With the announcement of the introduction of the online application system for passports, one would imagine that chaos at the Internal Affairs Ministry’s passports section would suddenly end.
But that is far from reality. Even with the introduction of the online application system, the long queues at Immigration continue, and this provides a fertile ground for corruption to thrive.
Under the old system, our investigations found that there have been agents, including policemen, who would help applicants to process passports at an unofficial fee.
Under this arrangement, the dubious Immigration officials would expeditiously process for their ‘clients’ the much sought after travel document. In this part of our investigation, we bring you the goings-on at Immigrations after the introduction of the online system.
On visiting the Internal Affairs Ministry last year, we discovered that many people apply for passports, but because they follow the proper procedure, the passports can take up to three months before they come out.
When Immigrations phased out the old manual system that required too much interaction between Immigration staff and applicants in favour of the online system where contact is limited, the Immigration staff and their agents seem to have also quickly devised new tricks.
Some of the agents still lurk around the Ministry while others have relocated to nearby places. New Vision established that the Immigration staff have maintained their agents’ contacts and ‘business’ continues to run as usual.
Within the few days that the online system has been working, our investigations found out that there are already some new tricks that the agents have devised.
New Vision contacted one of the young men who stand by the roadside with a placard reading; “we take passport photos”. The young man, who introduced himself as Musa, revealed that most of the agents who used to help with filling the forms had relocated.
“They now sit inside near the entrance to the abattoir along Old Portbell road near Total Petrol Station,” Musa revealed.
Upon reaching the point where Musa directed us, we came across small booths with inscriptions reading “Mobile Money”, presuming that the occupants operate mobile money businesses. However, on close scrutiny, we realised that these were offices for passport processing agents.
The tiny offices were fully equipped with a computer and other scholastic materials, and the people there are ready to help you to fill the online forms should you require to make an online application.
We discovered that persons who go to have their passport photos taken, end up filling the online passport forms. These agents charge sh15,000 for helping you fill the online forms and an additional sh1,000 for printing a copy of your filled form.
It is the printed forms that one presents before Immigrations staff so as to be issued with a reference number. It is this number that you hand in on the next day you are asked to appear at Immigration.
Here, the number is fed into the computer and you wait until it appears on the screen. Then, you are asked to enter a room which comes with your number on the screen in which you interface with an Immigrations officer.
It is in this room that they inform you that if you want the person handling the names on the computer to work on you first, you have to pay something. For our case, we were told that ‘Hajat’ was the one in charge of checking names in the computer and that once we agree to pay her some money, she would ensure that our file is put among the top applicants’ names. That it would come out in three to four days.
This officer told us that Hajat does not take cash but once you agree with her, you deposit her cash with Musa, the young man who takes passport photos. “Once Musa receives the cash, Hajat will automatically know and work on your file expeditiously,” the officer told us.
Like in the previous investigation, Musa told us that Hajat picks her money at around 1:00 pm when she gets out of the office for lunch. Musa always hands over the cash to Hajat at her car, which is parked outside the Internal Affairs ministry offices.
We went back to Musa to see how we can be helped through Hajat. Musa gave us his MTN and Airtel telephone contacts, and on checking, we discovered that his second name is Masuda. Musa said he receives money by mobile money, and he asked us to deposit the cash on his Airtel line.
Other brokers After paying for a passport and it is processed, you need to present a national Identity Card (ID) before the passport is handed to you.
But during our investigations, we noted that there were some people who would come and pick more than one passport, without the national IDs of the respective passport owners. Interestingly, the issuing officers seemed to know these people and they would not even hesitate or ask them questions.
Besides the brokers we found around the Internal Affairs Ministry, we followed up some others who we found at City House building in the city centre. Here, upon asking for the office that deals with passport processing, you are taken to the second floor of City House building. On this floor, there are mainly photocopiers and the brokers hang around there.
We learnt that the broker at City House works half day. When you go there past 1:00 pm, the photocopier attendants tell you to return the following day.
These brokers often behave like they are helping their relatives to process passports, as they hold the files and move straight to offices of Immigrations staff, who pleasantly welcome them.
