Why new law on data is suspect

BY DENNIS NDIRITU

President Uhuru Kenyatta recently signed into law the Statistics (Amendment) Act, 2019 which, inter alia, provides the Cabinet with the power to cancel data collected by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) that may include data from the recent census, and crucial data ranging from economic growth to monthly inflation numbers.

Although this cancellation, revision and adjustment is subject to the approval of Cabinet and request from the Board and only applies to inaccurate data and the presence of the publication of the cancelled data in the Kenya Gazette within 14 days; one cannot help but question the mischief in the hurried ascension of the Bill into law only two weeks before the official census.

In a country that heavily depends on census data for economic planning, resource allocation and even political strategizing, this Bill will prove very crucial and just like the much contested National Security Amendment Laws 2015, the Government of the day might inevitably take advantage of these provisions to alter data at its whims.

Further, a lot of questions will be raised on who has the power to determine the accuracy or not of data collected and what the provision of such enormous power on a politically constituted Cabinet will portend for the development of the country.

This new law comes in the wake of revelations of the dismissal of a chief in Baringo County on allegations of drunkenness. The administrator had earlier revealed that a man had died of starvation. The Cabinet Secretary of Interior, Dr. Fred Matiang’i while on an interview in a local vernacular station noted that the chief did not have authority to comment on official matters, highlighting the sensitivity of government data.

There is, according to Information Technology and Data experts, a high level of government involvement in data adulteration to maintain crucial information outside the public realm.

The new law gives the Minister sweeping discretion to change records, which negates the purpose for the expensive census exercise. It shows the government has a predetermined outcome of the data, which it must achieve under whatever circumstances. Has Kenya degenerated to the level of other countries like Tanzania where it is illegal to have statistics that contradict the government’s position? Is the government now the official bearer of the truth?

This has rekindled an impassioned storm ignited on social media by reports that two chiefs had been arrested in Wajir County amidst allegations of inflating population figures in the recent national census. It does not help the case that population figures in the former Northeastern Province have always been a hotly contested issue during census. Census results from Mandera, Wajir and Garissa, for instance, were cancelled and revised downwards by the Ministry of Planning in 2009, sparking a legal battle between the Government and political leadership from the region.

In a country riddled with inequality from independence, it is no secret that majority of the country’s population are continuously terrified that an empowered “minority” population would turn around and take revenge for their historical oppression if they were to ascend to power by the might of their increased population. It is the same fear that stalked the white minority in apartheid South Africa who feared that black people, once in power, would treat white people just as badly as the later had treated them.

In the wake of the census, Kamau Muiga, a University of Nairobi don and commentator on public matters notes that for the tribes that have been heavily represented in power since Independence, the tribal game has paid off handsomely at the expense of those who have not been on the right side of the tyranny of numbers. In a just society where tribe does not matter at all, where a person from a tiny tribe is just as likely to be healthy, well fed, educated, employed and secure as a person from a large tribe, where the tribe of the President does not dictate the flow of resources and opportunities, there would be nothing to fear about the population growth of any particular community. But we have thoroughly failed to create such a society, and so we must live with the consequences of our actions.

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