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At last, a National ID?

By Independent reporter

Uganda might finally stop being the `bad boy’ of the region

Surname: Museveni.  Given Name: Yoweri. Nationality: UGA. Sex: M. Date of Birth:15.09.1944. Card Number: 000000001. Those are some of the entries on President Yoweri Museveni’s National Identity card. The President got his card on May 21, 2011 and was the first Ugandan to be issued the card under the project formally called the National Security Information System (NSIS).


Three years after the event at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds and five years after the project was launched in 2009, only 400 IDs have been made. Meanwhile, the initial bill of Shs185 billion has already climbed with over Shs240 billion spent so far.

In the latest phase, on April 3, the Minister of State for Internal affairs, James Baba, flagged off the official start of registration of all Ugandans aged 16 years and above. Those are supposed to get national IDs in the first phase which, according to the minister, ends on February 27, 2015.

In a gesture of commitment to the task, James Baba said any Ugandan who will not have registered by then will not be eligible for employment, education, or access healthcare.

Baba said under the East African Community integration process, member states are required to register their citizens and give them IDs to enable free and easy movement of persons.

“Some member states are ahead but Uganda has been lagging behind and we did not want to be the bad boys,” he said.

In mid-February, there was excitement when President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame crossed into Uganda using their IDs. The two had jetted in as part of activities to fast track the integration process of the East African Community.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs which is managing the project has also launched a mass media campaign to educate Ugandans about the importance of the IDs. Up to 8,000 enrollment kits are to be distributed across the country at sub-county level and 16,000 officials to conduct the registration are to be recruited.

On March 8 International Women’s Day, when President Museveni briefed the country about the ID project, he attempted to show the relevance of a national ID to ordinary citizens. He said it will finally give the country a reliable and easily traceable identity card that is also difficult to forge.

“We are about to achieve that through acquiring a computerised identity card which has got one’s picture, bio-data (name, height, etc) and a thumb-print (ekinkumu),” he said.

Muhlbauer Technology obsolete?

But some Ugandans remain skeptical. The process of issuing the IDs has become long and convoluted. After Museveni got his national ID in 2011, the ID project was launched a second time at East Kololo Primary School in Kampala in July 2013. This is when a few first IDs were issued.

At the centre of all episodes has been a German firm, Muhlbauer Technology Ltd, which was first contracted to supply a biometric national voter registration system and failed.

When the project was first mooted in the 1990s and attempts were made to implement it in 2003, it was called the National Population Databank and Identification Solutions. It collapsed amidst allegations of corruption in 2005.

Part of the problem with implementation of the ID project was the involvement of several government departments, each very powerful and anxious to take control of it. There was the Population Secretariat, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, the Electoral Commission (EC), the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration, and the National Information Technology Authority (NITA).

Some, like the EC which argued that it was already registering all adults anyway, had a stronger case than others. The EC wanted a mandate that emphasised data sharing. In fact, those who are eligible to receive IDs in this phase are those whose bio-data details were captured during the voter registration exercise by the EC prior to the 2011 general elections.

Interestingly, the registration process for the ID might be jeopardised by fear.

The IDs will be made of polycarbonate and carry visible features like a photo of the card holder, his/her signature, date of birth, sex, card number, date of expiry, a thumb print and the national flag with the map of Uganda. It will also have invisible features like tribe, clan, village, parish, district, details of spouses and children.

Big brother syndrome

In a country where basic liberties are often curtailed, the motives of gathering the personal data and storing it with a government agent to be called the National Identity Registrar could become suspect. The same fear percolates to information that will be stored on mini-servers at the sub-counties. Even when the government explains that the information will be used to provide better social services in health, education, better tax management, and security, questions remain. Would information from a national population and household survey suffice?

The opposition is similar to that in the U.S. towards the universal national identity card. Just like some Ugandans, American critics of the ID in America contend that it will impose a ‘Big Brother’ effect on them because of the biometric method of data entry.

Pamela Ankunda, a government apparatchik who moved from the government propaganda arm; the Media Centre, is the spokesperson of The National ID Project. When she spoke to The Independent, extolled some benefits of the national identity cards but also warned those who might seek to avoid getting it. The benefits were mainly elitist; curtailing dependence on forged driving permits and passports. But the penalties were real.

“By 2017,” she warned, “parents without national identity cards will not be able to access UPE and USE for their children.”

Fortunately for Ankunda, there are many citizens like Joram Oketcho, a trader, who support the project. Oketcho says he has been travelling to China and Dubai for more than a decade and has never felt a need for a national ID. But he now wants it.

“Once issued, it will check the influx of illegal immigrants who easily set up shop and give local businesses serious competition,” he says.

Dr Arthur Bainomugisha, the executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE); a leading advocacy NGO also supports the ID project.

“The national ID will facilitate regional integration because of harmonisation of economic and social policies,” he says. But he too warns about the need for due diligence by implementers. He cites Rwanda where such documented identification of Hutu and Tutsis exacerbated the genocide where over a million Rwandans lost their lives.

Interestingly, it is mandatory that upon attaining the age of sixteen, a Rwandan citizen is issued a national identity card. They use it for everyday tasks like opening a bank account or applying to join a university.

In Kenya, a national ID is a requirement for registering a business, attaining a driving license, or transacting mobile phone banking.

Matters are not helped by the ID project being handled by the army under Col. Stephen Kwiringira. The army’s lead role means most of its activities are now “classified” and may not be questioned. Sources that spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity say, the main reason for army involvement has to do with procurement of equipment.

Secretive procurements

When the government’s procurement experts and critical outsiders begun questioning the logic of the project buying cameras, laptops, and other equipment that could be outsourced for one-off use, its drivers opted to push the purchases underground .  Muhlbauer supplied similar equipment to the EC for the 2011 elections. Even before the elections were held, however, most of it had been stolen and vandalised.  Already, there have been concerns about the quality of the card. It is alleged that the new cards use obsolete barcode technology when they should be using smart card technology.

Even as the national ID project enters the critical implementation stage, questions are still being asked about how an ID will improve the everyday life of everyday citizens. Most Ugandans have identity cards of their village of residence or work stations, or school. A few have driving permits that often serve as IDs. A further small number that either travels or hopes to travel, have passports. Most feel no need for a national ID. Hopefully, that will change when they finally hold the physical card, government services improve, and election rigging ends.

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