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Kenya’s push for a national ID raises red flags

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In 2008, following the violence that accompanied the disputed presidential election, Kenyan politicians came together to form a government of national unity. 

One of their very first acts of the GNU cabinet was to set in motion a brazen scheme that took advantage of a shortage of the country’s staple to line their pockets. By the time they were done, fully a third of the country was starving and close to $350-million had been lost.

So Kenyans have good reason to be wary whenever their famously pugnacious political class agree on something. It almost always means grief for citizens. In the last few weeks, they have had especially good reason to be concerned as the ruling class unites behind a new system for registering all citizens. Under the scheme, which was snuck in via innocuous legislative amendments and which the government appears intent to force down Kenyan throats, everyone aged six and above is required to register for a Huduma Namba (‘service number’) in order to access government services.

The government claims that it wants to establish what it calls “a single source of truth” but the opaqueness of the process as well as the scope of the personal data it hopes to collect — from biometric data to DNA to information on personal assets — has raised alarm among human rights, privacy and anti-corruption organisations.

The idea of an electronic register of citizens is not particularly novel. However, such schemes have always been opportunities for illicit enrichment. A similar plan to issue new “tamper-proof” passports in 2005 was proven to be part of a long-running scam involving $770-million worth of dubious security sector contracts.

It was followed in 2009 by a plan to issue so-called “third generation” identity cards — with biometric features and a centralised database — which also got bogged down in procurement irregularities. 

Five years later, the government announced yet another plan to register the entire population afresh. “We will ask everybody to actually come along and bring their documents, their IDs, their birth certificates. We’ll do biometrics, we’ll do the eye scans, we’ll do the fingerprinting. We’ll scan your documents and we’ll create a digital record for every Kenyan,” declared Mwende Gatabaki, the official in the president’s office responsible for delivering the new system. The system, which would also feature a new ID card with an embedded chip, was to cost over $100-million — but it also never got off the ground.

The current effort was meant to be mandatory and will cost around $60-million. However, following a court challenge by three human rights organiSations including the independent Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, stringent conditions were imposed on its roll out. Registration could not be compulsory and neither could the government deny services to those who failed to register. Further, the government was prohibited from collecting DNA (which the law it had snuck in allowed it to do) and from sharing any data with international bodies.

The government has seemingly employed a duplicitous strategy of scaremongering to get as many Kenyans to register before the 45-day deadline it has set, which expires on May 18.

From one side of the mouth, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s spokespeople have been at pains to reassure citizens that the government would abide by the court ruling. Meanwhile, other government officials have been threatening to rain down fire and brimstone on those who fail to register. 

The head of the Communications Authority of Kenya initially vowed to deactivate their mobile phone numbers before he was forced to walk back the talk. The official government spokesman has threatened “consequences”, including denial of government services, which would be contrary to the orders of the High Court, while other officials have said those who do not register would effectively lose their citizenship and be considered national security threats. Even televangelists have been arrested for preaching against the Huduma Namba.

All this pressure heightens suspicions that there is more to this than meets the eye. The unseemly haste and insistence on a process that most Kenyans neither understand nor have consented to, the cart-before-horse approach of collecting data and then proposing a data protection law, and the blatant scaremongering all suggests that the registration exercise is a front for nefarious schemes to benefit a small, but powerful clique.

In his analysis of the reasons for the failure of Gatabaki’s National Digital Registry System, Keith Breckenridge, a professor and deputy director at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in South Africa, blames it on “a conflict between the formal banks and Safaricom, the monopoly telecommunications firm” over control of information on collateral and thus the ability to make money off offering credit to the masses of Kenya’s poor. 

Safaricom, which had partnered with a bank owned by President Kenyatta’s family, won out and today provides credit at extortionate interest — 140% or ten times the legal limit imposed on the formal banks. Breckenridge reckons that the arrangement transformed the Kenyattas’ bank “from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world, offering credit and banking facilities to the majority of adult Kenyans — most of whom were very poor”.

There is thus lots of money to be made from exploiting the personal data of Kenyans, and no shortage of unscrupulous politicians and their friends willing to do it. It is for these reasons that it is important that Kenyans take a step back and think deeply before they hand over their data as the government is pressuring them to do. 

At a minimum, they must demand a more open and transparent process as well as an inclusive public debate over what information the government is entitled to and the protections that are needed to ensure such information is not weaponised against them.

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Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara is a communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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