In a new report, “Chased Away and Left to Die,” human rights organizations found that Uganda’s national digital ID system, which is key to how individuals access their social rights, leads to mass exclusion.
The report, a collective effort of human rights organizations, is the outcome of seven months of in depth interviews with a multitude of victims, health workers, welfare workers, government officials and other experts on the national ID, referred to by Ugandans as Ndaga Muntu.
The report argues that the Ugandan government has sacrificed the potential of digital ID for social inclusion and the realization of human rights at the altar of national security.
“Ndaga Muntu is primarily a national security weapon built with the help of Uganda’s powerful military, and not the ‘unrivaled success’ that the World Bank and others have claimed it is,” said Christiaan van Veen, one of the authors of the report and based at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law.
Obtaining a national digital ID is described as “a nightmare” in the report. Based on official sources, the report estimates that as many as one third (33%) of Uganda’s adult population has not yet received a National Identity Card (NIC), a number that may even be rising. Many others in the country have errors on their card or are unable to replace lost or stolen IDs.
Since Ndaga Muntu is mandatory to access health care, social benefits, to vote, get a bank account, obtain a mobile phone or travel, the national ID has become a critical gateway to access these human rights. As one individual in Nebbi in northern Uganda put it succinctly in the report, “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. A woman in Amudat, in northern Uganda, described the consequences of not having the national ID for access to health care: “Without an ID [...] no treatment. Many people fall sick and stay home and die.”
The report urges the Ugandan government to immediately stop requiring the national digital ID to access social rights.
“Government has to go back to the drawing table and rethink the use of Ndaga Muntu,” said Angella Nabwowe of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, “especially when it comes to tagging it to service delivery, because many people are being left out.”
Researchers focused their fieldwork in various parts of Uganda on documenting evidence of exclusion of women and older persons from health services and the Senior Citizens’ Grant (SCG) tied to Ndaga Muntu.
Since 2019, patients are required to show the national ID to access public health centers. The report details how women, including pregnant women, are ‘chased away’ by health care workers for failure to show their ID. Previously, there was no single, rigid ID requirement to access health care in Uganda.
In March, the Ugandan government also announced its intention to require the national digital ID for access to Covid-19 vaccines. But a lawsuit based on this research by two organizations that co-authored the report, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights and Unwanted Witness, led to a quick reversal of that policy by the government.
The impact of Ndaga Muntu on the elderly in Uganda is equally heart-wrenching. The report recounts the story of Okye, an 88-year-old man from Namayingo in eastern Uganda whose date of birth was registered incorrectly, ‘making’ him 79 years old instead.
The result for Okye is that he is not eligible for the lifesaving government cash transfer for persons over 80 (SCG). Okye is not an exception. Senior sources confirmed to the authors of the report 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 of not having a national ID for older persons can be tragic. Nakaddu, an 87-year-old woman in Kayunga district in Central Uganda, told researchers 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 neighbours] give me some food.”
The report blames the struggles and failures of the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) for many of the exclusionary problems with Ndaga Muntu. NIRA has faced criticism for its failure to enroll a larger part of the population, problems with issuing ID cards, high rates of errors, high costs imposed on individuals and allegations of bribery and corruption.
Perhaps NIRA’s biggest failure, however, has been the neglect of its responsibility for registering births. By prioritizing the registration of adults for the national ID over birth registration, the birth registration rate may have plummeted to as low as 13% of children under one year old.
Meanwhile, the percentage of adults excluded from the national ID may be rising even as NIRA appears unable to keep up with the growing number of young people who turn 18 and become eligible for the national ID card.