The politics of identity cards in Kenya, and how registration law promotes sour ethnic divisions

What does an identity card say about you? Does it liberate or imprison you? More importantly, does it prove your Kenyanness or just record your ethnic roots? GRAPHIC | NATION

What you need to know:

  • The small document people carry in their wallets stands between them and legitimacy in the eyes of the law while legalising the touchy matter of ethnic balance, especially in the public service.
  • Data from the National Registration Bureau, the department charged with issuing ID cards, indicates that of the 915,101 applications for IDs that were made in 2014, over 175,000 were rejected.
  • At registration desks all over the country, one’s ethnic roots have never been more important since political commentator Mutahi Ngunyi first spoke of “the tyranny of numbers” in the run up to the last General Elections, and now the twisted logic of one’s tribal roots does not just determine your Kenyanness, but also your value as a voter

There is a bitter explanation for every crease on the forehead of 24-year-old Martin Omondi, whom we have found queueing to register for an identity card in Kibera. For the fifth time in three years, he has been asked to get a letter from the Chief of the location where his father was born to prove his Kenyanness, his roots.

When asked by the registration clerk where he comes from, he tells us, he had informed him that he hails from Nairobi. “No one comes from Nairobi,” the clerk had dismissed him as he advised him to go dig deeper for his roots. “That is the law!”

But that law, at least to Omondi, does not make sense. While his father hailed from Migori, Omondi considers himself a child of the city, born and bred here. In any case, the last time he was in Migori was a blurry eight years ago, when he travelled there for his father’s funeral. His mother had died two years earlier, and since then he has never found any reason to travel back there. Nairobi to him is where his roots sink the deepest, and were he to be translocated to where the law says he belongs, we would be at a loss trying to find his directions and, most importantly, his identity.

Yet, according to the law, he has to go back to the place he last saw 16 years ago and look for the one person the law trusts will prove his true identity: an administrative chief.

“I have grown up here in Nairobi,” said a frustrated Omondi. “If the goverment really wants me to prove my Kenyanness, I can bring tens of people who will vouch not only for my identity, but also my character.”


But no one comes from Nairobi in the eyes of Kenyan registration law, or at least in the eyes of the clerk who dismissed Omondi, and so the young man will go through a few more months, or even years, before he gets his identity card. He is 24, meaning he should have received the all-important document six years ago. Meanwhile, the frustrations are piling on.

Without an identity card, Omondi is a nobody. No one will employ him, he cannot join a youth group, he cannot open a bank account, and he cannot even register his mobile phone number.

His predicament tells the story of the legitimisation of ethnicity in Kenyan law, the story of his parents and his parents’ parents, and the story of the deep-seated wariness with which many view those who claim roots in places where their surnames do not ‘fit’.

The small card he is looking for, and which stands between him and legitimacy in the eyes of the law, will also legitimise the touchy matter of ethnic balance when he eventually seeks employment, especially in public service.

At the registration desk in Kibera, just like at any other such desk around the country, one’s ethnic roots have never been more important since political commentator Mutahi Ngunyi first spoke of “the tyranny of numbers” in the run up to the last General Elections, so now the twisted logic of one’s tribal roots does not just determine your Kenyanness, but also your value as a voter

In the book [email protected]: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging, cultural analyst Joyce Nyairo criticises the politicisation of language and representation, arguing that the national identity card as designed now is no longer a unifying factor in Kenya, but a divisive and tribal tool.

To explain her point, Dr Nyairo cites the experience of Prof Maria Nzomo, who had been ranked the first in a competitive and rigorous process to choose the chaiperson of the Gender Commission in 2011, but President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga were forced to reject her nomination on grounds of ethnic balance.

To arrive at that controversial decision, all that both Raila and Kibaki needed to do was follow the law: the Constitution, in articles 21(3) and 27(4), is emphatic about the need for inclusivity of all in “spreading the national cake”.

And so it was such need for ethnic diversity in public appointments, seen as very crucial for democracy and affirmative action, that persuaded the then head of Public Service, Francis Muthaura, to write to Parliament stating that Prof Nzomo hails from the Kikuyu community, same as two other members of the three-member commission, and so, although highly qualified for the position, could not get it.

Data from the National Registration Bureau, the department charged with issuing ID cards, indicates that of the 915,101 applications for IDs that were made in 2014, over 175,000 were rejected. PHOTO | FILE

Defined by bloodline

Prof Nzomo was born to a Kikuyu mother and Kamba father, lived most of her life in Nairobi and was married to a man who hailed from Western Province, but while Nairobi and Western Kenya might have influenced her culture, identity and paradigms as much her mixed ethnic parentage, in the end it was her bloodline, more than anything else, that was used to define her.

Faced with the delicate job of balancing ethnic representation in public service, Kibaki and Raila chose the fourth candidate in the interview.

Prof Nzomo’s experience, as well as that of Martin Omondi, the 24-year-old who has been asked to go trace his roots in Migori, illustrates how important yet limiting an ID card has become. Data from the National Registration Bureau, the department charged with issuing ID cards, indicates that of the 915,101 applications for IDs that were made in 2014, over 175,000 were rejected.

It is not clear what informed the rejection of those applications, but it is people like Omondi who cannot meet, to use his words, the “outrageous demands” for documentation that miss out.

Those who are lucky to have the document, in the meantime, have become part of a human resource debate that seems reluctant to go away, especially within the ranks of devolved government.

