An elderly woman registers for a national digital ID card in this undated photo.

Uganda government sued over digital ID system that excludes vulnerable groups

Image credit: Initiative for Social and Economic Rights

Three charities have sued the Uganda government for limiting millions of people’s access to potentially life-saving services due to flaws in its digital ID system.

The Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, Unwanted Witness and the Health Equity and Policy Initiative have filed a lawsuit against the Ugandan government for a failure in the rollout of the national ID system, which has reportedly resulted in the exclusion of vulnerable groups from potentially life-saving services, Reuters has found.

The three charities estimate that up to one-third of adults do not have a biometric ID card seven years after the system was introduced. 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 obtaining a passport. Most of those affected belong to poor and marginalised communities.

The flawed rollout has also resulted in elderly people being unable to claim welfare payments and pregnant women being turned away from health centres, the organisations said.

"I registered for the ID card, but the date of birth made me 10 years younger and I couldn't use it," 83-year-old Otajar John told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “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.”

Two years after the Ugandan government introduce a welfare scheme to award senior citizens 25,000 Ugandan shillings (about £7) a month, John has still not been able to access this benefit that would allow him to have a stable food intake, because the application process requires an updated national ID.

John is one of the millions of Ugandans on whose behalf an alliance of charities filed the lawsuit on 25 April 2022, claiming that the mandatory use of the national ID 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.

Elderly Ugandans apply to register for a national ID.

Elderly Ugandans apply to register for a national ID. Thomson Reuters Foundation/

Image credit: Photo Courtesy: Initiative for Social and Economic Rights

Officials at the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), which oversees the digital IDs, did not respond to requests for comment. They have previously acknowledged that the system needs improvement, adding that measures would be taken to increase card issuance.

"From its design to its implementation, the whole system is deeply flawed," said Brian Kiira, programme officer at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights. "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 the court."

An estimated one billion people globally - 40 per cent of whom live in Africa - do not currently have official proof of identity, greatly limiting their ability to access health, education and financial services, according to World Bank estimates.

A growing number of countries are adopting digital ID systems, citing their ease, efficiency, increased security and fraud prevention, and lower cost compared with analogue systems. However, the rollout of these systems has often encountered accessibility issues, as was the case in India, a country criticised for leaving out about 100 million vulnerable people, many of whom are homeless or transgender and have been denied essential services.

Research conducted by the three Ugandan charities last year said only about 12.7 million cards had been issued for a population of 18.9 million adults in 2019, citing the latest data available from NIRA. Many citizens were unaware of how to register and faced difficulties in travelling long distances and bearing the cost of reaching a registration office, it said.

The study, which involved more than 450 interviews, also found long delays in the issuance of the cards, and a high rate of errors in the spelling of names and dates of birth, like in John's case. As a result, at least 50,000 people over the age of 80 had mistakes on their ID cards or did not have a national ID at all, making them ineligible for senior citizen benefits, they said.

"The lack of access to get an ID card, the delays and bureaucracy in having it issued, and its mandatory nature have all contributed to making Uganda's ID system exclusionary," said Dorothy Mukasa, executive director at Unwanted Witness.

"Until they can sort out all the problems and allocate adequate resources to the national ID system, the government should allow other forms of identification - such as a letter from a village official, which was accepted in the past."

Last year, the three charities filed a similar lawsuit against the government after it announced plans to make the IDs a requirement for Covid-19 vaccines. Before the court could rule, the Health Ministry reversed the policy. This case is expected to be heard in the High Court of Uganda in the coming weeks and the organisations are hoping for a similar win. 

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