Immigration Dept: Analogue relics in a digital government

Upon getting elected, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to bring “digital government” to Kenya. A key ambition is to bring government service delivery online, eliminating paper trails and endless queuing. The bigger vision is to use modern technology wherever possible to improve efficiency and expediency in all branches of the public sector.

The Immigration Department, while already reformed to some extent, could certainly do with some further shake-up.

My now 10 weeks old daughter, Sunniva, is yet to get her passport. As Beatrice and I plan to travel to Zanzibar for Christmas, Sunniva needs to get a Temporary Permit that will allow her to travel within the East African Community.

While I was on a quick trip abroad, Beatrice therefore went to the Immigration Dept at Nyayo House to apply for the Temporary Permit. Their response was that they no longer had the relevant forms, and that those were only available at the Immigration Office at the JKIA airport. To be on the safe side, she checked with two people, to ensure she was not being misled. Both gave the same response.

Rather weird, since Nyayo House is home to the Immigration Dept Headquarters. Trying to make sense out of Kenyan government procedures is often futile, though.

As I was heading home the morning after, we agreed that I would pick up the form when passing through the airport, so upon landing, I asked a person with an Immigration Dept badge.

He first asked me if I had the baby with me – funny question, considering that we were in the arrivals unit, and that those passes are for travelling out of the country. I re-explained the situation, and he told me that they normally don’t give out those forms for people to take them with them, but that I could ask at the office.

Where is the baby?” Was the first question the gentleman behind the desk asked me when I presented my request.

I explained to him that we were not leaving the country right away, and that we simply wanted to apply in advance to be on the safe side.

– “Christmas is still far away. You have a lot of time, so no need to do this now“, he replied.

– “Sure, so if I can just get the form, then I’ll take care of the rest”.

– “I don’t even know where those forms are. Why don’t you go to Nyayo House?“.

– “As I said, they don’t have them. They were the ones who told me that I had to get them from here”.

– “Wow, I don’t think we give those ones out. Let me ask someone..

The gentleman started frantically multitasking with a multitude of issues from other people in the same office, and quickly seemed to have forgotten my request, until I reminded him.

He picked up the phone, tried calling someone, didn’t get hold of the person, went to look in a drawer, returned to the desk, and started working on something completely different.

– “Excuse me. What about that form?”

– “Oh yeah, that one. Wait, I’ll get you someone who can answer your questions“.

He got hold of a lady to whom I explained the situation again, emphasizing that we had been told at Nyayo House to apply at the airport.

– “We don’t have those forms. You have to get them at Nyayo House“.

– “OK.. As I just explained to you, we already went to Nyayo House, and they told us to get those forms here”.

– “Then you have to go back to Nyayo House and tell them that we didn’t have them“.

I could feel my anger boiling. Getting upset with a stupid person is a waste of energy, though. Especially when that person is a government official. Hence I kept my calm.

– “If I go to Nyayo House, they will just send me back here. Can we please try to solve this problem here and now?”

– “But I told you that you can only get those forms at Nyayo House. They are the Immigration HQ. We don’t deal with such issues here“.

– “They told us that such issues are no longer handled by them, and that the authority has been delegated to the Immigration Offices at the borders. Are you saying they know what they are talking about?”

– “I don’t know anything about that. We only issue temporary passes in emergency situations, like if you have to board a flight“.

– “So in those situations, you do issue temporary passes?”

– “Yes“.

– “So then you must have the forms. Can I please get one?”

– “Listen, I have already told you that we don’t handle those issues here“.

– “You just told me the opposite of that”.

I now knew that the lady in front of me was lying, although I had no idea why, so I decided I would continue pushing her until she would either give me the form, or throw me out. The lady was getting increasingly hostile, so the latter started to seem likely.

– “Go to Nyayo House!

– “I have already told you a couple of times that they told us to get the form at the airport. Now, this is a service office, isn’t it? Can you please assist me in finding out where and how I can get one of those forms”.

– “Yes, you go to Nyayo House“.

– “You are not helping me. It is my right to be served here, and I want to know where I can get that form. If you don’t have them, can you please make a phone call and find out where I can actually find one?”.

– “Sit down” she said, pointing toward a couch a few metres away. I almost started laughing at the fact that she imagined herself in a position to command me.

– “I am very comfortable standing right here, thank you”.

– “I said, SIT DOWN“.

– “How will that help me. Will you bring me the form if I sit down?”

– “No. I want you out of my way“.

– “Give me the form, or tell me where I can get one. I’ll be gone in seconds”.

– “Leave this office, now!“.

– “Give me the form, and I’ll leave”.

– “Leave, or I will have you arrested!”.

At that point, I realised that I had achieved my goal of pushing her until she either gave me the form or threw me out. Having no desire to find out whether she was actually going to have me arrested, I left.

Once home, I went to the Immigration Department homepage,, to see what information was available. Surprise, surprise: The precious form that noone wanted to give out, was available online!

In the old days, statements like “we don’t have that form” used to be a candid request for a bribe. Today, those practices have become dangerous to the point that low-level officials shun them. Reluctance to assist is more of a display of sheer unwillingness by grumpy, low-level bureaucrats who still don’t feel like helping anyone without the extra incentives that they no longer dare ask for, or take.  Add to that the fact that some offices have cooked up their own “policies” of only giving out certain documents at their own discretion, and you have a recipe for the kind of situations that I experieced this morning.

In any case, who needs grumpy, analogue losers, when all it takes to bypass them, is to open a web site? 😀

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