Last week, we carried a story in which we uncovered the nature and scale of corruption at the Immigration Department. The story coincided with the department’s adjustments of passport fees. To get the position of the department on these two issues,we sat down with the Chief Immigration Officer Dr Hudson Mankhwala. Excerpts:
Q. We carried a story in our last edition where we uncovered corrupt practices by some of your officers in the Immigration Department. What was the immediate reaction after reading it?
Indeed, we just realised there was this story. It really put us in a tough situation. The story, as it was, watered down or washed away the efforts that we had done. As a department, we have tried to put efforts in dealing with corruption. There are also several reforms that we had carried. Just a day before [meaning on Friday last week], the Home Affairs Minister [Paul Chibingu] was launching very positive programmes. One, decentralisation of printing to Lilongwe; the other one, the SMS inquiry system which, in our thinking, was meant to make life easier for our passport applicants. We thought this was positive news and should have made news item on the front page not this particular article.
Q. Do you, then, feel rather frustrated that, against all these initiatives, you still have officials who are corrupt?
I have always felt that corruption is an evil and it mostly hinges on individual character other than institutional. That is why I felt very uncomfortable with the article because I felt if they are individual, they would rather be dealt as individuals other than putting the institution on the map like the one perpetrating or being very relaxed in fighting corruption. I believe we have done a lot. We have programmes which we deal with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and most of the reforms are in line with dealing with corruption. So after all these efforts, I believe there are more negatives than positives.
Q. I understand you have an anti-corruption policy in your department. How forceful is it?
The policy is in force. It is in force because it has laid down committees in the regions which deals with reports on corruption. It has also set out programmes for civic educating the citizenry as well as the officers.
Q. Will your department take measures, especially on the officer whom we showed to be involved in corruption?
As a department we have already engaged our own internal investigation on the matter to get to root of the issue. I want to report here that should anything point to this individual like any other, we will not hide anybody. That is the position we have taken and we are into extensive investigations on the matter. We feel wounded just as you are.
Q. Last weekend we saw your department hiking the passport fees. You defended the hike by arguing that the cost of making a passport is huge—so much that government comes in to subsidise. Would you explain the processes of making a passport in terms of its cost?
Ideally, we may not outline the figures. But what you need to know is Malawi passports are done outside the country. What that means is that all costing is done in foreign currency and when we convert that to kwacha; definitely we are on the losing end. So what happens is that apart from the cost of the book which we have to pay to the contractor, there are also consumables that also form part of the booklet when it comes to issuance. We look at the cost of manufacturing the book, the cost of consumables and other inflationary issues considering that we procure the book abroad—that has determined the cost of the new booklet. You would really feel bad that normal feel at K15 000 still fell short of a normal booklet to come up with a passport. Other arguments that can be put forward is that our passports are valid for10 years. How much is somebody paying a year? It is just about K4500 per year at the new fee of K48000. So we are talking of about K4500 a year for a passport of 10 years—and they pay more. And you also know that most of the people are frequent travelers. Most of where they go they pay air tickets; even a local bus to Zimbabwe is between K15 000 and K20 000. People go and come back and they go several times. So if you look at the costs, even now, is far lower than one would think. We also want to indicate here, that by the end of the day, we will have serious applicants because we have had serious question with some individual wanting a passport yet they can’t justify what they need the passport for apart from abuse. With the money perked, I think we will have serious applicants.
Q. Being a document that identifies you, ideally it is advisable every Malawi should have it. When you peg it high with such a wide margin, can’t we say that you are denying most Malawians to access it?
I think government is already taking effort to introduce national IDs. I think that’s the route we should take. Usage of a passport if far secondary because even when you look at statistics a number of Malawians with a passport today is less than a million. So if Malawians were to be identified by passports, the majority would not even have the opportunity.
Q. Basically the department views a passport a luxury, then?
Passports are meant for mostly for travelers as a prime reason.
Q. Does that mean only those with money should travel?
We are also mindful that there are people, like villagers, who travel on emergencies. If it is in the region there is a provision of the travel permits which are pegged just at K10, 000. So, there is always room for people to get travel documents.
Q. What assurance are you making to the nation that this hike in passports will translate to Malawians getting their passport in time considering that there are a number of people on the waiting list?
I know we have, sometimes, jumped limits. And there are valid reasons for that matter. But mind you we have a Service Charter, a commitment we have made to provide the best services to within the specific number of days. We believe that with the current arrangement, we will be able to move with the charter. The new fee is not meant to be a deterrent for access to service, rather a benchmark for improved service delivery. As we have already said that government has always been subsidising, the new fee will act as a cushion. Malawians will get their passports in time.