Our ‘nonsensical’ approach to census

Numbers are prophetic and incriminating at the same time. They unveil success or failure; they disclose our nation’s past, present and future. Numbers can reveal care and negligence, honesty and corruption, movement and choices, love and hatred…all at the same time. Numbers mean power, and the powerful know it.

A census will tell us the truth of how resources have been used or misused, if we are healthy or unhealthy, honest or corrupt… If billions were invested in roads, maize or dams, numbers will explain the relation between the expenditure and the time it takes to travel that road. Numbers will explain how many people were fed from the maize we bought, and how many have access to clean water in those places where dams were paid for. Numbers do not lie.

A well-designed and executed census in a sensible country will always have a direct impact on good governance. It divides a country’s policies and development planning between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’.

Are we still a pit-latrine nation?

The 2009 census determined that we were a pit latrine nation. Three quarters of our nation disposed of human waste in pit latrines, and a further 13 percent in the bush (a staggering 24 percent use the bush in the coastal region). It was shocking to see that only 7 percent of Kenyans had access to the main sewer (which should not be called ‘main sewer’ for it only serves 7 percent of Kenyans).

This is a serious 21st century challenge, particularly in a country where only 30 percent of the population have access to piped water and 70 percent have to be content with accessing more exposed water sources such as boreholes, springs and rain water.

Did we do anything about this basic challenge in our development plans? Have local and county governments, health ministry and water ministry looked into this in an organised and coherent manner? Do we have a 10-year plan with concrete goals between censuses?

A census is a key planning exercise. Why do we seem so casual, haphazard in our approach to data collection and census? What do we do with our numbers? Why do we collect them? Do we use them for our development planning, for our policy drafting and legislation? Does parliament ever hold meaningful and informed discussions based on census’ results? Or does the census simply aim at satisfying international standards and practices?

Too many censuses?

Censuses is the anglicised plural of Census, which in its original form would be censi. For some people, it seems difficult to take the 2019 Census exercise seriously for we have just had the noisy and controversial Huduma Namba, preceded by a National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) biometric registration, which also happened a few months after the IEBC biometric registration. If every time I went through a biometric registration exercise my fingers would lose a bit of their digital prints, they would be flat by now. Everyone has my fingerprints, IEBC, Kenya Airports, Immigration, the University, Huduma, my bank, the police, NHIF, NSSF, etc…

Who has my data? What for? How secure is it? Dr Isaac Rutenberg, one of the most knowledgeable authorities in the field of intellectual property and data security law, explains that we are walking between very dangerous digital land mines.

Our over harvested digital data (like the one collected by the Huduma Namba exercise, the IEBC and the NHIF) cannot be secured for we ignored the right protocols. This data could be easily hacked by external sources or sold by insiders with high chances of impunity. The more data you aggregate to these systems, the more dangerous it will be for us in case of an almost inevitable data breach.

A census is different, it is not about you, but about us

So, a census is not just about collecting any data and this is why this census is necessary despite Huduma Namba and other data collection drills, but information flows, awareness, due process and care should be exercised. Jackie Akello and Jaaziyah Satar explain this in depth in their CIPIT Blog

The census is not about you, like Huduma Namba or NHIF; it is about us. This may not have been properly explained and a lot of conspiracy theories have emerged. The tension can be felt in social media. The public relations exercise for the census should have been clearer, strategic and timely.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) has a very specific mandate which relates to population statistical tracking. The boundaries of the powers given to the KNBS are demarcated by the Statistics Act of 2006. Article 4(1) says that, “The bureau shall be the principal agency of the government for collecting, analysing and disseminating statistical data in Kenya and shall be the custodian of official statistical information.”

Personal registration details and biometric registration is not part of the statistical data required for the fulfilment of the KNBS functions. KNBS is directly concerned with socio-economics statistics and whatever information is collected is subject to severe restrictions under section 22 on restrictions on disclosure of information. The same law imposes even severe punishments under section 26.

Purpose Limitation Principle should be faithfully followed

I had a very interesting conversation with Rutenberg. He argues that “there is a principle of data protection called the Purpose Limitation. It says data should not be used for any purpose expect that for which it was explicitly collected. Census data is collected for statistical purposes…and unrelated items should never be combined.”

For example, the government should know how many farmers are in the country and how many PhDs, but they do not need to know that I am a farmer or that I have a PhD or the road I live in and the GPS coordinates of my house.

Rutenberg also says that “one central database with everything only makes that data more valuable and makes it more damaging to me when it is leaked or stolen. Over a million fingerprints were just stolen from a government database in the UK. Now you tell me – how would I change my fingerprint if a thief has it and is using it to authorise services like healthcare (which is what Huduma Namba will be doing, based on fingerprints)?”

If we jeopardise the census we will be a ‘nonsensical’ people.

A new census is a time to reflect, to study, to see where we got stuck as a country and why. A census reveals so much about us, our governments, our attitudes, our virtues and our lies. I am certain that any sensible person would love, respect and support any census if they also perceived an acceptable degree of seriousness, preparation and prudence in the use of the data that is collected.

This support may be jeopardised by the casual approach we pick up out from the authorities. Possibly, the government should have organised a better briefing campaign and walk the census preparations hand in hand with the press, releasing timely and comprehensive information. The back and forth we have seen triggers a desire to lie or hide crucial information in many people; this should not happen for the country needs that support.

Everyone has a duty to cooperate with the census. This is not a Jubilee exercise; it is not even a government exercise. It is a social event which is essential for our future. Even if we do not like the government, the leaders or the census officer, keep in mind that our fate is not changed by lying or hiding the truth in the census; our fate is changed in elections, and this is not an election.

Let us avoid being ‘nonsensical’ and answer our questions properly. We pray the questions are the right ones…so far we have had a lot of misinformation about them.

Prof Luis Franceschi
Founding Dean – Strathmore Law School
[email protected]


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