NAIROBI, Kenya — For all his 73 years, Ahmed Khalil Kafe lived as a citizen of Kenya.
Born in the capital, Nairobi, Mr. Kafe worked as a police officer and even served with the presidential guard, court documents show. But last April, when he tried to register for a national ID in the giant biometric database that President Uhuru Kenyatta has said will be the “single source of truth” on Kenya’s population, he was turned away.
Now, Mr. Kafe said, “My life is in limbo.”
In an ambitious new initiative, the Kenyan government is planning to assign each citizen a unique identification number that will be required to go to school, get health care and housing, register to vote, get married and obtain a driver’s license, bank account and even a mobile phone number. In preparation, nearly 40 million Kenyans have already had their fingerprints and faces scanned by a new biometric system that ramped up last spring.
But millions of ethnic, racial and religious minorities — like Mr. Kafe, who is a Kenyan of Nubian descent — are running into obstacles and facing additional scrutiny when they apply for the documents required to get a biometric ID. Many have faced outright rejection.
Now the biometric ID plan is being challenged in court by civil rights organizations, which say it is disenfranchising members of minority groups. The high court is expected to rule Thursday on whether the project is constitutional.
“The government is digitizing discrimination,” said Shafi Ali, the chairman of the Nubian Rights Forum, one of three civil rights groups that brought the court challenge. Without an ID card and identification number, he said, “you are totally a living dead.”
The Kenyan Interior Ministry, which is leading the biometric project — known as the National Integrated Identity Management System — declined to comment on anything about it, citing the pending court case.
Such identity projects are increasingly common and sometimes even lauded by global institutions like the World Bank for their potential to increase access to financial services and ensure transparent elections.
But as in India, where the government has come under withering criticism for forcing nearly two million people to prove their citizenship or risk being declared stateless, Kenya’s program has been denounced for further marginalizing already vulnerable populations.
“There is the real risk,” said Keren Weitzberg, a researcher at University College London who is studying the biometric program in Kenya, that the IDs “will only reproduce existing inequalities and exacerbate debates over who is ‘really’ a Kenyan.”
Kenya is a diverse country with a history of tensions between ethnic groups. Indians and Nubians, whose ancestors were brought to Kenya as workers by the British colonial authorities, have struggled for generations to be accepted as full citizens. Kenyans of Somali descent have faced particular suspicion and discrimination — even being rounded up and held for days in a stadium — in the wake of terrorist attacks by the Shabab militant group.
In Kenya, to secure a biometric identification number — known as a Huduma Namba, or “service number” in Swahili — adults must provide a national identity card, while birth certificates are required for those under 18.
The Kenyan government has long made it harder — or even impossible — for members of some ethnic groups, among them Nubians, Somalis, Maasais, Boranas, Indians and Arabs, to apply for the documents required for national ID cards.
They may be asked to present land titles or the papers of their grandparents, or be questioned by security agents. And often, they can apply only on specific days of the week or in certain seasons, especially in small towns and rural areas.
Members of some of these communities live along Kenya’s borders, and government officials say they have introduced some measures to keep out those who pose a security risk, or people fleeing war in neighboring Somalia. But the measures also affect pastoralists who cross back and forth along the country’s borders, such as the Maasai and Samburu.
The added hurdles have affected at least five million of Kenya’s 47.5 million people, leading to delays in processing their ID cards and outright denials, said Laura Goodwin, the citizenship program director for Namati, an international legal justice group.
Human rights advocates say that many people were turned away during the biometric registration drive last April and May. If the biometric ID system goes ahead, Ms. Goodwin said, millions could end up without identification numbers.
For Mr. Kafe, whose Nubian forbears were brought from Sudan to Kenya by the British colonial authorities over a century ago, the government’s plan risks rendering him stateless.
He said that he lost his national identity card in a robbery soon after leaving the police service in the early 70s, and was unable to secure a replacement even after supplying sworn affidavits.
“I lost hope,” he said on a recent morning near his home in Kibera, an urban slum southwest of Nairobi. “I was very disappointed in Kenya.”
Many Kenyans in towns and villages outside of Nairobi and other major cities lack papers because their local registration centers are far away. Or they have to wait longer for papers because those centers are overwhelmed.
Meimuna Mohamood is a Kenyan citizen of Somali descent, and lives in the northeastern town of Garissa, along the border with Somalia. Garissa has been the target of repeated terrorist attacks by the Shabab extremist group, including one on the university in 2015 that left 148 people dead. Afterward, government officials vowed to tighten security.
