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Selling citizenship?

By Stephen Kafeero

Frustration as corruption, incompetence delay issuance of national IDs

Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka’s proposal that individuals pay for national identity cards has been equated to selling the Ugandan identity.

In her Budget Speech on June 14, the Minister said “economically active Ugandans” would be allowed “to pay for the identity cards on a cost-sharing basis.”

Kiwanuka said those payments would speed up implementation of the National ID Project which stalled amidst allegations of corruption and breach of contract, after government spent over Shs 200 billion which has not been accounted for.

It is not clear how much individuals will pay for the IDs and whether Ugandans who cannot afford the cost will be denied the document, but commentators including government officials are concerned that cost-sharing contains the risk of disenfranchising nationals who cannot pay, while selling the national identity to foreigners who can.

Members of Parliament have threatened not to pass the budget of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in protest. Ministry officials were scheduled to appear in Parliament on Wednesday, July 4.

“How can Ugandans be made to pay for their own identity?” asked Gerald Karuhanga, Youth MP for Western Uganda.

Calling it “madness”, Karuhanga said it was a ploy by government not to issue the cards for fear that “IDs would make it easy to scrutinize the voters’ register and stop vote rigging.”

Illegal, unconstitutional?

Bwesigye Marcellino Kyamutetera, deputy leader at the National Security Information System (NSIS) technical team, appeared to suggest that the proposal was illegal, as the Uganda Citizenship and Immigration Control Act provides that identity cards are to be issued free for the first time, and a fee only be charged for  replacement if the original is lost.

“Unless Parliament changes the law to that effect, the ID’s will have to be issued for free,” Kyamutetera said.

The official said possession of a national identity card by every Uganda was critical to cover gaping holes in the national security and information system, and the requirement for people to pay may obstruct, instead of speeding up that objective.

“Today there is no point of reference on people’s identity and this is very crucial,” he said.

Even Kiwanuka’s Cabinet colleague, Trade, Industry and Cooperatives Minister Amelia Kyambadde, criticized the move, saying it would cause further delays and curb free movement and work of Ugandan citizens in the East African Community, where Uganda is the only country without national IDs.

Ugandans without passports are at a disadvantage when moving across borders in the region as their identity cannot be verified.

While Article 16 of the Constitution mandates the National Citizenship and Immigration Board to register all citizens for purposes of issuing national identity cards, this has not been done for 17 years.

In March 2010, government contracted the German firm Mühlbauer Technology Group to deliver 3.5 million IDs by December 2010. The company reportedly made only 400 cards for top officials, including President Museveni and Prime Minster Amama Mbabazi.

Information from the National Security Information System office at the Ministry of Internal Affairs indicates that Mühlbauer delivered the equipment required to make the ID’s, some of which was used for the voter registration exercise prior to the 2011 elections. However, the office lacks funding and staff. Out of 3,000 people needed to run it, the project currently only has 5.

There is fear that the electronic equipment, which includes computers, cameras and other gadgets, may become obsolete if not used in time.

ID benefits

National IDs are an efficient and convenient system for verifying identity, age, residence and citizenship, and would help in the compilation of an accurate voters’ register – which is why the Electoral Commission (EC) also wants them issued before the next elections.

“[We] would not spend too much on the provision of voters’ cards,” says Charles Ochola, the EC spokesman.

Kyamutetera said details of 5.2 million people were collected in the pre-election registration in 2011, but IDs have not been printed due to lack of funds.

A national ID data bank has many uses. It would modernize the national vital registration system (i.e. births, marriages and deaths), and streamline the process of issuing travel documents.

In cases like last week’s devastating landslide that claimed many lives and buried a village in Bududa District, rescue and resettlement efforts would rely on the data bank to identify victims and survivors and how they would be helped, according to Musa Ecweru, State Minister for Disaster Preparedness.

National IDs are also crucial for securing borders, curbing illegal immigration, preventing identity fraud and other crimes. They make it harder to forge or lie about personal details, or to flee from justice across borders.

In countries like Kenya where they have been introduced, the tax base is said to have expanded due to the ease of tracing business transactions and verifying incomes.

The mandatory registration of SIM cards undertaken since March by telecom companies, would not have been as expensive and time-consuming with a national database.

“National IDs would have made it very customer-friendly and secure,” Warid’s Chief Commercial Officer Shailendra Naidu said.

Critics say that by including in the national database only those who can pay, the cost-sharing proposal would compromise the very objective and integrity of the system, opening it to only those who can pay for the privilege.

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