Passport fiasco: Is UPDF firing blanks?

People throng Internal Affairs headquarters on Port Bell Road on April 11, to register for new passports. PHOTO / ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • The Internal Affairs ministry has admitted to delays in issuing express passports, but put the blame squarely on the multitude of companies that export labour to the Middle East.

Thousands of Ugandans face the prospect of having their emergency travels fall through because of continued delays in issuing new passports at the passport office.

Frustrated travellers find themselves exasperated because of a backlog which is delaying renewals. The poor turnaround time comes as Uganda moves from Machine-Readable Passports (MRP) to biometric passports. Applicants have made a litany of complaints about the premium-price fast-track service bursting at the seams.

Anwar Kakande is one of several applicants that have been left counting their losses. He has learnt the hard way to manage his expectations.

“I am losing out on a Shs2m job in South Africa because my passport has not been renewed despite my application back in February,” he said, adding, “I am due to travel in June, and have now had to inform the bosses at very short notice that they will need to look for a plan B.”

When Mr Kakande started the renewal process for his passport last September, he didn’t expect to run into the problems he has encountered thus far.

“At first they said it might have been lost and I’ve been toing and froing since, trying to find out where it is,” he revealed.

If it is any consolation, Mr Kakande is not the only one to bear the brunt of a slow-moving processing procedure at the passport office.

Mariam Swabaha has been waiting for her new passport to go abroad and work since February.

“I have spent over Shs700,000 on transport costs and on some officials. I lost my job due to absenteeism which resulted from spending a lot of time waiting in the long queues,” she revealed, adding that her friends who have used middlemen have had better outcomes.

Some of the applicants that have complained about a system in meltdown allege that—at times—immigration officials deploy “delaying tactics.” This, the said applicants add, usually happens in the latter stages of the application process.

“Sometimes the immigration officials deploy delaying tactics and in some cases pronounce the file missing so as to [extort] money,” Moses Enyou alleged.

We reached out to Brig Johnson Namanya Abaho— commissioner of citizenship and passport control for explanation on complaints about inordinate delays, crowding and less-than-satisfactory passport processing service level and he referred us to Internal Affairs spokesperson Simon Peter Mundeyi.

Mr Mundeyi denied the allegations, and said they are soon “opening a call centre…for anyone who would like to find out about our services” to address the charge of uncontactable customer services.

Beset by chaos

A lot of evidence suggests that the passport office has been beset by more than just public relations challenges.

When faced with such challenges, President Museveni has in recent times not shied away from deploying military officers to civil service duties.

The President is believed to do this hoping that tenets like discipline, commitment, integrity, accountability, loyalty, and service before self will yield dividends.  

The Internal Affairs ministry, which among others is home to the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control (DCIC), has particularly opened its doors to a plethora of men in uniform. They are currently not in short supply with the line minister (bush war veteran Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire); his junior (Gen David Muhoozi, the former Chief of Defence Forces or CDF); and Permanent Secretary (Lt Gen Joseph Musanyufu) all familiar with military fatigues.

The Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control, which uses its autonomous status to regulate travel in and out of the country, also has its fair share of men in uniform. Its director (Maj Gen Apollo Kasiita-Gowa) and two commissioners (Brig Abaho—citizenship and passport control; Col Geoffrey Brian Kambere—immigration control) are all servicemen.

Yet following the April 4 deadline that called time on MRPs, the process of getting new biometric passports has been beset by chaos.

This was not what the government had in mind when—with much fanfare—it introduced online applications for the biometric passports at the backend of 2020. There was supposed to be an end to queues that are a common sight at the directorate’s brick and mortar offices.

“We are happy more people are embracing the online passport application system. Under this system, the directorate can issue between 1,000 and 1,200 passports every day,” Maj Gen Kasiita-Gowa said back then, adding, “There is no reason why members of the public should pay brokers, agents, or pay anything under the table to officers to get a passport. If it is [an] emergency, I can issue a passport within one hour.”

Out with the old and…

Before the introduction of the online passport application system, applicants used to pick forms from the Internal Affairs ministry, fill them and have them endorsed by the LC I, LC II, the Gombolola Security Officer (GISO), Internal Security Officer (ISO) and Resident District Commissioner (RDC).

On submitting the forms, officers would ask an applicant to return in three weeks. In actual sense, the process would go on for almost eternity. Two years after talking up the potential of online applications to put applicants out of their misery, problems still persist.

“I paid Shs450,000 such that I can get an express passport instead of having to wait for five days,” said one applicant who recently got an East African passport. “I got in two weeks and this was after braving a long line.”

