Blantyre — For the first time in its history, Malawi is conducting a national registration exercise whose primary objective is to validate bona fide Malawians and issue them with national identity cards (ID).
The mass registration exercise is targeting every Malawian citizen aged 16 and above and children below this age.
The exercise started on May 24 this year and runs up until everyone is registered.
A total of K35 billion, out of which 40 percent is from Malawian coffers and 60 percent from donors, has been committed for the smooth implementation of the project.
However, the program has had a few glitches as some misconceptions have arisen concerning the identity cards.
Some opposition political parties are suggesting that the project is a strategy for political parties (particularly the ruling) to rig or accumulate votes during the 2019 tripartite elections.
On the other hand, some people in rural areas allege that the project will promote favoritism and nepotism in provision of social services and implementation of public projects.
Patricia Godfrey, 25, from Mbayani Township in Blantyre is one of the many Malawians who are still having difficulties in appreciating the importance of having a national identity card.
Although it took her three days to get registered, she was completely blank about the exercise.
"I am here because our chief passed a message that we should come and register for identity cards. I don't know the use of these identities," Godfrey says.
She adds that she has lived in the country for a long time and everyone in her village knows her.
"So, why this card that I will not always have with me when I want to leave my home?" she asks.
Godfrey may not be alone in this situation hence the need to drive home the importance of this exercise and its ultimate product of having a national ID.
The ministry of civic education, culture and community development is the one overseeing this exercise.
Minister responsible Cecilia Chazama says the national ID has a number of benefits for both government and individuals.
Firstly is the identification of citizens and establishment of population figures in the country.
According to Chazama, this information is important in guiding government when formulating development programmes and distribution of the same based on the population of an area, district or region.
"Development has to be equal and for government to achieve that, it needs to have backing evidence.
The data we are collecting now is the evidence we need to have for equal and smooth implementation of developmental projects," the minister says.
She adds that the information and identification will come handy in the provision of social services to the citizenry especially in reducing expenses and saving resources since only bona fide Malawians will be targeted and assisted accordingly.
"It is the mandate of government to provide social services to its people. However, without proper identification and data, wrong people may take advantage and benefit from such services thereby costing government huge sums of money," Chazama says.
The minister cites incidences where foreigners, especially people from Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia benefit from health and education systems of Malawi for free.
Secondly, the multipurpose ID will act as first evidence that Malawians will use or produce to identify themselves.
"Provision of services will now change. Only those with the national identity card will get help," Chazama says adding that this is the more reason every Malawian should not be left out in the registration exercise.
Benefiting from development initiatives like public works programmes, social cash transfer, fertilizer subsidies, Malata and Cement subsidy housing programmes and relief items will require one to have the national ID.
The same will apply when one wants to get a driving license and passport.
"The card will be a permit for every Malawian to access a number of services," Chazama hints.
Every issue has a set of believers and doubting Thomases. The national identification exercise is no exception.
While the believers look forward with hope for a better Malawi, the doubters are busy concocting conspiracy theories about the exercise.
Other people assert that the current government would like to use the identity cards to rig the 2019 elections.
Such thinking is myopic and retrogressive, according to Democratic Progress Party (DPP) spokesperson Francis Kasaila.
"Every country has national identities for its citizens because they help foster development in a country," Kasaila says.
He adds that the process is long overdue since Malawi is the only country in Southern African Development Community (SADC) region without national identities for its citizens.
The importance of national identities permeates all sectors of development including health and security.
Spokesperson for Ministry of Health and Population Adrian Chikumbe sees the national IDs shaping the operations of the health sector for the better, one of which is supply and availability of drugs.
According to Chikumbe, the identification will help to reduce drug shortages in hospitals; the competition for medicines and supplies between deserving citizens and those from across the borders will now be checked.
Furthermore, it will help to plan properly in delivering health services.
"The ministry will have a realistic denominator when setting up campaign targets and coverage of activities like immunization, which is not easy in the current situation," he says.
The Malawi Police Service (MPS) is also another government sector that will benefit from the national registration exercise.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera says will greatly assist in identifying people especially those involved in various types of accidents.
"Currently, it takes more time to identify someone dead or involved in accidents, particularly road accidents, because people do not have identity cards," Kadadzera says.
In addition, it will also help fight crime as it will be easier to identify someone who has committed a crime.
"Of-course we have professional crime investigators but this is a plus to us," the police publicist says.
By December this year, Malawi expects to register over 9 million people of 16 years and above.
According to National Registration Bureau Public Relations Officer, Norman Fulatira, 1.68 million people have already registered in the first phase of the exercise.
Malawi's neighboring countries such as, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania introduced national identification cards years ago, a move that is said to have helped in improving their service delivery systems.
Indeed, the coming of the national identification cards on the scene is a game changer for Malawi as the provision of social services by government to its citizens is geared to take a turn for the better.