Uganda sued over digital ID scheme that excludes millions


Otajar John jumped at the chance to apply when he heard that older persons to be awarded 25,000 Ugandan shillings ($7) each month as part of a new government assistance initiative. 

The octogenarian from rural eastern Uganda was living hand to mouth, relying on begging to survive after a lifetime of laboring as a farmer. He believed that the state’s financial assistance would be of great use to him. 

But, nearly two years later, John is still unable to claim his monthly allowance because he lacks a valid national digital identity card (ndaga muntu), which requires him to access most public and private services in Uganda.  

“I registered for the ID card, but the date of birth made me 10 years younger and I couldn’t use it,” the 83-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his home in Bazaar village in Kumi district. 

“I have repeatedly asked to have my ID card corrected, but the officials refused to do it and turned me away. Without it, I have no choice but to continue begging until I die,” he said speaking in the Ateso language through a translator. 

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John is one of millions of Ugandans on whose behalf an alliance of charities has sued the government, arguing that vulnerable groups have been denied access to potentially life-saving services due to flaws in the national ID card rollout. 

The three charities – the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, Unwanted Witness and the Health Equity and Policy Initiative, estimate up to one-third of adults do not have a biometric ID card, seven years after the system was introduce. 

Most of those affected are poor and marginalised such as the elderly who have been unable to claim welfare payments, as well as pregnant women who have been turned away from health centres, they said, citing research conducted last year. 

The lack of a national ID has also prevented many Ugandans from opening a bank account, buying a mobile SIM card, enrolling in college, gaining formal employment and getting a passport, they added. 

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The three organisations filed the lawsuit on April 25, saying the mandatory use of the national ID was exclusionary and violated citizens’ rights to key services. 

They want the court to compel the government to accept alternative forms of identification for social and healthcare services. 

Officials at the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), which oversees the digital IDs, did not respond to requests for comment.

They previously acknowledge that the system needs improvement, adding that measures to be taken to increase card issuance. 

Brian Kiira, programme officer at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, said there ere “countless problems” with the digital ID system since it was introduce in 2015. 

He said: “From its design to its implementation, the whole system is deeply flawed.” 

“People are suffering because they cannot get an ID.” We’ve tried to engage with the authorities, but nothing has changed. So, we have no option but to take the matter to court.” 

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