Biometric SIM card registration reveals the imminent statelessness problem in Tanzania

Most people cannot imagine a life without a cell phone any longer. Mobile phones are omnipresent and often inseparable from our lives. You know, that little shock? When we think we lost our phone, just to find it out in our pocket to our great relief. Mobile communication became such a vital tool in our lives in so many corners of the world: for connecting with the loved ones, friends, entertainment, for earning, spending, sending money, for running businesses or to access information and services. Given such a prevalence everywhere, in Tanzania as well, mobile phones are an integral part of so many lives [1].   Lately, a large number of residents in Tanzania have been facing difficulties with the recent introduction of compulsory biometric SIM card registration. 

On 20th January 2020, Tanzania hit the final deadline for its biometric SIM card registration. The registration requires fingerprint and National ID of the cardholders to be recorded with their SIM numbers. Although currently, not all unregistered phone lines have been switched off, it has been announced that all SIM cards without registration will gradually be locked out. There are currently about 48.8 million SIM cards in use in Tanzania. Yet, up until the 19th of January, only 28.4 million of those SIM cards had been registered according to the newly introduced procedure [2]. Where does this leave the remaining 20.4 million SIM cards and their owners? What has kept them from registering? It appears as if the newly introduced SIM card registration is an indicator of a much more far-reaching issue: citizenship and the difficulties of obtaining a national ID card. 

The decision to introduce biometric SIM card registration that is linked to the National ID has been announced by the Tanzanian Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) in early May 2019. The fight against mobile phone abuse for fraud, cybercrime, and other criminal activities were listed among the main reasons for the new biometric SIM card registration. Until now you could register a SIM card with documents, such as passports, driver’s licenses, voter IDs, etc.  From now on, however, SIM card users require National ID cards or at least the SIM card holder’s National ID number that is issued by the National Identification Authority (NIDA) [3].

Only now, with the threat of practically losing their SIM cards and missing out on mobile communication channels, many people have felt the urge to obtain their National IDs. Until now most Tanzanians did not need to have identity documents to access most services in daily life. Yet this is changing. Apart from the numerous technical difficulties that have occurred with the issuing of the National ID card, the requirements for obtaining this identification document constitute a major obstacle for many. For instance, hitherto, birth certificates were not so crucial for daily use which is why many people living in Tanzania lack these documents. Only recently have there been significant improvements with an increase of the birth certification rate of children under the age of five years in mainland Tanzania from 13 percent in 2012 to more than 49 percent in 2019. It follows that the insistence on ownership of national identification for access to fairly basic needs as (mobile phone) communication, is not consistent with the current still weak status of the civil registration system in Tanzania.

When a Tanzanian citizen experiences difficulties obtaining a National ID, it is usually due to the practical obstacles involving long bureaucratic processes. However, there are other groups such as refugees and individuals affected by or at risk of statelessness who might be locked out of their SIM cards for good. Although the UNHCR and Tanzanian government have agreed that recognized refugees are entitled to receive National IDs, it is unclear how this process is unfolding (especially considering the number of Tanzanian citizens still waiting for theirs). Besides, this agreement leaves out asylum seekers as well as the undocumented migrants. 

It has to be expected that because of this recent ‘drive’ for documentation some people who lived all their lives in Tanzania may find the tragic connection between SIM card and citizenship: they are at risk of statelessness as they face difficulties in being considered nationals and lack proof thereof. In fact, the ongoing SIM card registration process reveals the magnitude of the problem of statelessness. Although statelessness is not a new problem, it is a neglected issue, the affected people are usually left unaware of their own situation and they also become invisible.

What does it mean to be stateless? And which groups are most at risk of statelessness? 

In international law, stateless people are usually defined according to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. According to Article 1 (1) of the respective Convention a “stateless person” is “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”.

Watch this video by UNHCR explaining what it means to be stateless

The exact number of stateless people worldwide is unknown; however, UNHCR estimate suggests that there are millions of people who are stateless, and a third of them are children. The reasons of statelessness are manifold. On the African continent, statelessness often originates from the colonial partition of the African continent and the arbitrary demarcation of national borders. As a result, long-existing families, communities, and societies had been separated by artificial colonial borders which then became the frontiers of different independent African states. Up until now, due to legal gaps, there has often been a lack of clarity which nation-state would assume responsibility for border populations. Furthermore, laws regulating citizenship, often inherited from the colonial era, present yet another obstacle in the exercise of the fundamental human right: the right to a nationality

Watch this video about the Makonde and Comorian community in Tanzania

In Tanzania, statelessness is caused by various reasons such as the above mentioned arbitrary creation of borders during the colonial era, but then also by undocumented migration, lack of birth registration, the inheritance of statelessness from parents as well as gaps and conflicts in nationality laws. In 1995, Tanzania repealed the 1961 Tanganyika Citizenship Act and adopted the 1995 Citizenship Act. Since then, Tanzania formally has been granting citizenship on the basis of the jus soli principle, i.e. citizenship is granted to anyone born in the territory of the respective nation-state. However, in practice, the law is applied differently, especially with regards to children of foreign nationals in Tanzania like refugees. 

We are reminded of the problem of statelessness and its reasons. These are hardly the fault of the persons themselves and are related to the wider problems of history and societies. But does it stop here? There are even many more people out there who are at risk of statelessness and are not even aware of this! And it should not be their individual problem either. 

The risk of statelessness arises especially due to the low level of civil registration and identity documentation. Let’s focus on the communities that live in border regions or communities that have migrated to present-day Tanzania generations ago. People who carry what has been considered ‘non-Tanzanian’ names among them are at particular risk. Now in an attempt to obtain their national IDs to register their SIM cards, a large number of individuals might find themselves in difficult scenarios such as their Tanzanian citizenship being questioned, their documents being revoked and inability to prove their ties to the Tanzanian state. The SIM card registration appears to be only the beginning. Soon, other relevant services such as health care, education, etc. are expected to be dependent on the possession of national identification documents and consequently exclude those groups from accessing basic services and exercising basic rights. 

[1]  According to the GSM Association, in 2018, 42 percent of the Tanzanian population had a mobile service subscription. 

[2]  This post has been written in late January 2020. UPDATE: An article published by The CITIZEN Tanzania on 18th February 2020 reports 75 percent of sim cards to have been registered by now.

[3]  The issuing of National ID cards commenced in 2013.

Picture credit:
Headline image retrieved from Twitter account of The Citizen Tanzania @TheCitizenTZ, 20th January 2020,