Ghana, a country of surprises: reflections on the new passport fees wahala

Feature Article Ghana, a country of surprises: reflections on the new passport fees iwahalai

My brother from another mother, Ken Bediako, tells an anecdote about a would-be first time traveller to Europe who when asked how his preparations were going, replied confidently: “Oh, I’ve finished everything; I’m all set to travel – except that I haven’t yet acquired a passport.”

The naiveté of someone aiming to travel abroad without first having acquired the essential, a passport, of course underscores his greenness. I was reminded of Ken’s humorous story following the wahala over the new Ghana passport fees announced by the Foreign Affairs Minister.

It goes without saying that the importance of a passport in the plans of anyone contemplating international travel, can’t be underestimated. Even before one thinks of a visa, ticket money, or accommodation abroad, a worldly-wise person knows that the first step is getting a passport.

Also, perhaps its importance for travel abroad, fortune seeking in the supposedly rich places, or the El Dorados, is what has given the passport a unique status symbol. It’s especially so for those who can only dream of one day being a passenger in an overseas bound airplane. But of course a dream can come true.

Doubtless to many, possessing that critical document meant one had taken the first step towards achieving a life changing objective. I believe that is why passport became so important in our lives. That is, until the advent of the ‘Ghana Card’, now evidently the principal national identity proof.

As the passport has more or less been deposed by the Ghana Card, I find it difficult to understand the wahala, the furore, generated by the new passport fees.

Effective April 1, 2024, the new fees announced are: GH¢500 for a 32-page standard booklet and GH¢644 for a 48-page standard booklet. (For expedited services, the fees are GH¢700 for the 32-pages and GH¢800 for the 48-pages.)

Last year, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, explained in Parliament that "it is time for Ghanaians to pay realistic prices for passports”, because it was no longer sustainable for the state to continue to subsidise passports.

“Ghanaians pay just about GH¢100 for a passport, yet to produce one passport booklet it costs GH¢400 which means that for every passport that an applicant acquires, the government has to put in GH¢300 and this is not sustainable,” she said.

Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Kwaku Ampratwum-Sarpong put it even more succinctly in a recent interview with JoyNews: “No serious business will do that. You buy something for GHȼ400 and come and sell it for a GHȼ100; it doesn’t make sense.”

However, surprisingly, some people are allegedly threatening to go on demonstrations if the fees are not reviewed downwards! More surprising still, there are also reported threats of boycotting the general election this December in protest about the new passport fees!

But then this country is never short of surprises!

Incidentally, one of the surprises is that the Ghana Card, issued by the National Identification Authority, has a different official name! The name on the card itself (at least on my card!) is “ECOWAS IDENTITY CARD, CARTE D’IDENTITE CEDEAO/BILLET DE IDENTIDADE CEDEAO, REPUBLIC OF GHANA”.

Furthermore, interestingly, at my bank, although the tellers normally ask for one’s Ghana Card, what is on their cash deposit form is “ECOWAS IDENTITY CARD”. So why is its popular name ‘the Ghana Card’ and not ‘the ECOWAS CARD’? Apparently a carry-over from previous national identification system attempts? Or asserting our nationalism? I wonder if other ECOWAS countries use similar nationalistic terms!

The heat over the new fees is perhaps an indication that more education needs to be done about the Ghana Card, now required for all transactions. Clearly, now a passport becomes necessary only if one is travelling out of Ghana.

In any case, whichever way one looks at it, paying GHȼ500, or even GHȼ644 for a passport is the lowest of all the expenses incurred for travel to favourite destinations such as Europe or America. Visa and ticket to Europe or America cost stupendous amounts of money for the average Ghanaian, whether in cedis, dollars, pounds or euros.

Another surprise is that there are always long queues of visa applicants at the embassies; and the Kotoka International Airport is always bustling with departure flights!

So, why is the impression being created that people who can find the huge sums required for visa and flight ticket, can’t add the cost of a passport to their travel budget?

In the bad old days, before passport acquisition became much easier, there were always reports in the media about fraudsters, middlepersons, defrauding applicants with promises to help them get a passport.

Then when it comes to the notorious ‘connection men’ (and women) who are ‘visa contractors’, the sums the mostly con men charge are reportedly huge. Yet, desperate would-be travellers somehow find the money to pay them.

Stranger still, not all those who apply for a passport even bother to go and collect when it is ready! Over the years, there have been recurrent Passport Office (PO) appeals in the media for applicants to collect their new passports.

In one such instance, last year, the PO announced that as many as 30,000 new passports were awaiting collection in Accra and Kumasi alone – despite the fact that the applicants had been informed by text message that their passport was ready for collection. Who can understand that?

Anyway, it seems that Ghanaians will pay any amount of money in hope of getting a visa, or pay for air fare – money going into foreign coffers - but don’t want to pay GHȼ500 to help their own Government to produce passports for their personal travel!

If the real price of a passport is GHȼ400, that means it is taxpayers’ money that has been providing the top-up of GHȼ300. Why should voiceless taxpayers subsidise passport acqusition for people who are ready to afford the huge visa fees and air fares?

I even wonder why this GHȼ300 burden was put on taxpayers in the first place!

As for those threatening to go on demonstrations against the Government if the fees are not reduced, presumably they intend to travel abroad soon. Therefore, I wonder why they don’t threaten to demonstrate against the foreign missions charging steep visa fees, and air companies charging virtual king’s ransom fares.

And in the case of those trying to blackmail the Government with refusal to vote in the 2024 general election, or threatening to vote for the opposition, how likely is it that they are in multitudes? Of course every vote is needed, but they should be reminded that conceivably, equally, there are prospective voters who will be happy that their taxes are no longer supporting the travel plans of others – and they will vote accordingly.

If an identification document is what people need, they should rely on the Ghana Card; thus getting one should be made easy for all. To my mind, if people intend to travel abroad, surely GHȼ500 for a passport should, and can, be included in their travel budget – even if they’re borrowing money to pay for their trip.