Buy-in or force-in to the Ghana Card?

Smith Oduro-Marfo · Teki Akuetteh Falconer
06 Aug 2021

RIA is working with 10 African partners evaluating the rollout of digital ID systems in their respective countries under the auspices of our BIO-ID project. Our country partners are summarising their findings in blogs, and in this installation, Smith Oduro-Marfo, PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada and Teki Akuetteh Falconer, executive director of the Africa Digital Rights Hub, write about the manner that Ghana’s smart ID card is being imposed by its government. They argue that Ghana’s “force-in” approach could result in people without the smart ID card losing out on important social goods and services. To delve deeper into the issues highlighted in this blog, scroll down for an interview that RIA conducted with one of its authors.

Ghana’s national identification system and associated ID has been promoted as key to the country’s development pursuits. While the said objective may hold some validity, the legislated compulsion underlying the use of the system and ID will likely undermine citizens’ access to public and private goods and services.

In the last couple of years, the project has seen much progress, and according to the country’s National Identification Authority (NIA), about 15.5 million citizens have been registered out of a population of about 29 million. As of June 2021, 13.8 million national ID cards have been distributed. The Ghana card is “smart” as it holds the biometric information of citizens, has a 148 kilobyte memory chip and can host 14 different applications, including the passport for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). 

Ghana’s government is increasingly trying to make the card even smarter. It has been pushing to deepen the interoperability capabilities of the Ghana card by, for example, making a person’s card identification number serve also as a tax identification number, or linking it to the database of the National Health insurance Scheme and the Social Security National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) — Ghana’s main national social insurance/pension scheme. 

Yet it remains unclear whether Ghanaian citizens are mandated by law to register for the national ID. While the card is for all Ghanaian citizens, there is really no explicit law that makes it compulsory to register. Instead, as discussed later, there is an explicit law tying access to certain services to the national ID. 

The NIA indicates on its website that it has the “authority to compel anyone who may choose not to register to provide information and will outline a policy and punitive measures to be applied to those who may fail to participate”. Again, it is not clear which law provides the said authority.

To encourage ID use and interoperability, the NIA and the Ghana government tend to prefer an approach that can be described as a ‘force-in’ (the opposite of voluntary citizen ‘buy-in’). Any state policy or project directed at citizens has a higher probability of success where citizens willingly accept its legitimacy and utility and proceed to support the policy or project. However, the Ghana government and the NIA seem to view the national identification project as so urgent and important that waiting for a full citizens’ and even institutional ‘buy-in’ may be risky.  

The resulting ‘force-in’ approach is evidenced by Regulation 7 of the National Identity Register Regulations (2012), captioned, “Mandatory use of national identity card”. Regulation 7(1) mandates that where “identification is required”, the national ID shall be used in transactions such as applying for passport, driver’s license, voter’s ID, bank account, national health insurance; registration of land; purchasing SIM card; payment of taxes; transactions with social security implications; and applications for “public and government services, facilities, approvals, permissions or benefits”. This provision has not only stayed in law, but has been insisted upon in the latest voters registration exercise in Ghana in 2020. Governmental actors have also indicated that there is going to be a SIM card re-registration exercise that will require the national ID card. 

However, it was positive that during the voters registration, persons without the Ghana card could instead show their passport or have a registered voter vouch for their identity. While the passport is likely the least accessed state issued-ID in Ghana, it was still a laudable inclusion effort to have alternative means of proving identity available to citizens. Hopefully, the upcoming SIM card registration exercise will also allow various means of proving identity. However, any such provision may only be discretionary and a ‘benevolent’ implementation of Regulation 7 of the National Identity Register Regulations

Where governmental actors decide to rigidly insist on the said Regulation 7, there is a high likelihood that many Ghanaians without the national ID may miss out on crucial goods and services. The benevolent implementation of the law is still not the law, but what the voters’ registration exercise showed is that the benevolent approach works well enough, is more inclusive, and could be the actual law. After all, while the law, for example, mandates the use of the Ghana card in banking, banks in Ghana are currently not accepting the Ghana card in their transactions as they do not have a ready national ID database to verify customer credentials with. An important realization, then, is that the banks are functioning well enough by accepting multiple IDs such as the passport, the SSNIT card, driver’s license, and the previous voter’s ID. After all, all of these are cards that the state sanctioned and spent substantial financial resources promoting. It is rather curious that the state will even need a nudge to allow citizens, as alternative means of proving their identity and citizenship, to use IDs issued by the state itself.

