Transformative milestone. Fulfilled promise. Landmark development. A guarantor of our citizenship. This is how various stakeholders have described the just-ended mass registration exercise and the issuance of biometric national identity cards.
After a long wait for over 50 years without having legal documents identifying us as bona-fide Malawians, everyone is excited about the introduction of national IDs. Even President Peter Mutharika who during his tenure as Justice Minister in 2009 initiated the legislation of the enabling Act is upbeat about the achievement.
“When I initiated legislation of the Act in 2009 in my capacity as Minister of Justice, everyone said this is not possible. But we have done it. Today, our promise is reality. Our dream is happening,” said Mutharika during the closure of the mass registration campaign in Lilongwe on Thursday.
He added: “Today, we are here to make history. For the first time ever, Malawi has a legal identification system. Every Malawian now has a National Identity Card. This is transformation! The National Identity Card was my promise to the people of Malawi. I have always said – I promise what I do; and I do what I promise.”
The initiative targeted to register 9 million Malawians but has so far beaten the target, courtesy of the desire of every eligible citizen to have a national identity card.
“The National Registration and Identification System has an overall total of 9, 168, 689 Malawians. All these will receive their National Identity Cards. This constitutes a 100 percent national coverage against our initial target population,” explained Mutharika.
While mass registration is closed, there will be continuous registration at all times as those graduating into the eligibility criteria can register and obtain a legal identity at District Commissioners’ Offices.
The benefits of the identity card are numerous. For Eletoni Fundi from Ndanga Village in Mulanje, once he receives the national identity card, his first action will be to use it to open a bank account.
Describing the development as a wonderful solution, he revealed that in the past three years he attempted to open a bank account but financial institutions turned him away due to lack of a genuine ID.
“As a carpenter, I get some substantial money from my business. It has been my longtime dream to save some of my earnings, but lack of an identity card was the stumbling block,” he explained: “With the national ID, the impossibility is now a possibility.”
His sentiments echo what Mutharika said during the closure of the mass registration initiative.
“With a National ID, every citizen can now access banking services because banks feel secure to deal with legally identifiable citizens. With the National ID, banks no longer have reason to deny services to our farmers, mothers and sisters living in rural areas,” Mutharika explained.
He added: “The National ID Card is a game changer. With a legal identity of every citizen, we will now flash out ghost workers from the public service. We will save more money for public services.”
That’s not all. There is also an expectation among many stakeholders of an increase in e-commerce and online transactions because the national identity system steps up electronic security.
“Not long from now, we will now buying and selling our goods online more than ever. This is transformation,” the president explained.
With every Malawian owning a National ID, even the Immigration and Citizenship Services Department, shall have no excuse for processing and issuing passports to crooked foreigners who parachute into the country only to get the much-needed document fraudulently for sinister motives.
The just ended Mass Registration assignment, according to European Union Ambassador to Malawi Marchel Germann is a significant achievement that has put Malawi on track to achieve one of the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals on legal identity for all and birth registration by 2030.
“The digital dividend of this project offers a unique opportunity for Malawi to position itself as a modern state on the African map. Technology can be a tool to establish transparent systems and hence underpin reforms. What we are witnessing today is a milestone for Malawi since it holds transformative promise for the country.”
Germann pointed out that a new chapter has begun as Malawians will enjoy the tangible benefits that ID Cards bring.
“Development Partners would like to encourage your government to ensure that the NRIS, coupled with the ID Cards, will translate into improved service delivery and strengthened democracy.
“We invested in this project to see improved governance and an increased tax base by efficiently utilizing this system; to see e-health passports, giving instant access to patients’ medical histories, saving time and lives; and to see improved access to justice and social protection becoming realistic goals to aspire to. The ID Cards are also expected to usher new opportunities to roll out targeted financial inclusion programmes,” he said.
For many citizens to benefit from the card, establishment of linkages between the National Registration and Identification System and government ministries, departments and agencies is of paramount importance. One crucial linkage already in place is that of between the identification system and the Malawi Electoral Commission.
“We are expecting that this will improve the integrity of the voters’ register and, more importantly, reduce the total cost of the elections. The introduction of ID-Cards should translate into significant cost-savings on the voter registration process and the overall election budget,” said Germann.
Other linkages can be made with the Malawi Revenue Authority, the Ministry of Health, the Immigration Department and the banking sector. Through such links an ecosystem providing improved services for the bearers of the national ID will be created easily.
The fruition of the initiative is a result of the strategic coalition of engagement and commitment between the government of Malawi, and Development Partners – the UNDP, the European Union, UK, Ireland, Norway and the US- which together funded the project.
UNDP Chief Technical Advisor on NRIS-project Tariq Malik summed the valuable collaboration very well. “A project of this size and complexity is never the work of one individual. There are many here today who gave their time, commitment and their energy so this vision could be realized. The number of people registered in the mass registration campaign speaks to their success.”
But when all was said and done, Malik made a capstone observation. “This was truly a project by Malawians, for Malawians….. Today, however, is a moment to pause, to take a breath and to celebrate. We have achieved a milestone. A milestone with transformative promise.”
Indeed registering over 9 million Malawians; and issuing them with biometric national identity cards within a short period of time is a milestone with transformative promise.
Brian Ligomeka is an Executive Director of a human rights media organization, Centre for Solutions Journalism