Uganda: Are Digital IDs a Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?

Neema Iyer
23 Jun 2021

RIA is working with 10 African partners that are evaluating the rollout of digital ID systems in their respective countries under the auspices of our BIO-ID project. Our partners are producing blogs to introduce you to the issues that their evaluations are uncovering in this important new research area. Neema Iyer, executive director of Pollicy, kicks off the blog series by writing about Uganda’s digital ID rollout. To delve deeper into the issues highlighted in her blog, scroll down for an interview that RIA conducted with her.

National ID initiatives are underway across many African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Botswana. Digital IDs have been widely considered as a means of improving public service delivery for millions of people around the world through the verification and authentication of one’s identity for financial, social and political inclusion. Despite the potential benefits of digital IDs for accelerating efficiencies, convenience, transparency and accountability, especially by replacing paper-based systems, these systems have the potential to amplify harms and discrimination within society, when implemented without care and a social justice lens.

A digital ID, which is in practice an extension of existing forms of identification, such as a driver’s license or a voting card, can encapsulate a broad range of data about an individual such as a unique identity number, name, citizenship, ethnicity, biometric data, behavioural data, online activity and any other information, as deemed necessary by the mandating bodies, including fingerprints, retina, iris scans and DNA. 

In many of the countries rolling out these ID programs, marginalised groups and the civil society organisations representing them have been excluded from the conversation on the conceptualisation and implementation of the ID systems. There is little room to provide feedback on the processes to government stakeholders and little has been done to solicit the opinions of different interest groups in these countries. Developing nationwide systems is an ongoing endeavour that can go through many iterations depending on the user experience of citizens in every step of the process, such as awareness creation, registration, procurement, utilisation, loss, replacement and so on, otherwise one risks enforcing a system based on “exclusion-by-design”.

Taking Uganda as a case study, several exclusionary practices have been identified at the registration phase specifically targeting marginalized groups on the basis of disability, tradition and ethnicity. For example, persons with disabilities, such as those without hands, have been turned away on the grounds that they are unable to provide fingerprints. Other countries such as Tanzania, permit the use of a palm, toe prints or any other special identification mark instead of a fingerprint when fingers, for example, cannot be used due to disability. Similarly, persons in traditional marriages who are unable to produce an official marriage certificate from a church, mosque or magistrate court, are unable to register for an ID without annulling their marriages. 

Lastly, ethnic minorities have been denied IDs due to exclusion from the national schedule that lists ethnic groups within the country. The Maragoli, an ethnic group living in Kiryandongo district have been claiming recognition as Ugandans, but in some counties were denied National IDs by the National Identification Registration Authority (NIRA). Although the Maragoli were absent in the national schedule of the 1995 Constitution and the 2005 amendment, they were granted the same rights as all Ugandan citizens until the promulgation of the Registration of Persons Act 2015, which effectively retracted the IDs of the Maragoli unless they registered under a listed tribe, such as the Banyaro or Alur.  

Other barriers such as prohibitive distances, lack of application forms in local languages and inability to physically present oneself at the registration office due to age or illness widen inequities in accessing an ID. 

Such discriminatory practices during the registration process leads to further exclusion from service delivery for already marginalised groups. In March 2021, prior to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health tweeted that only those with National Identification Cards or National Identification Numbers will have access to the vaccine offered by the Ministry of Health in Uganda. Several prominent civil society organisations protested this action as a practice that would undermine the fundamental right to health and is in contravention to several international instruments that Uganda is party to. Following widespread objection as well as a petition filed by civil society organisations, such as ISER, the requirement for identification was withdrawn by the Ministry of Health. However, some public health facilities still ask people for the national ID. 

Similarly, older persons have been excluded from Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment (SAGE) by providing incorrect information related to their age, either because they are unaware of their date of birth or because they misunderstand the purpose of the digital ID. As a result, they are unable to access benefits that are vital for their wellbeing. The Senior Citizens Grant provides direct income support of $7 (25,000) shillings per month to elderly persons.

Despite the discrepancies highlighted above, digital IDs can propel development and growth within African countries. However, governments need to work together with civil society and citizens to ensure that ID systems work for all citizens regardless of gender, age, location, ethnicity and ability. By not bringing together diverse perspectives to reimagine identity management, we risk harming the most vulnerable in our societies.

Dig Deeper

Poor and marginalised people make up the largest percentage of people without official identity. Due to existing digital and structural inequalities these groups are at risk of further discrimination and socio-economic exclusion depending on how Digital ID systems are developed. If not carefully evaluated, the digitalisation of ID systems may also subject citizens to state surveillance. As a result, there is a growing and urgent need to examine the impact of Digital ID systems on human rights in Africa and use these findings to develop evaluation frameworks that ensure compliance with international rights and data protection norms. To support this need Research ICT Africa’s BIO–ID project deploys a legal Evaluation Framework for Digital Identities developed by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS). This framework was previously used to evaluate the Indian government’s mandatory biometric ID project that was found to have violated citizens’ human rights by denying them access to essential services and benefits. The African evaluation project brings together partners from 10 African countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

In addition to the blogs being produced by our country partners to introduce you to the issues that they’re uncovering in this important new research area, RIA’s Kristophina Shilongo is interviewing partners to delve deeper into the socio-economic challenges ushered in by the rollout of digital ID systems in Africa. Read her first interview below.

