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  • Writer's pictureID4Africa

Challenges and Solutions for the Development of an ID System in Post-conflict Areas

Somalia as a Case Study

By Nur Dirie Hersi, PhD, Former Head of Somali National ID Program and ID4Africa Ambassador, and Hassan Omar Mahadallah, PhD, Senior Advisor of Somali National ID Program and ID4Africa Deputy Ambassador


This study stems from a practical experience the authors have gained during their work to help establish a national identification (ID) system and its implementing institution in Somalia. The creation of the ID system was driven mainly by the need of the financial sector to abide by the universal principle of Know Your Customer (KYC) whereby, during business transactions, customers are required to prove their identity by presenting a legal, secure and verifiable personal ID. Unfortunately, in Somalia customers are not able to meet the KYC requirement since the country does not issue a legal, reliable and verifiable personal ID. As a result, the Somali financial sector, as well as other pertinent sectors, are paralyzed.

The challenges associated with the efforts to establish a national ID system and its implementing institutions are complex and often times entrenched. Accordingly, all our attempts to establish a legal national ID system in the traditional way are often met with financial, social, legal, and political challenges. Our experience is typical in many countries, especially in Africa. Many countries on the continent have never had an inclusive, legal, unified, secure and verifiable ID system. In this study, we refer to these countries as the ID Dark Zones.

Somalia is, for all intents and purposes, a quintessential ID Dark Zone. The country once had a fragmented and rudimentary paper-based family registry system. Even that, along with the memory of it, has been completely wiped out by a prolonged civil war that still rages on in some parts of the rural areas, where the overwhelming majority of the Somali population live. As such, it is fitting to use Somalia as a case study of the ID Dark Zones.

Objectives of the Study

The primary objective of this study is two-fold:

  1. To present the challenges and potential solutions associated with the establishments of a national ID system in ID Dark Zones; and

  2. To share the Somali experience and lessons learned with the ID4D global community, some of whose members would immensely benefit from it.

The following are some of the guiding queries of this study:

  1. What are the factors inhibiting the institutionalization of a national ID system in the ID Dark Zones?;

  2. What are the implications of this “ID-lessness” for the national development plan?;

  3. How can one navigate through the myriad of interests and conflicting views of different level decision makers to establish an ID system? and

  4. How can an ID Dark Zone state overcome the financial, social, legal, and political resistance against the establishment of a National ID system?

Somalia: A Case Study

Using Somalia as a case study, the authors will attempt to provide answers to these pertinent questions. To do so, it is necessary to shed light on the challenges associated with the establishment of a national ID system in countries where there are no inclusive, legal, unified and verifiable system, and to sketch out a path to ID the population of these countries. We argue, and seek to systematically demonstrate, that these problems are directly related to the prevailing, social, financial, and political conditions in the so-called ID Dark Zones. In the latter, the establishment of the national ID system is inhibited by a culture of resistance to new technology, lack of transparency, business interests, political turf wars, lack of financial resources, poor public institution capacities, and rampant corruption—to name just a few.

Although the challenges associated with the process of instituting an ID system are complex and often times entrenched, a well thought-out foundational policy and legislation, coupled with a strong push and support from the International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs), an strong support from the private sector and civil society participation, together with a sustained civic education can help overcome these impediments. But before delving deeper into these issues, a short background history of Somalia’s ID case may be in order.

Background History

Somalia has been embroiled in a prolonged civil war that decimated virtually all formal public institutions. The consequences of this long and arduous conflict varies from institution to institution. But in no other sector are the tribulations more pronounced than in the national ID system. The impact on civil/family registry system and the issuing office is particularly glaring. Because of the long duration of the war the already feeble, fragmented and under-resourced institution has virtually ceased to exist. A huge majority of the current population has never owned an identification document; worse yet, many have no memory of it. It is therefore incumbent on the minority of the people, like the two authors, who once owned such a document and still retain the memory of it, to lead the process of reinstituting the national ID system.

Historically, Somalia never had an inclusive, unified, secure, legal and verifiable ID system. Rather, the country has inherited from the colonial administration a modesty, fragmented, paper-based ID system with limited functionality. The whole ID ecosystem consisted of a family registry, birth certificate, an ID document, an authentication certificate, and their respective issuing offices. Each of these documents was designed for a specific purpose. Though rudimentary, the family registry served as the foundational and legal document from which all other identity documents were derived. Unfortunately, neither the family registry, nor the functional documents, were issued free of charge. Therefore, only the few urban dwellers, who were required to own these documents by other institutions, and who could afford them, were willing to pay for them.