The Internal Affairs ministry has admitted to delays in issuing express passports, but put the blame squarely on the multitude of companies that export labour to the Middle East.

“With express passports, we had a problem,” Mr Mundeyi admitted, adding, “You know we have about 150 labour export companies…about 138 [of these companies] applied for express passports and each had about like 500 [applicants] so they clogged our system.” 

The logjam recently rubbed Moses Khisa the wrong way. The assistant professor of Political Science at North Carolina State University revealed that he spent “five long hours queuing to collect a passport.”

He added: “Half of that [time was spent] standing, non-stop, no break. I did so without bitterness, I didn’t try to cut the queue or bribe around the long wait.”

Mr Khisa also confirmed Mr Mundeyi’s narrative about externalisation of labour making a bad situation worse.

He said: “Never mind my age, but I was the odd and old man out in a crowd of overwhelmingly under 30-year olds—young men and women, visibly miserable and desperate. These are our compatriots going off to the Middle East into 21st century slavery. This is the tragedy of our times.”

Tough act to follow?

Perhaps, another tragedy is that servicemen have failed to return sanity to the passport application process. And this is not the first time. In 2013, President Museveni tapped Gen Aronda Nyakairima, previously the CDF, as Internal Affairs minister. The General moved to eliminate the chaos and the systemic delays that have come to be a byword for the passport office.     

“He had a big intelligence network, which was helping largely to monitor things in the entire ministry. He laboured to understand the process of work here and moved things faster,” a former worker at the passport office told Saturday Monitor, adding, “This is why he introduced the payment of Shs300,000 for express passports within a day. That was the money which many officers used to solicit from people to give them passports.”

Gen Nyakairima, it’s said, was a disciplinarian and his ethos permeated at the passport office as workers were compelled to keep time lest they lose their jobs.   

“You had to be at the work station before 8[am] such that at exactly 8[am] you had to start work. Even workers feared to leave before he left.  He had intelligence everywhere which could give him all the information,” the former worker said.

Gen Nyakairima passed away on September 12, 2015 aboard an Emirates flight from South Korea.

 When he was replaced by Rose Akol, a civilian, confusion and fraud once again reigned supreme at the passport office. All the changes meant to improve service delivery, introduced by the Luweero bush war veteran before his death, were shelved. The chaos that ensued possibly informed the wholesale changes that returned the ministry to the care of servicemen.

In fact, the issuance of national identity cards also falls under the ambit of Brig Stephen Kwiringira (the director in- charge of registration and operations at the National Identification and Registration Authority or NIRA). 

Questions have been raised over the planting of soldiers in Public Service with analysts warning that this represents the militarisation of Uganda’s Public Service.

Militarising Public Service

“[This militarisation] manifests in the continued amplification of the army’s ability to resolve most of the society’s challenges by depicting it as a superior form of organisation, better equipped than civilian structures to deliver public goods and services,” Kabumba Busingye, a lecturer at Makerere University’s Law School said at a symposium held in 2021.

President Museveni has never officially explained why he has stuffed the Internal Affairs ministry with military men. He only hinted at the ‘why’ following his appointment of Gen David Muhoozi as junior Internal Affairs minister. The President said such appointees should be judged by their output.

“The UPDF can serve anywhere. If they assign duties, do you perform them according to the  expectations? That should be the question and not who does what,”  Gen Muhoozi told journalists after Parliament gave him the green light to occupy the Internal Affairs office.

While a strong military background may not be the equivalent of a magic wand, Mr Mundeyi says servicemen have done “a good job” at the Internal Affairs ministry.

“We have many passports here which have not been claimed by owners…The process we have is efficient, but we just have few glitches and that can’t be blamed on leadership,” Mr Mundeyi said, adding, “Even the corruption allegations, when you look at them, they have gone down.”  

The long queues that continue to paralyse activities at the DCIC, however, tell a different story altogether. 

“I applied in April and they gave me an appointment for May,” Bernard Sabiti, the partnership manager and engagement Advisor at Development Initiatives, told Saturday Monitor, adding, “The whole process is hard. You have to go for interviews yet they have your data through the ID system. So, I don’t see any improvement.” 

The passport office, nonetheless, insists the system is working.

“The queues we have been experiencing at the passport office are a result of the people who come here without an appointment. Others come here without applications with the hope they will get somebody to do it for them and then these are the people who want to bribe someone to help them and later on they turn around and complain,” Mr Mundeyi said, adding, “Once you are on the appointment, you don’t spend any minute at the gates of Internal Affairs. Those people who hang out there are people who don’t have appointments or who have appointments, but have come at the wrong time.”