Zimbabwe’s Vision 2030 clouds Big Brother technology

Nhlanhla Ngwenya
09 Jul 2021

RIA is working with 10 African partners evaluating the rollout of digital ID systems in respective countries under the auspices of our BIO-ID project. Our country partners are summarising their findings in blogs, and in this installation, media freedom and freedom of expression activist, Nhlanhla Ngwenya, shares three stories that he believes provide an indication of how Zimbabwe is approaching digital ID. To delve deeper into the issues highlighted in his blog, scroll down for an interview that RIA conducted with him.

Three recent and isolated events that passed with little public interest, despite their ramifications for citizens’ fundamental right to privacy, give a hint of the state of digital IDs, citizens’ data and authorities’ secretive attitude in Zimbabwe.

Worse, there has not been much probing by the media, civil society or the opposition to uncover what is going on, connect the dots and hold authorities accountable to their constitutional obligations in promoting and protecting citizens’ basic freedoms, as the country adopts digital technologies in its governance processes. Instead, issues have been reported as dissimilar in the context of glorifying the government as delivering on its public service mandate and Vision 2030. However, evidence points to the contrary. 

Biometric database

On 26 May 2021, the Zimbabwean government announced that Cabinet had approved the proposed engagement of a private partner in the implementation of a National Biometric Database for the production of e-Passports, National IDs and Birth Certificates, which will see the country increase its passport production to four million a year. This announcement, buried in a statement enthusiastically proclaiming government’s purported progress in its march towards its 2030 economic revival goals, hardly aroused much media interest. As a result, there were no investigations as to who the “private partner” was, how the tendering process was managed, and when exactly the project would be rolled out. But most importantly, there was no attempt to seek clarity on what exactly the project meant to Zimbabwe’s existing national identity registration framework and citizens’ data already stored in the country’s national database.

Instead, the hype was on government’s “positive progress” in the implementation of the National Development Strategy 1, in line with its Vision 2030 to transform Zimbabwe into an upper-middle economy, despite the effects of COVID-19 pandemic.  

Not that there’s anything wrong with government’s ambitious plans. The issue is the manner in which the media and other key observers have allowed authorities to obfuscate potentially harmful effects of their project on citizens’ liberties all in the name of Vision 2030. That is not only worrying, but gives the government latitude to violate Zimbabweans’ constitutional rights unchecked.   

National Data Centre

On 24 February 2021, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, accompanied by his deputies, senior ministers and politicians from his ruling party – typical of his entourage in almost all government project events – commissioned the National Data Centre, which is established under the country’s ICT Policy. The national development mantra was again used to muddy the underlying implications of this on citizens’ data and right to privacy.

According to government’s daily mouthpiece, The Herald, the Centre, which was established in collaboration with the ChineseInspur Group and Sino-Zimbabwe, would “anchor all e-government programmes and will allow co-ordinated planning and monitoring of results”.  

In his address, Mnangagwa thanked China for its “invaluable” support and “technical expertise and knowledge around e-governance”, noting that the facilities such as the National Data Centre will “ensure that Zimbabwe is not left behind” in the current development agenda where technology plays a big role and “viewed as the lifeblood of all business transaction and human interactions”.   

His deputy, Constantine Chiwenga, concurred, adding that with the Centre “all Government data would be housed in a single repository”.

This development passed without curiosity from the media or civil society. Rather than probe the purpose of the Centre beyond the official rhetoric, the media appeared disinterested. While this was to be expected of the government-controlled dominant media, it is concerning that the private media was more interested in the presence at the event of Mnangagwa’s second deputy Kembo Mohadi, who was then battling to contain audio leaks of certain scandals bordering on the abuse of office.     

As it stands, Zimbabweans are none the wiser on the relevance of the Centre particularly as it relates to their personal data held by government entities. This is particularly important given the interoperability between different government units. It is a matter of public knowledge that the country has an integrated data system, which is predicated on the foundational national identity registry. It is the same system that is used for mobile SIM card registration, vehicle registration, voter registration, civil servants auditing, among other personal identification processes. The question that remains unanswered is what is the relationship of the Centre with this integrated data system? As hinted by Chiwenga, is the Centre now going to be the repository of all the data held by government, including personal information? If so, what are the mechanisms to ensure safe and secure storage, usage, sharing and disposal of that data? 

These issues, among a host of others, remain unaddressed, leaving the majority of citizens in the dark on the likely effect of the Centre on their right to data protection and privacy. While this may reflect the reluctance of the government-controlled media to put their handlers on the spot, it may generally underline the lack of media capacity and comprehension of the intersectionality of these digitisation programmes and citizen’s rights as well as the role of global actors such as China in the scheme of things.

It is for this reason that despite the presence of China in government’s digital programmes, the media have made no effort to examine the projects to get details of the scope and nature of agreements and developments. This is especially concerning given the poor record China holds in the deployment of digital tools to curtail online freedoms and suppress critique. 

Dark deal with China 

One would have hoped that the Zimbabwean government’s 2019 deal with China’s CloudWalk Technology would have spurred the media and civil society to probe such digital programmes and demand accountability, because unlike other projects, the implications of this particular deal were apparent. 