Inclusive approaches must always be the default position in ID policy making and it works better where such inclusion is backed by law and not subject to the subjectivity of state and governmental actors. Ultimately, focus must not be taken away from always protecting citizens’ rights, no matter how much the state wants a particular ID project and its interoperability to work, especially where a citizen’s identity can be easily proven with other IDs.

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 interview with Smith Oduro-Marfo of Ghana below.

Will Ghana’s digital ID promote financial inclusion?

In the fifth of the series of interviews with our partners participating in RIA’s BIO-ID projectKristophina Shilongo interviews Smith Oduro-Marfo, PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, who argues that there is a great deal of hype about digital IDs promoting financial inclusion in Ghana. According to Oduro-Marfo, this will have to be tested by empirical studies.

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?

TAF: We will say that there are two main reasons for this trend. The first is the increasing efforts to present digital IDs as development tools. Here, the narrative is that a major reason underlying the reduced capacity of the state to lead development is the illegibility of their societies. As James C. Scott famously frames it, states must see society in order to function. In this sense, digital IDs are presented as an opportunity to allow the states to see its citizens, differentiate amongst them and also to monitor them. That way, the tax net for example, can be broadened. The state can also be more efficient and effective in targeting citizens with welfare services. On this basis, governments and international development partners are all interested in digital IDs. The second reason is the market opportunity. This flows from the first reason, if digital IDs are tools for accelerated national development, then it has to be appealing to most Global South countries, often termed as developing or under-developed. Thus, unsurprisingly, there are many Global North and Asian ID companies that are marketing their software and hardware solutions across Africa. 

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

TAF: Basically, what we find in our study is that Ghana has a number of legitimate, and useful laws guiding the various identification systems. The ID-specific laws are also strengthened by the existence of the Data Protection Act 2012 (Act 843). What must really be re-considered is the provisions in section 7 of the National Identity Register Regulations 2012 (LI 2111) mandating transactions for which the national ID is required. These transactions are both undertaken by public and private actors and include land registration, opening a bank account, registering for health insurance, and SIM registration. We do not believe that making the national ID a requirement for the listed services is necessary especially in a context where other state-issued ID exists, including the National Health Insurance card, the passport, driver’s license and voter’s ID. As these IDs are supposed to be adequate proof of identity, and are sanctioned by the state, there should be legal provisions that support their use where a person cannot produce or provide the national ID. Right now, these other IDs are accepted for various transactions, but the law must explicitly back this practice to remove it from the realm of subjectivity.

Also, having useful laws is not enough. Enforcement is always very important.

KS: 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? 

TAF: A lot is being said about how digital IDs promote financial inclusion. We will be interested in an actual empirical study on how practical this is. We suspect that there could be expanded inclusion in the context of access to the national ID. This is fostered, for instance, by the fact that Ghana’s national ID is free for citizens and can be accessed as a legal right. However, as the national ID is used more and more, we are interested in how the access to the national ID actually deepens quality and favourable participation in national economic life. 

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

TAF: We hope that the much-publicised development and financial inclusion goals will be realised. The great citizen buy-in for the national ID (popularly called the Ghanacard) is nice to see as it helps broaden access. However, we are aware that political and socio-economic institutions change slowly, if at all. In that sense, even as digital IDs for example make tax collection easier for the state, we hope that existing institutions allow the efficient use of these resources in improving the welfare of citizens.  

KS: What are your biggest fears for the future of digital IDs in Ghana?

TAF: Ghana tends to have some of the most beautiful national laws on Earth, and it is the same in the ID space. The long-standing challenge has always been about enforcement. On one hand, these IDs make state and corporate surveillance more possible. But this could be for good or for adverse ends. How sure can we be that the Data Protection Act for example, will be aptly enforced, especially against state actors. We really hope the National Identification Authority; the Data Protection Commission and the law courts can enforce existing laws to protect privacy rights and civil rights.