In short, all post-colonial identity documents, including the family registry, were fragmented. For instance, each municipality issued its own family folder. It was, therefore, normal for an individual to abandon his/her family folder where it was issued and acquire a new one in the new place of residence. The functional documents were even more fragmented. The Labor Office issued ID cards to all the civilian public employees. Likewise, the various offices of the armed forces, the police and the municipal officers, issued their own IDs. The Traffic Office issued drivers licenses with limited uses—i.e., to operate motor vehicles. Worse yet, all these documents, along with the memory of them, have now faded away, making Somalia a quintessential ID Dark Zone.

The remainder of the paper will be devoted to this issue, its potential implications and solution. We start with the methodology we followed to introduce and describe the challenges associated with the creation of an ID system in ID Dark Zones. We conclude by presenting potential solutions.


This study has less to contribute by way of theoretical constructs than empirical elucidation. Since we have started the National ID program in early 2017, our approach has been a hands-on one aimed mainly to design and implement an ID system that meets the multifaceted identity challenges faced by the country. Top among these challenges is the threat to the flow of financial remittance system (the so-called Hawalas), the lifeline of the Somali people. Due to the lack of KYC compliance, some international banks are threatening to close the remittance accounts of the Hawalas, while many more have already done so. When we started the ID Program, our focus was fittingly on how to comply with international remittance standards, such as those of the Western Union and MoneyGram.

From early on, we realized that we could not go it alone, and that we needed substantial local and international support to bring the ID Program to fruition. Since our government could not fund the Program due to financial constraints, we have visited several countries and major ID solution providers which tackled similar situations. These included institutions such as Aadhaar of India, IRIS of Malaysia, and NADRA of Pakistan and presented our case to them. We forwarded technical presentations on the design, features and specifications of our desired system (i.e., ID numbers and cards). Since we have a similar social landscape as Pakistan, NADRA and the Government of Pakistan understood our needs very well and responded to our plea with a donation of US$ 10.3 million for software, hardware, stationary registration sites and mobile registration units, and staff training.

Our next step was to secure the buy-ins of all relevant local and international stakeholders. We started with the Somali Chamber of Commerce, followed by a consortium of local banks, money remittance firms, and telecommunication companies both in and outside of Somalia. Afterwards, we have arranged formal meetings with relevant International Non-Governmental Organization (INGOs), such as DfID, USAID, GIZ, the World Bank, as well as other INGOs, especially those involved in the Cash Transfer Program (CTP), who are bedeviled by identity duplications among aid recipients.

The World Bank responded positively to our request for assistance by providing us a wealth of technical support and advice on how to best setup a foundational ID system with all essential features. The Bank guided us to adapt the ten globally accepted principles on identification for sustainable development. In addition, the Bank agreed to partner with us in the development of the country’s ID ecosystem which elevated the status of our program.

After meeting with the non-political groups and organizations, and securing their full support, we scheduled a series of meetings with Somalia’s public officials, beginning with the Office of the President, Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Interior, Department of Immigration, Ministry of Labor, the National Election Commission, and members of the two chambers of the Parliament.

We have arranged a separate meeting with each one of those groups, where we presented the design, features and specification of the proposed (and by then revised) national ID system. We went over with them both the hardware and the software of the system. We explained the type of ID, type and method of data collection, storage system, vendor neutrality, system interoperability, data protection, data security, date migration and protection of personal privacy. During our presentations, we tried to stay clear of politics. Instead, we limited ourselves to the benefits and technical aspects of the ID Program. All went well with them.

At the end of each presentation and consultation with the stakeholders, the ID Program was unanimously endorsed. With the help of World Bank and Ministry of Interior, a national ID policy was drafted, submitted, and approved by the Council of Ministers of the Federal Government of Somalia. This was a huge step forward for the national ID program.

The remainder of the paper will be mainly devoted to the challenges we faced from the public realm. But before we do so, we need to draw a brief overview of the concept, “ID Dark Zones,” which is the organizing concept of the paper.

The ID Dark Zones: a Brief Overview of the Concept

The term “ID Dark Zones” refers to areas of the world, where there is no formally established, legal, secure, reliable, inclusive, and verifiable identification system. We include in this description countries where more than half of the population are unregistered and do not carry some form of legal identification document. A cursory look at the World Bank’s ID4D Dataset Dashboard reveals the countries that fall in this category. Somalia, where 77% of the population have no identification documents, tops the list. The countries that are included in the top list share some common social, economic and political features. We contend that the challenges against the establishment of an ID system and its implementing institutions stem from these social, economic and political features. Based on our practical experience, these features (outlined in the sections below) constitute some of the factors that fuel the resistance to the establishment of a legal, unified, secure, and verifiable ID system and its implementing institution in Somalia.

