HomeHeadlineInside the African Strongman's Ambitious Plan to Construct a Surveillance State

Inside the African Strongman’s Ambitious Plan to Construct a Surveillance State

Inside the African Strongman’s Ambitious Plan to Construct a Surveillance State

People in most countries don’t generally struggle to prove who they are when trying to access banking or public services. That’s thanks to an established bureaucracy to document births and deaths, which enable governments to offer passports, licenses and ID cards.

In many African nations that infrastructure is missing, which makes it difficult to verify your identity and, therefore, to get a job, open a bank account or receive state benefits.

Biometric systems — which capture the unique properties of faces and fingerprints — provide an efficient way to identify a country’s citizens without the need for decades of paperwork.

Heavily pushed by the United Nations and World Bank as a tool for development, it can also be abused.

Take Uganda, for example.

The East African nation spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a biometric project lauded by President Yoweri Museveni as a means for authorities to “identify criminals accurately and promptly.”

Registering fingerprints on a biometric machine at the Ugandan National Identification and Registry Authority office in Kampala.Photographer: Katumba Badru Sultan/Bloomberg

While integral to banking and voting, the ID system has also become a powerful mechanism for monitoring journalists, human-rights advocates and ordinary citizens in a country where Museveni has clamped down on opposition during his almost 40 years in power.

The definition of crime has expanded alongside the biometrics and privacy rights are rarely enforced. Broad laws around “misuse of social media” and sharing “malicious information” give authorities additional power to silence critics.

Among the targets was Nick Opiyo, one of Uganda’s top human-rights lawyers. He’s been challenging the country’s anti-homosexuality laws and preparing a case to hold government security forces accountable for the killing of dozens of protesters during the last election.

Opiyo and his team have come under intense digital and physical monitoring, his house and offices have been broken into, devices stolen and he was jailed before charges were dropped nine months later.

It’s a cautionary tale for nations around the world on the pitfalls of George Orwell’s 1984-style pervasive surveillance.

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