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Mixed reactions from parliament over Sierra Leone’s passport problems

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Sierra Leone’s Parliament has deferred a debate on a controversial motion seeking to annul a contract for the production of the country’s passport.

The decision to postpone the debate comes after a divisive session last week Friday when members of the opposition bench rejected an initial attempt by the governing Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) to repeal the agreement first past in 2013.

The main opposition, All Peoples Congress (APC), which was in power when the deal with the UK firm Thomas de la Rue was reached, said the SLPP was using the wrong procedure to repeal the agreement. According to the agreement, a single passport is costing the average Sierra Leonean $100, equivalent to Le750, 000.

Critics have said that amount is too much and prevents many citizens from acquiring their national document. Not more than 2 percent of Sierra Leoneans own a passport. Others say the agreement deprives the government from making any money.

Accordingly, the agreement is a joint venture between the government and Thomas De La Rue, which is represented in the country by a local company called NetPage (SL) Limited.

In June the Financial Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, Sahr Lahai Jusu, called for a review of the agreement which he said did not serve the interest of the government.

Jusu, who served in the same position under the former regime of Ernest Bai Koroma, disclosed that the only money the Government was receiving from the processing of every passports is Le10, 000 (a little over $1), which is the cost of the sale of the passport application form.

The actual cost of the passport goes to De La Rue and its local partner. The bill to repeal the agreement was introduced through a private member motion by a member of the SLPP.

Solomon Sengepo Thomas, Deputy Speaker of Parliament and member of the SLPP bench, presided over the Friday sitting. He was quoted Monday (12 November 2018) morning saying that they wanted to annul the current agreement to open a fresh bid and ensure the best deal for the people of Sierra Leone is reached. He noted that the SLPP wanted a deal that will make the cost of passport far less than $100.

“I was there during the last parliament and I know how topical the issue of this passport deal was. As it is, the people of Sierra Leone are labouring under the $100 per passport; that is all the more reason why I became passionate when I saw a member of parliament came up with a motion to see that this particular agreement that has placed the price of our passport to $100 to be annulled,” he explained.

Opposition APC leader in parliament and former Deputy Speaker, Chernor Maju Bah, has been the most vocal against the SLPP’s “very embarrassing” move. But he claimed opposition to the move cut across all parties in the House.

Bah, who was also the Vice Presidential candidate of the APC in the March 2018 elections, said the agreement was between the government and a private company and that the move to annul it most come from one of the parties and not the House.

“This is not about SLPP and APC. This is about the parliament of Sierra Leone,”he said. “Our role is to ratify. If the government doesn’t want the agreement again, the procedure is that government should come with it to parliament. So, for a private member to introduce the bill in parliament was a shock to us all,” he added.

When the bill was put before the House on Friday, MPs voted by word of mouth. While the opposition believes those against repealing the contract had the majority, the Deputy Speaker ruled that those in favour had the vote. The opposition now wants the House to vote and for the vote to be counted. A decision on this is expected after seven days.

– APA

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