Why is a Congolese Passport More Expensive Than a U.S. One?

Congo passport
An immigration official displays a Congolese biometric passport in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa on February 10. Passports in Congo are among the most expensive in the world. Stringer/Reuters

In Congo, $185 can go a long way. The average annual income of a person in the mineral-rich but impoverished African country is just $456, but Congolese citizens have to put aside nearly half their yearly earnings to pay the fees to get a passport.

Opposition politicians have now called for an investigation into the cost of the passport after a Reuters investigation claimed that the majority of the money paid for the documents was going to overseas companies, including one based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is allegedly owned by a purported relative of Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

After the Congolese government struck a deal with a Belgian firm to launch new biometric passports in November 2015, the price of the identity document went from $100 to $185. That makes a Congolese passport one of the most expensive in the world—considerably more than the $110 U.S. citizens have to shell out, and more than double the cost of a British passport at £72.50 ($91).

Documents reviewed by Reuters showed that, of the $185 cost of each passport, just $65 goes to the Congolese government. A $12 slice of that goes to a firm based in the capital Kinshasa that oversees the project, while $48 goes to Semlex, the Belgian suppliers of the passport. The remaining $60 goes to LRPS, a company based in the Gulf state that is owned by Makie Makolo Wangoi, a source told Reuters.

Neither Semlex, LRPS nor the Congolese presidency has responded to the Reuters story. Newsweek telephoned Semlex but no one was immediately available to comment.

According to corporate records, Wangoi is registered as a shareholder with other members of Kabila's family in several companies; in two of these firms, she uses the name Makolo wa Ngoy Kabila. She was identified as a sister of Kabila by a December 2016 Bloomberg investigation into the president's business interests.

Following the revelations, the leader of Congo's main opposition bloc has demanded that Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala, who was appointed by Kabila on April 7, uncover where the passport funds are going. "Tshibala should show his independence by resolving this problem, and then we will speak," said Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the Rassemblement opposition coalition.

Congo is grinding towards political crisis after the country failed to hold a general election as scheduled in 2016; the government blamed it on a lack of funds and logistical issues, including a need to revise the voter register. The government and Rassemblement agreed a deal in principle on New Year's Eve, that would see the opposition appoint a prime minister and elections held by the end of 2017.

But implementation has been slow. The country's Catholic bishops, who mediated the deal, walked away from the process in March due to a lack of progress. The opposition bloc also slammed Kabila's appointment of Tshibala as prime minister, calling it a violation of the deal.

Kabila insisted to parliament that elections would go ahead in 2017, but his budget minister said in February that the government would need to mobilize $1.8 billion to hold the vote.