The Social Features

Socially, the countries in the ID Dark Zones are what Fred Riggs calls “prismatic society.” [1] Riggs coined the term to describe a society in transition from a traditional to modern system of administration and governance. Such a society is characterized by persistent social cleavages, enduring loyalty to primordial societies and values, structural violence, widespread corruption in the civic sphere, and low trust in the modern state institutions--to name just a few. When taken together, these characteristics seriously undermine public administration and good governance in these states--and no less the establishment of the national ID system.

Economic Features

The countries in the ID Dark Zones are overwhelmingly low- or middle-income countries. They have a small urbanized society and a large rural population. In terms of the economy, they operate a dual-track system—one in the urban areas and the other in the rural. The urban economy is tenuously connected to the world markets. The Gross National Production (GNP) is dominated by a single natural commodity, such as fossil fuel, coffee, cocoa, cotton, livestock, etc. As the prices of these products fluctuate, so does the national cash flow. In terms of size, the local markets tend to be modest and economic transactions are less frequent--especially when the international commodity prices ebb. Due to the uncertainty of the international system, prices at the local market are also “indeterminate.”

The rural economies of the countries in the ID Dark Zones are more resilient, however, to the vicissitudes of world prices than their urban counterparts. In both cases, markets are small and the population has a low purchasing power. In fact, if we follow Riggs, there are no markets to speak of at the national level. This is why the countries in the ID Dark Zones are technologically and structurally marginalized in the world economy.

In the ID Dark Zones, the prices of goods and services are strongly influenced by non-market factors, such as social, political, and religious considerations. The prices of goods and services are not fixed, not even predictable from one market to another (even from a person to a person within the same market). Haggling, negotiations, even pleading with the seller, are some of the factors that determine the take-home prices of goods and services. Therefore, in the ID Dark Zones, instead of markets, Riggs speaks of the “bazaar” and the “canteen”.[2] In such settings, prices are “indeterminate,” fluctuating, and according to the character of the relationship between the buyer and seller, their relative power, prestige, social ties, skill in bargaining, value system, need for time, etc., as well as in relation to the supply and demand of the item exchanged—i.e., in response to both the arena and market.[3]

Political Features

The citizens of the countries in the ID Dark Zones espouse a divided loyalty—i.e., one to the “civic public” and the other to the “primordial public,” to use Ekeh’s now famous terms.[4] The dialectic between the two publics heavily influences public policy in the ID Dark Zones. In the latter, where most African states belong to, the primordial public holds more sway in the thinking of the societies than the civic one. Therefore, every political actor has to ingratiate himself/herself with the primordial public. However, the civic public also has its own attraction to society; it provides a wider political space where political actors can display their political acumen. This is the source of divided loyalty. In such a setting, those who hold political positions dwell in a bewildering socio-political conundrum.

The platform (or structures), whereby societies resolves conflict issues over social values, is what Riggs again refers to as the “Sala Bureaucracy.” The latter is characterized “…by the absence of political institutions capable of controlling the bureaucracy, since parties, interest groups, courts and parliament are too weak.”[5] As such, its officials run the bureaucracy by personal whims rather than by formal rules and operating procedures. In terms of service delivery, they give priority to what is appealing to their primordial society and desirable to politically relevant interests in the country, rather than what the people need.

The workers of the “Sala Bureaucracy” are hired on the basis of nepotism or tribal links. Family connections trump personal competencies. Consequently, “One department may become dominated by members of a particular ethnic group, who form a close-knit solidarity group.”[6] Since the top official of the institution is a member of the group, his/her kin folks insulate him/her from the critical eye of the higher-ups, the mass media and the general public. Thus, instead of supervising them, the top official becomes captive to them. He/she become dependent on his/her subordinates. Unfettered by civic rules--or morality, for that matter--they gain free hand at bilking the resources of the institution. Simply put, the Sala Bureaucracy leaves little or no space for public service.[7]

To the degree that these features of the prismatic society impinge on the national politics, they undermine the establishment of the national ID system and its implementing institution. In the following section, we will discuss the nature and character of the challenges associated with the ID Programs in the ID Dark Zones.

