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Kenya’s Huduma Namba digital ID scheme could exclude millions of citizens, Forum warns

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An ongoing project in Kenya to issue a biometrics-backed digital ID known as the Huduma Namba to citizens continues to suffer criticism as rights activists are raising concerns that millions of citizens will be excluded from the scheme. Nubian Rights Forum (NRF) told Biometric Update in an email that it believes the government is flouting court orders on Huduma Namba.

The issuance of Huduma cards is a project of the Kenyan government initiated back in 2005 within the framework of the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS).

Authorities say the biometric digital ID cards, to be issued to citizens of age 18 and above, will be a precondition for Kenyans, refugees or foreigners on Kenyan soil to enjoy certain key government services such as obtaining passports and registering SIM cards and land titles. It will also be an important tool for the delivery of a wide range of public services to Kenyans by the government.

According to reports in the Kenyan press, more than 38 million people had already registered for the cards and enrolled their biometrics as of May, but the issuance process has since been mired in controversy and characterized by legal wrangles. The government however looks poised to continue with the issuance, per local reports.

Apart from the Human Rights Commission of Kenya which has expressed deep concerns about the situation, other associations have also been fronting campaigns, which they say, seek to ensure that the scheme is executed for the benefit of all Kenyans.

One of such associations is the NRF which has been advocating for a more inclusive approach to the project. It is now also accusing the Kenyan government of violating a January 2020 High Court order on the digital ID issuance, which asked that all issues related to risks of exclusion of some components of the citizenry from the project be addressed before the government can go ahead with delivering the cards.

The Nubian Rights Forum, which has also raised issues about data usage and privacy concerns in the past, says up to five million Kenyans risk being excluded from the Huduma Namba ID system – a thing the Forum says is a travesty against certain constitutional provisions regarding the subject.

The Forum told Biometric Update that some of their concerns also include a lack of active public participation in the process as provided for by the country’s constitution, data privacy fears that still linger, as well as the fact that the government in Nairobi is making the digital ID cards a prerequisite for access to critical public services.

“The Kenyan constitution protects the right to privacy, and inhibits any forceful coercion for private information without reasonable backing. There was a lack of privacy and data protection legislation. The government later introduced a data protection bill, but Kenya is yet to have a law that regulates data in general, and for an integrated system, and therefore there is risk of loss of sensitive data or access by third parties,” the NRF said.

Existing discriminatory practices

Expounding on fears that the project will exclude millions of citizens, NRF said there are existing discriminatory practices in acquiring the national identification cards especially for communities discriminated against because of their ethnicity and a lack of foundational ID documents.

“Due to lack of documentation, these communities are at risk of statelessness especially when the government ties identification and government services to NIIMS. There are also other factors that affect acquiring of ID cards even for normal citizens such as distance and costs. Moving forward with a new system without addressing current issues risks further marginalising these communities,” an NRF representative explained.

“It is unfortunate that people in remote areas have no idea on what the Huduma Namba is. They have no say in the process and will likely be shocked once issuance of cards commences…” NRF said.

What should authorities do, moving forward?

Like many other concerned advocacy groups, NRF says it has made a number of proposals to the Kenyan government, which if followed, will significantly help in better handling some of the problems besetting the Huduma Namba digital ID project.

For NRF, the first thing to do is for the authorities to respect court orders staying the ID issuance process until major issues are sufficiently addressed.

“The Kenyan government has been extremely adamant on not following court orders to stay the implementation until the concerns raised are addressed. This sets a bad precedent and the government needs to set aside selfish interests, follow court orders and the constitution for a properly functioning system,” NRF told Biometric Update.

Apart from active public participation which the group is calling for, it is also asking for the putting in place of an inclusive policy for legitimate citizens who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity.

“The government needs to conduct adequate participation and ensure at least a majority of citizens are aware of the Huduma Namba, the necessity of the Huduma Namba and the penalties,” they proposed.

“One requirement for the registration of Huduma Namba is presentation of one’s national identification card, and birth certificate for minors. There needs to be policies in place that ensure Kenyans can first get the recognized documents of registration and identification before moving to the centralized system – the NIIMS. Otherwise, anyone without an identification card or birth certificate, in spite of legally being born in Kenya risks being declared stateless,” the Forum added.

Another issue the Forum is pushing for is that the Huduma Namba shouldn’t be mandatory for citizens to get government services. “Government services and basic human rights must not be linked to Huduma Namba unless all issues submitted are addressed,” according to the NRF representative.

Government’s assurances

Comment was requested from an official of the ICT Authority of Kenya on the latest concerns voiced by the NRF about possible exclusion from the project for millions of citizens, but had not been received at the time of writing this report.

However, amid these concerns, Kenyan officials have spoken out in the past to assure citizens of the importance of the cards, and say they have been taking steps to ensure that the project is executed within a legal framework that factors in some of the concerns being raised by rights activists.

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