Kenya: Human Rights Organizations Urge Government to Expand Consultations and Safeguards before Unique Personal Identifier/Maisha Namba Rollout

Published: 14/Sep/2023
Source: 10 Kenyan human rights organisations

Nairobi, Kenya: Today, a coalition of civil society and community-based organizations working at the national and grassroots levels have come together to express concerns with the Kenyan government’s new plan to roll out a unique personal identifier, dubbed “Maisha Namba”, on September 29, 2023.

In a letter to the State Department for Immigration and Citizen Services Permanent Secretary, Julius Bitok, we urged the government to take immediate action to ensure the enactment of proper legislation, meaningful public participation, access to critical documentation (birth certificates and ID cards) for all Kenyans, and adequate data protection measures and adherence to the law in the process aimed at creating a digital identity system in Kenya.

We further wish to remind the government of the unacceptable consequences of discrimination, eroding of privacy and exclusion for communities that have historically struggled with access to documentation that were witnessed with a similarly hurried and flawed implementation of Huduma Namba.

We reinforce that the opaque rollout, lack of public engagements and a lack of proper procedural and legal safeguards associated with the Unique Personal Identifier/Maisha Number rollout would wreak havoc on the ways citizens access nationality documents.

The push towards creating a digital identity eco-system will assign individuals a lifelong unique identification number starting from birth and eventually serve as an ID number with the processing of the third generation identity cards beginning in the next 20 days.

The digitization process will also result in a consolidated National Master Population Register that will merge existing and independent databases into a single register of data on Kenyans and foreigners in the country.

However, steps needed for identification system upgrade and reforms have been glaringly lacking in this new introduction of Maisha Namba. Wider broad-based engagements with the public, civil society and other stakeholders have been non-existent, and to that end, the current efforts of the government to develop digital ID are cascading dangerously towards the pitfalls that stalled Huduma Namba.

“We are at a critical moment. A move to digital IDs is not a minor change but one that significantly changes how legal identification is administered in our country. As such, we need to get it right and improve access to nationality, data protection and individual’s privacy rather than erode it.”

“We experienced firsthand in our communities the harms of digital identity systems, where it locked out people who struggle with documentation, denied citizens services, excessively collected personal data and impeded fundamental freedoms.”

The government should use this opportunity to initiate a cross-stakeholders powered process with a transition period to ensure a smooth rollout of digital ID.

On 14th August 2023, the government of Kenya and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that effectively set the stage for the rollout of digital identity in Kenya.

Speaking during the signing of the MOU, Citizen Services Prof Julius Bitok said that “the digital identity project was crucial, and that the partnership would also factor in the role of stakeholders and interest groups to ensure that the envisaged digital ID gained from a broad
inclusion of ideas and acceptance.”

In the same spirit, PS Bitok met diverse civil society organizations in February 2023 to forge a partnership towards addressing the concerns with digitizing identity systems and reforming discriminative and marginalizing processes especially for many from our most vulnerable communities who face hurdles in obtaining nationality documents.

At the meeting, PS Bitok indicated that this administration was committed to continuous engagement and collaboration and to walking together with civil society as to any creation of a unique personal identifier. PS Bitok committed to conducting extensive public awareness on the system, ensuring public participation, conducting data protection impact assessment, doing away with vetting and exclusion and forming an inclusive working group to embark on reforms of the identification system in the proper manner to ensure any actions truly serve the needs of all Kenyans.

The commitment statements made by the PS at the time on public participation, transparency, engagement, and accountability have, however, not manifested in practice.

There has not been a single public participation forum or other channel created to solicit input and feedback from the Kenyan public. No data protection assessment has been made public, no public awareness has been conducted, and no safeguards have been put in place
to ensure Kenyans who have struggled to obtain documentation can acquire a UPI or related government services.

We therefore, call on the Government of Kenya, in particular the Ministry of Interior, to halt the roll-out of the unique personal identifier until the following minimum steps are undertaken and met in a public, transparent manner:

  • Enact a proper legal framework to govern the system that is fully grounded in the Constitution and aligns with requirements from the High Court judgment in Nubian Rights Forum et al. v. the Honourable Attorney General of Kenya et al.
  • Conduct meaningful nation-wide public participation on the proposed legal framework, any draft regulations, and the system design
  • Abolishment of ID vetting for all Kenyans
  • Implementation of affirmative action measures to issue documents to all persons who have been excluded or been unable to obtain the same due to the historical previous existence of vetting processes over the past several decades
  • Ensure all Kenyans have access to documentation (birth certificates and ID cards) before moving forward with digitization, including through the expansion of the number of registration and identification offices and resourcing of these offices, especially in underserved areas of Kenya
  • Conduct a robust Data Protection Impact Assessment and Human Rights Impact Assessment of the system that are made public for scrutiny and from which improvements will be made to the system design
  • Inclusion of civil society and members of the public, including minorities and marginalized communities in line with Article 56 of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, in any relevant working groups or committees, including the National Digital Identity Technical Committee and National Steering Committee for Digital Identity mentioned in the media on September 12, 2023
  • Allow for a transition period prior to any roll-out to ensure time for the above steps, improve infrastructure such as electricity and internet nationwide, and any other needs identified by the Kenyan public

1. Nubian Rights Forum
2. Namati Kenya
3. Centre for Minority Development
4. Kenya Human Rights Commission
5. Defenders Coalition
6. Access Now
7. Katiba Institute
8. Haki Na Sheria Initiative
9. ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa
10. Pastoralists Rights and Advocacy Network

Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Identity Documents, Birth Registration, ID Documents and Passports
Regions: Kenya