What started as a simple pro-ruling party newspaper investigation has now reached a zenith wherein members and supporters of ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) are sharply divided over matter of a contract to a Lebanese merchant to print Sierra Leone passports.

It all concerns a contract to print biometric Sierra Leone passports that was awarded to Thomas De La Rue but through a third party known as NETPAGE. This third party is reported to be owned by a Lebanese sparking fears in some quarters as to a foreigner being the middle man for our passports. Lebanon being the home to Hezbollah terrorists is also of concern. Contract itself, according to Torchlight paper, did not follow procurement rules, had dubious elements to it and is opaque.

Shadiness, according to Torchlight, include; dates on which various parties signed, were different and too far apart. The residential rather than the official address of a government employee was listed down in the contract. Also, the contract appears to have loopholes at detriment to the Government of Sierra Leone where no one seems to be held responsible for failures to perform the contract.

In other media published, a possibility of Sierra Leonean passports falling into hands of questionable Lebanese characters was also highlighted.

Most significantly also is an allegation that the cost of the passports will now cost Le500,000 up from a previous price of only Le100,000. The allegation floated was that the Le500,000 will make Sierra Leone passports the most expensive in the sub-region.

In addition, civil society organisations are also adding their voices to the condemnation of the contract to print Sierra Leone passports. The Anti-Violence Movement yesterday issued a ten-points call for the contract to be scrapped claiming amongst others, that the contract was not awarded transparently. It also called for a removal of any “third party” from the contract and instead wants the Government to deal directly with the manufacturers Thomas De La Rue. However, some reports have alleged that Government is in default already on payments due to Thomas De La Rue for passports issued in the past.

On social media, where many now take their grievances to discuss, it raised quite a few eyebrows to see notable supporters of the APC take on other notable supporters of the APC as they fiercely debated the matter.

The APC’s supporters and membership are clearly split very sharply over this issue. Key supporters of the opposition parties have now seen an opening within the ruling APC to attack and are milking the passport debate to the best of their propaganda abilities as a sign of an inconsiderate government.

In bid to pacify what has caused public relations deficit, the Government Ministry of Internal Affairs through the Immigration Department responsible for passports, has last evening of June 3rd 2015, issued a release explaining that Government used to subsidise cost of passports hence its cost Le100,000. Government says it is now removing all such subsidies from passports costs and applying such financial benefits to other programmes aimed at helping to alleviate real poverty.

Government also lists cost of passports in other countries and says passports prices are infact higher than Le500,000 in many other countries in subregion. In neighbouring Liberia, where it is lower than Le500,000, the release says it is because the Liberian Government is still subsidising passports costs.

Many have opined on social media that the Ministry of Internal Affairs press release is very convincing on aspect of pricing but they also point out that it falls short of explaining or clarifying the other alleged dubious aspects of the contract given to a Lebanese.

Another interesting aspect of the entire unfolding episode is that the Torchlight newspaper which first broke the news is operated by the family members of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs which is Ministry that signed  allegedly dubious contract with a Lebanese man and Thomas De La Rue.

The Deputy Minister, Sheka Tarawalie is a strong member of the ruling APC as is his boss, the Minister of Internal Affairs Hon. Joseph B. Dauda who is in support of the contract. Please see Page 10 for the release issued by the Internal Affairs Ministry to which the two men are assigned to work together for His Excellency President Koroma.