DRC: Outcry over ban of semi-biometric passports

Perceived as hasty, decision to invalidate all semi-biometric passports in October engendered widespread criticism

05.10.2017 - Update : 05.10.2017
DRC: Outcry over ban of semi-biometric passports file photo

By Joseph Tsongo

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo government's decision to invalidate all semi-biometric passports to replace them with biometric ones has provoked such an outcry across the country that the government has decided to postpone the deadline.

The initial deadline of Oct. 16 for all Congolese nationals to replace their passports was considered too early by many, spreading doubts to the intentions of the Congolese government, regarding citizens' mobility and the cost of the operation.

DRC authorities have not given any details on the number of passports to be renewed or on the human and logistical means made available to the competent authorities to replace the semi-biometric passports with biometric ones.

This lack of information has engendered all kinds of interpretations and reactions and forced the authorities to review their decision.

On Monday, the government announced that it had extended the deadline for the implementation of the measure to Jan. 14, 2018.

It all began on Sept. 15 when the deputy foreign minister issued an official statement announcing the invalidation of semi-biometric passports starting Oct. 16 2017.

Congolese citizens with semi-biometric passports would no longer be able to travel outside the country and those returning from abroad would be obliged to hand over theirs -- even if still valid -- against a voucher for renewal, priced at $100 instead of $185.

These measures angered many across the country.

Numerous Congolese citizens said they feared a situation where mobility becomes difficult and denounced the new financial obligations, considered "unbearable". The measure was also considered to be in contradiction with the initial declaration from the government two years ago.

At the time, the head of the Congolese diplomacy had announced that both types of passports could be used for two years, and until the expiration of the date of validity indicated on the travel document.

As a result, critics across the country made their voices heard. "Why withdraw valid passports and let an invalid president rule?" said a citizen who asked to remain anonymous.

- 'My passport is valid'

"A passport does not lose its validity before the deadline which appears there. Then, your motivations for this move are derisory and irresponsible," wrote Josue Vangu on his Facebook timeline.

The Congolese blogger demanded that the government always think of its "miserable" people before taking decisions that concern them.

Congolese citizens living inside and outside the country communicated their anger on the Internet, writing "Do not touch my passport" on social networks.

On Sept. 20, several youths headed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kinshasa waving signs, on which was written: "My passport is valid ... Stop swindling Congolese citizens".

Several, including rapper Lexxus Legal, were arrested by police but were later released.

At the same time, the citizen's movement called Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, Lucha) also launched a series of demonstrations to demand the lifting of this "ridiculous" measure.

On Sept. 25, some 20 Lucha members were arrested in front of the Foreign Ministry in Kinshasa.

Speaking to media in the DRC's capital, Laurent Batumona, president of the Solidarity Movement for Change (MSC), also disagreed with the government's measure.

"What bring this issue of passports to a generally tense climate in the DRC? The Congolese government wants to continue the policy of predation of its population," he said.

- Extension of cut-off date

"I retain that the government wants to make money at all costs," says Ruth Kalenga, a Congolese citizen living abroad.

She mentioned in particular the high cost of the Congolese passport ranging from $250 to $350.

Augustin Bakatsuraki, who holds a visa to study in Uganda, said he did not know what to do. "This is a shameless robbery on the part of the Congolese government. We will risk being stranded abroad because of the irrational decision of our government, "he said, angrily.

A government spokesman assured that the measure is for the good of the Congolese people.

For Lambert Mende, the passage from the semi-biometric to the biometric passport aimed to protect the Congolese citizens against falsification.

"Anyone who has a visa in his semi-biometric passport can detach it and then stick it in the new biometric passport," Mende said to UN radio Okapi.

According to recent media reports, the millions of dollars paid for the Congolese passport do not go to the state coffers. Instead, they reportedly go to a private company belonging to a close relative of President Joseph Kabila.

The pressure being such, the Congolese government has extended the cut-off date to replace the passport to Jan. 14, 2018. The information was disclosed as suddenly as the initial announcement.

Leonard She Okitundu, the deputy prime minister in charge of foreign affairs, announced it in response to a question by a member of the National Assembly on Monday.

Okitundu explained that this decision was justified by "persistent complaints" from the population.

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