A $60 million government initiative to collect the data of millions in an effort to enhance services has been marked by criticism about its inefficiency and allegations of misconduct
by Keren Weitzberg
Across from the Hilton hotel in downtown Nairobi, a small group of people are queuing under the midday sun, braving an unusually hot April day in the normally temperate city. Registration agents in branded yellow vests are hurriedly at work, armed with tablet computers supplied by the French multinational company IDEMIA.
This modest turnout is a partial success for the Kenyan government’s inauspicious launch of Huduma Namba (or “Service Number” in Swahili), an ambitious mass biometric registration campaign marred by controversy and legal challenges. Kenya’s ruling coalition has branded itself a vanguard in digital governance, and Huduma Namba, a $60 million project, is its latest initiative. Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i claims that Huduma Namba will not only enhance security and curb corruption, but also “streamline resource allocation and improve service delivery.”
Since Huduma Namba’s nationwide rollout began on April 2, state officials have taken to the radio, TV, print media, and Twitter to exhort its benefits. Registration stations have been set up in heavily trafficked areas with 35,000 tablets in use across the country. State agencies have threatened to cut off services to those who refuse to register. According to government sources, more than 20 million people have enrolled thus far. Gradually, amidst cajoling and pressure, Kenyans are lining up to acquire a number that many state representatives claim will soon become essential.
If it proves successful, the Huduma Namba initiative will capture and consolidate millions of Kenyans’ data into a single digital system—the National Integrated Identity Management System. This database, according to President Uhuru Kenyatta, will serve as the “single source of truth on personal identity in Kenya.” Every recipient will be issued with a unique identity number not unlike the Indian Aadhaar number. As one assistant chief called it, Huduma Namba will be “the mother of all numbers.”
But many Kenyans are skeptical. In a country where moral and political critiques often draw on religious themes, rumors have swirled that Huduma Namba is the mark of the devil. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a nonprofit, has called on Kenyans to boycott the initiative, while parliament and the courts have threatened to derail it entirely. On Twitter, the government’s aggressive Huduma Namba push has become an object of derision. One Twitter user, referencing Kenya’s recent dry spell, remarked: “The government is falling short of saying; No Huduma Namba, no rains.”