BIO ID’s in Uganda: A Violation of Human Rights

In the first of the series of interviews with our partners participating in RIA’s BIO-ID project, Kristophina Shilongo interviews Neema Iyer, executive director of the Ugandan based Pollicy. Iyer is concerned about social justice issues that have taken a backseat in Uganda’s digital ID ecosystem. The biometric card system that was introduced by the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) in 2015, is riddled with flaws contributing to the exclusion of millions of Ugandans. According to a recent report, up to a quarter of Uganda’s adult population did not have a biometric identity card in 2020, excluding them from accessing vital healthcare and social services.

KS: We have seen a lot of interest in digital ID on the continent from a diversity of donor agencies, financial institutions, and governments. Why do you think this is the case?

NI: In my opinion, when considering a social justice lens, citizens must have access to public service delivery, with or without an ID. An ID usually becomes an exclusionary device, rather than one that expands services.

In the push by donors and financial institutions, there is money to be made in 1) building these technological systems, everything from printing the IDs, maintaining the systems, etc. 2) building financing mechanisms, and more importantly, debt, requires a good ID system to track and trace customers, and 3) tracking migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. On the one hand, IDs can be empowering for refugees as it gives them privileges to participate in their host country, such as applying for a driver license, jobs, education and so on, but can also be a source of bureaucratic and other harms through discriminatory policies that sort and classify people based on their ethnicity, nationality, or religion. For governments, once again, it’s an efficient method to track citizens, keep tabs on activities and in many cases, can become a tool for surveillance. At Pollicy, we recently published a report together with our partners in Kenya, Article19 and Kictanet on surveillance, data protection and freedom of expression in Kenya and Uganda during COVID-19. In both countries, the surveillance environment expanded against a backdrop of weak accountability and transparency and the non-proactive disclosure of information about both governments’ responses to the pandemic.

KS: If policymakers in Uganda can take away some lessons from your case study, what do you hope it will be?

NI: The need to improve the efficiency of dispersing the IDs to reduce mission creep and to consider the needs of persons with disabilities. In the case of Uganda, we (Pollicy) conducted interviews and focus group discussions with persons with disabilities in Northern Uganda and many reported that if they were unable to present their fingerprints, either due to wear or due to disability, they were simply turned back and were never able to receive their IDs. In the case of Tanzania, there is a clear course of action in the 2014 Regulations, which provides for the collection of alternative biometric information in case of disability, rendering it impractical to collect the prescribed information such as fingerprints. The law permits the use of a palm, toe prints or any other special identification mark instead of a fingerprint when fingers, for example, cannot be used due to disability. Policymakers should do a thorough situation analysis and engage with civil society to ensure that the voices of diverse stakeholders are considered and a significant proportion of risks mitigated when implementing a national system that will impact the entire population of the country. Furthermore, after implementation, this discourse, feedback and exchange must continue between citizens, civil society and government to ensure that the system works for everyone and that no one is left behind.

KS: What research still needs to be done to support the future development of digital IDs that support, not hinder, socio-digital equality in Africa?

NI: It’s important to understand how mission creep can occur in ID systems and how to implement systems that stop unlawful or unjust uses of digital IDs, both by governments and by malicious actors. Many of the national identification system laws that were studied over the course of this project give the minister in charge wide sweeping powers to decide, at their discretion, what kinds of biometric data will be collected, what the purposes of this collection might be, and then removes any liability or accountability from the persons deciding on these policies or handling the data. This opens up a dangerous can of worms for governing our data, privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, access to public services, etc., with marginalised people, dissenting voices, persons with disabilities etc. often suffering the most from such practices. Policymakers need to work more closely with civil society to develop and support systems that are open and accountable to the citizens based on ongoing research and iterative feedback. This includes informing citizens of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to using their IDs and personal data, as this is an area we’ve consistently found to be weak in our research work within communities.

KS: What are your biggest hopes for the future of digital ID’s in Uganda?

NI: I hope that the system of obtaining and replacing a lost ID card will be improved in the coming months. At present, these processes can take several months or even years, several trips to the NIRA offices and in some instances, require bribing staff to procure the appropriate services, as revealed by a recent report by Unwanted Witness, whereby 25% of respondents paid a bribe to expedite receipt of their ID. Some countries have or are in the process of passing laws to store a digital version of their national ID card on their phone and use it as a digital ID (with a PIN for authentication). Even within Uganda, agencies like URA and URSB have made significant strides in adopting a diverse range of innovation to improve citizen and customer experiences at different touchpoints with government services. Such advances that ease the process of replacing a lost ID, that streamline eGovernment services without the need for considerable investment in time and resources would go a very long way in improving the experiences of Ugandas with the digital ID system.