Kenya’s Huduma: Data commodification and government tyranny

Kenyans are being forced to make a choice between legal erasure and being commodified as data by their own government.

kenya ID card
A Maasai woman holds her ID card as she waits to cast her ballot in a polling station near the town of Magadi in Kenya on March 4, 2013 [File: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

Early this year, the Kenyan government began to roll out a mass registration exercise that would see the issuance of new digital identity cards for all Kenyan residents – citizens and foreigners alike.

Kenyans were told that this National Integrated Identity Management System would collate and combine all the various identity documents that Kenyans are issued and that they have to carry around with them, including the national ID, passport, drivers licence, National Social Security card, National Hospital Insurance card, Kenya Revenue Authority Tax PIN, etc.

Government officials called the new registration “Huduma Namba” (huduma means “service” in Kiswahili), and although they claimed it would help improve service delivery to citizens, they also issued an ominous threat – that those without the number or the card would be denied government services. 

Despite the positive tone in which the announcement was wrapped, the new programme worried many. Some warned of the dangers that a government holding such an extensive and unsecured treasure trove of data could lead to in a country where there is no law protecting personal data. 

Others raised the alarm over the illegality of the government’s attempts to blackmail its citizens into giving their data and urged for the Huduma number exercise to be suspended until further public consultation is held.

Despite these warnings, the registration exercise kicked off as planned, without any public participation or data protection legislation. When concerned parties went to court to block the registration exercise, the High Court allowed it to go on but ruled that the government should not withhold any services or bar anyone from accessing public facilities in the absence of the number. 

Many Kenyans – myself included – refused to register, either because of concerns over privacy and data security, or simply as a protest to the government’s threats, coercion and bullying tactics.

But many others did not want to risk being locked out of these unspecified government services, and so rushed to get registered before the deadline. After a tense registration period lasting a few weeks, the exercise was closed and ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru declared it a success with 38 million registrations achieved. 

It is only last month that a proposed law governing this National Integrated Identity Management System, the Huduma Bill 2019, was drafted and the public invited to give comments.

It was bad enough that public participation took place post-factum, after the data had already been collected, but it was even worse that the Kenyan government seemingly ignored the High Court’s directives and has gone the extra mile to ramp up the intimidation and strong-arm tactics.

For one, the proposed legislation makes it mandatory to present the Huduma Namba in order to participate in at least 17 critical aspects of civic democracy and even ordinary life, including, getting issued a passport, registering or renewing a driving licence, transacting in the financial markets, registering a mobile phone, paying taxes, legally marrying, voting, opening a bank account, getting an electricity connection, going to a public school or being served at a public hospital. In other words, without it, one ceases to exist legally.

The bill also provides for the collection wide variety of biometric data, including “fingerprint, hand geometry, earlobe geometry, retina and iris patterns, toe impression, voice waves, blood typing, photograph, or such other biological attributes of an individual obtained by way of biometrics.” With the phrase “other biological attributes”, the text technically leaves the door open for the collection of DNA data, contrary to the court’s directive.

And the bill also proposes harsh penalties of imprisonment of between one to five years, or a fine of between $10,000 and $50,000, for transacting without the Huduma Namba, tampering with the Huduma card, or failing to register births and deaths within a prescribed time frame (30-90 days). These penalties, as Amnesty Kenya wrote in their memorandum criticising the bill, are grossly unnecessary and disproportionate with the offences.

Kenya is a country with a long and painful history of problematic mass registration and control. In the colonial era, the movement of native Africans was restricted by the kipande, a much-hated passbook that had to be presented to colonial authorities for identification.

Since independence to the present day, access to national ID cards has been a highly politicised process that has led to growing marginalisation of various populations. Some fail to get ID cards because their local registration centre is simply too far away. Many others are forced to live without identification documents because they are specifically targetted for “vetting” by a government official and arbitrarily denied an ID.

If you are from a community whose homeland was split by colonial borders – like the Kuria, in Kenya and Tanzania, or the Somali region, in Kenya and Somalia – then your ID application process will likely be subject to vetting. Other groups, like the Kenyan Nubians, have also suffered from exclusion, affecting every aspect of their lives. If passed, the Huduma Bill will extend exclusion of such marginalised communities and in effect make all Kenyans undocumented by default. 

When probed during a recent public participation forum to explain why the government was insisting on this registration exercise, ICT Principal Secretary Jerome Ochieng explained: “Data is the new oil.”

And there you have it – citizen’s data is the new commodity to be traded, and it is not far-fetched to believe that this will be for the benefit of political elites and private interests, just as has been the case with oil extraction. 

This makes a mockery of national sovereignty; the independence that African governments love to make so much noise about actually means that powerful elites want to be free to do what they want to do with “their people” – as if the African people literally belong to them. It is slavery by any other name, even if it is dressed up in the rosy language of efficiency, digitisation, or data-driven service delivery.

If this bill passes, then people like me will become undocumented in their own country, facing legal and civic death, and forced to exist at the margins. Eventually, our resistance might break and we may be compelled to register. But that will not be a choice at all – how does one choose between legal erasure or being commodified as data to be sold to the highest bidder?

What the progenitors of this bill fail to understand is that it is not nation-states that permit people to exist. Humanity precedes the formation of nation-states, and creating a situation of mass disenfranchisement and legal erasure of human beings is the height of tyranny.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.