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African countries must speed up efforts at full attainment of civil registration

Last week in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, the Fifth Conference of African Ministers responsible for Civil Registration took place. At the end of the conference it was obvious that much of what was discussed have been said over and over again. It also became apparent that some efforts are being made and some strides have been achieved in improving the situation of legal identity of many Africans. The importance of civil registration cannot be overemphasized as that’s the only means for citizens to obtain legal identity – which in itself is a human right.

Birth, marriage and death registrations are essential in the overall national development conversation.

Speaking at the conference via video, Ms. Vera Songwe, the Executive Secretary if the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), said civil registration is a subject that is of crucial importance to Africa’s economic and social development and is at the core of the realization of the continent’s ambitions to eradicate poverty, achieve inclusive and sustainable development, and respect for human rights.

“Without knowing the numbers and characteristics of the residents of a country, governments cannot plan neither can they craft adequate policies or monitor progress. This steers us further away from achieving our human development commitments as set out by the Africa Agenda 2063 and the 2030 sustainable development agenda,” she said.

She noted that Africa, which is home to 1.3 billion people, is faced with a critical legal identity gap, as many exist without being known to their governments and without any means to prove who they are.  Half of these 1.3 billion people live in Africa and 250 million are women.

She pointed out: “To lack a legal identity means that you do not exist at all in the eyes of the state, a scenario that is critically alarming and that contravenes each of our human development efforts.”

Participants made a call urging the ECA, the African Union Commission (AUC) to support countries on the continent to harmonise their legislations governing civil registration and identity management, including interoperability of systems. These they said can be achieved by using appropriate information can communication technology assets.

Speaking about the current situation of the systems, Ms Songwe said: “This manual nature of civil registration databases in many countries limits their ability to support other important government functions therefore contributing to their under-resourcing and underutilization by governments.”

She added that the other challenge facing most African countries is the notable increase in investments made by governments towards sophisticated civil identification systems that are delinked from civil registration systems.

“Robust civil identification databases can only be sustained when linked and updated with timely birth and death data that flows from civil registration,” she said.

African countries won’t be able to effectively achieve Agenda 2063 if legal identity issues are not properly resolved.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi, back from Lusaka, Zambia
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