Greetings to all concerned citizens and advocates for justice,
We stand at a pivotal moment in Kenya’s history, one that carries the potential for transformation and progress. The impending rollout of the “Maisha Namba” digital identity system represents a significant step towards modernization. However, it also raises critical concerns regarding public participation, discrimination, and privacy, which our coalition of civil society organizations is dedicated to addressing. In this article, we delve into the pressing issues brought to the forefront by our coalition and propose recommendations aimed at fostering a successful and inclusive digital identity system.
Insufficient Public Participation and Citizen Engagement:
Article 10 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 indicates that public participation is among the national values and principles of governance. This has the effect that citizens have the right to have their opinions heard on matters of national importance
Central to our concerns as the civil society coalition is the glaring lack of meaningful public involvement in shaping the Maisha Namba system. Despite the government’s aspirations to introduce this digital identity system, crucial information and proposals have been withheld from the public. Genuine public participation hinges on transparency, open dialogue, and affording citizens ample time to express their concerns and ideas.
The absence of these fundamental components raises doubts about the government’s commitment to an all-inclusive process. The government still has an opportunity to allow meaningful public participation, if it is committed to doing so. It needs only publish and publicize the information on which it seeks comments, actively engage the public, provide sufficient time for people to raise their concerns, and then substantively address those concerns.
Any rollout that has not first followed this process is not consistent with the national values and principles of good governance and will inevitably fail to fully anticipate or prevent the harms that a digital ID presents. It will also fail to garner the public support and understanding that are essential for the project’s success. Sharing information and meaningful public participation are not unnecessary burdens; they are essential to the ongoing success of the Maisha Namba. Investing the time and resources now will save time and resources later and, most importantly, ensure that the Maisha Namba is not another false start, but rather a program that improves lives, protects privacy, and eliminates long-standing discrimination.
Importance of a Revised and Improved Identification System:
We place a strong emphasis on the necessity of a digital identity system that transcends mere efficiency in government services. It must also serve as a guardian of citizens’ rights and a remedy for historical discrimination. Drawing wisdom from the challenges faced during the previous Huduma Namba initiative, it is evident that a digital identity system should champion inclusivity and uphold human rights principles to prevent the perpetuation of existing disparities. We have consistently maintained that it is important for the government to make changes that better the lives of its citizens.
Digitizing government services may be an important change for the better; yet it has an equally likely risk of harming Kenyans, entrenching discrimination, and excluding large swaths of the population from services they need and deserve. If the Maisha Namba is going to better lives, the government must understand the lives of those it will affect and the possible risks to human rights and day to day lives of the people these systems seek to govern.
Background on Attempts to Create a Digital ID in Kenya:
The Huduma Namba project, inaugurated in 2018, encountered a multitude of issues, including a lack of civic involvement and concerns regarding data protection. Legal judgments intervened, halting its progress and underscoring the imperative for substantial revisions. In June 2023, H.E. William Ruto issued a directive that led to the formation of the National Digital Identity Technical Committee (NDITC) and the conceptualization of Maisha Namba.
Regrettably, the finer details of this novel system have remained shrouded in secrecy, denying the public access to critical information. We learned from the similar, largely flawed, and poorly rolled out Huduma Namba, that the digital identity system in Kenya must be inclusive, human rights-centered, and designed in a manner that anticipates the risks a digital ID creates. We hope that the government has learned these lessons, as well, and incorporates past learning in a transparent manner. The question remains; will these digital identity systems be inclusive or merely a replication of the mistakes made in the implementation of the Huduma Namba project? Because the NDTIC has not shared its proposal for the Maisha Namba, the prospects for an inclusive system that is responsive to the public’s needs remain dim.
The judiciary consistently recognized flaws in the execution of the digital identity system, underscoring the need to address data protection and discrimination issues before proceeding. A recurring issue has been the absence of a comprehensive data protection impact assessment.
In a decision delivered on 30 January 2020 on the implications of the amendments to The Registration of Persons Act to introduce NIIMS, the High Court required that the Huduma Namba process be halted. It noted failures in ensuring that the Huduma Namba protected the right to privacy, found that certain information collected by the NIIMS system, namely DNA and GPS coordinates, was superfluous, and held that additional security and data protection frameworks needed to be implemented before the Huduma Namba could go into effect. A later attempt to roll out NIIMS without first addressing the concerns raised by the High Court led to additional litigation. Once again, the courts stopped the process, finding that the government had failed to meaningfully respond to the flaws that had been identified in the previous judgment and reiterating that the process could not continue unless those flaws were addressed.
Discrimination and Exclusion, System Design:
Our coalition steadfastly highlights the historical discrimination endured by specific groups in their pursuit of identity documents. To engender true inclusivity, the digital identity system must actively rectify these injustices. Additionally, concerns regarding centralized data storage and its potential infringement on citizens’ privacy have surfaced. We advocate for a decentralized approach to mitigate these privacy risks.
Our coalition offers a series of recommendations to guide the establishment of a successful digital identity system in Kenya:
- Conduct a comprehensive data protection impact assessment.
- Forge a robust regulatory framework through nationwide public participation.
- Terminate the vetting process for national identity cards and institute affirmative action measures.
- Embrace a privacy-by-design approach, opting for decentralized data storage.
- Undertake a comprehensive Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA).
- Engage civil society and the public in pertinent committees.
- Ensure transparency in technology procurement processes, including the public disclosure of contracts.
The triumphant implementation of Kenya’s digital identity system, Maisha Namba, pivots on the pivotal pillars of meaningful public participation, safeguarding citizens’ rights, and rectifying historical injustices. Transparency, openness, and unwavering commitment to human rights principles stand as essential building blocks, vital for instilling public trust and ensuring the broad inclusivity of this ambitious endeavor.
In unity for a just and inclusive digital identity system,
Nubian Rights Forum