Ms. Mohamood has an identity card. But she has not been able to obtain birth certificates — which are necessary for children to get biometric identifiers — for her daughters, who are 5 and 7.
The two girls were born at home, not a hospital, where their births would have easily been recorded. Her efforts to register them have so far been stymied by government officials.
“I keep going back to government offices, and they always say there is something missing,” Ms. Mohamood said. “I am afraid for my girls. They are not in any system. I am worried about their future.”
The government has also drawn criticism over the mechanism it used to institute the Huduma project, whose initial cost was projected at over $74 million.
It was introduced in Parliament using a procedure usually reserved for minor changes to existing laws, and its first iteration sought to collect DNA and GPS data, both of which were barred by a court in April. The legislation detailing how the system would work was not published until July, after the registration drive had ended.
The law also imposes fines and criminal penalties, including prison time, for failing to register — which critics have called disproportionate.
“You shouldn’t have to blackmail people into doing things that are for their own good,” said Nanjala Nyabola, the author of “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya.”
Then there are questions about privacy, about how the government will keep the information secure and how exactly the data will be used. Kenya approved a data protection law in November that outlined restrictions on data handling and sharing by companies and the government. That law is being challenged in a separate court case.
Most biometric initiatives, said Dr. Weitzberg, the researcher at University College London, involve partnerships between governments and private companies, and could be compromised if they are not fully transparent or regulated by robust laws.
Idemia, the French firm that won the contract to supply Kenya’s biometric kits, was already embroiled in controversy for its work on Kenya’s 2017 elections and was sanctioned by Parliament last year — a move Idemia is challenging in court.
Testifying in the case before the Kenyan high court, an Indian cybersecurity expert said that Huduma was “functionally and architecturally very similar” to his own country’s biometric ID program, Aadhaar, which was itself subject to a constitutional challenge.
The expert, Anand Venkatanarayanan, said the project would create national security risks, including hacking by foreign actors, that Kenya’s government did not have the technological capability to mitigate. Huduma’s design is like a cart “drawn by a lame horse on the digital highway,” he told the court.
“That it would fail and fall behind is a foregone conclusion,” he said.
For Mr. Kafe, at least, there may be a glimmer of hope.
After he agreed to testify in court in the challenge to the Huduma program, he said, registration officials visited his home and said they would process his documents.
In September, he was given a “waiting card,” which the government supplies while a national ID is being processed. But it could be months or even years before his identity card is delivered, if he receives one at all.
“When does a Kenyan become Kenyan?” Mr. Kafe asked. “We need a system that’s good for all. We need equality.”
Abdi Latif Dahir is the East Africa Correspondent for The New York Times. He joined the Times in 2019 after covering East Africa for Quartz for three years. @Lattif
New report pokes holes in Huduma Namba
By Frankline Sunday 25. January 2020
The government has been criticised for implementing the Huduma Namba digital identity system without involving the Kenyan public.
A new report by US non-profit firm Mozilla cites Kenya’s Huduma Namba and India’s Aadhaar as examples where lack of public participation and opacity in the tendering process undermines the perceived benefits of digital identity systems.
"Several countries have implemented digital ID systems without any laws in place to regulate government use of personal data, including India, Kenya, Nigeria and Malaysia,” states the report in part.
"In Kenya, the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), which allows the government to collect several biometrics including DNA, was passed as an amendment buried in a much larger Bill, a clear violation of the Kenyan Constitution’s requirement for public participation and consultation on substantive legislation."
According to the report, this demonstrates a trend where "governments are keen to present ID systems as technical systems that can be passed as executive decrees”, potentially exposing citizens to increased surveillance from both the state and private companies.
The report comes days after President Uhuru Kenyatta criticised the Judiciary for stopping implementation of the controversial Sh6 billion project after a legal challenge by activist Okiya Omtatah.
The final judgment in the case will be delivered on January 30, even as the government finalises the Huduma Bill 2019 that if passed will make the Huduma Namba compulsory for all Kenyans.
According to Mozilla, lack of transparency and public participation denies citizens the opportunity to weigh in not just on how to implement them but if the project is necessary in the first place.
"Transparency in vendor procurement is another important aspect of any robust consultation process,” states the report, and queried "the involvement of French vendor IDEMIA, formerly known as OT Morpho, which provided biometric voter identification systems during the contested 2017 Kenyan presidential elections, where serious concerns were raised regarding the sale of voter data.”
