Ugandan ID system a ‘national security weapon’ that denies human rights – report

Author says in interview biometric enrolment considered mandatory

digital identity biometric registration

Uganda’s national biometric ID system has failed in its promise to improve access to services for Ugandans, says a new report. Instead, it has excluded a large proportion of the population from registering, particularly women and the elderly, which has led to further impoverishment and even death. Ugandans now face greater hardships in accessing health care as the digital ID system, funded in part by international organizations and country donors such as the World Bank and UKaid, is designed as a “national security weapon.”

These are some of the findings of a damning report on the seven-year-old digital ID system known colloquially as Ndaga Muntu, produced by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHR&GJ) at the New York University School of Law, in collaboration with Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, and Unwanted Witness.

Chased Away and Left to Die: How a National Security Approach to Uganda’s National Digital ID Has Led to Wholesale Exclusion of Women and Older Persons” is the result of a seven month study into with the support of the Omidyar Network and Open Society Foundations.

The report questions the motives for the project’s funders as well as the overall promises of biometric and digital ID systems to improve access to services and save money for governments through efficiencies and anti-fraud mechanisms.

‘Chased Away and Left to Die’

It has become compulsory to have an Ndaga Muntu ID number or card to access many government services. Researchers working on the report in Uganda came across multiple instances where people had been denied access to health care and welfare payments. Researchers even witnessed for themselves cases where a child was denied urgent medical attention as the mother did not have an ID card. Only intervention from an angry crowd changed the minds of the health workers.

The report includes an account shared by a participant of a focus group in Nebbi, who spoke about an old man who was too ill to make the journey to an official distribution point to be biometrically verified for a Senior Citizen’s Grant for those over the age of 80.

“Programme officials insisted that to receive his grant, he must be physically brought to the payment point to verify his fingerprint. But the trip ultimately proved too much for him and he passed away during the journey. The last payment due to him would customarily be given to family members after the beneficiary passes away. Therefore, officials took fingerprints off his dead body at the payment point for one last time.”

A woman in Amudat told researchers that, “Without an ID or clinic card for women who have been receiving antenatal care, [you will receive] no treatment. Many people fall sick and stay home and die.”

The report found that between 23 and 33 percent of all adults have not been registered, and that as registrations are now so slow, the sheer number of people turning 18 years old is outpacing sign up. The percentage of the population covered is actually falling, finds the report.

The high rate of mistakes on people’s records and ID cards is also proving problematic. Researchers were told that 50,000 Ugandans over the age of 80 had errors meaning they could not collect their grants. This is believed to be an underestimate. Given the number of Ugandans over the age of 80 estimated at 197,000, the figure reveals a high exclusion rate.

The Senior Citizens Grants program has received major contributions from the UK and Irish governments over the last decade. UK is also a funder of the World Bank’s ID4D initiative. The World Bank has also given at least US$10 million to the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) through the Uganda Reproductive, Maternal and Child Health Services Improvement Project, alongside technical assistance to both NIRA and the Ministry of Health.

Such ‘in kind’ payments are difficult to track, but looking at the Ugandan government figures for its own expenditure, the report calculates that Uganda has spent at least US$206 million on the project over the last ten years.

“As the World Bank’s ID4D initiative, financed by the UK government and others, continues to be the world’s pre-eminent cheerleader of digital ID systems in development countries,” states the report, “the question of the costs and benefits of digital ID systems are not merely relevant for the Ugandan government, but for the field of ‘sustainable development’ as a whole.”

The government of Uganda is not afraid to spend on identity-related projects. It spent US$22 million on new biometric voter equipment for the 2021 elections, despite groups claiming there was no need for new equipment.

The government wants to invest in biometrics forensics for crime fighting, when there are already allegations against its law enforcement for abusing people’s rights with the use of facial recognition.

‘National security weapon’

“The emphasis of Uganda’s national digital ID has been on national security from the start,” one of the report’s authors Christiaan van Veen, of the CHR&GJ, told Biometric Update. His report states that from its early stages, the project was referred to by the Ugandan government as the National Security and Information System (NSIS) and military General Aronda Nyakairima was put in charge.

