Original illustration by Nadège. Description: a woman walking in a game board, finding obstacles and support in her way to access human rights.

How would you feel if you were denied access to basic government services because you lacked identification?

Frustrated, dejected, or angry? Probably all.

“Everyone has a right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law regardless of whether they are citizens or immigrants, students or tourists, workers or refugees, or any other group,” reads Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Around the world, many people lack identity cards, which means they are not recognised officially and hence cannot access crucial basic government services. Identity is a human right and therefore, it should be prioritised by every government to ensure equality. For this article, we will traverse what it takes for a member of a marginalised ethnic group in a third-world country without an ID to be recognised.

A Kenyan case study

How would you feel if you were denied access to basic government services because you lacked identification?

Mariam, a widow and a mother of four children, has lived as a Kenyan citizen for the last 33 years. Although born and raised in the informal settlements of Kibera, Mariam is of Nubian descent; a Sudanese tribe brought by the British to fight in the colonial army. With time, the ties with Sudan faded and Kibera became a home for them.

Kibera is Africa’s largest slum which is located approximately seven kilometers southwest of the Central Business District (CBD) of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi city.

I met Mariam while producing a documentary feature on Huduma Namba (Service Number in Swahili) in Kibera. Her deceased husband was a volunteer journalist for a local radio station before he was killed on his way home from work. This led her to carry the family mantle. She became a food vendor and like most of her customers, she lives and works in Kibera.

Her food stand was popular, and I was curious to learn of her business motivation that led her to start it as well as her view on the Huduma Namba registration process. She was enthusiastic to tell me about her childhood in Kibera, and how it has contributed to her outlook in life. Apart from the non-existent sanitation and open sewers, she knows too well, the tough conditions Kibera residents go through especially young girls, one of them being an underage mother like herself. Her case of lacking an ID, hence not being able to register for Huduma Numba intrigued me the most.

The centralised data tool

In 2019, the Kenyan government initiated the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) to replace the traditional paper-based records system that proved unfavorable to service delivery as well as posing a security threat to the personal information of its citizens. The NIIMS program is Kenya’s first modernised and integrated database that captures and stores biometric data and other information of its citizens and foreigners residing within.

Each applicant is required to fill a registration form with query fields of their background information, present their national ID and themselves in person at the registration centers for their photos and fingerprints to be taken. Once the data verification process is complete, each authenticated applicant receives a unique identifier or as popularly dubbed, the Huduma Namba. Since its inception, the Huduma Namba cards have rolled out for residents of Nairobi and are expected to follow suit to the rest of the country.

According to the Kenyan government, the new ID system will link to various existing state systems to consolidate data from these primary agencies of population registration. It will in turn support better planning, foster efficient resource allocation, and enhance the delivery of services in the country. It’s also meant to be a tool for curbing crime and enhancing national security.

Eventually, Huduma Namba is intended to replace the existing national ID card as it will eliminate the need for multiple biometric enrolments across government departments. All nationals and foreigners in Kenya who have attained the age of six years are eligible to be part of the system. But that wasn’t the case for Mariam.

Impact of the old system

For one to register for Huduma Namba, the provision of a National Identification Card is mandatory. However, for children over six years of age to 17, they must provide a birth certificate. As stated in the registration of a person’s act (Cap 107), it is a requirement by the law of Kenya that a Kenyan citizen who attains the age of 18 must have an identity card. That means, on reaching 18 years of age, getting an ID is automatic.

As a Nubian, Mariam has to undergo three levels of the vetting process to receive an ID. First, she has to sit through the Nubian council of elders to determine if she, the applicant in question, is indeed a Nubian. This is only done twice a week. Second, they must obtain and review the IDs of her parents and grandparents, which may be impossible to find. Lastly, she has to swear an oath and pay a fee before a Magistrate. If approved, she, the applicant, undergoes the national vetting process, which can drag for a year or more. Then the application would finally go to the registrar where processing time ranges from six months to “infinity”.

The process is long and complex. Many face substantial delays in obtaining their ID card, or never succeed in doing so, and are left essentially stateless. That is the case describing Mariam's situation. “I have been frustrated and stressed for years in search of an ID, yet it is my right as a Kenyan citizen to get one when I turn 18,” Mariam laments.

“I have been frustrated and stressed for years in search of an ID, yet it is my right as a Kenyan citizen to get one when I turn 18,” Mariam laments.

She has had to undergo the vetting process a record of seven times, with no success. During her first stage of vetting by the Nubian council of elders, her application was rejected based on lacking her mother’s ID. It took her another three years before she was finally able to move to the second stage, by this time, she was married but only customary since she could not do it legally without an ID.

