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Chased Away and Left to Die: New Report by CHRGJ and Ugandan partners documents mass exclusion from Uganda’s digital ID system and blames national security “obsession”

Photo (above): Joyce, a 93-year-old woman living in Busia, Uganda, is one of the victims of exclusion that we profile in our report.

National digital ID systems are often presented as leading to social inclusion, but our report on Ndaga Muntu, Uganda’s digital ID system, shows a different reality of mass exclusion and a focus on national security.

By Christiaan van Veen and Katelyn Cioffi

The Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project (DWS Project) together with its Ugandan research partners, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER)  and Unwanted Witness (UW). published a report on Uganda’s national digital ID system, Ndaga Muntu. The report is the outcome of seven months of research in Uganda documenting the impact of Ndaga Muntu on the right to health and social protection for women and older persons. The research is part of the Everyone Counts! Initiative, which aims to fill a gap in the current understanding of the exclusionary and human rights impact of national digital ID systems introduced rapidly in the Global South.

The report, titled Chased Away and Left to Die, documents the wholesale exclusion of large swaths of the Ugandan population from the digital ID system. Using official statistics, we estimate that as many as one third of the adult population in Uganda does not yet have a Ndaga Muntu, with many others facing errors on their card or being unable to replace lost or stolen IDs. Getting a national digital ID in Uganda has been rightly described as “a nightmare.”

Why does this matter? Because having Ndaga Muntu is now mandatory to access government and private services. This means you now need a digital ID to access health care and social benefits, to vote, get a bank account, obtain a mobile phone or travel in Uganda. As one individual from Nebbi in Northern Uganda states, “Ndaga Muntu is like a key to my door; without it, I can’t enter.” This can literally mean the difference between life and death.

No access to social rights and left to die in poverty

The report focuses on the right to health and social protection and the access to these human rights for (pregnant) women and older persons. Since 2019, the Ugandan government requires a Ndaga Muntu for access to public hospitals and health centers. Previously, there was no single, rigid ID document required to access health care in Uganda. In March, the Minister of Health announced that the national ID would be mandatory to get a COVID-vaccine, but this policy was rapidly reversed after ISER and Unwanted Witness sued the government using our joint research. The report details the impact of this stringent requirement, for instance, how a bleeding pregnant woman was denied care at a public health center because she did not have a national ID. Nyirira, a 20-year-old woman living in Busia in Eastern Uganda, told us how she was chased away from the local health center while pregnant and how the nurse “threw the [registration] book at her” and told her she would not be served without an ID card.

Ndaga Muntu is now also mandatory to access cash transfers for those over 80. The impact on the human right to social protection for older persons in Uganda is heart-wrenching. In Busia in Eastern Uganda, 93-year-old Joyce was unable to enroll in the national digital ID. As her son recounts, the registration officers were unable to capture a picture of her face for the National Identification Register. “When we asked [them] why her face couldn’t be captured, we were told that it’s because she has grey hair,” her son said. Many older persons who are able to register still face additional errors such as wrong birth dates. Okye is an 88-year-old man from Namayingo in Eastern Uganda but is listed as 79 years old according to his ID card. This means that he is not yet eligible for the cash transfer for the elderly. Okye is not an exception, In the report we find that at least 50,000 Ugandans over 80 have similar mistakes on their national ID that make them ineligible for government assistance or do not have a national ID at all. That number is almost certainly an undercount and points to mass exclusion among Uganda’s 200,000 older persons over 80.

The consequences for older persons of not receiving a cash transfer are grim. Nakaddu, an 87-year-old woman in Kayunga district in Central Uganda said that she did not get the cash grant for the elderly, “I don’t get the money, but I don’t know what to do. […] I can no longer dig. My arm is not okay. I cook for myself. Those ones (pointing to the neighbors) give me some food.”

A system built for national security, not inclusive development

One major cause of the mass exclusion the report identifies was that “Ndaga Muntu was primarily designed to be a national security system and not a social development program.” We found many examples of this. For instance, a man in Nebbi told us that “sometimes when you cross to Congo without the ID, they can beat you to death thinking you’re a rebel.” A nurse said that Ndaga Muntu helps to fight crime “because whenever you ask for a national ID card from a criminal, they are turned away for fear of easy identification.” However, the national ID system has far exceeded its national security goal of weeding out non-Ugandans and those deemed security risks or criminals. Many “ordinary” Ugandans, especially those who are poor and marginalized, are shut out from accessing their human rights.

The National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), who is responsible for the program and operating under the authority of the Minister of Internal Affairs, has widely been blamed for many of the issues with Ndaga Muntu. Early on, and against expert advice, NIRA focused on enrolling the adult population for the national ID. At the same time, NIRA took over the responsibility to register newborns, but largely ignored that crucial task. Recently, one of the most senior officials in NIRA finally admitted this had been a mistake. The result: currently only 13% of children under 1 years old in Uganda are registered at birth, a stunning retrogression in long-term efforts to register all Ugandans at birth.

The result of NIRA’s failures will directly affect Uganda’s huge and undocumented population of young people as they become adults and continue to have problems obtaining a Ndaga Muntu. The impact of these failures is already being felt with our report indicating that the percentage of adults with a national ID card may be declining.

A dream or a nightmare? Time for a reality check on digital ID

While promising in principle, it is tragic that many of the benefits of digitalization are missed in this digital ID system. While NIRA maintains air-conditioned servers to house its National Identity Register in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, we found that health care workers still register patients’ identity information in paper booklets. Promised benefits of biometric verification are missed because many remote areas do not have fingerprint scanners or lack internet connectivity and stable electricity to use them. And many older Ugandans, whose fingerprints have been worn away after many years of manual labor, are now “refused by those machines.” This disconnect is the reality of Uganda’s digital ID system.

Digital ID systems have been widely hailed by international development organizations and private actors as ways to foster social inclusion and to allow developing African nations to “leapfrog” towards modern, digital, data-driven economies. But the Ugandan experience with digital ID shows that it can actually foster exclusion and diminish the capacity of government to identify its citizens for government development programs. If changes do not happen soon, then many Ugandans will continue to be left out and left to die.

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