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Ugandan passport enters new territory

By Julius Businge

Immigration mulls innovations to tackle delays, forgery

Usually, the ministry of Internal Affairs at Plot 75 on Jinja Road in Kampala has a huge crowd of people either seating or standing in a tent or merely moving about restlessly. Usually, they look distraught and desperate. Usually, they are passport chasers.

Ask any of them their story, and many of them will tell you about the long distances they have travelled to the ministry, the numerous times they have been disappointed, the huge cost and bribes they have paid, and how desperate they are as they chase for their travel document. For many, the passport represents their first journey out of Uganda and a new life.

Sometimes, the failure to get a passport on time is equally life changing. Take Charles Kato’s case. The 25-year old man had been promised a job in Dubai when he applied for a passport in April. He completed all formalities, including payment of the Shs 82,000 fee for an ordinary passport, and was told he would get his passport before May 1, the day he was to travel to Dubai.

Unfortunately, May 1 came and went and Kato had not been issued with a passport. He only got it in late May when the group he had intended to travel with were already in Dubai.

“I couldn’t believe it. My friends were calling me and telling me they were earning monthly,” Kato said.

Some people who find themselves in Kato’s position resort to bribery. Surprisingly, that route seems to be faster. An applicant told The Independent that it took him only three days to get his passport. He applied a week to the February 2011 general elections.

“Someone told me to process my passport very quickly so that in case of any conflicts after the election, I could just run to Nairobi,” the applicant, who did not want to be named, said. “All I did was to handover my documents to an official in Internal Affairs plus some money.” Instead of the official Shs 82,000 fee, Shs 200,000 was paid.

Another applicant who called himself Ssekiwere said it took him just one day to get his passport. He told The Independent that he knew someone at the ministry who helped.

“I was told to go with Shs 150,000 plus my documents signed by local authorities and then pick my passport,” Ssekiwere said. He did that and got the passport. Although The Independent could not independently verify these claims, they are just too many to ignore.

Stephen Kagoda, the top civil servant in the in the Ministry of Internal Affairs which issues passports, says he has not heard of claims of individuals getting passports by bribery.

“In case we get one,” he says, “the fast thing is to cancel their passport. We will even post their name on billboards and other public places to have them brought to book.”

He insists that everyone, regardless of where they work or live, passes through normal procedures to have their passports processed. However, not many believe Kagoda’s claims. A few people accused him of feigning ignorance.

Causes of delay

Immigration officials say the maximum time it takes them to issue a passport is 10 days. But many of those waiting for a travel document say they have spent several weeks and others months.  So what is the problem? Are the immigration officials lazy or is the delay deliberately created to induce desperation and bribery?

Eunice Kisembo, a Senior Immigration Officer (Legal and Public Relations) at the immigration office says the number of applications for passports keeps rising as more and more people travel abroad for business, education, work, adventure, and visits.

“More people are going abroad to Dubai, Iraq, USA, Japan,” she says, “We issue about 250 passports a day and about 350 during peak seasons say November and December when more people go for holidays abroad.”

However, Permanent Secretary Kagoda, says the Immigration department is to introduce a new online passport application system to improve the service.

“We are in close consultation with government and other stakeholders to introduce an online system of issuing passports,” Kagoda told The Independent. “I cannot say much about the system. We are just designing it and we will make it public later.”

He said under the new system, one would not need to move to the ministry headquarters or their regional office to fill application forms for a passport as is the case now. Instead, they would apply online and, after 10 working days, pick their passport from either the regional office or head office.

Kagoda refused to say the new system is intended to battle congestion at the head office in Kampala. He instead said the major reason for the system is to extend service delivery closer to people. To him, congestion was secondary.

“There is congestion everywhere. Go to the taxi park and see; you will find the same story. Our work is to process and issue passports at any time they are ready,” he said.

Under a decentralised system introduced in 2008, the immigration department has 12 regional offices that are authorised to receive applications for passports across the country in major towns like Gulu, Masindi, Arua, Mbale, Lira, Mubende, and Masaka. However, all passports are processed at the centre in Kampala. Where applicable, when the passport is ready, it is sent to a regional office.

Eunice Kisembo says the contribution of the regional offices is slowed by applicants who think applying at the head office eases the process.

“People have a perception that the min istry is the answer for everything. We actually give priority to our regional offices and give less to applicants who come at the head office,” she said.

She said the head office coordinates with the regional offices to receive details of the applicant and have their passport printed at the head office and sent to them within 10 days.

“People need sensitisation on the availability and use of regional offices. It is cheaper for them and would cut the expense they incur to move from villages to Kampala,” she said.

The opposition Shadow Minister of Internal Affairs, Makindye West MP Hussein Kyanjo, says the government needs to employ more people at the immigration department to speed up the process of issuing passports. He counsels caution when told about the planned online application system.

“The system would only cater for those who can afford and access internet leaving out the group which can’t,” he says, “You will still find a big number of people coming to the ministry for the service.”

He warned the online system could be exploited because the ministry would not easily authenticate the applicant information. Kyanjo says introducing a National Identity Card; clearly marked with identification numbers, could solve the current forgeries in the ministry.

Kyanjo’s fear of forgeries is well-founded. Parliament was recently debating cases of Uganda diplomatic passports that had been found in the hands of criminals, drug peddlers, and other crooks and non-entitled people. It was not clear if the passports were forged or merely irregularly issued to non-entitled people. In the end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs was forced to recall all diplomatic passports. Kisembo agrees that a National Identity card would reduce the incidence of misrepresentation as it would serve as proof of citizenship.

Regionally, Uganda is officially not the country where citizens have to wait longest for a passport.  In Kenya and Tanzania, the period set for one to get their passport is longer.

“It takes two weeks for one to get their passport. One easily gets a passport after 14 days of work,” Bony Okumu, a Kenyan Citizen told The Independent. The system requires the applicant to move to the head office in Nairobi to get served. “The situation is not tiresome. We also have a toll free line one calls on to give a reminder to the immigration department about the issue,” he said. That level of efficiency and convenience is what is lacking at Uganda’s immigration head office on Jinja Road.

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