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How Malawi Stirred a Storm in a Tea Cup on National Identity

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

In January 2018, Malawians went on a verbal rampage about a short and vague press release issued by the National Registration Bureau (NRB). It was one of many erroneous moves on the part of government to issue a public notice that carried little explanation to how they determined ten-year expiration dates for identity cards. And on account of the brevity and vagueness of the public notice, inspired more apprehension than reason by the general public. The suspicion of government’s ceaseless craving to levy fees for periodic renewals of many national documents was a swift reminder of the institution’s gimmicks to embezzle.

In a rare disposition of support, this website opts to stand by the government. Not for making the naïve communication, but rather for its decision to make national identification a renewable asset for every citizen of the country. We hope the government, nonetheless, takes a cue from the chaos it so effortlessly created to educate the masses about the importance of renewable identification cards. Obviously, the rationale behind the determination should be obvious to many, although the reaction in January showed that even the educated needed support to calm their anxieties on the matter. And, regarding the press release, the gist of this article will reveal what it ought to have said instead of omitting information.

On a foundational level, the NRB invokes international standards set by the United Nations via the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These standards are expected of Member States of the intergovernmental body to adhere to, although the facts illustrate that not all States may comply with these norms. It is understandable that Malawi would follow ICAO’s guidance on its management of her new identification system, but Tresphore Kang'ombe, the NRB’s Chief Director, must ensure to flesh out the parameters in which it benefits Malawians to do so. Despite the public pushback, the spokesperson for the Bureau, Norman Fulatira, could only state the obvious insofar as the mathematics of addition of years in the ten-year renewal periods, a point that is besides the angst of regular citizens.

For the average, eager-to-know-the-fact kind, there were a few points that Mr. Fulatira could have hinted on to calm the storm that was not supposed to be. The first of these pointers relates to ID card design complexity. As an electronic device that carries sophisticated encryption of security and private information, it is imperative that the physical card receives a spruce up every so often. This secures the carrier of the card from fraudsters and identity thieves who may take advantage of a virtually permeable card, especially over prolonged periods of time. It also nurtures the integrity of services like banking and healthcare that rely on a functional identification system.

With all the metals, magnetic information and myriad of connections that make up the ID cards, however, they are largely molded plastic subject to natural wear and tear. A few years of constant rubbing with leather, other plastic, human hands and when they meet Malawi’s most bounteous endowment, dirt, the information contained on them is bound to get fuzzy. It is safe to avow there is no reasonable amount of electronic card care, while these cards will be in regular use in Malawi, that will maintain the health of the cards beyond a certain number of years. It then makes sense that the NRB establishes a ten-year cycle within which to renew them. Some of the nuance to the process should be for Mr. Fulatira to inform the public what it ought to do in situations where a card is lost or damaged, or when the cards’ average lifespan turns out to be shorter than the estimated government projection.

Malawians opposed to the periodic renewal system ought to embrace a reality man- and womankind sometimes grows weary of, i.e., ageing. A sixteen-year-old in 2018 will not look the same in 2028, when wisdom, children and life’s kind and harsh lessons catch up with them with a vengeance. Neither would a seventy-year-old look the same when they celebrate their eightieth birthday, with a revised dental formula and a few wrinkles more. We all share this natural ability to constantly change. Granted the counsel of the years may be worth celebrating, or loathing, it inadvertently impacts the accuracy of card bearer identification. While it is no mystery among friends to easily identify each other even after a decade or more of no physical encounter, it is different in an official setting where the habitually distrusting bank teller will not have had the opportunity to match your younger self with a new-look you. Even in the event of petite changes in one’s cute looks over time, the opinionated clerk at Kamuzu Central Hospital will hardly care. As such, the ten years bear the longest period through which to negotiate the accuracy of our looks vis-à-vis the picture on the card when we encounter others in impersonal settings.

In support of a monetary levy on card renewals, it makes sense for Malawians to take responsibility over services offered by government. It costs, and will continue to cost, government time and resources to ensure every bona fide Malawian is registered, protected and provided for. The country’s tax base is already too narrow to enable the public system to cater to every need of every Malawian, which has fueled a frustration that easily lends itself to abuse of public resources as the easiest recourse. An identity card system that is self-sufficient in an inclusive manner will be more sustainable than one that is not. In pockets of society that will still be unable to afford, appropriate targeted programs must be put in place to protect the citizenship of every deserving individual. Now, it is too risky for Malawians if the provision of national ID cards were to stutter because of financial resources or inefficiency.

Furthermore, the NRB should have reviewed the press release by crossing out any potential risks apropos the public understanding of the information about to be shared. And it would have become apparent to Mr. Fulatira that, before his boss would give him the nod to put it out in the public domain, he should have foreseen the avalanche of inquisition into the financial implications of a renewable identity card to the public’s already shallow pockets. In spite of the certainty of this reaction, the NRB remained mum on the potential to charge identity holders a fee for renewals.

We, without difficulty, identify with the anxiety, as we live in a system where we are constantly subject to several government levies related to one’s identification. Drivers’ license and passport renewals have not only become expensive to process, but quite bureaucratic too. Adding to the list of public identification that demands one’s time and resources is the last thing we would want to pile up on our life’s agenda. Regardless, if Mr. Kang’ombe anticipates that he will seek a financial compensation towards the government for its issuance of these cards, the time to bring that information to public discourse is now. And it should be accompanied by a clear ‘why’ such a demand would be made. Some of the reasons, we have shared above.

The communication in respect of the renewal of Malawi’s IDs was, as are many cases of public communication, a simple exercise by a government agency. As we have reckoned in the second paragraph above, the substance of the communication conveys a justifiable action that every Malawian ought to understand with great appreciation of the effort the government is making to improve the conditions of its citizens, if one reviewed the facts in their thoroughness.

However, the nature of the conveyance of this information reflects a careless and carefree attitude towards the public, which stimulated an unwarranted outcry.

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