Our Journey in 2019 & 2020
Millions of Kenyan citizens face a discriminatory vetting process when applying for identity documents due to their ethnicity. This process can lead to their applications being denied. Without an ID, they cannot apply for a job, receive a bank loan, or access healthcare. They are excluded from society.
Namati Kenya and partners support community paralegals who help people navigate the unjust and complex process and secure their essential documents. We have been using data from all of those cases to build an argument, and a movement, to end the unconstitutional practice of vetting. But in early 2019 a new threat arose. One that would not only uphold citizenship discrimination, but entrench it.
The government announced that it would be rolling out a new digital ID scheme. ‘Huduma Namba’, as it is known, would serve as the “single source of truth” on all citizens and foreign residents in Kenya. No one, said the government, will be able to access government services without it — but to enroll, one must already have a national ID card.
Namati partners brought a legal challenge to halt the implementation on the grounds that Huduma Namba, as currently designed, could exclude millions of Kenyans and exacerbate the decades-old system of ID discrimination. Namati teams engage in litigation sparingly; when we do, we bring to that otherwise technical exercise a legal empowerment spirit. Community members packed the courtroom, paralegals led debrief and discussion sessions after every hearing, and the case was the subject of intense public debate.
The New York Times wrote a feature about the case, quoting program lead Laura Goodwin and multiple partners, and we authored an essay in Wired, drawing out implications for the many other countries transitioning to digital ID schemes. In late January 2020, the High Court ruled in our favor. It was the first time, anywhere in the world, that a court set limits on a digital ID scheme on the grounds of exclusion.
Six weeks later, COVID hit and Kenya, like many countries, went into lockdown. Government functioning slowed which temporarily affected our ability to help individuals obtain their IDs. Paralegals maintained remote communication with those they were assisting to offer encouragement and share updates so that all were poised for action once restrictions eased. When government registration offices re-opened in the final quarter, paralegals experienced a jump in demand for their support.
Fortunately, COVID did not hinder us in building the movement against citizenship discrimination. Our collective efforts included dozens of paralegal-led radio shows, over 50 virtual community forums, community advocacy training, mainstream and social media engagement, and community participation in government hearings on draft regulations. These actions fostered widespread awareness and public support for the demand that the transition to a digital identity scheme address the risks of exclusion.
In late 2020, the government claimed it had met the requirements of the court judgment and announced it was moving ahead with Huduma Namba. We and our partners disagree; we have filed both an appeal and a fresh challenge in the High Court while continuing our grassroots and media campaigning.
In 2021, we aim to further integrate a movement-building orientation into the work paralegals do with individuals seeking IDs, deepen our partnership with aligned parliamentarians, and achieve systemic wins against exclusionary policy in all six counties where we work.
Our Grassroots Impact at a Glance
In 2019 and 2020, paralegals supported members of historically marginalized groups to navigate a complex and discriminatory national identity system. While the process is ongoing for most, more than a thousand people secured their IDs, enabling them and their families to access essential services and take part in society.
Ziya’s Story: From Fighting for ID to Fighting the System
At 16, in her first year of high school, Ziya* gave birth. Just as she was learning how to be a mother to her son, her own mother died. “Things were bad,” recalls Ziya. “My mother was helping me raise the boy so that I could go to school. Now I was alone; I became his mother and father.”
Ziya had no choice but to drop out of school to fend for her son. She took on casual jobs in Kibera, the low-income area in Nairobi where she lives, but they did not pay enough to sustain a family of two.
At 18, Ziya tried to find domestic work in a wealthy neighborhood nearby, but no one would give her a chance without identification. “Petty theft by casual laborers is rampant, so everybody is cautious about who they let into their home,” explains Ziya.
This much became clear: if she wanted to provide for her son, she had to get her national ID card.
Ziya submitted the required paperwork at the registrar’s office in Kibera and was told to come back in a month for “vetting”. Vetting is a process whereby individuals of certain ethnicities go before a committee of security personnel and local leaders who ask them questions to determine if they are ‘truly Kenyan’. Ziya, being a Muslim of Nubian descent, is among the approximately 5 million citizens who have been subjected to this unconstitutional process.
“What angered me the most is how they treated me,” recalls Ziya. “The committee knew me, my mother and my grandmother, but they made me come before them for vetting over ten times. My Christian friends leave with a waiting card on their first trip to the registrar’s office. The next trip they make is to collect their ID cards.”
Despite the hurdles, Ziya persisted, trying for over three years to secure her rightful ID.
During this time, her son turned school age. Ziya enrolled him in a private school. It was expensive, but it was the only way he could get an education. While government schools in Kenya are free, they need to see both the child’s and the parents’ identification. Ziya had neither: she kept being denied her own national ID card and without that, she couldn’t secure her son’s birth certificate.
On seeing that Ziya was struggling with the fees, the private school found her son a sponsor. But the relief it brought was short-lived. Upon learning that Ziya and her son did not have identity documents, the sponsor withdrew their commitment. “The sponsorship would have made a big difference in our lives,” says Ziya. “Besides my son’s school fees, the sponsor had offered to cater for our food and rent.”
Ziya had all but given up hope until she met Zena and Zahra, community paralegals with Nubian Rights Forum (NRF), a partner of Namati Kenya. They helped her understand her citizenship rights and supported her in navigating the complex system and vetting process. Finally, Ziya got her ID.
But happy as she was to have it, the ID was no longer enough for Ziya. She was appalled by the discrimination and wanted to help others subjected to it. She signed on as a volunteer community ambassador with NRF, encouraging others and sharing her own experience during community forums organized by NRF to discuss issues surrounding rights to citizenship.
Then in early 2019, the government announced a new mandatory digital identity scheme known as Huduma Namba. Those who do not enroll — or are rejected due to lack of existing identification — will be unable to access any government service.
NRF and other civil society organizations filed constitutional petitions challenging the legality of Huduma Namba, arguing that it violates the right to privacy, equality, and non-discrimination enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.
NRF held briefings with the community before and after every court date to discuss the issues and process. Ziya attended whenever she could and encouraged others to do the same. To generate broader awareness of the case and what was at stake, she shared her story in community forums, as well as with government officials, the United Nations, and journalists from around the world.
On January 30, 2020, the Kenyan High Court issued a ruling halting implementation of Huduma Namba because it could exclude Kenyan minorities. It was a big win, but it was not the end. Despite failing to enact the regulatory framework the court required to address exclusion, the Kenyan government began issuing Huduma Cards in late 2020. NRF’s appeal and two additional cases filed by other civil society groups remain pending in the courts.
Ziya, NRF, Namati are continuing to build awareness and support community action towards growing a national movement to end citizenship discrimination once and for all. The fight for citizenship justice continues.
*name changed upon request
Writing to Grow the Movement
We aim to communicate the urgent need for citizenship justice to policymakers and people in Kenya and across the globe. In 2019 and 2020, we published or were featured in more than half a dozen op-eds and articles.