The Long Road to the Fabled National ID

It is a daunting challenge in Ethiopia, where the Kebele ID remains the most used form of identification. The Kebele ID is registered locally without a digital database in many parts of the country. Even though it has high coverage and provides citizens with an official means of authentication, it has many weaknesses that need to be addressed.  The Kebele ID is not effectively deduplicated and hence, does not ensure that an individual cannot claim multiple identities.

National IDs are identification credentials/cards typically registered on a national database that can be issued centrally or in a decentralized environment by regional, city or lower administrations.

The mandate to administer a National ID system typically lies with a single government agency charged with issuing unique ID numbers to citizens. 

A National ID has a short existence in Ethiopia. Instead, a Kebele ID (a residential ID issued by the lowest level of government) serves as the closest thing to a National ID. 

Birth certificates, National IDs and residential IDs are considered as a foundational form of identification. A foundational ID is a core identity system designated to manage identity information for the general public, and to provide identity proof for a wide variety of public and private services.   

Other forms of IDs include functional IDs and transaction IDs. 

Functional IDs are forms of identification issued for a specific purpose. This category includes pension cards, voter registration cards, drivers licenses, employee IDs, resident permits and tax registration cards.  

Transactional IDs are issued for the purpose of authenticating certain transactions, often in the financial sector. For instance, the bank account books are issued once a customer proves her/his identity using a foundational ID. The book will be later used to authenticate transactions.

Foundational IDs serve as a basis for the issuance of both functional and transactional IDs. All three forms of identification can be implemented digitally or in a paper-based format, although the former is quickly proving more popular across the globe. 

Digital National IDs are foundational IDs linked to a digitized database of records that can be easily integrated for authentication purposes. These IDs often use biometric data to accurately match an identity with the individual holding the card. 

Holding an ID card has become essential to access basic social services in the past few decades. Nevertheless, around one billion people across the globe – the majority of whom live in Sub–Saharan Africa and South Asia – do not have any form of identification, according to a World Bank report published in 2018. The same report reveals that one in three people surveyed in Africa do not hold a foundational ID. 

The role of identification for development is recognized by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) target 16.9; “to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.” UN member countries aim to achieve this goal by 2030. 

It is a daunting challenge in Ethiopia, where the Kebele ID remains the most used form of identification. The Kebele ID is registered locally without a digital database in many parts of the country. Even though it has high coverage and provides citizens with an official means of authentication, it has many weaknesses that need to be addressed. 

The Kebele ID is not effectively deduplicated and hence, does not ensure that an individual cannot claim multiple identities. The ID is changed when the citizen moves to another area (Kebele) and hence, is not reliable over time. Moreover, it is vulnerable to forgery and cannot securely provide identity authentication to a third party due to the lack of a central registry.  

There have been attempts to establish a vital events registration system since the reign of Emperor Menelik II, and with the adoption of the nation’s civil code in 1960 the first legislative framework was laid to regulate a civil status registration system.

However, the civil code stipulated that the registration of civil status could only come into force upon notification by a published order, and the provisions of the civil code were never implemented as no such order was ever published.

It was only in 2012 that the country took the appropriate steps towards establishing a modern civil registration system. The necessary legal framework was set with enactment of the registration of Vital Events & National Identity Card Proclamation (No 760/2012), and the Regulation to Establish the Vital Events Registration Agency – VERA (No 278/2012).

Although the proclamation stipulates the establishment of a federal organ with the responsibility of issuing identity cards – that has not been the case until now.  

Hence, as opposed to the registry of vital events, the implementation of the National ID program was delayed. Although it was initially scheduled for launch in 2016, the program was stalled due to the failure to establish a government organ responsible for implementation.

Instead, the responsibility eventually fell to the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) – a government intelligence organ also charged with the mandate to oversee the security of digital technologies and national cybersecurity.  

Efforts to initiate a comprehensive National ID program have been in the works since the days of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The former administration began its work towards a National ID in 2011 with the National Intelligence & Security Service (NISS) and INSA, with other government agencies granted oversight over the program.  

The administration had also made efforts to establish a digital national ID system under the former INVEA, until early 2018. However, the efforts failed to generate results due to a multitude of challenges. 

When the Prosperity Party came to power in 2018, it re-initiated efforts for a national ID program. The administration entrusted its implementation to the Ministry of Innovation & Technology and the Ministry of Peace. The same year, officials prepared a strategic document laying the conceptual ground and major objectives of the National ID program.  

The program had another restructuring in September 2021, when it was placed under the purview of the Office of the Prime Minister. Officials attributed the move to the inter-sectoral nature of the ID system. 

A pilot project was later launched under the Office with the goal of registering 70 million people by 2025. A proclamation that will formalize the work of the program under an Institution has reach the parliament, undergoing discussion.

Why is a Digital National ID Necessary?

A digitally recorded database ensures an inclusive and trustworthy identification system that can play a significant role in achieving development goals, and offers several other benefits.    

The database can facilitate the achievement of targets regarding gender equality, decent work and economic growth, quality education, and good health and well-being. The integration of digital identities with digital products is a crucial aspect of this.     

A Digital National ID will make it easier to remotely verify legal identities and reduce costs related to identity authentication. It can also increase administrative efficiency. 

The lack of a digital identification database is widely agreed upon as a major hindrance contributing to the slow growth of digital financial services. The federal government has recognized the role of a digitized ID system in the growth of digital payments as well as efforts to expand access to financial services. 

Although it is clear that digitized, biometric data-based ID systems provide many practical benefits, there are growing concerns over data protection globally. Digital rights activists and development organizations recommend robust data protection laws, frameworks and procedures be put in place, which are all still missing in Ethiopia’s context. 

In the next part of this series we’ll delve deep into the Ethiopian National ID Program. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *