KAMPALA- I finally reached the front table inside the tent of the interviewers at the Immigration Directorate on Old Port Bell Road in Kampala.
I keenly listened to the interview sessions of applicants before me to understand what they were asked so I wouldn’t be caught off-guard. For sure, the questions weren’t intimidating. I relaxed.
Soon it was my turn in the ‘hot seat’. The immigration officer picked my file, opened it, and perused it. Then she looked me in the eye.
“Talk about yourself,” she said.
No sooner had I started telling the immigration officer details of my ancestors in the language of instruction, English, than she interjected that I answer in my mother tongue.
I reorganised myself and started all over again in Luganda. But she wasn’t done with me yet.
“Sing out ekitibwa kya Buganda (the anthem of Buganda Kingdom) from the third stanza ‘Ffe abaana ba leero ka tulwaane’ (We the children of today should fight)”.
There was silence on the table. It was the least question I expected. I had never sang the Buganda anthem in bits and alone. I attempted to cajole my interviewer to allow me sing the anthem from the first stanza because I memorise every word if I pick the rhythm but she refused. So I gambled my way and soon I was done with the interview. I picked my passport two weeks later.
This is what the immigration officers have turned to. They are scraping the bottom of the barrel to ensure there is no trace of doubt as to one’s citizenship before issuing the travel document.
Mr Benjamin Katana, the deputy spokesperson of the Immigration Directorate, says a decision to conduct parts of the interview in the mother-tongue is usually derived from what the information the applicant provided.
“If you claim that you are a Musoga, we give a Musoga interviewer to conduct the session because he or she knows the cultures and traditions of that region,” Mr Katana says.
With at least 59 ethnic groups in Uganda, the Immigration Directorate may need to have a quarter of its staff from each tribe. But Mr Katana says they have interviewers who can communicate in all languages spoken by the nationalities listed in the Uganda Constitution of 1995.
“Often we have 10 receiving officers (interviewers) daily but when we get an applicant who speaks a language different from theirs, we get another staff member from another department to talk to the applicant,” he says.
He says such regulations are intended to help them narrow the gaps fraudsters would have used to get passports. Although he says he doesn’t readily have the total number of fraudsters caught trying to get Ugandan passports, their number has increased.
Mr Katana says even then, it remains a challenge to tell who is a genuine Ugandan or not and that in some instances, they are forced to ask the applicants to bring with them their close relatives when interviews are being conducted.
“We get some people who can’t even speak their mother tongue. So we request them to come with some surviving relatives to our offices and then we verify their documentation,” he says.
This is understandable considering that children of many middle class families living in the urban centres have in many ways become culturally detached from ancestral homes. Mixed ethnic marriages have also given forth children of multiple identities who even though they may carry names of their father’s nationality, their first language is English that is spoken in their homes and at school.
An oral interview is one of the last steps to getting a passport. The first steps are more critical and often determine whether the applicant will get a passport or not. Immigration’s first steps require any applicants to get recommendations from the local council I, II, III and Resident District Commissioner of the area they were born in. They also ask for copies of the academic transcript (for those who have gone to school) and birth certificate.
If there are still any doubts, the applicants are sent to police to obtain letters of good conduct to confirm that they are indeed good citizens.
Efforts to clean the system have proved futile. It is not uncommon to read in newspapers of people who have never stepped in Uganda but are carrying Ugandan passports and have been arrested with contraband in foreign countries.
The Director of Citizenship and Immigration Control, Mr Godfrey Sasagah Wanzira, blames the lack of a well-constituted local council system and lack of national identification cards.
“We have to rely on local councils to get approval that the persons we are issuing passports are indeed Ugandans. Most of these LCs are compromised and corrupted by applicants,” Mr Wanzira says.
There are cases were passport applicants have spent more than a year waiting to get their books.
Andrew Irumba claimed to be one of them.
“I applied for a passport and it took me more than six years to get one. It was after I talked to Internal Affairs minister that I was able to get it,” Mr Irumba says.
General Aronda Nyakairima, the Internal Affairs minister, says the failure to control issuance of passports is threatening national security and the economy. He recalls how the failed arrest of the Allied Democratic Forces rebels commander, Jamil Mukulu, in Nairobi, Kenya, gave them a lead on how far the problem has reached.
“We recovered over 10 Uganda passports of Jamil Mukulu with different names,” he says. “This is unfinished business we should deal with lest we will allow terrorists to get travel documents.”
Although the directorate of immigration is most known for issuance of passports, it provides many other services like issuing work permits, visas to foreign nationals accessing Uganda, ensuring that every Ugandan acquires an identity card, management the borders and control undesirable immigrants.
Immigration officers have to rely on the trust of the local council authorities many of whom are often compromised by bribes and lack of logistics to authenticate the documents before them.
Gen Nyakairima says the mess in the directorate of immigration is overwhelming that it requires a commission of inquiry if it is to be weeded out.
But the challenges can’t only be looked at from within, they should also be seen outside. The directorate services not less than 500,000 clients a year yet they operate on a razor thin workforce that works manually in an era of computers.
The directorate gives at least 65,000 Ugandans travel documents annually. The numbers of those looking for passports and resident or work permits at the main immigration centre in Kampala tells the real challenges.
Most of the work is done in Kampala, but of recent two regional offices in Mbale and Mbarara towns have been opened to reduce congestion at the headquarters.
Bernard Tushabe, a student who won a scholarship to study in Nigeria, said he had to brave a four-hour journey from Mbale, where he lives, to Kampala to process his passport.
But Tushabe was lucky that he didn’t spend more of his funds to travel to immigration offices in Kampala to pick his passport. He was the first Mbale resident to get his passport at the new immigration offices.
The Parliamentary Committee on Defence fears that if the regional passport issuance centres are opened without the national identity cards being in place, it is likely that the entire process will be abused.
The MPs want the ID processes that includes capturing of bio-data to come first to enable the regional offices to get the background information from the database.
With no mechanism to register Ugandans at birth and ensuring that everyone has an identity card, it has become very difficult to know who is a Ugandan or not.
Ugandan passports under scrutiny
In November last year, the media reported that the Ugandan government was set to conduct an exhaustive audit of all Ugandan passport holders in China. This followed widespread abuse of Ugandan travel documents by organised criminal rings in the oriental country.
There have been reports of criminal gangs, especially West African drug barons and ‘mules’, using Ugandan passports. That month, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi said he was not sure whether all the alleged 600 ‘Ugandans’ in jails in China are Ugandans or “Ugandan passport holders”.
“We are going to conduct this inventory, but I need to get more details on the policy directive,” the director citizenship and immigration, Godfrey Sasaga, said.
He was speaking during a retreat of MPs on the committee on defence and internal affairs and departments of the internal affairs ministry.
Sasaga revealed that a team of Ugandan immigration officials on a recent visit to China stumbled upon Ugandan passport holders accused of dabbling in prostitution, who on closer scrutiny, proved to be non-Ugandans.