Nigerians are peculiar in sarcasm! We have this uncanny talent to weave our dysfunctional system and national tragedy into comical anecdotes and innuendos. Some people have honed this skill into a trade and make cool money from it as comedians.
At the onset of the coronavirus wahala and while the controversy raged about palliatives or no palliatives, who was entitled and who was not, whether cash would be disbursed to beneficiaries by hand or wired to their accounts, someone came up with a very beautiful, albeit comical proposition on Facebook: “Whoever gave NCDC our phone numbers can also give them our BVN”. I was very amused but the import of the message was not lost on me.
The Ministry for Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development was and is still trying to build up a register for its social intervention and conditional cash transfer schemes to the very needy among our population. The difficulty the ministry faces is a reflection of the Nigerian situation where records are a poor mix of analogue and semi digital combinations that serve little or no purpose. This malaise affects our efficiency in every aspect like a broken spook in a bicycle wheel.
An average middle class Nigerian is likely to have at least one, some, or all of these identity documents: drivers license, national identity card, international passport, and a voters’card. Add to this the certificate of birth, certificate of origin bank verification number, and the mobile phone data base kept by telecom service providers at the behest of the NCC.
Yet, a grueling and unpleasant experience awaits anyone who wants to process anything with any public department that would require comprehensive personal information. Our semi analogue and dysfunctional institutions put everyone through the grind, all the time, for basic things that should already exist in a digital data pool:
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has the biometric data of all registered voters across the country. The National Identity Management Commission has the personal information details and biometrics of most Nigerians, having conducted a national registration exercise under the Directorate of National Civic Registration in 2003, in which about 54 million Nigerians were registered.
In 2009 or thereabouts, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) mandated all telecom service providers to register their subscribers. The registration of old SIM cards officially ended in 2013 but the exercise continues to keep track of new mobile phone lines. By NCC’s records, the total number of active mobile telephone subscribers in Nigeria is currently more than 187 million. Although a significant number of Nigerians own more than one telephone line, there is no doubt that the NCC and telecom companies have garnered a huge cache of personal information of the average Nigerian through telephone numbers.
The Nigerian Immigration Service has a database of all Nigerian passport holders, which contains all personal information, and biometric details of applicants. Likewise, the Federal Road Safety Corps has the data of all applicants for drivers’ licences. By my reckoning here, there are about five public agencies in possession of personal identity information of Nigerian citizens. If we include hospitals and local government councils, we are counting seven. Plus all commercial bank customers are biometrically registered, documented, and issued with unique bank verification numbers.
It is therefore a mirage that despite the existence of such an array of sources, the average Nigerian’s identity is still shrouded in bureaucratic mysticism and corruption. Even within the same institution, there are bottlenecks obstructing the recovery of stored information at one touch of a button. Renewing a passport with the Nigerian Immigration Service almost takes the same process as the application for a fresh one. Summary information about a citizen cannot be harvested seamlessly even by security agencies like the police.
Part of the reasons adduced for mobile SIM registration, for instance, was to have the bio-data of all phone users, as well as to help in monitoring crime and criminals. However, the Nigerian system has not evolved a strategy to harness and integrate all the data sources into a credible data bank for the purposes of national economic planning, monitoring of growth and development, security surveillance, and other benefits.
The absence of a standard and accessible database is the reason why crime and militancy are rampant. Kidnappers are known to negotiate deals and ransom for their victims through phone calls. With inter-agency collaboration between anticrime organisations and network operators, such calls could be tracked and the criminals apprehended.
It is, therefore, no surprise that comprehensive national civic registration of citizens remains a pipe dream. Even citizens who have presented themselves for data capture are metely issued numbers without the permanent identity cards.
The identity management commission will require funding running into millions of dollars to facilitate a national registration exercise, whereas they could, with minimal cost, liaise with other governmental agencies like the NIS, NCC, INEC and FRSC to update their records; then simply conduct a mop-up registration exercise for citizens not yet captured on any other platform.
Record keeping is a function of good organisational management and both are fundamental to national development. Millions of children are born without being documented; millions of citizens die without also being documented. It is little wonder that public sector employees find it easy to review their ages and continue working pass their retirement dates by swearing affidavits because the system does not keep proper records. This officially sanctioned forgery could be corrected if personal data can be collated and automated nationwide.
This is one anti-corruption fight, which must first be won to serve as a foundation for the wider onslaught. The agencies to achieve that goal are on ground, but all caught up in the conspiracy of conscious and orchestrated nonperformance of their responsibilities.
Ogar writes from Abuja