National ID program in Malawi raises questions, fears

Published: 11/Jun/2017
Source: Anadolu Agency (Turkey)

New national ID project ahead of 2019 elections dogged by questions of incompetence, racism, corruption

By Moses Michael-Phiri


There is a bitterness in the voice of 80-year-old Isaac Mnduwila, who has been waiting in line since morning to register for an identity card in Ntchisi, central Malawi.

“I came to this center early in the morning to register for my ID, but the cameras can’t take my pictures. I don’t know what the problem could be. Everyone was able to get their pictures taken,” he told surprised journalists, who descended on the district to hear the rare case of a man whose face could not be captured by National Registration Bureau (NRB) cameras.

Bureau officers said they had tried several times with two different cameras but they were unable to capture his face, even using cameras that somehow could get the face of other people.

“Now I’m worried that my dignity could be affected in my community, as people might think I’m a wizard,” said Mnduwila.

Political or apolitical tool

On May 24, the southeast African nation of Malawi rolled out its first-ever national ID project, introducing a biometric voter registry for all 17 million of its people.

For an average person, the process should be easy: answer a few questions, sit in front of a camera, have your photo taken, put your hand on a scanner for a fingerprint scan, and then get a free ID card.

But for Mnduwila, it turned out to be a personal lesson in the politics of citizenship, for without an identity card, he is a nobody. No one will employ him. He cannot open a bank account or take advantage of free government seed and fertilizer subsidies.

The small card he is looking for, and which stands between him and legitimacy in the eyes of the law, also touches on the sensitive matter of voting in the upcoming 2019 elections for the president, parliament, and local government, according to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).

But the commission’s stance has sparked debate and angered some politicians.

Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda, lawmaker for the Kasungu South East Constituency, has raised the issue with parliament, demanding an explanation from the government of the problems surrounding the registration program, especially faulty equipment such as cameras unable to capture faces.

She fears that if few people in her area get the ID card, her seat could be at risk in the elections. The party she belongs to, the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), now wants the whole program stopped.

“We are not satisfied with the level of sensitization and civic education for the national identification registration which is currently underway in the country,” Eisenhower Mkaka, the party’s second deputy secretary general, told Anadolu Agency.

He added, “We want the NRB to immediately stop the registration in order to give more time for sensitization and civic education.”

Race, ethnic divisions, and corruption

Registration challenges are also affecting people such as refugees, asylum-seekers. and Malawians of Indian origin who have yet to get a national ID.

Proving that they are Malawian will be a tall order for many such people, including poor urban dwellers.

Mussa Adam, a trader of Indian origin, is scared of the task of proving his “Malawianness”.

“I grew up in Malawi, in a small town of Limbe,” in the south, he says.

“I have no other place to call home and I don’t know any traditional leader who will back me or support me. So I’m really stressed about my future if I’m denied the ID.”

No wonder in some districts reports have emerged of chiefs demanding money from their subjects or people bribing chiefs to vouch for them.

“I have reports that some chiefs demand cash from politicians and government officials for them to persuade their subjects to go to registration,” said Felix Mkandawire, district commissioner of the lakeshore district of Nkhota-Kota in central Malawi.

“We will investigate,” he pledged.

Grace Chiumia, the minister of home affairs and internal security, says a task force has been formed to look into the challenges facing the project, which will pause this Nov. 28 and reopen next January.

“The government is aware of the challenges, and we have assigned a technical team to address them,” Chiumia told Anadolu Agency in a telephone interview.

The project is funded by Malawi’s government and development partners to the tune of nearly $49.7 million. Currently, over 100,000 Malawians have been registered.

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Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, ID Documents and Passports
Regions: Malawi
Year: 2017