The ID System and Associated Challenges in the ID Dark Zones

It is hard to summarize in this paper the challenges that are associated with the establishment of an ID system and its implementing institution in the ID Dark Zones. For this reason, we limit ourselves to the most salient factors preventing the creation of an ID system in these countries. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. Lack of an ID Culture. The Somali society is still moored in the old tradition. It is essentially a “primordial” society. Since the ID system belongs to the “civic” sphere, most Somalis hardly sense its usefulness. This is one of the main hinderances to the institution of a national ID system in Somalia.

  2. Fear of the unknown. With the exception of a few returning expatriates, most Somalis never heard of a foundational ID or number, which breeds, say, drivers licenses, birth certificates, authentication papers, etc. Due to this lack of experience with the system, they tend to harbor a deep mistrust and suspicion about it.

  3. Rudimentary Political Institutions. Somalia is a post-conflict state. The relationships and the respective spheres of power (ToR) of most public institutions are not well-defined. Consequently, political leaders (especially those who lead the sala bureaucracy) viciously compete for all valuable public programs, such as the national ID system. This political competition compounds the challenges associated with the establishment of Somalia’s ID Program.

  4. Tug War. Due to a lack of well-defined institutional boundaries, issues of competences between institutions are settled by a tug of war. For instance, during our first meeting with the leadership of the Ministry of Interior, our interlocutors insisted that the national ID Program falls within the scope and function of the Ministry, and should, therefore, be housed in one of its specialized departments.

As we have canvassed the opinions of the local and international stakeholders, we found out that the private sector and the INGOs were more supportive of the Program than the public entities. The difference is a matter of institutional priority. The former understands the cross-sectoral roles of the ID system—i.e., the need to know your customer (KYC)), taxation, law enforcement, national security, service and delivery, to cite just a few. In the absence of a legal, unified, secure, reliable and verifiable national ID system, none of these core issues can be effectively addressed.

Unlike the private sector and the INGO community, our engagement with the public sector was less cooperative. One of the concerns that they have consistently expressed is their dislike of inclusivity of the Program—i.e., that every person in the country (citizen and non-citizen) will be eligible for a foundational number and ID card. We found out that our use of the word “national” in the name of the Program (i.e., National ID) is problematic, because It evokes as sense of exclusivity (for citizens only). Political leaders like to appear to be defending the “national interest,” irrespective of how one may define it.

To end the confusion we have dropped the word “national” in the various components of the Program, and in its stead employed the word “federal”—hence, the Federal Identification and Registration Authority (FIRA).

Proposed Solutions

From our work in Somalia, we have discovered that to establish an ID System and its implementing institutions, the following resources are required:

  1. Political Support from Top Government Leadership. In Somalia, as in other ID Dark Zones, the support of top political leaders for the institution of the ID system is essential. The main task of such an official is to champion the ID Program at all levels of government.

  2. Local ID Movement Actors. In some cases and under certain conditions, the establishment of the ID system requires a wide public support. This may take the form of a popular campaign, public forums, networking, or simple petition writing.

  3. Input and Support from Local ID Stakeholders. Building or starting a new public institution, such as the ID system, requires wide consultations with stakeholders and a vast civic education. Although this is time and resources consuming, it constitutes an important component of the process to create an ID system.

  4. Support from the International Community. The support of international community (whether bilateral or multi-lateral) comes in two ways, either as a material or political support. Both are needed for the successful execution of the ID Program.

Strategic Implementation Approach

The production of foundational numbers and ID cards is essentially a technical undertaking. There are universal rules, processes and principles that apply in data collection, data storage, data security, and protection of personal privacy. If these are taken into account at the earliest stage of the ID Program, they would not encumber the enrollment, authentication and verification of applicants. Rather, they would elevate the status and credibility of the overall program.

Financial Sustainability

The ID Program must be financially sustainable. However, the foundational numbers and ID cards must be issued free of charge. The Program will raise funds from at least three sources:

  1. Externalization of Cost. All private firms and corporations are required to comply with the principle of know your customer (KYC). Accordingly, they would be required to register all their customers, who do not already possess a legal, secure, reliable and verifiable ID card. Although this may not bring in any cash, it will certainly save substantial resources for the Program.

  2. Collection of Fees. The ID Program may not charge fees for the initial registration, but it will certainly collect fees for duplication or lost IDs, use case application, downstream users, ID verification electronic callers, priority applicants, applicants from outside the country, etc.

  3. Public Funds. Since the ID implementing agency (FIRA) is a public entity, it is entitled to public funds--i.e., annual budget. This is a very reliable revenue.

