Ideas & Debate

Census is one more time to intrude on citizen privacy

Next Saturday, census strangers will knock on
Next Saturday, census strangers will knock on your door. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Next Saturday — around when, for English Premiership football fans, the second half of the Manchester United versus Crystal Palace game begins, and an hour and a half before Liverpool hosts Arsenal — government census enumerators shall knock on our doors.

From what the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) tells us, the Q&A session will take 30 minutes out of our “footie” time, with a plus or minus condition when adjusted for household size. Also, you don’t actually have to be at home at the time, since you have up to the 31st to recall, in true movie style, “What You Did On August 24th”.

The best definition I have come across for a population census, from the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, is that it’s “a systematic recording of information on all members of a population usually residing in a country (de jure) or present at the time of enumeration (de facto)”. KNBS offers a simpler one, “the process of counting all people in a country at a specified time”.

Hello? Then what was “Huduma Namba” all about? In taking personal data and details, weren’t we effectively being counted at the same time? With a forthcoming referendum, boundaries review et al, Kenyans probably need an official Gantt chart, or Critical Path Analysis, simply to keep up with government’s intrusions in our lives. Watch out for a public holiday on the Monday 26th too.

Huduma Namba? That process implemented before the law is in place. Sh6.6 billion to tag most of us in the beginning, probably Sh8 billion after the extension, given our spending proclivity. Prepare to feign shock and awe when the Auditor-General reveals this malady in the fullness of time.


Of course, there’s also that “post-hoc” Huduma bill in Parliament that stops any realistic transaction in Kenya without “namba”. In that bill is a Huduma card, a new twist, since it’s now possible for actual body parts, like fingers, to be identifiers. A normed unit production cost of between $3 (basic e-ID) and $12 (smart, multi-layer, multi-functional e-ID) sounds like a juicy tender of say, Sh15-60 billion.

That’s all before the e-ID becomes a financial instrument, at which point we have state capture.

Costs matter. For more tablets and supervisors, and roughly the same number of ground staff, Ethiopia’s 2020 census – postponed from April this year - will cost the equivalent of Sh12 billion (originally Sh6 billion); basically 2/3rds of what we plan to spend for half their population. Benchmarking, anyone? Recall SGR cost differentials, and official blather about our “different terrain”.

People matter. Huduma Namba asked us and family who we were, where we were born, our state of disability, citizenship, marital status, parental or guardian details, permanent and current physical addresses, contact and education details, employment and agricultural tendencies, before biometrics.

Based on a form with small print that the process was mandatory when our courts ruled it as voluntary.

Now, between those “footie” games, census strangers will knock on my door to find out the same stuff before delving into whether I own or rent, have animals to be counted, water to drink, toilets to flush or religion I practice. Apparently Huduma Namba was about who you are and where you came from, and the census is about who and where you are today. Think about this in the context of Kenya’s future electoral space.

Which is why policy matters. It is why government must treat policy as a response to the challenges that the people face; or more differently, that government exists with “the consent of the governed”.

As the head of the UN, the late Kofi Annan noted that “good government is a necessary (though insufficient) condition for good governance”. One assumes he was alluding to official competence.

This could have been so differently designed. The census is a good thing. But a census following Huduma Namba reflects a Government of National Confusion; the lack of “joined-up” government.

In 2014, there was a proposal to connect people (all in Kenya) and establishments (companies, societies et al) to land and assets (which are not owned by ghosts). Indeed there was a plan - Umoja Kenya.

Now, between Huduma Namba’s “Jitokeze, Jisajiri, Ujitambulishe” (basically, “get out/sign up, then show and introduce yourself”) and KNBS’s “Jitokeze Uhasibike” (“get out/sign up and be counted”), our privacy is gone. These Kiswahili slogans alone (forget the English ones) sounds colonial at best.

It’s disturbing. It’s time to connect the democratic dots for Kenyans. Yesterday. And Tomorrow.