Internal Affairs Ministry responds In an interview with Sunday Vision, Brig. Johnson Namanya, the commissioner citizenship and passport control at Ministry of Internal Affairs said that the new e-passport online system will help reduce on fraud and the congestion in acquiring passports.
“We are in the phase of rolling out the new e-passport and this is basically our action year because 2020 is the year we should be doing this activity. The world is moving so fast and we cannot afford to remain behind. This new e-passport system will reduce fraud and eliminate it, go paperless to save the environment, to increase the Non-Tax Revenue (NTR), increase national security and efficiency in general terms. We want to provide services to Ugandans in a much better and simpler way,” he said.
Both Namanya and Jacob Siminyu, the Internal Affairs Ministry spokesperson acknowledged that middlemen were a challenge in the old system since they were riding on the ignorance of the masses.
“This passport is only shs250,000, but the middleman will double or multiply the fee and very many people have been cheated like that yet there is no need for a middleman. There are people calling themselves experts in the passport processing yet there is nothing expert. You just need to go online and follow this simple process and have this passport at the original price. It pains us to see that people are paying more the original price,” Namanya said.
Responding to reports that middlemen work closely with some Immigrations staff and police officers, Siminyu said the new system is smooth and no allegations have been received.
He acknowledged that middlemen extort money from people claiming that they work with Immigrations staff, but noted that with the new online system, Ugandans will eliminate middlemen since they have reduced the interaction between clients and officers.
“All the information one needs is now online. People cannot be cheated under this system because you just have to go to the portal (www.passports.go.ug). All you have to do is to fill the form even when you are at your home. When you come here, we personalise you, and it only takes five minutes. When you go away, you don’t have to call an officer. If the passport is ready, you will see a message. So, it won’t be the officer to call you, it will be a message to your phone. The opportunity for the officer to ask for money has dwindled,” he said.
He also added advised the public to report any wrongdoing to email@example.com during the process of e-passport acquisition.
Past passport issues The DCIC a few years ago came under pressure over corruption and failure to stem the abuse of diplomatic passports. The ministry in 2014 confirmed reports that diplomatic passports were in the wrong hands.
The then internal affairs minister, Hilary Onek, promised that all diplomatic passports in wrong hands would be recalled, but there have been no announcements of any passports withdrawn to date.
Some officials in the directorate were implicated in passport forgeries, including being involved in the disappearance of passport dummies that landed in the hands of fraudsters. Earlier, New Vision reported that Ugandan travel documents were being forged by non-citizens in South Africa and officials at the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria were cited as accomplices in the scam.
An investigation showed that several Burundian, Rwandan, Tanzanian and Congolese asylum seekers were travelling to South Africa on forged Ugandan travel documents and later returning to their home countries as Ugandans.
In 2016, the DCIC announced that it had busted a gang of criminals who had been forging Ugandan passports for foreigners at a fee. The suspects, who included Ugandans and Congolese, were found with several passport dummies, immigration facility stamps, visitors’ passes and passport forms.
The internal affairs ministry then said the criminals had stolen genuine passports, but removed the biodata leaf and then forged travel documents.
The ministry explained that the criminals had got hold of Uganda Revenue Authority receipts, bank documents and were seemingly running a parallel passport issuance system.
The fraud surrounding passports led to the interdiction of senior immigrations officials on the orders of from President Yoweri Museveni in March 2018.
The interdicted officers; the director for citizenship and immigration control, Godfrey Sasaga, and the commissioner for immigration, Anthony Namara, were linked to processing passports for wrong people, including foreign operatives.
The process of shifting from paper to e-passports was also marred with some controversies. In November 2018, three top internal affairs ministry officials were interdicted over endorsing sh2.3b deal signed with a UK firm (Delarue) in July 2018 to supply of 54,000 old passport books, yet the ministry had already announced a move to e-passports.
The officials were; acting head of DCIC, Josephine Ekwang Ali; commissioner for passport and citizenship, Nicholas Ongodia and the principal immigration officer, Jabel Male.
Passport fees Ordinary passport sh250,000
Official passport sh400,000
Diplomatic passport sh500,000
Express Service Fees sh150,000
Certification of passport sh30,000
Replacement of lost passport sh100,000
This article was originally published on New Vision.