The Hague Colloquium on the Future of Legal Identity

Civil Registration Centre for Development, The Hague and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Johannesburg

Biometric identification and the right to a nationality in Africa: Three case studies

There is a major push to improve both civil registration and “identity chain management” in many African countries, driven by concerns both to improve delivery of public services and to ensure national security in the face of terrorist threats. Countries that have not previously had them are introducing identity card systems, and existing systems are being converted to biometric technology. The introduction of new national identity systems is a notorious point for the creation – or uncovering – of stateless populations. At the same time, there is increasing advocacy for and recognition of the documentation of legal identity – of which nationality is one component – as foundational for other rights. Yet question of defining who is a national is rarely even discussed, still less seen as problematic, in the presentations about legal identity and the infrastructure to ensure documentation. Nor are there effective systems for appeal on the determination by untrained junior staff of whether someone is a national under existing law (however flawed). This paper presents three case studies — from Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Mauritania — to illustrate the problems in practice. The introduction of new “foundational” national identification systems for adults, without first addressing the legal framework for nationality, risks making the problem of lack of legal identity worse rather than better. Indeed, it risks creating stateless persons where previously there were only undocumented ones. This part of the legal framework needs as much attention as the data protection and other privacy concerns.

Keywords: civil_registration, identity_cards, biometric identification, Africa, nationality, citizenship, statelessness, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Nigeria

Event reference: 
The Hague Colloquium on the Future of Legal Identity