During our investigation, we captured on camera several illegal activities going on at the ministry, including some of the unofficial cash transactions
Paying for a new passport or renewing an old one through proper channels will under normal circumstances take you two weeks.
However, a person seeking to get a passport in less than the standard two-week processing period is required to pay an ‘express service fee’ of sh150,000.
Today, Uganda has an East African electronic machine-readable passport with a chip embedded in it. The e-passports, which government introduced in January last year, come in three forms; the Slay Blue (ordinary passport), Green (service passport) and Red (diplomatic passport).
An ordinary e-passport costs sh250,000, an official (held by government officials) costs sh400,000 and a diplomatic one costs sh500,000. The same fees apply for new passports and at renewal at the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control (DCIC).
But through the backdoor, one can get ‘express services’ within two to three days, whether they are getting a new passport or renewing an old one, without necessarily paying all the sh150,000 express fees.
Sunday Vision carried out an investigation before Immigrations introduced the online application system, and our findings of the illegal activities and how money changes hands at the Internal Affairs Ministry are shocking and disturbing.
Whereas the Ministry put in place several changes to fight corruption in the passport office, our investigations which started in April 2019 and were concluded on December 31, 2019, show that the vice is still much alive. We established that since the Ministry put up cameras around the passport office, the Immigrations officers have also devised other shrewd ways of getting bribes.
When our team visited the Ministry, especially the passports section, scores of people were seen queuing up in tents to process or renew their passports.
But owing to the long queues, we observed that some people were using the back door, and this involved paying unofficial fees to have their passports expeditiously processed or renewed.
The last two days of 2019 (December 30 and December 31) were busier than any other days on which we visited the ministry, as the queues were much longer. We later learnt that many applicants showed up to either renew old passports or get new ones before the online system would start in the New Year.
What exactly happens?
During our investigation, we captured on camera several illegal activities going on at the ministry, including some of the unofficial cash transactions that took place within and outside the Ministry premises, located along Old Portbell Road in Kampala.
Policemen and ordinary people, who are not Immigrations staff, are seen taking on the role of Immigrations staff. These, we later learnt, work as agents for some Immigrations staff.
The policemen and ordinary people are seen helping in filling documents and picking cash from people who are seeking to acquire or renew passports. To help in filling the forms, some policemen go an extra mile of resting their guns down.
In one of the cases we captured, a half-caste woman is seen negotiating with a policeman in uniform, who she gave three passports and sh650,000 in sh50,000 denominations, plus an sh20,000 note for his services.
Two of the passports were maroon in colour, while the other was dark blue. Sunday Vision was able to count the money after reviewing the video footage in which the lady is seen counting the money.
Although we were not able to identify the person for whom the policeman was working, Sunday Vision investigations established that the policeman was sent by someone within the passport office and that the policeman received the cash on the Immigrations officer’s behalf.
In the video, the lady who was covering her head with a peach colour headscarf is seen negotiating with a policeman in khaki uniform. After a while, she later pulls out cash and hands it over to the cop.
Sunday Vision has established that the unidentified lady had already paid the official bank fees and that the sh650,000 was for quickening the renewal process for the three passports. She also handed over the bank payment slips.
We observed that this lady had got in touch with the police officer a few days before. It is this policeman who took her through the process and what is required to have passports quickly renewed through an Immigrations officer. The lady then went away, supposedly to look for funds, and she returned when she got the cash.
The cases as captured
Upon showing up at Immigrations after a few days, the lady first makes a call and within a few minutes, the policeman shows up.
The policeman scans around to check if anyone is watching, and becomes uncomfortable with the people around the entrance to the Ministry premises. The cop cunningly leads the lady away from the prying eyes.
Oblivious of our hidden cameras and the fact that we are following their every move, the policeman leads the lady about 10 metres away from the gate of the Internal Affairs Ministry to a spot behind a huge tree. It is here that they talked for about 20 minutes and reached an agreement.
Although the policeman was very mindful of his surroundings, and he would sometimes look up supposedly to check out for cameras, he forgot all about this the moment the lady pulled out the three passports from her black purse.
Not even a pick-up truck that parked near them would divert his attention as he perused through what looked like expired passports. The policeman flips through each of the passports from the first to the last page as they talk.
The lady then pulls out her cellphone and calls someone we did not get to know before she hands over the phone to the police officer who also talks to that person. Probably she called one of the owners of the other passports. Their brief conversation was occasionally punctuated by hearty bouts of laughter.
As the negotiations went on, another policeman in a black (counter-terrorism) uniform is seen pretending to be speaking on phone, seemingly unmindful of what is going on. There was also another young man watching the negotiations, who kept on pacing up and down and occasionally adjusting his dark sunglasses to his forehead.
Later, the policeman in a black uniform is seen talking to the young man with glasses. On close observation, we realise that this is a well-planned move and that the three (two policemen and the young man) are in the same clique and they are all well aware of the goings-on.