Reserved for natives

Mary Oyaro was born in Kisii but her father relocated to Homa Bay when she was a young girl. She has lived in the town for more than 15 years. When vacancies for Early Childhood Development (ECD) teachers arose in the county government, officials made it clear that priority would be given to “the people of Homa Bay”. She was elated at the statement —until she realised it meant those born in that county as shown in their identity cards.

“The teachers who got the job knew nothing about this area,” she told DN2 recently. “They came from Nairobi, some with a very poor command of the Luo language, but because their IDs showed they were born here, they were given the job.”

This isolation, as Dr Nyairo notes in Tabitha Kanogo’s Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, is not different from the bloody land evictions of 1946 in Olenguruone, Nakuru, and which were repeated in 1991 and, most recently, in the 2007 post-election violence.


In June this year the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union reported that 700 doctors posted to the counties had been rejected because they were not originally from those areas. As a result, Secretary-General Ouma Oluga called upon the Transition Authority, Public Service Commission and Parliamentary Health Committee “to investigate and take action against these counties”.

But Oluga might be fighting a losing battle if the constitutional status quo is maintained. The Public Service Commission itself issues periodical reports on ethnic representation in government, among them the one released in February last year that showed that the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luhya and Kamba communities took up more than half (58 per cent) of all civil service jobs.

“Ethnicity is normally one of the criteria we use when hiring,” Prof Margaret Kobia, the chairperson of the Public Service Commission, told a Nation reporter in the wake of a public outcry raised by the report. “We want to ensure that all communities are fairly represented.”

She said the report gave the PSC basis that would help it to reduce the gaps to ensure that the public service has a national face.

The complaints against outrageous demands such as those given to Omondi have been documented in detail in a 2007 report by the Kenya National Commission on Human rights, titled An Identity Crisis? A Study on the Issuance of National Identity Cards In Kenya.

The report highlights, among other challenges for Kenyans trying to get IDs, the way the wrong definition of “belonging” is justified by the law. The colonial government enacted the Native Registration Ordinance in 1915 to control males 16 years and above and enlist them into colonial labour. In 1947 the Registration of Persons Ordinance was passed to make it mandatory for all males of the aforementioned age bracket to be registered.

Discriminative precedent

Apart from laying the foundation that would make life harder for people like Omondi a century later, this law set a discriminative gender precedent by denying women the right to acquire identity cards. It was only until 1978 when an amendment of the law allowed women to possess IDs.

However, to date women in urban areas still need to produce a letter from their location chief if they are single indicating their parentage and lineage, and if they are married the details of their husbands’ IDs are copied onto their identification cards.

Pauline Akinyi, a volunteer registration clerk at Sarang’ombe in Kibera, told Nation that a lot of women who lack the necessary details for registration give up on the process because of the impediments they encounter.

A young woman carrying a child at the registration desk told us she had tried getting an ID since 2007, when she lived in Kamukunji. “They were asking for too many things… like those letters from the chief which were impossible for me to get and after some attempts I gave up,” she said.

Just following law

While many Kenyans complain of the long process of acquiring IDs, the registration clerks have no other way to go about it except follow the law as stipulated in Section 5 of the Registrations of Persons Act.

The Act states that the registration clerk may ask for documents such as a baptismal card, birth certificate or a letter from the chief to ascertain place of birth. Other details that may be required include “declared tribe or race”.

However, the authors of the UNHCR report observed that the note on the law that says the clerk can ask for “any other document or information” has left room for arbitrariness, abuse and unreasonable demands by the registration officials.


No one comes from Nairobi in the eyes of Kenyan registration law. PHOTO | FILE


‘Children born from 1980 have no tribe’

The gravity of the matter of asking ID applicants to list their tribes and even clans was captured in 2014 by a Daily Nation reader, who went on to recommend that the government needs to find better ways of vetting applicants. Here, excerpts of the letter:

“I had a difficult time trying to furnish answers to our daughter who is applying for her national ID card. How does one ask about a clan, when these children don’t even have a tribe? What village should they claim to belong to when they were born in Nairobi Hospital? What is their “muhiriga” (I have no idea what that is myself)? Let us find a better way of vetting applicants. What happens to orphans from the post-election violence, for example? What happens to children with a foreign father? From which village should the applicant claim to come? Children born from 1980 onwards know no tribe, clan or village.”


— Nairobi resident Stephen Kinyanjui Muliro, in a letter to the Daily Nation in October 2014.



Amount of money a foreigner needs to pay corrupt officials to acquire a Kenyan ID in Mandera, according to county official. Mandera County Commissioner Alex ole Nkoyo in March this year said corrupt officials at the border collude with cartels to let in aliens after receiving bribes. County Registrar of Persons Said Godhana said the government had proposed expanded vetting teams for those wishing to acquire IDs as a way of preventing non-Kenyans from accessing the document.

HE SAID: The Government should treat registration of citizens as an imperative for obtaining vital statistics that subsequently informs planning, budgeting and fiscal policies such as taxation and public expenditure. Equally, the right to an identity card or other documents of registration affects the enjoyment of the right to vote and be voted for as provided under Article 38 of the Constitution. To deny a person an identity card, therefore, not only strips them of their selfhood and dignity but denies them the exercise of a very cardinal right and duty, which is the civic duty to vote and be voted for. Viewed against this background, the right to an identity card can neither be over emphasised nor gainsaid.


— Eliud Owalo, a management consultant, writing in the Daily Nation in July this year.


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