Digital Identification and Inclusionary Delusion in West Africa 

Over 1 billion persons have been categorized as invisible in the world, of which about 437 million persons are reported to be from sub-Saharan Africa. In West Africa alone, the World Bank has identified a huge “identification gap” and different identification projects are underway to identify millions of invisible West Africans.[1] These individuals are regarded as invisible not because they are unrecognizable or non-existent, but because they do not fit a certain measure of visibility that matches existing or new database(s) of an identifying institution[2], such as the State or international bodies.

One existing digital identification project in West Africa is the West Africa Unique Identification for Regional Integration and Inclusion (WURI) program initiated by the World Bank under its Identification for Development initiative. The WURI program is to serve as an umbrella under which West African States can collaborate with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to design and build a digital identification system, financed by the World Bank, that would create foundational IDs (fID)[3] for all persons in the ECOWAS region.[4] Many West African States that have had past failed attempts at digitizing their identification systems have embraced assistance via WURI. The goal of WURI is to enable access to services for millions of people and ensure “mutual recognition of identities” across countries. The promise of digital identification is that it will facilitate development by promoting regional integration, security, social protection of aid beneficiaries, financial inclusion, reduction of poverty and corruption, healthcare insurance and delivery, and act as a stepping stone to an integrated digital economy in West Africa. This way, millions of invisible individuals would become visible to the state and become financially, politically and socially included.

Nevertheless, the outlook of WURI and the reliance on digital IDs by development agencies proposes a reliance on technologies, also known as techno-solutionism, as the approach to dealing with institutional challenges and developmental goals in West Africa. This reliance on digital technologies does not address some of the major root causes of developmental delays in the countries and may instead worsen the state of things by excluding the vast majority of people who are either unable to be identified or excluded by virtue of technological failures. This exclusion emerges in a number of ways, including the service-based structure and/or mandatory nature of many digital identification projects which adopt the stance of exclusion first before inclusion. This means that in cases where access to services and infrastructures, such as opening a bank account, registering sim cards, getting healthcare or receiving government aid and benefits, are made subject to registration and possession of a national ID card or unique identification number (UIN), individuals are first excluded unless they register for and possess the national ID card or UIN.

There are three contexts in which exclusion may arise. Firstly, an individual may be unable to register for a fID. For instance, in Kenya, many individuals without identity verification documents like birth certificates were excluded from the registration process of its fID, Huduma Namba. A second context arises where an individual may be unable to obtain a fID card or unique identification number (UIN) after registration. This is the case in Nigeria where the National Identity Management Commission has been unable to deliver ID cards to the majority of those who have registered under the identity program. The risk of exclusion of individuals may increase in Nigeria when the government conditions access to services on the possession of an fID card or UIN.

A third scenario involves the inability of an individual to access infrastructures after obtaining a fID card or UIN, due to the breakdown or malfunctioning of the technology for authentication by the identifying institution. In Tanzania, for example, although some individuals have the fID card or UIN, they are unable to proceed with their SIM registration process due to breakdown of the data storage systems. There are also numerous reports of people not getting access to services in India because of technology failures. This leaves a large group of vulnerable individuals, particularly where the fID is required to access key services such as SIM card registration. An unpublished 2018 poll carried out in Cote d’Ivoire reveals that over 65% of those who register for National ID used it to apply for SIM card services and about 23% for financial services.[5]

The mandatory or service-based model of most identification systems in West Africa take away powers or rights of access to and control of resources and identity from individuals and confers them on the State and private institutions, thereby raising some human rights concerns for those who are unable to fit the criteria for registration and identification. Thus, a person who ordinarily would move around freely, shop from a grocery store, open a bank account or receive healthcare from a hospital can only do that, upon commencement of mandatory use of the fID, through possession of the fID card or UIN. In Nigeria, for instance, the new national computerized identity card is equipped with a microprocessor designed to host and store multiple e-services and applications like biometric e-ID, electronic ID, payment application, travel document, and serve as the national identity card of individuals. A Thales publication also states that in a second phase for the Nigerian fID, driver’s license, eVoting, eHealth or eTransport applications are to be added to the cards. This is a long list of e-services for a country where only about 46% of its population is reported to have access to the internet. Where a person loses this ID card or is unable to provide the UIN that digitally represents that person, such person would be potentially excluded from access to all the services and infrastructures that the fID card or UIN serves as a gateway to. This exclusion risk is intensified by the fact that identifying institutions in remote or local areas may lack authentication technologies or electronic connection to the ID database to verify the existence of individuals at all times they seek to be identified, make a payment, receive healthcare, or travel.

