KAMPALA, UGANDA — The designer invitation cards splashed across the walls of the print shops of Nasser Road in Kampala are eye-catching and inviting. Each card is meticulously cut, with clean, precise lettering, ideal for enticing guests to a wedding or party.
Nasser, as this busy street in Uganda’s capital is known, is famous for its cheap printing services. Clients can order calendars, posters, badges, cards, t-shirts, uniforms and school handouts.
Clients enter and leave the many print shops of Nasser as they please, clutching their bags of printed items. But those bags can conceal a lot. It’s common knowledge among Ugandans here that this is not just a place to print invitations. It’s also a hub for producing forged credentials.
“It is a one-day university,” says Davis Bandeeba, the owner of a print shop at Nasser, adding that he himself does not forge credentials. “One can walk in as an illiterate and come out with a Doctor of Laws in one day, as long as one has the money.”
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
Bandeeba says all you need to get your hands on forged credentials is to bring along an authentic certificate, which can be “mirrored,” or duplicated, using the sophisticated computers in Nasser’s many print shops. You pay an agreed sum, ranging from 500,000 to 2 million Ugandan shillings ($136-$545), and the certificate will be ready within five hours. Print shops can fake high school diplomas, exam results and university credentials for those who don’t have the marks or the degrees to get the jobs or education they want.
Bandeeba says he despises printers who indulge in this practice.
“If I had fallen into the hands of such people, I would be a failure, but my lecturers taught me how to be creative,” he says.
The scourge of forged papers bedevils Uganda’s education system, often catapulting inept people into high office.
Faking university qualifications is illegal in Uganda. Getting caught with fake documents can mean a prison sentence of five years, both for the forger and for the person who uses the credentials, says Frank Baine, a spokesperson for Uganda Prisons Service.
People can lose their jobs if caught with forged documents. On Mar. 21, over 200 police officers were investigated for using forged academic qualifications, and will now have to appear before Uganda’s Inspectorate of Government for demotion, or, in the worst-case scenario, firing.
Universities are also required to screen the documents of prospective undergraduate and post-graduate students for authenticity through the National Council for Higher Education. If a university fails to do this, it will be threatened with closure, says Council spokesperson Samson Waigolo.
Charles Masaba, the academic registrar at St. Lawrence University, a private university in Kampala, says they don’t take any chances with student applications. “We deliberately delay registering students because we want to screen their papers,” he says.
Prospective students at St. Lawrence are admitted only on probation, while the university goes to the Uganda National Examinations Board to confirm that the students’ names and exam results match the ones given.
“When we find students with forged papers, we tear up the papers and advise the students to try somewhere else,” Masaba says.
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
Geofrey Angela, an assistant academic registrar at Lira University, says he sees about four cases of credential forgery every year. “This has made our eyes sharp, because we do not want to stain the name of our university,” he says.
Lira University also ensures that they get in touch with the body issuing students’ credentials to verify the signatures. If they find something suspicious, they invite the student to come for a meeting.
“They never come to such meetings with us because they know they would straight away be headed for the coolers,” he says, meaning the students would be sent to prison.
Providing Better Opportunities to Learn
There is a reason so many people are willing to risk imprisonment to get into a good university. In Uganda, as in many countries, education is regarded as the springboard to a better life. High qualifications, such as a master’s degree, are required to apply for good jobs and increased social status.
But good opportunities are not open to all, fueling the demand for fake papers. To open up opportunities to more people, the government is now providing alternative study options, including distance education, intensive holiday study programs and evening classes that start after 5pm.
Okaka Dokotum, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Lira University, says these programs should reduce the need for fake documents.
“No serious Ugandan should use forged credentials, because the system provides legitimate education, which is a right for all,” he adds.
Masaba urges potential forgers to think of the consequences of their actions. He says stamping out fake papers could be a matter of life and death.
“I always imagine a person who allows a non-qualified person into the field of medicine,” he says. “On this fateful day he is given that person to treat him or his relative. How would one cope with such a situation?”
Edna Namara, GPJ, translated some interviews from Runyankole.