Counting the cost: setting up a national forensic DNA database in Africa

Forensic DNA databases can assist the police in identifying unknown perpetrators of specific types of crime, such as rape and murder. Unknown serial offenders can also be identified with the assistance of the database.

The potential contributions of national DNA databases to public safety have been recognised in most developed and some middle-income countries, where high profile crimes have been resolved via these databases.1

Thus it is not surprising that last month the Rwandan Minister for Justice and Attorney General, Johnston Busingye, disclosed that the Rwandan Government is contemplating a DNA database of all citizens.2

One popular myth surrounding DNA databases is the perception that DNA is a “magic bullet” to all crime. However, a recent critical review3 of the available evidence on the effectiveness of the UK National DNA Database, the oldest database in the world, has revealed that the overall contribution of the database to the resolution of all crime is less than 1%.

The review, published in Forensic Science International: Synergy, emphasised that databases are useful in specific types of crime, suggesting that a comprehensive database of all citizens may not be cost-effective.

The review also highlighted the need for a statutory requirement to measure the actual effectiveness of existing databases. A national DNA Database Perception Index (DDPI) was also proposed by the review.

It was thought that these measures will ensure that databases are designed to target the relevant criminal population and inform decisions on who to include in the database and how long data is retained.

Presently, the actual effectiveness of DNA databases in some African countries (including Botswana, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, Sudan and Tunisia) is unknown. This information is important for the efficient allocation of resources for policing.

“The approach to the creation of a national DNA database should be progressive and informed by available evidence on best practice and effectiveness in achieving public safety goals.”

Counting the cost: national DNA databases come with several costs that should be justified by states before they are implemented.

First is the ethical cost of civil liberties (including privacy and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty) which must be justified with adequate evidence. It has been established that the collection and retention of DNA records constitute a breach of privacy.4

Also, the searching of DNA records for criminal investigation purposes means treating a person as a suspect of crime.

As noted in the UK review3 “The public may be willing to sacrifice some of their privacy for societal benefits, but if the benefits cannot be evidenced, or remain elusive, then that sacrifice may be questioned.”

The second is infrastructure cost encompassing the establishment of laboratories; training of personnel; appropriate scientific, IT and legal support; security of data and records; and quality management systems.

These factors suggest that the creation of a database of all citizens will have a potential adverse effect on other critical sectors of policing and a state’s economy. Hence, the net benefit of such a database should be established.

In view of the above, the approach to the creation of a national DNA database should be progressive and informed by available evidence on best practice and effectiveness in achieving public safety goals.

Currently, the available evidence appears to support a database of specific individuals with conviction records. This could be the starting point for countries that are planning a national DNA database. Other categories of individuals could be approached on a case-by-case basis.


1. Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs. United Kingdom murder case selected as 2018 DNA hit of the year [Internet]. DNA Resource. 2018 [cited 2019 Apr 3]. Available from:

2. Bizimungu J, Rwamapera K. Rwanda proposes DNA database for all citizens [Internet]. The New Times | Rwanda. 2019 [cited 2019 Apr 3]. Available from:

3. Amankwaa AO, McCartney C. The effectiveness of the UK national DNA database. Forensic Sci Int Synergy. 2019 Jan 1;1:45–55.

4. S and Marper v The United Kingdom [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2016 Mar 11]. Available from:

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