Uganda: A nation of explorers, wanderers, and adventurers

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • And the remarkably long queues at the Passport Office shine a light on the kind of country Uganda is today.

I had last been at the Passport Office in Kampala nearly nine years ago and recently returned there to get the replacement new generation version.

I hadn’t expected that the ritual and place would tell us anything interesting, but it did. For starters, in 2013 it was chaotic, littered with tents, and had the feel of a cattle market outside Mogadishu.

The enlightened former UPDF Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Aronda Nyakairima, had then been appointed minister of Internal Affairs earlier in the year, and he had started the reforms and battle against the extortionate cartel that had been built around the acquisition of the Ugandan passport.

Gen Nyakairima’s appointment happened in a specific context. President Yoweri Museveni had won the election in February 2011, and his closest rival, Dr Kizza Besigye, had rejected the election as stolen. Still, it was the least messy and violent election since 1996, and to the extent that Museveni won it, perhaps his most convincing victory in 15 years at the time.

Coming as Africa was still feeling the aftershocks of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, and a hollowing out of the Treasury to pay for the election campaigns, the economy was in bad shape. Economic discontent rose quickly after the election, and Besigye rode the wave to launch the “Walk to Work” protests against the hardships.

Walk to Work was unconventional, and seemed to have blinded the Museveni state, as it resonated with hard-pressed urban constituencies. The state response was to unleash a kind of violence against Besigye that hadn’t been seen outside the north where war had raged.

A battered, blinded Besigye carted off to Nairobi Hospital to save his life shocked the country and revolted the middle class.

Museveni read the moment, and in one of a series of actions that followed, dug into the dwindling progressive and reformist pool of the NRM and UPDF, and appointed Gen  Nyakairima to give his government a more agreeable face. On September 12, 2015, while travelling on official duties from South Korea to Dubai, he suffered a heart attack and died. His death has remained one of the most conspiracy-filled demises of the Museveni era.

The ordeals of getting a passport at that time reflected a wider State attitude towards the people. It was disgraceful.

Nine years later, the difference is like day and night. Discontent remains about the issuance of passports, but the old tents are gone. There are now decent structures and, significantly, seats. The processes are quite streamlined, and the technology is years ahead of what Ugandans had to endure years ago. The sights of humiliation of the past are largely done.

But perhaps it is at the passport collection centre in Kyambogo that the greatest surprise lies. On a busy day I was told that if all the people who came to collect passports formed a line, it would stretch for nearly a kilometre.

At the collection windows, the Passport Office has cracked a flow problem that many all over the world have struggled unsuccessfully with. There are eight windows where applicants are called to pick up their passports, in batches of 10, if my count was correct. The system delivers the passports to the exact window where the people have been called to line up. And it works all day like that to perfection.

Knowing the general incompetence for which the NRM government is now renowned, that clockwork and precision are too much of an outlier. But, then, perhaps, they aren’t.

For while what we might call the “Tier One” of the Uganda government is dysfunctional, the next level, “Tier Two” is still able to generate technocratic competence and bureaucratic imagination. At its best, it is evident in the Passport Office. What holds up the Ugandan State today, is what happens across the board in the “Tier Two” government.

And the remarkably long queues at the Passport Office shine a light on the kind of country Uganda is today. There was a time shortly after the NRM came to power in 1986 when I went to renew my passport and I was the only person there. That, of course, is inconceivable today, when the Passport Office handles on average 2,500 applications for new documents and renewals a day.

These tens of thousands of passport seekers tell us that Uganda is a country on the move. The people are on the move; in large numbers to find menial work in tough conditions in the Gulf; study; visit the vast diasporic family spawned by decades of exile and migration; buy goods for trade in the United Arab Emirates and China, and to roam the world in search of opportunities.

It is not abundantly obvious, but when the numbers are finally totted up, we will find that Uganda is undergoing the largest migration in its history. It has become a nation of explorers, wanderers, and adventurers.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.


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