Can Nigeria achieve single digital identification?

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The maiden International Identity Day was recently marked in Nigeria with the theme: Assured Digital Identity for all. In this report, SAMSON BENJAMIN examines the lack of harmonised identification system in Nigeria and its implication for national security, and the economy among others.

On Monday September 16, Nigeria formally joined the coalition of International Identity Day with the aim of speeding up the process of a unified identity for all Nigerians.

The unveiling of the National Identity Day emblem by the Minister of State for Science and Technology, Mohammed Abdullahi, formally marked Nigeria’s membership of the coalition of international identity day.

The choice of September 16 is in recognition of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 16:9 which calls for legal identity for all, including birth registration by 2030.

According to the minster, “the significance of a unified identity for every Nigerian is therefore not lost on this gathering, as it holds huge implications for the nation’s security, planning, development and equitable distribution of resources.”

Continuing, he said “…the important role identity plays in empowering individuals to exercise their rights and responsibilities fairly and equitably in a modern society cannot be over emphasized.”

World Bank records indicate that more than one billion people, majority of who are in sub Saharan Africa, go around without any way to identify themselves for the myriad purposes that might be necessary including: accessing critical services, opening a bank account or being able to drive a car.

The commemoration of the International Identity Day may well be the tonic needed to arouse the consciousness of Nigerians to the gains of digital identification. However, whether the agency saddled with this responsibility, National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) is prepared for the task ahead is a different kettle of fish.

Why identity management

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, an IT specialist data analyst with BudgiT Seyi Olagunju stressed the importance of identity management stating: “Identity is perhaps the most important aspect in any country’s socio-political life; identity is important in budget, security and also in planning. Those three things are very important for every nation. So, identity will help us in those three major areas to fight corruption, fight terrorism and also enable a trustworthy system of governance.

“Unfortunately, in Nigeria, it seems realizing the importance of identity management has not translated into giving it the attention it deserves by putting in place the necessary framework to ensure that all Nigerians are properly identified and the database is properly managed to reap the accruing benefits.”

Multiple identity databases

Similarly, experts who spoke with Blueprint weekend identified multiplicity of identity databases, occasioned by lack of collaboration among relevant government agencies, and its cost implications as one of the challenges facing identity management in Nigeria.

Dr. Shehu Idris of the Department of Statistics, Base University Abuja, told our correspondent that: “Lack of collaboration among government agencies like NIMC, National Population Commission (NPC), Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC), National Passport Office, among others have complicated the issue of a unified means of identity for Nigerians.

 “As at the last count, Nigerian government manages more than 13 unique sets of identity systems that do not talk to each other. In addition to the costs, this anomaly creates significant amounts of data replication and raises questions on data protection and privacy.”

Also, narrating his experience to Blueprint Weekend, a blogger Mr Deima Sokari said: “If you reside in Nigeria, you probably must have participated in not less than four data capturing processes in recent years, with government agencies collecting the same set of data every time, including your biometrics.

“Few years ago, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) mandated every GSM user to have their data and biometric captured for every line they use, I registered five mobile lines, and each time I was asked the same set of questions.

“Another stop is the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) which has one of its mandates to be ‘Establishment, operation and management of the National Identity Management System (NIMS).’

“Since NIMC is saddled with the responsibility of establishing and maintaining a national identity database, we might want to ask why every other government agency or departments needs to collect my data directly from me, rather than just plugging into NIMC database.

“The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) collected my data in 2011 yet, everyone on my street still had to register again in 2014 and many others in 2018.

Finally, the Lagos State Residents Registration Agency (LASRA) is presently capturing data of every Lagosian. Not forgetting the new National Driver’s License which also requires biometrics.

With the numerous databases being maintained by various government agencies in the country, it appears all these agencies don’t trust each other. Or could it just be to add figures to their yearly annual budget?

And there doesn’t appear to be any verification exercise in place for any of the databases. I can easily give my residence to be house number 8 to MTN, 2 to Airtel, 16 to LASRA or maybe house number 3 on another street to NIMC, with none of the agencies making effort to verify my data, “he said.

NIN to the rescue?

The National Identification Number (NIN), according to NIMC, is a non-intelligent set of 11 numbers assigned to an individual upon successful enrolment. It consists of a recording of individual demographic data, capturing of the 10 fingerprints, head-to-shoulder, facial picture and digital signature, which are all used to cross-check existing data in the National Identity Database to confirm that there is no previous entry of the same data.

Speaking to our correspondent on the benefits of in NIN in identity management a data analyst at Media Digest Obuns Solomon said: “The Nigerian NIN can be likened to the United States’ Social Security Number or the National Insurance Number in the United Kingdom. The essence of the NIN explains why the national identity agency has continued its aggressive enrolment of Nigerians, despite the fact that inadequate funding has delayed the printing of physical identity cards for those already enrolled.

