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Shopping for a passport

By Haggae Matsiko

Independent reporter buys birth certificate for Shs 35,000, offered passport for Shs150,000, no questions asked

It is Thursday afternoon when I arrive at the reception of the Registrar of Births and Deaths office at Amam House near the Central Police Station in Kampala. I tell the receptionist that I want a birth certificate.

She tells me I need to fill a form, get a hospital letter and get signatures from LCI to III. Then she adds: But you can as well do away with all that and get your certificate within two days instead of waiting for a month.

There and then, I cancel my appointment with the Registrars Office and tell her I would be glad if I was saved the whole bureaucratic process and got the document.

The reception takes me to a light-skinned lady in her mid 40s just outside the parking lot of the office.

The woman smiles at us. So you also want one? she asks, while negotiating with another customer. When do you want it? she asks again before I can answer.

The government fee for a birth certificate is Shs 5,000 but the woman initially asks for Shs 50,000. I bargain her down to Shs 35,000. She gets me a form, I fill it, and she tells me to come for my certificate after two days. But you can also take my number, in case you do not find me here, or get a friend who wants a certificate too, she volunteers.

After the two days, I receive the certificate authentic with the registrars stamp and signaturefrom the woman at exactly the same spot.

Birth certificates are not the only government issued document that can be bought for a price; for example, a Ugandan passport can be acquired for just Shs 150,000. Following the right procedure would cost Shs 80,000.

When I visit the passport office at the Immigration Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on Jinja road in Kampala, a long-stretching queue of old men, a pregnant lady and a couple of young-middle-aged men and women, swelter in the sun.

A fraught looking woman says she has been coming here for months now. You need an insider to have your things done fast, she tells me, perhaps thinking that I am also chasing a passport.

Birth Certificate

Casually sitting adjacent to the office, however, is a young woman.Her name is Merab Manzi and she has been in Uganda for four years and wants a passport to start carrying out cross-border trade.

A friend of mine told me I would spend the whole year chasing a passport, she tells me, Yet he knew of a person who had colleagues inside [the immigration department] that could get it for me in a short period of time.

Manzi adds that she could not wait in the queue because her business required her to have the passport quickly.

Why should I brave this sunshine yet someone can deliver the document? she asks. Maybe they are not badly in need like some of us.

In front of Manzi, people from various departments are busy crosschecking documents and exchanging files. Business is bustling as hundreds of people of different backgrounds dash from one office to another.

When I inquire if it would be possible for me to get a passport of my own, Manzi offers me a phone number of a broker whose service she used and tells me that I can purchase one for Shs 150,000. By the way that broker gives commission on every client you bring in, she adds before leaving.

I instantly call the broker, just in the vicinity of the Immigration Department. “How soon do you want the passport?” the broker asks.

Many people have been reported to have received illegitimate Ugandan diplomatic passports. Since 2007, reports indicate that a couple of Ugandans travelling on diplomatic passports have been arrested in the UK on criminal charges, including money-laundering.

Gillian Kiconco, a 33 year-old Ugandan woman was well on her way to Kampala from Lima, Peru when she was stopped at Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on May 5. Kiconco, who was carrying two bags emblazoned with UN logos on the side, claimed to be a Ugandan diplomat. Although she had managed to evade suspicion at security in both Peru and in South Africa, the inquisitive Kenyan authorities were not convinced. After further inspection, they discovered that Kiconco her passport, which claimed her name was Anne Birungi Bisaso, was in fact false, and the UN labeled bags were filled with Shs 2.2 billion worth of cocaine.

Shockingly, Kiconco had been arrested before for the same misdemeanor and her passport had been confiscated by police. She was a renowned drug dealer on the police wanted list, yet between 2002 and 2006, she had managed to acquire three separate Ugandan passports.

Uganda’s Immigration Department said the police were to blame for not informing them about the arrest and confiscation of Kiconco’s passport. But a police official retaliated: “Did that mean they had to issue her other passports?”

In another famous case, Ms Irene Birungi, a former aide of President Yoweri Museveni’s younger brother and adviser, Gen. Caleb Akandanwaho a.k.a Salim Saleh, was convicted for drug trafficking in the UK while travelling on a diplomatic passport.

And in early July, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Dr. Stephen Kagoda, was incapable of explaining before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) how the former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, had managed to acquire a Ugandan diplomatic passport under the name of Takki Shinegra.

Indeed, illegal immigrants find it easy to access the Uganda passport easily and at very cheap prices because dotted allover Kampala and her neighboring suburbs is a racket of document brokers.

An immigration official, who declined to be identified, said that the immigration department is poorly funded and officials have few operational resources, which explains why some people inside, “are conniving with brokers to issue passports, travel documents, visas in a much short period of time.”

Internal Affairs minister, Matia Kasaijja, blames these documentation problems on the work of rogues in the department.

 “It is not the government official position to give illegitimate people diplomatic passports,” said the minister. “They get the passports by bribing someone inside the immigration office.”

However, an official at the immigration office points an accusing finger at the government. He says that the problem results because government has abandoned the department.

“You cannot blame us. We have few personnel to manage millions of people countrywide,” he says.

He adds that despite being second to Uganda Revenue Authority in terms of revenue collection, the Immigration Department is highly underfunded.

“Of all our branches countrywide only three are computerised,” he says despondently. “How can you cope with hundreds of immigrants?”

Eunice kisembo, the spokesperson of the Immigration Department says the department lacks the necessary technology to handle immigration records, such as biometrics technology.

Experts say that the biometrics technology, a product that can identify people by using the uniqueness of a person’s biological and behavioral characteristics like fingerprints, blood vessels in the eyes, voice or shape of the face, could dramatically help immigration officials. The technology, however, was instead bequeathed to the police to track-down terrorism related criminals.

Moreover, the immigration department has only two vehicles and 15 officers at the inspection and legal services department to oversee issues of illegal immigrants countrywide—a reality that has complicated its efforts to deal with illegal immigrants.

Experts say that these macabre loopholes in the immigration system make it easy for lawless elements like potential terrorists to expedite their deadly missions in the country.

For example media reports indicate that one of the Pakistanis linked to planning the attacks on July 11 had been staying in Uganda for months before escaping after the bombs.

Kasaija says that following the bomb attacks every government agency that deals with foreigners will strengthen the way it works and try to block the loopholes that existed.

However, how and when the immigration system mess will be rectified, remains unclear, as many unlawful people continue accessing Uganda’s passports and birth certificates.

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