Kenya: Risks in transforming the national identification system to a digital ID system

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Kenya: Risks in transforming the national identification system to a digital ID system

Grace Mutung'u

06 Aug 2021

5min min read
  • Citizenship
  • Human rights

In the eighth instalment of the Digital ID Dispatches from Africa series, Grace Mutung'u discusses Kenya's digital ID scheme, Huduma Namba, and the challenges of access and inclusion for marginalised communities. She questions whether it is genuinely revolutionising government services.


recently encountered a young man who was travelling to Nyeri, a town that is about 200km from Nairobi. When I asked him what business he had there, he explained that he was going to have his fingerprints taken for a police clearance certificate, popularly known as ‘good conduct’. The certificate was a prerequisite for a job he was applying for. Although his usual residence is in Machakos county, about 40km from the city centre, he opted to travel to Nyeri as it was the nearest place he could get his fingerprints taken within the next week.

As we chatted, he explained the new process for application for a ‘good conduct’, lauding the e-governance system that allows a person to apply for the document from their phone or neighbourhood cybercafe. Nevertheless, the process is not fully online. One must physically visit a designated police office to have their fingerprints taken. For the young man, getting an appointment at the nearest office would take at least 45 days. He therefore opted to have his fingerprints taken at Nyeri, the nearest office with an open slot on the following day.

His story is an illustration of the identification ecosystem in Kenya. On the one hand, the country is in a race to becoming a digital economy powerhouse. Reports such as the World Bank’s digital economy assessment rate the country fairly in areas such as digital infrastructure, skills, platforms, entrepreneurship and financial services. A key component of digital platforms is the ability for people to identify themselves online.

On the other hand, the digital economy is founded on policies that are not sensitive to the history of the country. For example, the digital ID legal framework was created by simply inserting three clauses to a pre-independence identification law, the Registration of Persons Act (RPA). The RPA was enacted at a time when the government was imagined as a tool for policing Kenyan people and not serving them. The law therefore makes it the burden of the citizen to present themselves for registration, at the risk of criminal sanctions. Issues such as proximity or access to government offices are not prioritised. To the contrary, amendments to the RPA over its long existence have focused on strengthening the powers of the national registration bureau. Presently, the bureau can arrest people found with registration-related offences, determine who gets national identification cards, and revoke existing national identification cards. It is therefore not surprising that an amendment to the RPA to create a digital ID system was the subject of recent litigation.

"On the one hand, Kenya is in a race to becoming a digital economy powerhouse. On the other hand, the digital economy is founded on policies that are not sensitive to the history of the country."

The narrative on Kenya’s new digital ID system, however, frames the new card as a new era in government service delivery. Dubbed Huduma Namba, it promises to provide a trusted way for people to identify themselves online. Going by the experience of the young man, however, the insistence on authentication of people as opposed to verification of people’s documents demonstrates that as far as government services are concerned, people still have to physically present themselves for biometric authentication. This therefore leads to questions on the effect of the digital identification law. Does it really change government service delivery or would a new law, based on a different paradigm, be required?

The truth behind the numbers

Travelling in search of government certificates is a regular practice in Kenya. In 2019, when the government announced a deadline for acquiring the new digital passport, people who were able to travelled to centres outside of Nairobi in the hope of avoiding long queues witnessed there. Similar to the ‘good conduct’ certificate, a passport application is made online, but one has to physically present themselves at an immigration office to capture biometrics. Again, during the mass registration exercise for new digital ID programme called Huduma Namba, people moved around looking for stations where they could be enrolled in the shortest possible time. For many, registering for the new card became urgent, especially after the government announced that it would be impossible to get either government or private services (e.g. a SIM card) without a huduma namba.

In May 2019, the government reported that it had collected data from about 36 million people, more than half of the total population. However, these figures camouflage the real issues with digital identity systems. For example, as much problems related to a lack of identification affect a minority of the population (going by the numbers), those who lack identification documentation are more likely to come from already marginalised communities. These include communities found along the borders, as well as African immigrants from the period before and after independence.

Apart from minority communities, low-income earners also have different experiences with both government and private identification systems such as mobile phone numbers. For example, after the printing of huduma cards from late 2020, the government indicated that only about 300,000 out of over 2.2 million people had responded to texts about their cards. The government has now embarked on tracing people to their rural homes. In one county, 51,000 cards remained uncollected. Government officers suspect that many youth were not reached because they changed their SIM cards after using them to take mobile loans.

The numbers also do not give a full picture of how people access government services. The country has a rural-urban divide and even in urban areas, it is typical for people to spend up to a whole day in pursuit of services such as replacement of lost identification documentation. These issues persist even after the government introduced integrated government service centres.

Human rights-based digital ID

One way to resolve issues arising from Kenya’s digital economy would be to shift the paradigm from the narrow focus on numbers to more holistic development that incorporates human and people’s rights.

Unlike the current emphasis on registration of people who already have identification documentation, such a system would prioritise those who lack documentation and guarantee their inclusion in the new economy. In addition to inclusion, the system should protect people from harm arising from the use of their identity data. These harms range from missing out on government services as a result of not being identified, being misidentified or wrongly counted and therefore getting the wrong service, and lack of agency, among others. Like previous economic strategies, digital IDs and the broader digital economy risk perpetuating current digital and economic gaps if they do not deliberately prioritise the marginalised and vulnerable.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: An officer from the National Integrated Identity Management system (NIIMS) is seen taking a photo of Mr Charles Chepkwony to process his biometric data during Kenya’s nationwide campaign seeking to merge personal information into a single electronic document called ‘Huduma Namba’. The 45-day registration started in April and ended on 18 May 2019, but the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta extended the exercise to 25 May 2019. - Billy Mutai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)