“Interestingly, as stipulated by the statute that established the NIMC (NIMC Act 2007), the NIN will be required in all transactions and services involving identification. It will be required when you apply for the National e-ID card, a driving licence, a Permanent Voter Card and travel passport, as well as to open a personal bank account and to participate in the National Health Insurance Scheme.

“Also, the NIN will be required for payment of taxes, transactions related to contributory pension scheme, access to welfare and other relevant services, including transactions with social security implications.

“Other benefits of the NIN are that it facilitates service delivery in ministries and other government departments or agencies. It enhances the work of law enforcement agencies and helps to launder Nigeria’s image, eliminate multiple identities and enhances the ability of citizens to assert their identity.”

Speaking further he said: “Globally, the importance of national identity to economic growth cannot be overemphasized as it has been identified as a veritable tool for sustainable development. Identity is essential to realising political and social rights and to participate in a modern economy.

“Indeed, a well-functioning ID system can help to reduce corruption and wastefulness. Effective identification for remote and electronic transactions can reduce costs and create economic opportunities for every Nigerian, including the poor.

“On national security, experiences from many developed countries have shown that all security agencies rely on information from centralised identity database to perform their functions flawlessly. This is why most governments place premium on identification in their budgeting plans.”

Address security challenges

Similarly, the Director General NIMC Engineer Aliyu Aziz Abubakar, said the ongoing enrollment of citizens for the NIN would help to address security challenges in Nigeria.

He said the agency has issued 36.6 million NIN to Nigerians as at September 11, 2019.

Abubakar, who spoke at an interactive session with journalists ahead of National Identity Day celebration, said the ongoing enrollment of citizens for the NIN would help to address security challenges confronting the country as it would enable security agencies to identify the culprits via their national identity data base.

“Security challenge is a known problem, so if everyone is identified in Nigeria via national identity number, anytime somebody commits crime, he or she can be easily identified.

“We can ensure that every Nigerian has his NIN so that he or she can be identified as a Nigerian because that will go a long way in ensuring national security.

“One of the problems we have in security has to do with our inability to identify who is a Nigerian or a foreigner residing in Nigeria,” he said.

Impact on trade

Lack of unified identity system has also been identified as one of the major limitations confronting the financial inclusion drive in Nigeria. In chat with Blueprint Weekend, the Managing Director/CEO Africa Operations, Inlaks, Femi Adeoti, said 90 per cent of the Kenya population has been included because the country has a unified identity system.

He said: “In our financial inclusion research, one of the market-enabling policies we identified is the need for a global identity system for Nigerians. The plethora of identity systems viz-a-viz the lack of proper verification led to the bank verification number (BVN) system for the financial services industry. Notwithstanding the successful deployment of BVNs, the number of unique bank account holders (31.4 million as of December 2017) still falls short of financial inclusion targets.

“The inability of citizens to establish identity is a major inhibitor to accessing financial services. Opening a bank account in Nigeria requires the prospective account owner be subjected to Know Your Customer (KYC) checks defined in CBN regulatory guidelines.

“Among other things, KYC requires proof of identity and address. The inability of a significant segment of the citizenry to offer proof of identity despite being cash-rich is one of the causes of high exclusion numbers and also the slow growth of mobile money adoption. In spite of the provision of tier-1 accounts which do not need any form of identity, the transaction limits imposed are constraining.

“More than 60 per cent of Nigerians lack a single form of identification whatsoever. This has hampered financial inclusion unlike Kenya where 90 per cent of their citizens are captured in their financial system.

“A proper national identity framework is integral to effective delivery of all government’s responsibilities to its citizens. From security, to privacy to social welfare programs, the lack of a cohesive framework capturing the details of every citizen means that many people are going to be excluded.

“When we consider financial exclusion figures, establishing identity is central to on boarding excluded populations into the formal financial services ecosystem.

“The issues surrounding identification in Nigeria are numerous, some of which include the lack of a truly inclusive national identity system and fragmentation of identity records and databases. For instance, according to NIMC, the identification ecosystem comprises of more than 13 federal agencies offering identity services. In spite of this overlap, only 38 percent of Nigerians have a form of official identity.”

Need for harmonization

With at least 13 government agencies managing identity, the need for a unified identity database can no longer be ignored.

Speaking on the issue Olagunju said: “The effectiveness of database collation and identity management is hugely dependent on the harmonization and integration of the different government agencies from the telecom regulator, to the population commission to the electoral commission and so on, as well as other database collating bodies like the banks, educational institutions, and health facilities who all collect and store biometric data working together with the NIMC to help it achieve its goal.”

On his part, Abubakar said, “As part of federal government agenda, we are all enjoined to work together as one to achieve the ID objectives and bequeath a sustainable and credible system of identity to our nation and generations to come.”

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