The Kenyan ID is a fundamental credential for use in services by both the state and private sector to verification processes. Besides being requested routinely by security services to access certain buildings or travel, one needs ID in Kenya to apply for crucial services such as higher education, passports, banking services, social programs, business registration, and many more, with the recent being application for Huduma Namba.

Without the existing national ID and soon the Huduma Namba that will consolidate all registry, it will be tough for people lacking it and especially the focused groups such as the marginalised ethnic ones like Mariam who will continue to suffer the consequences.

The focused group discrimination

Nubians who have stayed in Kenya for more than a century now, are still regarded as foreigners. Their origin in terms of ethnicity and religions betrays them as they are still forced to abscond their human right of having an ID card which is essential for everybody’s everyday life.

After years of sitting through the vetting process, Mariam was given a green light to apply for an ID and finally got a waiting card. After months of going back and forth to the registrar’s office with her waiting card, she was informed that the ID number she had been issued had unfortunately been given to someone else. The only choice left was to reapply for another ID and this meant repeating the whole nerve-racking and tiresome process of vetting.

Nubians who have stayed in Kenya for more than a century now, are still regarded as foreigners. Their origin in terms of ethnicity and religions betrays them as they are still forced to abscond their human right of having an ID card which is essential for everybody’s everyday life.

Mariam’s lack of an ID tells a second sad story as well. Her son who has attained the age of 18, will have to wait until she gets an ID whenever that will be so that he can apply for his ID going through the same retrogressive, lengthy, and humiliating vetting process to obtain his ID card. As I currently write this article, the son is stateless just like his mother, and the tormenting circle continues. This lack of effective access to citizenship leaves them with a second-class status, condemned to live in poverty.

The Nubian children are born in Kenya without being registered to end up growing without much to expect in terms of life prospects, healthcare, or education, as they are limited to access such vital services as their identity discrimination makes them stateless. According to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of a child, this violates African Human rights standards.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mariam could not access any help that was being provided by the government because she didn’t have an ID. She had to close down her food business following the government-issued directives on shutting down eateries. Mariam was in turn forced to do only menial jobs like laundry and housekeeping as no one was even willing to buy food on the streets.

The ability for one to prove with certainty who they are, and, in a manner trusted by institutions and governments, is a fundamental prerequisite to access even the most basic services. Without this, one has limited access to healthcare, education, insurance and even owning a bank account. One’s ability to move across borders to vote is limited or non-existent too. And with the expansion of Kenya’s Identity Ecosystem, has given rise to additional issues of obtaining this vital credential to the marginalised ethnic groups, such as Somalis, Nubians, and those of Arab descent.

For now, all that Mariam can do is watch as the 37 million Kenyans who registered for Huduma Namba, line up to pick up their cards, as she wonders how long it would take, not only for herself but her two sons to be recognised as Kenyans officially.

Towards a fair and better system

Women, such as Mariam, fall victim to such discrimination of their human rights more times than we can imagine and it will continue to be a concern as long as such governments don’t recognise them as citizens. This happens in most places with the most gender-based inequalities like Africa, Asia, and other developing regions. The first step towards a solution is openly admitting that this is a problem that needs urgent addressing.

Even as civil society organisations remain robust to help marginalised ethnic groups such as the Nubians, more research is needed on such vulnerable groups on how to support them to end their predicaments once and for all. This should include a focus on past experiences of their levels of digital literacy, and their knowledge of their rights and entitlements i.e. accessing and using Kenya’s increasingly modernised systems of identification.

The first step towards a solution is openly admitting that this is a national problem that needs urgent addressing.

In 2019, Nubian Rights Forum, a community advocacy group, together with Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) filed legal cases to challenge the implementation of the Huduma Namba citing the exclusionary nature of the system and data privacy issues. The High Court directed the implementation to be halted till a comprehensive framework could be in place to address petitioned issues. Even though the Kenya government gazetted and implemented against the high court ruling, the mounting criticism led to Data Protection Act being passed that requires impact assessment before the system is implemented.

Even though such legal actions are applauded, there is always a concern of helping such focused ethnic groups to navigate the laborious national ID application process directly like representing them at hearings. This could prove useful even at an individual level.

As Kenya consolidates a modernised ID system as part of its development processes, with all the benefits and risks of a consolidated digital state register, vulnerable communities cannot be left out. This is critical, so that each resident, either registered or a foreigner within, can enjoy their human rights and not be discriminated upon.

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