3 November 2018

Ethiopia: City Digitises IDs, Residents Left Waiting

opinion

Inconveniences, complaints and promises of efficiencies greet the new plan by the City Administration to digitize identification cards (ID). The city's decision to cease issuing new IDs while the digital system comes into effect has meant that expired ID's cannot be renewed in the interim. This has caused numerous complaints from residents, WRITES BEHAILU AYELE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Alemnesh Abraham was waiting for her name to be called out at Qirqos district's wereda2 last Wednesday morning.

She was at the Vital Events Registration Office, where the personnel were busy receiving residents looking for services and tracing files to cross-check the validity of documents.

Alemnesh, who is in her mid-40s, was soon called when her turn came up. She was at the wereda looking to renew her identification card (ID), without which she was told that she could not give power of attorney to her brother.

But this would not prove easy since the City Administration has altogether ceased issuing new IDs two weeks ago. This was decided not long after the city's recent decision to begin handing out electronic IDs.

"I know that they stopped giving the service," she said. "I was just hoping if they could help me out."

And despite the slight inconveniences Alemnesh had to go through, the office helped her out. She received a one-time letter from the wereda that she was able to present to the Document Authentication & Registration Agency together with her expired ID to obtain the power of attorney document.

"We understand that our decision might cause some inconvenience," says Zeyneba Shikur, the city's Vital Events Registration Agency head. "Yet we have introduced a means to address the inconvenience citizens may face."

The Agency, which has branches inside all the 116 weredasof the city has issued 5.1 million IDs for renewals, replacements of new or lost cards in the past three years.

Requests related to IDs make up 84pc of all the services the Agency processes, as well as making up a significant chunk of the 20 million Br in revenue it made in the last fiscal year.

Given the frequency of requests for new IDs, writing letters to specific institutions has been considered a temporary means of addressing the problem.

The Agency's decision to cease issuing new IDs stems from an attempt to stamp out the possession of multiple cards by individuals.

"We have come to notice that there are individuals with two or more IDs," Zeyneba says.

While this could occur in the case of manual IDs, the electronic ones will be able to avoid being used for fraud that incorporates technology, such as biometric fingerprinting and a centralised data centre from which all issuance can be traced.

Techno Brain Group, a firm which had already developed the Agency's centralised system for registering vital events, was hired for this purpose.

Thus far, the Agency has invested close to 100 million Br for the development of the system and importing printing machines. The entire digitisation project is estimated to cost 700 million Br.

"Printing the ID will be done at our headquarters for security purposes," Zeyneba told Fortune. "We have hired 20 technical staff for this purpose only."

The Agency also plans to include a chip in the ID cards to enable other government institutions to quickly identify the holder. Similarly, the new electronic IDs will be bilingual - Amharic and English - and contain information on the blood groups and fingerprints of the bearers.

The fingerprints of 300,000 residents of the city have so far been collected.

"We were able to collect these when the individuals visited our offices for vital events registration," Zeyneba told Fortune.

Currently, it takes about 20 minutes to get a license renewed, unlike the seven days it would take when the electronic ID system comes online.

Despite the relative ease and availability though, the Agency finds that residents usually do not get their licenses renewed right after they expire but instead when there is an emergency service they require.

Residents such as Alemensh say they are indeed guilty of this.

"I should have done the renewal months ago," she says. "If it is not for the power of attorney case, I wouldn't even remember it."

This means that many expired IDs are being used until the bearers are forced to get them renewed by banks or government institutions. And given that the Agency has ceased renewing services, it has created friction between institutions.

One government body not integrated into this temporary service provision is the Department of Immigration & Nationality Affairs.

"Even if we have heard of the city's decision informally, we do not have any procedure that could allow us to serve citizens through the use of letters," says Sileshi Demissie, communications director of the Department. "If we are to do so, a directive is necessary to handle these requests."

Nonetheless, institutions and businesses have to help residents for the time being, according to Zeyneba.

"The electronic ID will benefit all when finally launched," she says.

Issuance of licenses will cease for three months, during this time residents have to make do with the letters issued from weredas. The Agency needs the time to roll out its service as well as find a way to make the service more affordable.

Currently, residents pay five Birr to have an ID renewed or a new one issued. The electronic IDs are expected to cost more though.

"We are looking for ways to make the electronic IDs more affordable," Zeyneba told Fortune. "One way of doing this is by increasing the service fee for ID verification that we give to public enterprises and private companies."

Experts view both policies as sound decisions, in that the electronic IDs can boost efficiency, as well as missteps in the Agency's decision to cease issuing IDs.

"The Agency should issue a temporary ID card that can work until the new ones come along," Zewude Shibre (PhD), an associate professor of management at Addis Abeba University with over four decades of experience as well as working in public administration.

He is also concerned about current capacity when electronic IDs begin to be rolled out.

"The Agency has to put into place an efficient digital database before issuing the ID cards," Zewude argues.

Yet all Alemnesh wants is for matters to speed up.

"I hope the new IDs will come soon and solve the inconvenience we have been exposed to," she says.

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