malawi_flagThe news that less than 500,000 Malawians out of a population of 13.1 million own passports may seem strange to others, but not to me. In Malawi, most people apply for passports when they see that there is a possibility that they will leave the country in the near future. In my case, I got my first passport at the age of 25 when I saw that I was on the verge of getting a scholarship to study in foreign country. Actually, I know a good number of people who can easily afford the MK8,000 passport application fee but they do not bother applying for it. The long waiting period, if you do not want to corrupt the Immigration officials, is also a major hindrance.

Nevertheless, it will be good if the number of passport holders can be increased. Therefore, the  news, that the Immigration department is expected to open centers in Zomba, Chikwawa, Mulanje, Ntcheu, Nkhotakota, Mzimba and Karonga to bring the service closer to the people, is a welcome development. According to the department’s spokesperson, Pudensiana Makalamba,  in two months’ time, they will also introduce a new computerized system with a capacity of printing 4, 000 passports. This will reduce problems such as double application.“With the current system it’s easy for a person to hold two passports as long as one changes a name,” said Makalamba.

Much less than 500,000 Malawians own passports

The fact that currently it is easy for a person to hold two passports implies that the number of Malawians who own passports is actually much less than 500,000. Here are a few observations to further confirm this:

  • When some Malawians get deported from other countries e.g. UK,  they usually change their names and home villages in order to apply for new passports. They do this so that the Immigration officials of those countries should not recognize them when they go back.
  • Then there is a case where Malawians who have overstayed in South Africa deliberately trash their passports. Malawians are allowed to stay in South Africa as temporary residents for 30 days. Those who contravene this law are supposed to pay a huge fine (by Malawian standards), which is much more than the application fee for a new passport in Malawi. The South African Immigration officials at Beitbridge do not ask them to pay the fine immediately; they rather stamp their passports with a special stamp which shows that they overstayed in South Africa and are supposed to pay a fine. When the culprits arrive in Malawi, they change their names and home villages, pay the MK8,000 application fee and apply for a new passport. They also  give the Immigration official some cash (kola apa sono = kora-pu-shoni) so that they should get their passports as fast as possible.  The amount of money which they spend (application fee + corruption fee) is much less than the fine that they are supposed to pay on their next attempt to enter South Africa using the old legitimate passport. Besides that, the Immigration officials in Zimbabwe and Mozambique would also extract some more money from them for their sin of overstaying in South Africa.

From these observations, it is easy to see that there is a good number of Malawians who possess more than one passport. Therefore, the actual number of people who have passports is much less than the one from the records.

In a related development, I heard that citizens of other African countries are disguising themselves as Malawians in order to get Malawian passports. Out there, it is easier for Immigration officials to allow someone traveling on a Malawian passport into their countries. I remember in 2006 when I was passing through Schippol Airport, Holland, on my way to Vancouver, an African young man from a different country had a torrid time at the hands of the Dutch officials. They had to check a number of issues before allowing him to go and wait for his connecting flight. When citizens of  such African countries want to go overseas, they rather choose to cross the borders and, by all means, corrupt everyone who stands in their way in order to get passports from “good” countries such as Malawi. They would pose as if their home village is in Nthalire, Chitipa; or Msakambewa, Dowa; or Chikuli, Blantyre. Some of them even go to the extent of marrying Malawian women in order to fully “malawianize”  themselves. Once they achieve their goal(s), they leave these women.

As the Immigration Department installs a new machine for printing passports and decentralizes its service delivery, it is important for them start thinking of how they will tackle the aforementioned problems. The police also need to get involved. Fingerprint scanning technology would be one of the solutions.