By Steve Atkins, Program Director, The Silicon Trust

One of the more compelling elements of the ID4Africa Movement (and there are many) is its use of what it terms ‘Ambassadors’ within its Ambassadors Program. Less a description of a career diplomat, more an inclusive approach to identify and recognize individuals working with Governmental roles in the various African Nations who have an understanding and hands-on role in the rolling out of citizen ID throughout their particular country.

These 29 Ambassadors, representing over 75% of sub-Saharan Africa by population, are senior-level government officials with well-defined missions to promote and manage legal identity in their countries. Having been selected based on merit and experience, they represent a growing movement of individuals who are passionate about digital identity and the positive impact its various applications have on their nation’s socio-economic

development. As identity experts, they volunteer their time to promote the responsible use of digital identity in Africa and act as important liaisons between ID4Africa and the institutions and identity stakeholders in their respective countries.

As Dr. Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman of the ID4Africa Movement said, ‘‘The Ambassadors’ Program’’ is a platform for empowering African civil servants to influence and advance the identity agenda in Africa. The Ambassadors play an integral role in influencing the direction of the ID4Africa Movement, keeping us informed on issues that are pertinent to our constituent countries. They ensure that their countries’ issues and concerns are part of the collective agenda of the movement and that their countries are well represented in their delegations to the ID4Africa Annual Meeting.” He added, “Over the years, the level of seniority of the Ambassadors has risen, which is a testament to the importance the member countries are attaching to their participation in the Movement.”

You may be forgiven for thinking that many of these African nations demonstrate an inequality in terms of their journey towards implementation of digital identities within their countries. It is true that some nations are further advanced than others. However they share more commonality in obstacles and frustrations that need to be overcome, whatever their particular nation requirements.

It is this ‘hands-on’ approach that the ID4Africa Movement encourages. “If the African Nations don’t own the responsibility for their digital identity implementation, then it is too easy to blame other outside instruments that may be financial or developmental in nature,” Atick told me.

So what are the overriding views that these Ambassadors are sharing with the movement? What are their challenges? They are not as uncommon as you may expect.

There is an overriding frustration to find funding for such an undertaking; be it from Governmental sources or other alternatives. There is also a lack of documentation to support citizenship on one hand and a constant complaint of a ‘silo’ approach from agencies within these countries that bear partial responsibility for the implementation of digital identity as a whole. Ethiopian Ambassador Daniel Lishanew pointed out that in their country “There is no integration or linking between current manual paper-based registrations and other ID-based systems such as health management, driving licenses etc., that require the use of a UID number.”

The sheer scope of these digital identity programs brings a lot to bear upon the technical aspects of such undertakings. Take Rwanda for example. Rwandan Ambassador, Jacques Kayisire said, “(We have) completed the implementation of Electronic National Population Registry, enrollment, production and distribution of ID Cards to all eligible citizens aged from 16 years and above. The challenge we have is to implement the under 16 years ID Cards (i.e. their biometric data capture given that the data collection is an expensive exercise – at the same time biometrics biometric of kids keeps on changing from day one to 16 years old). So the challenge is on the technical side of it and financial resources.”

Tanzanian Ambassador, Alphonce Malibiche, was more upbeat, “We face a number of challenges in Tanzania – but we are not afraid of them. The challenges that I imagine many African countries share with us include inadequate connectivity and infrastructure (especially in rural and remote areas) and the absence of rich civil registration records to serve as evidence during enrollment. In addition, Tanzania is a geographically large and diverse country, which makes logistics more difficult for us than perhaps many other countries,” said Malibiche, “With time, political commitment and planning, we are overcoming these challenges.”

As always, however, we must not dwell purely upon the negatives. There are standout programs and implementations that have been taken on an individual country level – Malawi, for instance. “Malawi has just completed registration of 9.1 million Malawians aged 16 years and above. The figure is slightly higher than the estimated number eligible for an ID in Malawi. The ID printing and distribution is in progress. By March 2018, all registered will have a National Identity Card. Currently meetings are underway with relevant stakeholders to appreciate the usage of the card and the interface of ID database with relevant systems either in the public or private sector for appropriate data sharing within a legal framework that complies with international principles for the right to privacy and data protection,” explained Malawian Ambassador, Sophie Kang’oma.

All nations agree that the ID4Africa Movement is playing a vital role in helping African nations overcome these challenges. Nigerian Ambassador, Godswill Chinemerem Ukauwa, best summed up the current situation. “In my opinion, I can say that African countries Identity Management System are characterized by lack of continuity in agenda, cynicism, inconsistency, technological backwardness, absence of digitalized identity Registration, vulnerable class, and lack of access to some rural areas, political instability that may derail existing agendas due to party interests, non-compliance to Development Agencies program, and much more. The emergence of ID4Africa has brought about the acceptance of digital identification system as a world agenda and adoption with little or no little or no complicity, and with realistic solutions to the challenges others faced in ignorance. The formation of ID4Africa in 2014 and the commencement of International Meeting from one African Country to the other are tantamount to awakening African nations from slumber as it affects digitalizing the identity of its citizenry and responsible use of identity.”

Aiphonce Malibiche of Tanzania agrees, “ID4Africa plays an important role for two reasons. First, it allows practitioners and stakeholders across the continent to learn from each other, including how to overcome common challenges, trends in technology and other innovations, and what each country’s plans are moving forward. Second, because no such forum on digital identification exists for the continent, ID4Africa helps us build relationships and networks, which are instrumental to continuing the knowledge exchange between the Annual Events and creates opportunities for collaboration, such as for mutual recognition of identification between countries.”

It is interesting when asking about future challenges that there appears to be a commonality in response from the various Ambassadors. Namely, that if any ID scheme is to work (interdependent of the specific African nation) there is a need for a trusted national registry that can act as a platform upon which functional systems can be based. This in turn is dependent upon a robust Internet connectivity if a particular nation is to have an efficient and cost effective identity system. Government commitment, skilled human resource especially on IT, and finances remain vital factors in contributing towards the achievement of a better digital identity system.

Kenyan Ambassador, Reuben Kimotho is also looking beyond immediate national ID requirements and into the future, “(There is a…) lack of mutual recognition and interoperability of national ID cards. Africa as a continent is growing and regions, including countries, are opening up its borders for cross border movement of persons and goods. We must ensure that authentication and verification services are developed to maximize on these efforts and hopefully move towards the acceptability and ownership by other government agencies of eID as a multipurpose card”.

ID4Africa remains an amazing movement aimed at bringing Digital Identity to the African continent. Mohamed Ntilitt, the Ambassador for Mauritania, perhaps best summed up the Ambassadors’ feelings about such a movement; “ We come to the conclusion that, indeed, there is a common challenge for all African states, that of acquiring digital identity and taking ownership of it. But the way to get there is not necessarily the same. Indeed, for each country, specific factors such as context, existing identity assets, and development priorities must be taken into account in the development of a national strategy for the development of a functioning digital identity ecosystem.

To achieve this, the ID4Africa Movement is undoubtedly a source of vital advice for governments in developing countries, as well as international organizations, to better understand the positive impact of electronic identity on social development and economic and political factors in these countries but also for user organizations and suppliers for the development of their technology roadmap and their underlying strategies.”

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