Kenya, like other African countries, has been since many decades a playing field for medical and pharmaceutical trials, that as such would not be permitted to be conducted in western states with strict ethical and safety standards. In a similar way the rollout of dystopian technology finds in Kenya an open field to plough.
Blockchain becomes a part of everyday life in Kenya
By Claudia Lacave, in Nairobi - 30. January 2020
The start-up Grassroots Economics has launched Bangla-Pesa, a virtual currency for exchanging goods and services. © Grassroots Economics
Grassroots Economics, a Kenyan non-profit foundation empowering marginalized communities to help manage their economic future, launched Bangla-Pesa, an award-winning virtual currency for exchanging goods and services.
Originating in an informal settlement in Mombasa, known as “Bangladesh”, the Bangla-Pesa enabled a small group of traders to work with a new currency.
Now, not surprisingly, Kenya, considered the cradle of mobile payment, is at the forefront of the development of the blockchain. This technique is used to exchange goods, ensure product traceability, or even acquire government bonds.
Bitcoin, encryption, peer-to-peer, and now blockchain…
Blockchain is a way of storing and exchanging information through several hundred computers that form a network. Thus dispersed, the information is protected. It requires a password, held only by those concerned, to be assembled, made understandable, and used.
The technique appeared with the first crypto money in 2009. Today, it has financial, environmental, social, and managerial applications. Africa is not lagging behind on the subject, and in Kenya entrepreneurs and the government are already out of the starting blocks..
David Irungu, head of business development at the Nairobi Securities Exchange, said bluntly, “It’s time to implement the blockchain.” He is also the co-author of a white paper on the use of the blockchain and a member of the implementation team for M-Akiba, the world’s first mobile bond selling platform, which carries issues of Kenyan government bonds for development projects.
Initiatives closely monitored by the government
[But does that mean that "government" has the necessary expertise and oversight or does it only mean that certain officials or politicians are in on the take???]
The blockchain platform allows people to create an account in ten minutes instead of the usual three to 21 days for this type of debt and the issuer can receive the funds daily instead of monthly. Its move to a blockchain system should allow for more transparency and trust but also open the platform to international investments.
As a result of the project, Kenya has been invited to several international forums and round tables, such as the one in Paris in July 2018 organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Along with South Africa and Nigeria, the country is an African leader in the field.
The initiative is supported by the think tank on blockchain and artificial intelligence, commissioned by the government in March 2018. Although there is still no law governing the blockchain, the government is closely monitoring the subject.
“We need to see the how it is used, to identify the real problems,” explained Irungu.
Virtual wallets and traceability
Blockchain technology, however, was not waiting for government regulators. Entrepreneurs Caroline Dama and Will Ruddick, founders of Grassroots Economics, took the plunge in 2012 when they launched their first community currency programme, the Bangla-Pesa. [Kenyans seem to have forgotten that U.S.American Will Ruddick was subsequently arrested and put in remand prison for counterfeighting money.]
Available via a mobile application, the system allows residents far from the banking system and without access to cash to exchange goods and services via virtual wallets. The equivalent of Ksh87,200 (800 euros) circulates in the form of vouchers in the 200 shops that are part of the network, and the experience has been replicated in five other communities in the country.
Techno Brain, a technology, consulting, and outsourcing solutions company, has taken over the blockchain to ensure the traceability of products made in Kenya. This is thanks to Number Series, an identification tool that records in a database the codes assigned to each product created.
Wellington Ayugi, the Blockchain Sales Lead Director, said, “The goal is to digitalize the Kenyan industrial sector. It will eliminate batch codes that are impossible for consumers to verify, and will reduce the risk of counterfeiting.”
Currently, Kenya’s “largest garment manufacturer” is the only client of the program.
Another start-up entering the field is TheBhub, born from the meeting of two innovation enthusiasts, Granville Wafula and Shariff Abdulwalli, who wanted to use “blockchain and artificial intelligence to solve our country’s problems”. The company, founded in January 2018, trains Kenyan developers to create solutions based on blockchain systems.
One of their projects, Makao, which aims to match real estate demand with construction projects, is currently being studied in a government incubator. Its idea is to enable buyers to get in touch with real estate partners via a blockchain-based platform and give their opinion on the design of the properties. In the second phase, the technology will allow payment tracking and access to crowdfunding for the projects. The aim is to reduce the number of people living in slums (23% of urban dwellers in 2018).
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.