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Suffering for government’s failure to identify its people

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When I read the recent directives by the NCC on SIM card registration and the National Identity Number I was astounded at the willingness of those in government to place their people in danger, in order to solve a problem of their own making. We find ourselves where we are because of the long-term and persistent failure of government to understand the most fundamental data set it needs. To know who its people are, where they are and how to communicate with them. That is not the fault of the people. They should not suffer for it.

The issue of data management and national identity is one that I have been interested in for a longtime, and have written about before. It is a clear and undeniable fact that in order to be able to govern with any modicum of impact, a government needs to be able to know how many people live within its borders. Whether it is to enable civic participation (through voting, the payment of tax), to deliver services or palliatives (and we have seen recently how difficult government finds that), or to plan for future infrastructure investments like roads, and power. Without it, how does government make decisions?

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It is not the need for Nigeria to urgently address this deficit that I take issue with. That is clear, and I’ve said it before. It’s the manner in which government chooses to expose its own inability to do the job, the insensitivity it demonstrates to the welfare of its own citizens and the absolute confusion and unnecessary stress it ends up causing.

The insensitivity and irresponsibility of government
A government is in trouble when the people no longer believe what it says. Such a government has lost legitimacy. Some of this loss cannot be anything else but incompetence although most people believe that the loss of legitimacy is because the government is lying. Incompetence can be overcome by efficiency. Lying suggests something sinister:  that the government knows really what is happening but thinking its people are fools, lies to them does not trust the people. For example the people do not believe that Boko Haram is foreign controlled; they believe that this is a secret army, pursuing a not so secret policy of grabbing and keeping political power. It is immaterial whether these perceptions are true or false; they are political and must be addressed politically. Each outrage on our (please note, I use our, not your) children – boys and girls must be followed by fulsome condemnation of the kidnappers, Boko Haram or whatever, by the leaders of Nigeria – both Islam and non-Islamic. More important, the government must make it clear to all that such activities will not be tolerated and would be punished wherever found.

When I see young boys and young girls begging in the streets, I weep because of lost opportunities – one of them may be Marie Curie or Isaac Newton, or Ibn Battuta etc. I ask where are their parents? Which kind of parent would allow their children to beg in the streets at age 5 – 10? What kind of country tolerates this? What kind of leader accepts this?

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So it is with the NCC and the NIN. It may not have dawned on Nigeria that the NIN is different from the National Identity Card. Even if you had it, how do you get it reconciled with your handset? It is clear that the steps have not been understood by the people who see these regulations as one more burden imposed by a government which cares nothing for them; but would at every turn use regulations to make money for the government officials, politicians, members of the National Assembly, State Assembly and Local Government. My village has no MTN, Airtel or Etisalat office or registration center. The nearest is about two hours to the next big town. First a person there must get his NIN: he goes to town to MTN, Airtel, Etisalat office to register. Has anyone gone to any of the outlets of these organizations to see the hundreds of thousands waiting to meet this idiotic demand? If the NIN numbers are in the State or Local Government headquarters, money changes hands before you get your number. Nor do I believe that having an NIN would detect ATM rubbers. I can easily think of several ways to beat the system of NIN. If however I cannot beat the system, then presumably facial and finger print technology will identify the kidnappers or armed robbers if they are Nigerians. What if they are not Nigerians?

Consider the following: Mr. Ade has a phone he has not confirmed with NIN. He catches covid. It is therefore impossible to call him and trace his contacts. Meanwhile he continues unwittingly to infect others. It was earlier calculated that one infected person was responsible for 42500 infections!

To be continued tomorrow.
Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, OFR, is former Nigerian ambassador to Brazil.

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