If you are a member of any respectable WhatsApp group, talk this past week would have been of the national identity registration exercise. Those who love to forward useless video clips had something a little more useful to do: forwarding copies of the registration form alongside instructions to only print on both sides. Whatsapp group members in the know were also posting regular updates on where the roving registration centres were operating, complete with information on the length of queues and the weather situation. Scrolling through these messages, it felt, at least from my little corner, that Malawians were engaged in a collective exercise of citizenship.
Indeed, a national identification document (ID) exercise has some obvious benefits. Public officers are better able to determine who is entitled to public services but also use the available data to measure and anticipate demand. For provision that requires verification at the point of service, a document such as a national ID has the advantages of streamlining operations and focusing on the concerned unit core responsibilities instead of time-consuming investigations into identity. For example, a government clinic in Bangwe (if we had one) would no longer need to check that I am indeed from Bangwe, and thereby save time and resources. A national ID scheme would also be useful for fighting crime. In a world that is increasingly becoming digital, a genuine national ID would weed out criminals from important public infrastructure such as banking, telecommunications, electricity, land and the like.
However, these theoretical benefits of any national registration scheme should not blindfold us to the risks that it presents. I detail a few on here.
A pressing worry is that the national ID is tied to citizens’ ability to vote at the next election. In such a scenario the risk of disenfranchising deserving voters is quite high. There are already reports of registration forms running out in this first phase and citizens who have never been near a computer their whole life being asked to download forms on the internet. At the same time, we have senior officers from the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) suggesting that the national ID will potentially be used to determine who is entitled to register to vote. It is important that citizens’ ability to register and vote in the 2019 vote should not be impaired by this current exercise. We have conducted many elections in the past without this ID, using other forms of identity verification. We will insist that these complementary forms of identification remain accessible to citizens as voter registration is conducted.
Secondly, a national ID system could easily be used in a situation of mass surveillance of citizens. Centrally held databases of such critical individual information can be accessed at the click of a button or the swipe of a digital reader, meaning that government could easily monitor citizens’ movements and spy on their activities. For a people who have had to endure incompetent government all too often, we Malawians are a lucky lot. Apart from the annoying roadblocks, we are largely free from intrusive government. One can go to Malindi for a season without anyone ever knowing where you are or what you are up to. A national ID scheme changes that. In the hands of a bad government, and we have examples of that, a database of citizens could be abused. This we will have to guard against. I still want to go to Malindi without anyone knowing that I was there or indeed what I was smoking when I got there.
Thirdly, the creation of a national ID database will soon create demands for access by commercial entities who were not within the purview of the system when it was conceived. In a few short years, employers, banks, creditors, bailiffs, landlords, prophets, your father in-law, and others will start demanding access to the database. Despite our love for juicy gossip (if our online tabloids are any sort of gauge for our noseyness), privacy is such an important part of our being that we have enshrined its protection in our Constitution. This database, if not properly managed, presents a danger to this cherished ideal.
Finally, the national ID scheme, if improperly implemented could lead to the exclusion of deserving citizens from critical services and opportunities. One can easily imagine a situation where one does not have a national ID card or have lost the same and access to provisions such as health services, utilities, voting or employment is withheld until the situation is rectified. It is important that in addition to the scheme, back up verification schemes are maintained to ensure non-exclusion. I am also quite worried with the registration scheme’s requirement to name your Traditional Authority (T/A), your father’s TA and other congruent information. We have had problems with tribalism in this country whether in the workplace, in politics or public services. Gathering this data in one place is in my view quite concerning.
*Thoko Kaime is from Bangwe and sometimes teaches law.