It is important to note that exclusion does not only stem from mandatory fID systems or voluntary but service-integrated ID systems. There are also risks with voluntary ID systems where adequate measures are not taken to protect the data and interests of all those who are registered. An adequate data storage facility, data protection designs and data privacy regulation to protect the data of individuals is required, else individuals face increased risks of identity theft, fraud and cybercrime which would exclude and shut them off from fundamental services and infrastructures.

The history of political instability, violence and extremism, ethnic and religious conflicts, and disregard for the rule of law in many West African countries also heightens the risk of exclusion of individuals. Different instances of this abound, such as religious extremism, insurgences and armed conflicts in Northern Nigeria, civilian attacks and unrest in some communities in Burkina Faso, crisis and terrorist attacks in Mali, election violence, and military intervention in State governance. An OECD report accounts for over 3,317 violent events in West Africa between 2011 – 2019 with fatalities rising above 11,911 within those periods. A UN report also puts the number of deaths in Burkina Faso to over 1800 in 2019 and over 25,000 displaced persons in the same year. This instability can act as a barrier to registration for a fID and lead to exclusion where certain groups of persons are targeted and profiled by state and/or non-state (illegal) actors.

In addition to cases where registration is mandatory or where individuals are highly dependent on the infrastructures and services they wish to access, there might also be situations where people might opt to rely less on the use of the fID or decide not to register due to worries about surveillance, identity theft or targeted disciplinary control, thereby excluding them from resources they would have ordinarily gotten access to. In Nigeria, only about 20% of the population is reported to have registered for the Nigerian Identity Number (NIN) (this was about 6% in 2017). Similarly, though implementation of WURI program objectives in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire commenced in 2018, as of date, the registration and identification output in both countries is still marginally low.

World Bank findings and lessons from Phase I reveal that digital identification can exacerbate exclusion and marginalization, while diminishing privacy and control over data, despite the benefits it may carry. Some of the challenges identified by the World Bank resonate with the major concerns listed here, and they include risks of surveillance, discrimination, inequality, distrust between the State and individuals, and legal, political and historical differences among countries. The solutions proposed, under the WURI program objectives, to address these problems – consultations, dialogues, ethnographic studies, provision of additional financing and capacity – are laudable but insufficient to dealing with the root causes. On the contrary, the solutions offered might reveal the inadequacies of a digitized State in West Africa where a large population of West African are digital illiterates, lack the means to access digital platforms, or operate largely in the informal sector.

Practically, the task of tactically addressing the root causes to most of the problems mentioned above, particularly the major ones involving political instability, institutional inadequacies, corruption, conflicts and capacity building, is an arduous one which may involve a more domestic/grassroot/bottom-up approach. However, the solution to these challenges is either unknown, difficult or less desirable than the “quick fix” offered by techno-solutionism and reliance on digital identification.

  1. It is uncertain why the conventional wisdom is that West African countries, many of whom have functional IDs, specifically need to have a national digital ID card system while some of their developed counterparts in Europe and North-America lack a national ID card but rely on different functional IDs
  2. Identifying institution is used here to refer to any institution that seeks to authenticate the identity of a person based on the ID card or number that person possesses.
  3. A foundational identity system is an identity system which enables the creation of identities or unique identification numbers used for general purposes, such as national identity cards. A functional identity system is one that is created for or evolves out of a specific use case but may likely be suitable for use across other sectors such as driver’s license, voter’s card, bank number, insurance number, insurance records, credit history, health record, tax records.
  4. Member States of ECOWAS include the Republic of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo.
  5. See Savita Bailur, Helene Smertnik & Nnenna Nwakanma, End User Experience with identification in Côte d’Ivoire. Unpublished Report by Caribou Digital.

October 19, 2020. Ngozi Nwanta, JSD program, NYU School of Law with research interests in systemic analysis of national identification systems, governance of credit data, financial inclusion, and development.