Believe the hype - you can fly to Kigali without a passport

The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. My clearance was a simple affair: my name, nationality and ID number. FILE PHOTO | NATION

What you need to know:

  • I am usually the biggest sceptic of most government initiatives. They tend to be long on bombast and grandiloquence, and painfully short on actual delivery.

A few weeks ago, I had to travel to Kigali on an assignment. It is usually a fairly uneventful thing – present your passport at JKIA, go through immigration, and get on a flight that lasts slightly longer than an hour.

This time, though, I decided to conduct a little experiment. We have been reporting for months now that East Africans (at least from the “coalition of the willing” countries of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) could travel to each others’ countries using only an ID card. I hadn’t actually seen this in action – except in the obligatory photo ops by presidents, so I decided that it would not be a bad idea to test rhetoric against practice.

To my pleasant surprise, it actually worked flawlessly. True, when I first presented my identity card to the immigration officer at JKIA, it was like asking for an item that is rarely ordered on the menu. He handled it with aplomb, though.

The process is a simple one – the officer fills out a Hati Safiri ya Jumuiya (Interstate Pass), which is a simple card that details your name, nationality and ID number. You then get it stamped at the back and off you go. You have to retain it until you are back home, but it easily is the most painless thing I have ever had to do when travelling out of Kenya.

Now, all this time, I had my passport tucked away in my satchel, in case I was being overly optimistic, but it turns out I shouldn’t have bothered. Even in Kigali, where the officials squinted a lot more suspiciously when I presented the ID on departure, it turned out to not be a problem, and off on my merry way I went.

I am usually the biggest sceptic of most government initiatives. They tend to be long on bombast and grandiloquence, and painfully short on actual delivery.

Witness all the statements, initiatives and operations that have been announced to root out corruption, deal with traffic, and reduce crime and terrorism. They have all floundered on the shoals of the usual politicisation, incompetence and sheer inertia of a bureaucracy that is unused to delivering service.

There are some corners of the government that have been a pleasant surprise, however, and it would be remiss of us to continually hammer the government without recognising these rare bright spots.

From everything I have heard, the immigration department is beginning to let air into what has been a fusty, musty, dark department. While we still haven’t heard the full story, and dealt with the consequences, of terrorists and other undesirables being granted Kenyan passports, the experience there has become one of positivity, and a service charter that is largely being adhered to.

I’ll confess that I’m actually in the process of testing it out, seeing as I have just applied for a replacement passport, so this assessment might change soon. And the immigration department is not fully off the hook, by the way.

I once had to ignore a sweating, sneering, sniggering foreigner who assured me that he would be served at the “Kenyans Only” desk at JKIA, and I had to live down the embarrassment when he was duly attended to, foreign passport and all. I doubt the lecture that the officer had to endure from me is one she will forget in a while, but it is such a galling thing that the department needs to sort it out before it causes an international incident.

Despite our constant carping about the police, individual officers are acquitting themselves well, despite having to work in the most trying of circumstances. These are ladies and gentlemen who go out of their way to deal with distressed victims of crime, or to simply push stalled vehicles off the road.

This does not, in any way, excuse the bulk of the force, or the systems and structures that mean the police are working at cross purposes with the values of the country. This still needs a root-and-branch overhaul, and urgently, before the police service becomes a fully corrupt, predatory force.

Back to that Hati Safiri ya Jumuiya. The business elite among us may simply look at it as a convenient way to not fill up one’s passport too quickly. But there are some to whom this will be a life-changer.

Small traders who cross borders every day no longer have to apply for passports and travel passes. Students can go back and forth between countries without having to deal with stifling officialdom.

Think about it: in a few years, at this rate, we will no longer have to even have a Hati Safiri filled out; we can just flash a smart ID at airports and border posts. A few years after that, there may no longer be need to have internal borders within East Africa (if the Tanzanians and Burundians ever got up to speed, that is).

Call me a starry-eyed optimist, if you will, but finding a government initiative that works as advertised is so rare that I can be forgiven my paean of praise to the denizens responsible. Worry not, though, my hectoring scepticism will be back here next week.


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