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.