As proof that their cartel is genuine, the policeman is seen showing the lady his phone before he makes a call. We suspect the policeman called the telephone contact of the person who sent him from within Immigrations. But we did not get to see the number that he called.
The policeman later hands over the phone to the lady, who speaks to the person on the other side of the phone for about a minute.
Convinced, the lady tries to pull out cash from her money purse. But the policeman realises that it is a very open place to receive money from, and leads her further away behind a parked car still along Old Portbell road. This is where the payment, which we captured on camera, was done before the cop went back into the ministry premises.
In another case, a slender tall dark-skinned young man clad in a dark blue T-shirt and blue jeans is also seen negotiating with his ‘client’ who was wearing a grey T-shirt and sagging light blue jeans. Unlike the policeman, this young agent is bold enough to carry out his business right at the entrance of the Internal Affairs Ministry, near the ministry’s signpost.
The young agent clenches his fist and raises it in the air as if to tell his ‘client’ that the deal would cost sh500,000. The ‘client’, who had application forms tucked in his right armpit, is seen busy speaking on phone. But when the call ends, the two get to business. We did not hear what they were talking, but it was clear that they were bargaining on the fee.
The ‘client’ then flips through the application forms and it appears like some of the pages had not been filled. The ‘client’ hands the forms over to the young agent, who pulls out a pen from his jean pockets, squats down, firmly places the forms on his right thigh, and starts filling the empty gaps in there.
The agent asks his ‘client’ a few questions as he fills the forms. The ‘client’ receives another phone call, which momentarily interrupts the form-filling session.
When the forms are completely filled, the agent then hands them back to the ‘client’ to append his signature. From afar, we could see that the forms that were clipped together bore some stamps, although we could not tell who or which office had stamped on them.
The ‘client’ then pulls out a bundle of sh50,000 notes from his left behind jean pocket and plucks off about three notes, which he hands over to the agent. The agent then disappears into the ministry premises with the cash and forms.
As all these illegal transactions go on outside the Internal Affairs Ministry premises, no one seems to care as people are seen passing-by unbothered, some with envelopes, ostensibly chasing for passports as well.
Other tricks used
We also observed some Immigrations workers who drove from the ministry premises in their cars and parked outside, along Old Portbell road. They officers pretended as if the cars had developed mechanical problems, which they were going to rectify, and in the process, their agents came and handed over the money to them.
Sunday Vision tagged along one of the ladies (names withheld), who wanted to acquire a passport. We later discovered that she had established a link with a friend who was in touch with an Immigrations officer, who promised to quicken the processing of her passport at a fee.
This lady had for months been desperately trying to process a passport in vain. The giant bulky officer, who was clad in the Immigrations white and green uniform, arranged a meeting through the lady he knew and he shortly after came out of the ministry offices for a meeting.
We offered the lady sh100,000 to help her ‘smoothen’ the process as the Immigration officers call it. The unidentified officer met with the ladies from inside his car, which was parked along Old Port Bell Road, a few meters from the entrance to the Internal Affairs Ministry entrance.
After talking for a few minutes, the officer asked the lady to fold the money in her palm before taking it to him. After he received the cash, the officer opened his car bonnet, creating an impression that the car engine had developed a mechanical problem. Later, after he had closed the car bonnet, the lady handed over her papers to him and he walked back to his office.
When one chooses to follow through the proper procedure of processing a passport without involving middlemen, they are bound to face challenges along the way. Our investigations found out that Immigration officials deploy delaying tactics and in some cases, they pronounce the file ‘missing’ so as to get some money from the person processing the travel document. This usually happens in the last stages of the process.
Once one’s file which has all the data has delayed, then the Immigrations staff will send their agents to you. It is these agents, who will initiate the deal between their Immigrations bosses and the person processing a passport by offering to help speed up the process at a fee.
In case of a missing file, the agents will offer to work with Immigrations officers who will dedicate time to rummage through heaps of files until they trace the ‘missing’ file. Indeed, once a client pays some money, the ‘missing’ file will resurface within hours.
In other cases, the passport might be printed and ready, but once you hand in your reference chit to pick it, the issuing officer then tells you it is missing. But this is always false.
When you ask him what you can do, he then asks for money to give it ‘special attention’ and search for it. When you yield to his demands for cash, it will take a few hours for the issuing officer to find the hitherto missing passport.
Investigations also found out that some of the Immigration workers usually cross from the Internal Affairs Ministry to eateries within an abattoir located along Old Portbell road commonly known as Lufula at lunch time. This creates an impression that these staff members have gone for lunch. But this is a fallacy – these officers go to Lufula to crack deals.
When our team followed them to Lufula, we discovered that this eatery is a meeting point for Immigrations staff and their agents who pick money from the ‘clients’. In some cases, the officers meet with the clients here.
Our investigations also found out that some agents leave the money at mobile money booths around the Internal Affairs Ministry where the Immigration staff pick it.
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 on 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 sh250,000, 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 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 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 a 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.
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