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Suffering for government’s failure to identify its people – Part 2

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Lagos residents waiting to register for the National Identity Number (NIN) at the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) office in Lagos…yesterday PHOTO: FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI


I think everyone would agree that it has been a difficult year, perhaps the most difficult in recent decades. Nigerian’s have been assailed by a health crisis, an economic crisis, a fast accelerating security crisis and it has manifested into severe civil unrest. This is not the kind of environment that you seek to destabilize any further and yet that is precisely what the NCC directives do. During a pandemic one of the most important things to be able to do, is to stay in touch with people. Whether to know when they need assistance or simply to maintain human relationships when physical contact is so restricted. The second thing that you need to do is to ensure that the physical interactions that propagate the spread of the virus are restricted.

These NCC directives, If implemented, will simultaneously remove the ability of millions of people (and probably the most vulnerable), to communicate with each other remotely, forcing them back into physical contact, but they will also create huge physical congregations at NIN enrolment locations as people desperately seek to avoid being cut off. I am told this is already happening, in places like Alausa. At a time when the police and other security services would probably rather the government did not force people to congregate? Is this the outcome they wanted?

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How can any government believe that this is a good idea? Surely, there is a better targeted way of working with telecoms companies and others to remove some of the current ways in which the system is abused or manipulated by various interests? That, after all, is the stated aim of these directives: To prevent terrorists from being able to communicate anonymously. Well isn’t the government about to create its own, self-imposed mass casualty event? Who needs the terrorists?! They should take a long break. Their job is being done for them. How many people will die of COVID-19 because of these directives? How many poor people will lose their ability to communicate with customers, or those who can assist them, because they are not able to get their NIN’s, despite many of them being willing to? How many victims in remote areas will lose the ability to call in help? Surely the government thought of these things before they acted, and the fact that they chose to proceed anyway, simply demonstrates their disregard for the lives of their people.

The failure of government
What makes this situation worse is that the challenge we face is of government’s own making. It is the sole responsibility of government to issue national identity cards and to maintain a national database of citizens. It is not the responsibility of banks, telecoms companies, or other private sector ‘agents. But because of government’s inability to fund, or deliver the logistics of such a programme, it has been out sourced. First as BVN, this was paid for and rolled out by the banks, and now, as SIM registration, which will be paid for and rolled out by the telecoms companies. Yet, I read in the last few days, that the government is telling the population that NIN registration is free. Well yes, it will be, to the people, but it is not ‘free’ and it is not being paid for by government. It is being paid for, under duress, by the private sector.

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What danger does that put us in as a country? Do we have the data protection legislation in place to avoid the potential abuse of these enrolment structures? What message does its end a foreign investor to say, ‘we cannot implement a programme like this on our own and we are willing to force investors to do it for us, with no compensation and an unclear legal framework’? This is manifested by the fact that we have such a plethora of identity databases. Last time I counted, I included the passport database, BVN, NIN, the voter’s database, the driver’s license database and the Sim registration process. While I appreciate that each of these is made easier if we have the one central system, could we not have made the process simpler, more integrated and easier? Is the way we have done it optimal? Why have we not looked to other countries, which have experienced similar challenges, and yet managed to find solutions without this level of disruption, like Pakistan?

The confusion of the compliant
My own personal experience of this demonstrates that it is not just the non-compliant, or the poor, who are left in an identity limbo. I have lived through quite a few attempts to build a national identity. I enrolled early on in one of the first, which I think was managed by CHAMS. I have a national identity card. But then a new structure emerged, and another call for enrolment began. What I don’t know is whether my first registration means I am in that database!? Should I now, as an 80-year old man, go and queue with thousands of others, and expose myself to covid, in order to find out? How is it even possible that someone who complied as early as me does not know their status? I have a BVN, a SIM registration, a passport, a voters card, a driver’s license and the first ever version of an identity card, but I suspect that I too, will be deemed to be non-compliant. We are all in this together. Let’s hope government realizes you cannot build the solution by hurting and disenfranchising the people it is designed to help. We must all work with them, in order to solve this problem once and for all, because if we do, it will be better for all of us.
Dr. Cole, OFR, is former Nigerian Ambassador to Brazil.

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