False Promises and Multiple Exclusion: Summary of Our RightsCon Event on Uganda’s National Digital ID System 

Despite its promotion as a tool for social inclusion and development, Uganda’s National Digital ID System is motivated primarily by national security concerns. As a result, the ID system has generated both direct and indirect exclusion, particularly affecting women and older persons.

On June 10, 2021, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justife at NYU School of Law co-hosted the panel “Digital ID: what is it good for? Lessons from our research on Uganda’s identity system and access to social services” as part of RightsCon, the leading summit on human rights in the digital age. The panelists included Salima Namusobya, Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), Dorothy Mukasa, Team Leader of Unwanted Witness, Grace Mutung’u, Research Fellow at the Centre for IP and IT Law at Strathmore University, and Christiaan van Veen, Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center . This blog summarizes highlights of the panel discussion. A recording and transcript of the conversation, as well as additional readings, can be found below.

Uganda’s national digital ID system, known as Ndaga Muntu, was introduced in 2014 through a mass registration campaign. The government aimed to collect the biographic and biometric information including photographs and fingerprints of every adult in the country, to record this data in a centralized database known as the National Identity Register, and to issue a national ID card and unique ID number to each adult. Since its introduction, having a national ID has become a prerequisite to access a whole host of services, from registering for a SIM card and opening a bank account, to accessing health services and social protection schemes.

This linkage of Ndaga Muntu to public services has raised significant human rights concerns and is serving to lock millions of people in Uganda out of critical services. Seven years from its inception, it is clear that the national digital ID is a tool for exclusion rather than for inclusion. Drawing on the joint report by the Center , ISER, and Unwanted Witness, this event made clear that Ndaga Muntu was grounded in false promises and is resulting in multiple forms of exclusion.

The False Promise of Inclusion

The Ugandan government argued that this digital ID system would enhance social inclusion by allowing Ugandans to prove their identity more easily. Having this proof of identity would facilitate access to public services such as healthcare, enable people to sign up for private services such as bank accounts, and allow people to move freely throughout Uganda. The same rhetoric of inclusion was used to sell Aadhaar, India’s digital ID system, to the Indian public.

But for many Ugandans this was a false promise. From the very outset, Ndaga Muntu was developed chiefly as a tool for national security. The powerful Ugandan military had long pushed for the collection of sensitive identity information and biometric data: in the context of a volatile region, a centralized information database is appealing because of its ability to verify identity and indicate who is “really Ugandan” and who is not. Therefore, the national ID project was housed in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, overseen by prominent members of the Ugandan People’s Defense Force, and designed to serve only those who succeeded in completing a rigorous citizenship verification process.

The panelist from Kenya, Grace Mutung’u, shared how Kenya’s hundred-year-old national identification system was similarly rooted in a colonial regime that focused on national security and exclusion. Those design principles created a system that sought only to “empower the already empowered” and not to extend benefits beyond already-privileged constituencies. The result in both Kenya and Uganda was the same: digital ID systems that are designed to ensure that certain individuals and groups remain excluded from political, economic, and social life.

Proliferating Forms of Exclusion

Beyond the fact that Ndaga Muntu was designed to directly exclude anyone not entitled to access public services, those who are entitled are also being excluded in the millions. For ordinary Ugandans, accessing Ndaga Muntu is a nightmarish process rife with problems every step of the way. These problems, such as corruption, incorrect data entry, and technical errors, have impeded Ugandans’ access to the ID. Vulnerable populations who rely on social protection programs that require proof of ID bear the brunt of such errors. For example, one older woman was told that the national ID registration system could not capture her picture because of her grey hair. Other elderly Ugandans have had trouble with fingerprint scanners that could not capture fingerprints worn away from years of manual labor.

The many individuals who have not succeeded in registering for Ndaga Muntu are therefore being left out of the critical services which are increasingly linked to the ID. At least 50,000 of the 200,000 eligible persons over the age of 80 in Uganda were unable to access potentially lifesaving benefits such as the Senior Citizens’ Grant cash transfer program. Women have been similarly disproportionately impacted by the national ID requirement; for instance, pregnant women have been refused services by healthcare workers for failing to provide ID. To make matters worse, ID requirements are increasingly ubiquitous in Uganda: proof of ID is often required to book transportation, to vote, to access educational services, healthcare, social protection grants, and food donations. Having a national ID has become necessary for basic survival, especially for those who live in extreme poverty.

Digital ID systems should not prohibit people from living their lives and utilizing basic services that should be universally accessible, particularly when they are justified on the basis that they will improve access to services. Not only was the promise of inclusion for Ndaga Muntu false, but the rollout of the system has also been incompetent and faulty, leading to even greater exclusion. The profound impact of this double discrimination in Uganda demonstrates that such digital ID systems and their impacts on social and economic rights warrant greater and urgent attention from the human rights community at large.

June 12, 2021. Madeleine Matsui, JD program, Harvard Law School; intern with the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights.