By the end of next year, an estimated 40 million Kenyans, aged over six years, will be issued with the ultimate national identity, ‘the single source of truth’.
This final solution variously known as Huduma Namba, the government hopes, will settle the problem of identifying Kenyan citizens. Before the birth of this novel number, President Uhuru Kenyatta had explained that his administration would make a central master population database, “which will be the authentic single source of truth on personal identity in Kenya.”
The database envisioned by the president will contain information on all Kenyan citizens as well as foreign nationals residing in Kenya.
“For each registration, the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) will generate a unique identification number that will be known as Huduma Namba. The county commissioners will provide oversight and coordinate to enhance the progress made by the integrated Population Registration System (IPRS),” he said in January 2019.
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Four months later, the government deployed 3,256 chiefs and over 8,000 assistant chiefs who registered about 36 million people in 45 days. About 50,000 registration clerks were used.
And the result of this national exercise was a card, which was first displayed to the public by the president on October 20 during the Mashujaa Day celebrations. This card is expected to replace multiple identification documents and put the country on the world map for collecting the biggest number of finger prints in a very short time.
Demographic experts and scholars have taken a hard look at Kenya’s history and its journey in creating an acceptable identity card, and some are not as optimistic as Kenyatta about the usefulness of Huduma Namba.
One such scholar, Jaap Van Der Straaten, explores these landmines in an article; Hundred Years of Servitude: From Kipande to Huduma Namba in Kenya.
The author says: “The vulnerability of such a design may well have been the single most important reason why the United Kingdom ID was discontinued in an early stage (and all records were destroyed).”
He argues that there is a possibility of confusion, owing to the many departments involved in the Huduma Namba registration, and that a similar scenario unfolded in Uganda, leading to the “virtual disappearance of civil registration activity.”
Kenya’s journey to establishing a national ID card has been long and controversial and dates back to 1920 when the Registration of the Natives Act was enacted, paving way for the introduction of the much hated Kipande.
There is some evidence however that the idea was first mooted during the 1912-13 Labour Commission that a pass system be introduced so that labourers who ran away from their places of work could be traced and returned.
Most scholars are persuaded that the main motivation for introducing Kipande was to rein in Africans recruited to fight in the First World War. The soldiers had a penchant for disappearing, sometimes joining different formations.
It was therefore difficult for military commanders to establish those genuinely killed in action or the foxy ones who changed names and joined other units after shifting loyalty.
Once the World War ended in 1919, the white soldiers, some of whom were rewarded with huge chunks of land for their role, demanded cheap African labour.
Historian David Anderson crystalises the real spirit of this colonial labour control legislation: “The Registration of Natives Ordinance (1915), a set of pass controls for African males of working age. Instituted in 1920, the Act required every male aged over 15 years to register before his local administrative officer and to be issued with a fingerprinted certificate of identity.”
It is estimated that by 1931, the colonial government had issued two million kipandes to Africans. The document contained their basic personal details, employment history and wages.
Kipande became a perfect tool of policing workers because a labourer was to be given permission by his previous employer before he could be employed by a new boss. A casual glance of the Kipande by a police officer could flash out a worker who had deserted his job and they would be arrested.
Van Der Straaten writes that the estimated number of Kipande copies issued up to 1932 was 1,011,000 at a cost of Sh1.78 billion. At the time, a single document cost the government £0.19.
Africans could not read or write and lacked a fixed address, and the government believed that local naming customs rendered African subjects unidentifiable because the natives had a number of different names, which they changed at different stages of life.
So to create a universal identity for the ‘complex’ native, the labour law was crafted in 1915, with the enactment of the Native Registration Ordinance, but it was not implemented until after the First World War.
Another writer, Kerence Weitzberg explains in Biometrics, Race Making and White Exceptionalism: The Controversy Over Universal Finger Printing in Kenya, published in March 2020, how the Kipande statute was revised in 1925.
According to Weitzberg, the colonial government was forced to amend the Ordinance to prevent employers from signing off Kipande in red ink. “As the Chief Registrar of Natives discovered, the use of red ink was intended to ‘warn potential employers that the holder of a certificate bearing such an endorsement was unsatisfactory’ and was widely ‘used by the Nairobi housewives’.”
At the same time the labour laws dictated that all domestic workers had to carry a register known as the Red Book from 1927. In it was a section where the African’s character was recorded but the bearer had no idea of this self-incriminating evidence since a majority could not read or write.
Further changes were effected in 1947 by the Legislative Council, which scrapped the Native Registration Ordinance, replacing it with the Registration of Persons Ordinance. And for the first time, all men in the colony had to be fingerprinted, a development which triggered angry protests from whites. Africans were given the leeway to apply to have their Kipande cut in half, segregating their identity from their employers’, but there was still no recognition of women who were treated as nonentities by the government.
When things fell apart in in 1952, the government yet again introduced a new Pass Book targeting people living in Mt Kenya as a measure to isolate Mau Mau. Under the Emergency law, all the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru were restricted from moving from their homes without government approval. These restrictions would be lifted in 1960 as Kenya geared towards independence.
However, it would not be until 1979 when Kenya designed its own identity card, which still retained some colonial features and has been routinely abused by police officers who punish citizens they find without it.
Two generations of ID later, Kenya is now about to have the unique integrated identity card. The jury is still out on whether things will change.