Partner story

Namati: The Journey of Kenya’s Disenfranchised to Reclaim Their Rights

Think of some of the major milestones in your life: how excited and nervous you were on your first day of school or your first job; the sense of independence you felt when you opened a bank account or rented your own apartment; and the thrill of your first trip or your first time voting in an election. Now imagine them all being denied for lacking an official national ID.

Under the Kenyan constitution, every citizen has the right to identity documents. Yet, millions face discrimination in securing them. Most are from minority and marginalized groups, among them Nubian, Somali, and ethnic minorities from Kenya's Coast. Without ID, they lack social, economic, and political rights.

“You can’t go to school, you can’t get health insurance, you can’t get employment, you can’t access any government offices, you can’t vote, and you don’t have freedom of movement. It’s like you’re trapped,” says Zena Musa, a member of Kenya’s Nubian community, an ethnic group whose members have been in the country for over a century.

It is a state of perpetual precarity that many in Kenya face. For instance, Joyce, who is Tanzanian-born, and who despite being married to a Kenyan since 1997 and meeting all the requirements to obtain Kenyan citizenship, has faced discrimination in her effort to get the legal documentation that would allow her to fully belong to her adopted homeland.

In the case of Mahmoud, who is Nubian, it meant that when his wallet was stolen with his ID in it, his whole life stopped. While it might seem a simple matter of replacing it, due to his ethnicity, he was stuck for over three decades in a bureaucratic stalemate in which no replacement card was issued. Without it, he couldn’t find legal work to support his family. 

For Botul Juma Kisaka, it was the heartbreak of seeing her children deprived of their right to an education. “My kids were sent home from school because they did not have birth certificates. I couldn’t apply for them because I didn’t have an ID.”

These are not isolated cases, but the reality faced by one in ten Kenyans, or approximately 5 million people.

The discrimination during the ID application process usually takes shape in unusual requirements that are not asked from other people such as providing grandparents’ birth certificates, worse conditions like only being allowed to apply on certain days of the month, or having to undergo additional steps and interviews.

“For other communities, it takes between two to four weeks to get their document, but for these communities that are perceived to be Muslim-dominant, they wait for six months to infinity. There are different levels of discrimination. There is also an aspect of geographical discrimination based on these communities’ location. You have to have long commutes, and have to incur significant costs, for a document that is supposed to be for free for the regular Kenyan.” explains Mustafa Yousif, Co-Director of Citizenship Rights at Namati, a global legal empowerment organisation.

To address this situation, since 2012 Namati has partnered with local organisations to train and deploy paralegals from the communities that have historically faced discrimination, giving them the means to reclaim their rights and their lives. 

“We have an agreement with the partner organisations that all our paralegals are from the community, because they understand the community,” explains Yousif, who is one of the founders of the paralegal programme. “We believe in giving the community the tools to know the law, to use the law and, when the law is not working for them, know about the avenues on how to change the law.” 

This approach has led to significant victories for disenfranchised Kenyans. 

Since 2019, the Kenyan government has been rolling out a National Integrated Identity Management Scheme (NIIMS), a national population register meant to include all Kenyan citizens in a database. Yet this modernization is occurring without proper legislation on data protection or addressing the current system's flaws. With the government stating that access to services will be contingent on possessing this new card, in addition to severe penalties for not registering children, those already locked out of the analogue ID system risk seeing existing disparities being further entrenched. 

In response, a legal petition sought to stop the rollout. In January 2020, a year after the scheme's launch, the Kenyan High Court ruled: 

“The challenge is to ensure, among other things, that no one is excluded from the NIIMS and the attendant services. This may occur due to lack of identity documents (…) There is thus a need for a clear regulatory framework that addresses the possibility of exclusion. Such a framework will need to regulate the manner in which those without access to identity documents or with poor biometrics will be enrolled.” 

Nubian Rights Forum, one of Namati’s partner organisations, was the lead petitioner in this case. While it represented a great victory, Namati has continued their work both in and out of the court. 

“A lot of the policy advocacy work they've done has brought this conversation top of mind for many Kenyans, who are not previously aware of this situation. Through public debates, through discussions in Parliament, through a lot of comments on local radio, they've elevated the plight of these communities,” explains Stan Getui, Director, Africa at Luminate.

And then, there are all the individual lives transformed by access to and ID through the support of Namati and their partners. In the last decade, their team of paralegals have helped tens of thousands to obtain official documentation to claim their rights.

It’s an outlook that resonates with Luminate’s mission to ensure that everyone – especially those who are underrepresented – has the information, rights, and power to influence the decisions that affect their lives.

For Mahmoud it meant that, after three decades, he could again brandish the ID –and ensuing rights– stolen from him as a young man.

For Botul Juma Kisaka, it was a victory mirrored in her children’s joy: “I was so happy when I got my ID, my children were so happy to hear they got their birth certificates. The biggest joy was that they won’t be chased from school anymore. I can go anywhere and produce my ID upon request. Now I feel Kenyan.” She has even taken a further step and now works with the Nubian Rights Forum as a community ambassador to help others.

Each life forever changed by access to their basic rights represents a gradual turning of the tide of injustice. It is a goal Namati has enshrined within its very name.

“Namati is a Sanskrit word that means to shape something into a curve. It comes from what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are committed to bending that curve. That's why we call ourselves Namati,” says Sonia Park, Director of Partnerships and Engagement at Namati.