 so we expect to be at full steam around August 15,” Kenya’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Manoah Esipisu said at the time.

However, the deadline to migrate to the e-passport was again pushed by six months to 1 March 2020.

Agnes Gitau, Managing Partner at GBS Africa in London, said that while extending the deadline gave Kenyans living abroad time to apply for the e-passport, it was imperative to communicate the new dates and the process with clarity to the over 3 million Kenyans living abroad.

“Communication has to be targeted to Kenyans through their local communities, churches, universities as there are thousands of Kenyans studying abroad and the easiest way to reach them is via their institutions.

“The Kenyan students abroad is at least one source of data governments through their embassies have. Posting on embassies website or twitter is not enough. They have to do more to reach as many Kenyans as possible,” Gitau, who also works with the Kenyan diaspora in the UK, said.

Gitau also attributed the extension to the pressure from the Kenyan diaspora.

“Though the process is still bureaucratic and unnecessarily lengthy, by extending the dates, [. . .] for once the department for Migration has responded positively.  I am aware the process is so cumbersome that some Kenyans opt to travel to Kenya to apply for the e-passport there rather than at embassies,” she added.

To process more Kenyans, Gitau proposes mobile registration/renewal booths during events whenever there is a large gathering of Kenyans as it would be a logistical nightmare to establish centres in all the cities where Kenyans live.

“The only sensible place would be perhaps in Scotland and Ireland, again depending on the numbers of Kenyans there,” she adds.

Confusion in foreign missions

In December 2018, Deputy President William Ruto had issued a statement that exposed the confusion and the government’s disjointed approach.

Speaking to Kenyans living in Italy on 2 December 2018, Deputy President Ruto announced a new deadline of 2020, noting that the initial deadline of 31 August 2019 was impractical.

“The deadline is soon approaching and only a small fraction has managed to upgrade their passports to the new e-passport. The backlog at the immigration will not allow us to achieve this,” Ruto said.

This caused confusion in the consular offices of foreign embassies in Nairobi, with some maintaining that the initial deadline stood.

For instance, the Embassy of Belgium tweeted on May 2019: “#ConsularAffairs – Please note that according to the announcement of the Kenyan Government, the old Kenyan passports will expire on 01.09.2019. The Embassy of Belgium in Nairobi will ONLY accept the new East African Community biometric e-Passports for Schengen visa applications”. The US embassy had made a similar announcement on 30 April 2019, which was however retracted on 1 May 2019.

In the initial communication, the US Embassy said, “All travelers to the United States from Kenya must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of entry. Therefore, U.S. Embassy Nairobi can no longer place U.S. visas in the previously issued non-digital passport expiring August 31, 2019.”

It then sent another statement saying, “Visa applicants may apply for a US visa with a non-digital Kenyan passport. We will place a US visa in a non-digital passport until further notice. Holders of current US visas do not need to take any action.”

That the US — one of the countries that have very strict immigration rules and requirements — flip-flopped on the issue in such a short time shows the level of confusion among the foreign missions.

This caused confusion in the consular offices of foreign embassies in Nairobi.

Officials of various embassies who did not want to go on record said at the time that they were yet to receive any communication concerning the extension. Some said they would continue issuing visas on the old passports.

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau downplayed the issue at the time, saying only, “It’s not a worry. We shall cross that bridge in August [2019]”.

Two years later, another deadline has been issued.

Speaking with nationals of other EAC countries (Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi) it is clear that although their governments have started rolling out the e-passport, they have not set deadlines within which the exercise should be completed.

In Kenya, even as the government rolls out the e-passport, it is also upgrading the driving licence to a digital one as well as implementing the National Integrated identity Management System, popularly known as Huduma Namba, which was declared illegal by the courts in October last year for contravening the Data Protection Act. The digital driving licence rollout was to start in 2017 after a failed attempt in 2008.

It remains to be seen whether the November 2022 e-passport deadline will be met this time round and the measures the government will put in place to ensure that the rollout is completed.