All proposed fees and charges of the implementing agency require prior approval by the Board and are subject to local economic considerations.

Concluding Remarks

This paper outlines the challenges and potential solutions associated with the establishment of an ID system and its implementing institution. It highlights the challenges that post-conflict countries, particularly those with a long history of disruption of governance and rule of law, will face in establishing a legal, unified, secure, reliable and verifiable ID system. It presents some key recommendation as well to address most of these challenges.

The main problem hindering the establishment of an ID system in the ID Dark Zones is primarily politics. In his seminal work, Africa: The Primacy of Politics, Herbert Spiro speaks about how politics dominates public life in Africa. When the national ID Program came to the public attention, all types of political interests came out of the woodworks--metaphorically speaking. All their demands were political in nature. None of them had an issue with:

  • The technical configuration of the ID or the design of the Program;

  • Its impact on the society, economy, politics, or even the National Development Plan (NDP);

  • Service delivery;

  • State-society relations;

  • Law and order; and

  • National security.

In short, with the exception of the business community, the INGOs and civil society organizations, no public entity was receptive to the ID Program. The following issues are some of the most salient factors affecting their decisions:

  1. Loyalty to the Primordial Publics. As we have stated above, the Somali society is still tradition-bound. As a result, the average public official is torn up by a divided loyalty—i.e., one to the primordial public and the other civic public. In such context, politics is an apt tool to transfer resources from the center (state) to the peripheries. The ID Program is seen as a sources of transferrable cash.

  2. Limited Civic Authority. The existing socio-political setting in the ID Dark Zones severely constrains the authority of the national leaders. In many cases, the authority of the national leaders is contested by the local community. Simply put, in the ID Dark Zones, one’s leader is another’s scoundrel. Hence, the lack of enforcement.

  3. Political Corruption and Maladministration. In the ID Dark Zones, political corruption is prevalent. The platform or structures by which social values are divided (i.e., the sala bureaucracy) is laden with corruption. In some cases, a whole ministry is captured by one ethnic or tribal group. Resources are illegally funneled to the constituency of the bureaucratic leader.

  4. Low Trust in Modern Public Institutions. Despite the deafening rhetoric to the contrary, many public officials in the ID Dark Zones are still beholden to their organic communities. Therefore they cannot acquire widespread public trust beyond their ethnic group or tribe.

Despite these great obstacles, it behooves on the ID Teams in the ID Dark Zones, to lead and establish an ID system and its implementing institution in their respective countries.


The ID Team must clearly distinguish between the foundational numbers and documents, which they issue, and the functional ones, which other agencies offer. The Team must explain that these are breading numbers and documents that facilitate the production and issuance of specialized numbers and documents. In addition, the Team must make it clear to the public that what they offer are foundational numbers and IDs, not functional ones.

Finally, the issuance of the foundational numbers and ID cards must not have any precondition—of course, apart from verification by a well-trained and duly appointed official. All residents in the country must be enrolled once their personal identity is verified.

There are at least three relevant reasons for this approach:

  1. Inclusivity. It makes the process less political. Politics creeps in when resources are exclusively distributed to politically favored groups. However, when everyone is allowed to partake in the Program, there is going to be less room for politics. A corollary advantage of inclusivity is that is vastly improves governance and service delivery.

  2. Avoidance of Turf Wars. Currently, there are many institutions that are issuing functional documents. They charge fees which they jealously guard. By staying clear from their sphere of power, they will interfere less with your foundational numbers and documents.

  3. No Collection of Fees. The principal goal of the ID Team is to enroll all residents of the country. The collection of fees for enrollment precludes the indigent population. This is bound to have a serious implication for the legitimacy and usefulness of the foundational numbers and ID cards.



  1. Fred W. Riggs coined the terms. See Administration in Developing Countries: The Theory of Prismatic Society, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, 1964), pp.

  2. Fred W. Riggs coined the two terms to differential them from the traditional market. See “The Bazaar-Canteen Model: Economic Aspects of the Prismatic Society,” Philippine Sociological Review, Vol. 6, No. 3/4 (July-October, 1958), p. 12.

  3. Ibid., p. 13.

  4. The two terms are coined by Peter Ekeh. For a succinct discussion of this divided loyalty and its implications for good governance, see “Colonialism and the Two Publics: A Theoretical Statement,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17 (01), 1975, pp. 91-112.

  5. Nelson Kasfir, “Prismatic Theory and African Administration,” World Politics, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jan. 1969), p. 300.

  6. Ibid., p. 301.

  7. Ibid., p. 302.


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