Janet Mucheru does not pass for your ordinary career civil servant.
She, however, is, and has scaled the ladder in the civil service in a career spanning 30 years to the critical position of director of civil registration services.
Ms Mucheru is, in a nutshell, the custodian of the country’s data on recorded births and deaths. All birth and death records in Kenya – some dating back to 1880s - are under lock and key at her office at Hass Plaza, Nairobi.
Her job is not an enviable one, especially going by the bad reputation that the office has had before she came in. To anyone who has been confronted with the sudden need for a birth certificate, it has been an unwritten rule that one had to bribe their way to land the crucial document.
From the moment she stepped into the fourth floor of Hass Plaza two years ago, Mucheru’s job was cut out for her-to clean up an office that for years has been synonymous with graft. Her first target were cartels that she accuses of taking over the issuance of birth and death certificates over the years.
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“For years cartels have had field days minting money, at times taking advantage of the ignorance and desperation of Kenyans. It is a web that we found out involved some of our staff, some who were very senior officers from the Government Printer, where the certificates are printed, and outsiders,” she says. For the last two years, the former district officer has been fighting to dismantle the cartels.
In the process, heads have been rolling at Hass Plaza.
“We recently interdicted 24 officers who have been charged in court. These are officers we felt bore the highest responsibilities in sustaining the rot and corruption in processing and issuing of the documents,” says Mucheru.
In the past, some officers and outsiders would easily get the certificates of birth from the Government Printer, which they would go selling to unsuspecting Kenyans for as much as Sh5,000 a piece.
To stop this, the department has embarked on automating all its systems to make the vital documents available at the touch of the button.
“Nairobi is now fully automated and so are parts of Kiambu and Machakos counties. We are rolling out the process to all the country’s 114 registries. Application for birth certificates is now being done through e-citizen in areas where we have automated. This cuts out all the brokers who have been taking advantage of Kenyans,” she says.
Another measure to lock out the cartels has been restricting the application for a birth certificate to parents where the applicant is a minor. Anyone older must apply for the document in person.
Her greatest regret is that there are still millions of Kenyans out there who do not have birth certificates, many well advanced in age.
“Many Kenyans did not know the importance of this document, that is why they never got them. They are now rushing to us because to get a national identity card (ID), a passports or even sitting a national examination, one must have a birth certificate,” she says.
“We have been trying to fast-track the processes and currently majority of Kenyans have the document, except only such areas like Turkana, Pokot and Ukambani, where the process of issuing them is slow. We want to ensure that by March next year we will no longer be doing late registration. Registration will only be at birth,” she adds.
So far her department has captured data from 32 million people, over and above the 14 million whose data had already been digitised.
“If you look at the figure it tallies with the recently released census figure of 47 million, assuming about one million Kenyans are the ones who do not have the birth certificates,” she says.
Still, the manual data of births and deaths has been kept intact despite the digitisation. That is the law.
“We cannot destroy these manual files that we have because the law does not allow us to. We are in the process of changing the law to allow us to do away with these paper records,” says Mucheru.
Her office records about 3 million births annually.
North Eastern has been recording the highest birth rates, while Central Kenya has been recording the highest death rates.
Mucheru admits the challenges of issuing birth certificates in border areas, and especially Northern Kenya. However, she says that stringent vetting has to be done to ensure that only Kenyans gain the crucial document.
“It is a fact the process has been abused before and that is how some non-Kenyans got birth certificates and finally landed ID cards. It is not that we want to discriminate but we have to be vigilant.”
Uncollected birth certificates
The department is also grappling with a high number of Kenyans who apply for birth certificates but fail to collect them. As a result, thousands of uncollected birth certificates are gathering dust countrywide. “It is so disappointing because such people will be flocking the offices in January when the documents will be required, especially for those joining schools and need to get a National Education Management Information System (NEMIS) number. That is when they will remember that they applied for the certificates and come rushing causing logistical challenges in our offices,” she says.
Some applicants also change minds about the details they gave in their initial application and simply fail to collect, hoping they can change this. But woe to them-according to Mucheru, that is impossible. “Because the records are now digitised we are able to see those either registering twice or seeking to alter the details. We cannot alter a birth record, unless compelled by court,” she says.
Mucheru lists unique cases of those seeking to change birth certificates, including women seeking to delete names of fathers from their children’s records.
In the middle of all these, it is her duty to ensure that there is no monkey business in birth and death data which is crucial for national planning.
“It is my duty to sanitise the records so that we have the correct data even as work towards an integrated system where every Kenyan’s details will be captured in one card,” she says.