General Aronda is quoted as saying, “This is a way to monitor and know where people are. It is another element to be added on to our arsenal of security weapons.” When the project was given a legal basis, he told Parliament the system would serve as “the distinguishing feature for the general population from illegal residence.”

As with national ID systems elsewhere, such as neighbouring Kenya’s Huduma Namba, Uganda’s scheme is designed to exclude from accessing services those who are deemed not to be nationals.

“Beyond healthcare and social assistance, women and older persons may also find themselves unable to obtain a mobile phone, to stand for election, get a bank account, or even access government buildings and travel freely throughout Uganda and the East Africa region,” states the report.

“For those without the Ndaga Muntu, their very identity as a Ugandan can be called into question, as the card has become the primary means of proving Ugandan citizenship. The inability to obtain a Ndaga Muntu therefore truly equals a form of ‘social death,’ where not having a card or number prevents one from participating fully in society, and may sometimes even result in actual death.”

Positive spin

Despite the grim picture painted by the report based on the team’s in-country research, other reports have been far more positive. A 2018 report by the World Bank’s ID4D initiative was particularly upbeat.

It praised the “impressive rollout of the [National ID]” and claimed it “put Uganda in a different league of countries.” It also claimed that the system was allowing authentication by the private sector such as telcos thereby allowing further financial inclusion, as well as aiding the preparations for the 2021 elections.

The author of the ‘diagnostic’ has since disputed the account published by the World Bank as being different to the version he submitted.

Reports by GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association) also praise the efforts made in Uganda to enrol people in the national identity system and claim that the use of the ID system for authentication is aiding financial inclusion. But part of a December 2020 report, which the CHR&GJ investigation does not include, found that there were issues with Uganda’s system:

“Without [the NIN], citizens and residents cannot enjoy basic fundamental rights, access a range of services or fully participate in the digital world, exacerbating exclusion, inequality and discrimination, especially among underprivileged members of society.”

‘Worst of both worlds’

The benefits and efficiencies of digital ID systems and additional security brought by biometric verification are important considerations – or selling points – when a jurisdiction is considering a new system. But the report finds that Uganda is not enjoying the benefits of a digital system.

“It is both a cumbersome, paper-based documentary system, vulnerable to fraud and corruption and without the benefits attached to digitalization, and a rigid biometric and digital system, subject to errors, failure of equipment, and marred by lack of internet and electricity,” states the report, “This makes the national ID card expensive and complex to administer.”

Examples include the need for a Ndaga Muntu card or number to access health care, but then records of patient visits are kept in paper booklets stored in hospital cupboards.

“The overall impression from the field research, which included focus groups, individual interviews and observations, was that the people we talked to did not think they had a choice about having their biometrics captured,” van Veen told Biometric Update, “This is reinforced by the fact that Ndaga Muntu is now required to access many government and private services. The people we spoke with did not have a clue about how their personal data would be processed.”

The fact that millions have been excluded shows that the system has failed on the promise of a digital system to improve access to services. Even the outgoing Acting Executive Director of NIRA, Brig. Gen. Stephen Kwiringira, admitted: “Part of the problem is that we started with capturing, registering people for elections purposes, yet ideally, I think we should have started with registering births.”

The report finds that the birth registration rate in Uganda “has reached shockingly low numbers; recent estimates suggest that only 13 percent of children under 1 had their births registered, and death registration is also deplorably low.”

Lessons to others

The report concludes with a list of recommendations. It calls for the immediate end to the requirement to have Ndaga Muntu to access healthcare; a restructuring of the NIRA which is already planning to bring in new more expensive cards with chips from 2024; a cost benefit analysis of the scheme and a request to stakeholders such as the World Bank to pressure the Ugandan government into reducing the high levels of exclusion.

“Our main recommendation and most immediate hope is that the government of Uganda will stop requiring Ndaga Muntu for access to social rights like the right to health or social security,” van Veen told Biometric Update.

“Beyond that, we started this research because, despite national digital ID projects being promoted for years, there is still remarkably little evidence on how this affects the right of individuals to access social and other human rights.”

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