Nyangi, an 18-year-old woman in Kenya, was turned back for lack of documents when she went to register for Huduma Number. The unique number has been the talk in the village. Without it, she will not be eligible for government aid programs such as the Community Development Fund, Joint College Admission, and among others. In future, she will have trouble acquiring Kipande, an ID card. Youth without Kipande are targets of harassment by the police. She has heard of one police station in Donholm that is notorious for locking youths in a container, where they would bake in the hot weather. Her late mother gave birth to her in the house and had never acquired her birth certificate.
The first phase of the Huduma Number rollout is the registration, where details of citizen’s identity are taken. In the second phase, citizens will be issued an electronic card with the Huduma Number details. The number is supposed to be the mother of all identifications digits, the National Integrated Identification System; the government should be able to search its database through this number and find all details on National Health Insurance Fund, Tax compliance and much more. For Nyangi, this can work to her advantage. Her home in Kano is prone to flooding; people lose documents and property every year during the long rains. She can still present herself for government services and identify herself with her fingerprints. But hey, the government also says that she will still need an ID card along with Huduma card to get public services.
Nyangi, an 18-year-old woman in Kenya, was turned back for lack of documents when she went to register for Huduma Number.
Fear and confusion
Along with this confusion, citizens have also wondered why the government can’t use the existing ID number as a way of identification and integrate it with the other citizen information in their systems. All the information asked for in the Huduma form have already been provided by citizens at one point or the other of seeking services. The project is going to cost taxpayers 6 billion Kenya shillings (approximately 59 million USD), in a time when the country faces looming challenges of debt traps.
Despite these confusions and protests on social media, citizens are queuing up in most parts of the country to beat the deadline. Some employers have also influenced the government to take registration to their work premises to facilitate registration in between breaks. So far 23 million people have registered against a population of 50 million. The government had communicated that without the Huduma Number, you will be denied government services.
Exclusion and discrimination
Nyangi faces yet another threat of exclusion. By the time she manages to get her documents together, the deadline will have passed. Citizens were given a period of one month to give details after which it will be difficult to register--going by government’s communication. Ideally, citizen registration should not have deadlines. Imagine the government saying they can't issue birth certificates to those whose parents never applied in the window of say 6 weeks after birth. Do the babies stop being Kenyans by birth as provided by the constitution?
By now, Nyangi is no longer excited about the prospects of technology in public service administration. After the post-elections violence, Kenya adopted electoral laws that incorporated the use of technology tor transparency, accountability and efficiency. It was believed that technology was neutral and a master of truth. However, the subsequent elections have also been disputed and marked with high tension and intense hate speech against communities. Kenya had also tried to put in place an Integrated Financial Management System to curb corruption that happens through public contracting. Yet, the amount of cash reported to be lost fortnightly are super insane (ksh. 21 billion, ksh. 10.5 billion, ksh.5.3 billion). The e-citizen, a one-stop shop for public service delivery, has served well on efficiency, but not compared to what technology has delivered in other states. It has created new levels of bureaucracy and overlapping functions that delay service delivery. For instance, after applying for a passport, one still has to present themselves with the application documents and queue the whole day awaiting registration of biometric information.
Nyangi is no longer excited about the prospects of technology in public service administration.
To the government, data protection means a secure database for the Integrated Identification System. Kenya has two data protection policies in development. One produced by the Senate, as the ministry of ICT and the parliament were reluctant to develop policy until the enforcement of the GDPR, and the one from the ICT ministry that is yet to be tabled in parliament. Data protection still doesn't matter much to the government. The question they ask is - “If you are a law-abiding citizen, what are you hiding?” The concept of privacy in the digital context is also not well understood among the judiciary, civil society and the private sectors. So definitely this will likely shape the implementation of the data protection policy, in a way that is different from its intended purpose.
Further, in a country where the government is known to go against court orders, people lose trust in public institutions. As proposed in the guidelines for digital identification by World Bank, digital identification should come with regulatory safeguards through independent oversight and adjudication of grievances.
The government’s proposal for the Huduma Number was first communicated after the terror attack in Nairobi early this year. The move then was aimed at identifying terrorists and their networks through the digital database. It has been a government habit to ransack houses of certain communities in the events of terror attacks. This time it was different because terrorists have had all kinds of names from different communities.
Because of Kenya’s tribal politics, your second name either saves or betrays you. If you draw ten common names from a certain community, you will have accomplished 50% of your mission. Now imagine the Wafula’s and Nekesa’s details deleted such that they can’t seek an ID card to vote. In such cases, we need policies on data flows; who accesses what data, and security safeguards that assure the public of the safety of their data. This should be shared and interrogated by the public, with frequent audits.
The move for the Huduma Number was aimed at identifying terrorists and their networks through the digital database.
Huduma Number is a good idea that is poorly implemented. Kenya has a very big identification crisis. The last two census were disputed as communities inflated their numbers for more resource allocation. We have also experienced cases of multiple voting by different people with identical ID cards Many, especially in the rural areas still don’t have ID cards. So, our borders are so porous and confusion still remain in planning and allocating services. We are also going to fall behind, as governments find new ways to provide efficient and specialised services to their citizenry. We need the Huduma Number. But social justice is not achieved through injustices.
Ideally, we should have data protection safeguards that will protect citizens from discrimination, safeguard their data and ensure inclusiveness. Lastly, as we import technology to solve public problems and to leapfrog several development stages, we should also work at changing the underlying context. Digital identification and any other technology are not going to work in systems of corruption, inequality, injustices and where there is a lack of trust.
Social justice is not achieved through injustices.