Digital ID in Africa this week: Huduma Namba lineups, Liberia verification roll out, biometric voting in SA

Governments press ahead across Africa to increase the uptake of digital ID and biometrics. Kenyans lined up ahead of the May 18 deadline to register for the compulsory Huduma Namba ID scheme. Liberia launches a system for service providers to verify the country’s biometric ID cards and South African academics question whether introducing biometrics-based voting checks could be a way to start implementing the electoral reforms which could bring youth voters to the polls.

Kenya: Last minute madness

Ahead of the 6pm deadline on Saturday May 18, Kenyans over the age of six skipped class and waited for days on end to register for the biometric Huduma Namba ID scheme. After initial reluctance to sign up, huge lines formed outside registration centers in the last days of the campaign, with images of the extent of lines in Kenyan press such as The Standard and Daily Nation.

There was initially no extension to the deadline in Kenya, though the scheme was extended to June 20 for Kenyans abroad, according to the BBC, quoting Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i as saying, “We have captured details of 31 million persons – which is approximately 65% of our country’s total population.”

In a last-minute reversal, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced registrations will remain ongoing until May 25, Capital News reports. Kenyatta also said that registrations reached 35 million after the busy conclusion to the scheduled registration period. Lineups for registration were considerably shorter over the weekend, according to Capital News.

Kenya National Registration Bureau (NRB) Director Reuben Kimotho will moderate a session on civil identification at the upcoming 5th Annual Meeting of the ID4Africa Movement in Johannesburg, South Africa, which Biometric Update will provide extensive coverage of as the event’s official journalist.

Liberia: Govt launches biometric verification platform

Liberia’s National Identification Registry (NIR) launched a platform on May 9 to allow the verification of holders of the national ID card at points of use such as banks and government service offices and reduce fraud, according to the Daily Observer.

The NIR public affairs director, G. Wellington Smith, said in a statement to the press that “the Biometric Verification Platform is designed to enable service providers in the public and private sectors to easily authenticate who their clients, costumers and anyone with whom they are transacting business is.”

Demonstrations and training will be provided as part of the roll-out to organizations that will verify people’s identities. Examples given include banks, healthcare providers and sports stadia to check the identity of ticket holders.

In April 2017 the NIR announced a $5.9 million deal with Techno Brain Global FZE. At the time, NIR Executive Director, J. Nagbe Tiah
described the aim of the contract as: “We will set up a new biometric civil registry and issue the first one million ID cards, including 50,000 cards that meet ECOWAS ID card standard.”

Registration began in October 2017 and around 130,000 Liberians currently have a new biometric card, of a population of around 4.8 million. Interest has been limited despite publicity efforts.

South Africa: Could biometric voting be the answer?

After a study into the barriers to voting among South African youth identified inadequate electoral reform as a key issue, academics question whether the introduction of biometric voting in the country could spearhead a gradual process of electoral reform.

The general election of May 8 fell 25 years since the end of apartheid, yet the country has become even less equal in the meantime. Youth unemployment has reached 40% and six million young people did not even register to vote.

Before the election, the Millennial Dialogue, a partnership between the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection (Mistra), carried out a study into youth voting. It found that electoral reform was a key barrier.

In an article for the Daily Maverick, Mistra’s Duduetsang Mokoele and Nomaqhawe Moyo argue that the introduction of biometric voting could be a way to bring about reform: The sentiment expressed was that the current voting process was, in fact, a mirror of the gap between the young population and its ageing leaders.

They suggest that bringing in biometric voting gradually, beginning with a by-election “could be a start to providing the necessary answers and making incremental changes to the existing electoral process”.

A gradual shift from paper-based to fully electronic biometric voting would be preferable, they state, as “case studies across the globe suggest this is not advisable. Rather, an incremental approach, that draws on both manual and biometric processes, can help to limit the resources needed and the problems encountered”.

A move to a biometric model would be costly and lead to government debt. Careful and gradual change could reduce costs and loans with can “create dependency on donors and result in a murky relationship between the government, donors/lenders and technology companies, which have their own interests”.

Any system would have to be open to auditors and independent observers. Mokoele and Moyo emphasize that any electoral reform would still rely on strong institutions, leadership and civic engagement: “What good would biometric technology be, for example, if voter intimidation or vote buying is a reality?”.

Updated May 22 at 2:04pm ET to include Huduma Namba registration extension information.

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