The politics of identity cards in Kenya, and how registration law promotes sour ethnic divisions

Published: 10/Nov/2015
Source: The Nation (Nairobi)

By Verah Okeyo

In Summary

  • The small document people carry in their wallets stands between them and legitimacy in the eyes of the law while legalising the touchy matter of ethnic balance, especially in the public service.
  • Data from the National Registration Bureau, the department charged with issuing ID cards, indicates that of the 915,101 applications for IDs that were made in 2014, over 175,000 were rejected.
  • At registration desks all over the country, one’s ethnic roots have never been more important since political commentator Mutahi Ngunyi first spoke of “the tyranny of numbers” in the run up to the last General Elections, and now the twisted logic of one’s tribal roots does not just determine your Kenyanness, but also your value as a voter

There is a bitter explanation for every crease on the forehead of 24-year-old Martin Omondi, whom we have found queueing to register for an identity card in Kibera. For the fifth time in three years, he has been asked to get a letter from the Chief of the location where his father was born to prove his Kenyanness, his roots.

When asked by the registration clerk where he comes from, he tells us, he had informed him that he hails from Nairobi. “No one comes from Nairobi,” the clerk had dismissed him as he advised him to go dig deeper for his roots. “That is the law!”

But that law, at least to Omondi, does not make sense. While his father hailed from Migori, Omondi considers himself a child of the city, born and bred here. In any case, the last time he was in Migori was a blurry eight years ago, when he travelled there for his father’s funeral. His mother had died two years earlier, and since then he has never found any reason to travel back there. Nairobi to him is where his roots sink the deepest, and were he to be translocated to where the law says he belongs, we would be at a loss trying to find his directions and, most importantly, his identity.

Yet, according to the law, he has to go back to the place he last saw 16 years ago and look for the one person the law trusts will prove his true identity: an administrative chief.

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Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, ID Documents and Passports, Internal Citizenship
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2015