As part of the deal signed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa, CloudWalk Technology was to provide a mass facial recognition technology, which would in essence give the company access to a black racial mix in the development and expansion of Chinese surveillance technology. Besides CCTV cameras, the project was to include “smart financial systems, airport, railway station and security and a national facial database”. According to The Herald, Zimbabwe’s Former Ambassadors to China and an advisor to President Mnangagwa celebrated the partnership with Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend” noting that the benefits were not only to ensure smoother passenger processing at the country’s border posts and points of entry, but also to help government build a smart financial banking system. He added:

An ordinary Zimbabwean probably won’t believe that you can buy your groceries or pay your electricity bill by scanning your face, but this is where technology is taking us and as the Government, we are happy because we are moving with the rest of the world. 

No doubt this would be good were it only meant to facilitate ease of doing business and improve services for citizens. However, the underlying sinister motives are hard to miss. Precisely because of the opacity surrounding the scope and roll out of the project as well as the damning record of Chinese investment in surveillance technology to erode citizens’ rights  and Zimbabwe’s chequered human rights record. Fears are that data collected through the projects will most likely be used for surveillance of government opponents and crushing dissent. These misgivings over the project are based on reports of other technology projects on the continent by Chinese firms allegedly meant to entrench the States’ spying on its citizens as well as the publicly held suspicion that similar Chinese technology has been used to manipulate the vote in the past.

It is therefore critical that the media, civil society and even the opposition in parliament highlight these issues. This will help ensure that the Zimbabwean government is pressured to be accountable and comply with the country’s constitution as well as international instruments on balancing technological developments with the protection of citizens’ digital rights. Failure to do so will create room for the adoption of policies and investment into projects that will severely erode Zimbabweans’ basic online freedoms with no one raising the alarm. And given the character of the Zimbabwean government, it is best that citizens actively stand guard over their rights pre-emptively instead of acting after the fact and pursuing the reversal of policies through captured state institutions and appellant bodies. It has not worked in the past and indications are that it will not work in the immediate future.

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 supported by the Omidyar Network, 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 interview with Nhlanhla Ngwenya of Zimbabwe below.

Zimbabwe’s digital ID system helps eliminate ‘ghost’ public servants

Although media freedom and freedom of expression activist, Nhlanhla Ngwenya, is concerned about the state potentially exploiting Zimbabwe’s digital ID system to infringe upon citizens’ rights, he also points out that it has had at least one positive e-governance outcome by exposing “ghost” public sector workers that have been inflating the country’s wage bill.

KS: We’ve 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?

NN: In my view the interest largely revolves around improving governance processes. For example, the World Bank has been supporting digital IDs in the region under its ID4D, as part of its efforts to help improve e-governance and reduce government expenditure especially as it relates to reducing the public service wage bill. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the Bank’s support helped government eliminate “ghost” public servants who, for years, had inflated the wage bill. In some instances, the investment in the digital IDs has been directed at addressing challenges pertaining to traditional identity systems, which have led to the exclusion of some people from the population registry.

In Zimbabwe, government has announced that it will soon roll out a National Biometric ID registration programme to deal with perennial problems relating to poor production of passports and easing the process of obtaining other identification documentation. The interest is also rooted in the potential advantages brought about by digital IDs such as eliminating double counting of individuals (duplicate registration entries), improving government welfare programmes, improving public service delivery, promoting financial inclusion, among other benefits.

KS: If policymakers in Zimbabwe can take away one lesson from your case study, what do you hope it will be? 

NN: Although digital IDs come with immense benefits, there is need for a legislative framework that should provide guidance on the issuance and management of such identification. This is to ensure that the process does not infringe on citizens’ fundamental rights, especially their right to privacy, as well as address other potential risks and harms that come with digital IDs. There are persuasive charters that can be used as reference documents in formulating such as a framework. 

What research still needs to be done to support the future development of digital IDs that support, not hinder, socio-digital equality on the continent? 

NN: There are reports that millions of people on the continent are not registered at birth and thus don’t have birth certificates, which in many countries are a prerequisite for getting a foundational ID. This means that this significant number of people will potentially remain excluded from the digital ID programmes and by extension all other socio-economic benefits that come with it. There is therefore a need to conduct research on the challenges faced by marginalised communities and what measures need to be taken to register them and ensure that the inclusion envisioned under digital IDs benefits all. 

What are your biggest hopes for the future of digital ID’s in Zimbabwe?

NN: I do hope that the digital IDs will help address the country’s enduring problems relating to the registration of individuals as underlined by failure by some sections of the population to get identity documents, which are required for obtaining national identity documents. The effective roll out of the programme will hopefully ensure that those that are currently left out of the population registry get registered and qualify to access services that can only be rendered upon production of identity documentation. 

What are your biggest fears for the future of digital ID’s in Zimbabwe?My biggest fear is the abuse of the digital

NN: IDs for surveillance of citizens, especially those that are opposed to the ruling government. This fear is grounded on the fact that government seems uninterested in consulting the public and ensuring their meaningful participation in its digitisation programmes, which has created a degree of mistrust on the underlying intentions of such developments.