A month-long Weekend Nation undercover investigation at the Immigration Department in Blantyre has established that ordinary Malawians applying for passports continue to struggle to get the documents even after the expiry of the official 21 days unless they pay bribes to officers.
Our investigation, to kick-start a project meant to expose malaise through sustained exposure of poor public service delivery, discovered that some officials at the department deliberately delay processing passports of poor applicants to force them to dig deeper into their pockets if they want their document processed within the prescribed days.
And despite previous protestations and assurances from the department that it has done away with middlemen, Weekend Nation has established that security guards have now taken over and are successfully linking some officials to applicants who are willing to pay a bribe to have their passports processed quickly.
Posing as applicants for a passport for our member of staff, reporters spent days queuing and observing security guards shoving seemingly ‘poor’ applicants while at the same time, according ‘well-to-do’ applicants special treatment in the hope of getting business from them in form of bribes.
A security guard manning the gates the week preceding October 3 this year, disclosed that there are applicants who have spent years before accessing their passports because they could not pay a “bribe for officials inside”.
The guard said applicants of ‘express passports’, too, are subjected to similar treatment until they pay kapamwamba kwa akuluakulu ali mkatimu [a bribe for bosses inside].
He, however, assured that he would fast-track the process if we could pay a K15 000 bribe.
“This amount is shared among a number of players inside the department. But you first need to pay an application fee of K15 100 for a normal passport or K35 000 for an express one for the process to start,” the guard explained.
He further told our reporters to give him a copy of the receipt for the application with K10, 000 which he said he would give to an official inside to work on our passport.
“And I’ll need K5 000 only as my payment. In short, you need to have an extra K15 000 [on top of the application fee],” he advised.
But the guard was transferred to another duty station when our reporter eventually applied for her passport.
However, an Immigration officer—Philip Joe– was on hand to assist. He demanded a bribe of K15 000, which was duly paid with an accompanying copy of the receipt.
Our reporter agreed to the condition and was immediately ushered into Room 48 where an initial bribe of K10 000 was paid in the presence of other officers.
On Monday October 27, after the expiry of the 21-day period, the applicant posing as a girl friend to our reporter went to the Immigration Department to get the passport and pay the remaining K5 000.
But Joe changed his tune, saying he would need K10 000 on top of the one given to him at the sealing of the deal on October 6 2014.
“Otherwise, we will halt the printing process,” he warned.
A female official present at the time of collecting the passport suggested that the applicant be given the passport and bring the balance the following day, but Joe declined.
This effectively forced the reporter to seek a financial bailout from a friend [within Blantyre] to get the passport.
And when the reporter returned with the balance after some 30 minutes, the same female official informed them that Joe was away picking a child from school.
After Joe came back, the remaining K5 000 was paid to him and the officer duly handed over passport number MA 534321 for our applicant.
“Please, Madam, come and sign for your passport. So when are you leaving the country?” he asked.
And before taking leave, our team inquired from Joe if he would be available to help process another passport the following week.
“No problem! Just call me when you’re ready. I hope you’re still keeping my [phone] number,” said Joe.
But when confronted yesterday that the people he was assisting were actually journalists from Nation Publications Limited (NPL) doing an undercover investigation into corrupt practices at Immigration, Joe simply said: “I won’t comment on this any further.”
He also indicated that he could not remember who exactly he was talking to as if to say he is in the business of assisting many applicants.
Immigration Department deputy national public relations officer (PRO), Chilungamo Kapulula, said the department will institute their own investigations into Weekend Nation findings.
He could, however, not say what other action the department would take against the corrupt officers.
Before the story was worked on, ACB was informed through deputy director Reyneck Matemba who commended Weekend Nation for the initiative and he gave his blessings for us to go ahead.