By Tonnie Iredia
The need to identify every Nigerian citizen does not call for lengthy explanations. It is therefore in order for the Nigerian Identity Management Commission whose mandate it is to do so to take steps which it considers necessary to meet the mandate. In this age of technology, the commission would probably have the right to acquire the biometrics of all citizens.
Another agency of government- the National Population Commission has the mandate of determining the numerical strength of the Nigerian population. In doing so, the commission would need to have an accurate record of each person who claims to be a Nigerian. As a result, the commission considers it expedient to subject us all to a biometrics exercise. Thus, the Identity Commission and the Population Commission are two government bodies that have in their records, names, face recognition, fingerprints and other details of all Nigerians
Every Nigerian is also entitled to possess the international passport especially those who may wish to travel outside the country for certain transactions. The Nigerian Immigration Service is responsible for issuing international passports to anyone. It is however not compulsory to hold a passport but any person who is interested in having one must be prepared to face another set of biometrics arrangement. The same fate awaits all those who are 18years and above and are desirous of being registered as voters in Nigeria. For this group, the body to surrender biometrics to is the Independent National Electoral Commission. So, with all these bodies capturing the same personal information, though for different purposes, biometrics in Nigeria has become an industry and like 419, it is now a game everyone is playing.
The Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) appears to be the highest bidder now; charging exorbitantly for its own artistic biometrics arrangement. Its fee is so high that the Police which is more statutorily entitled to the loot is up in arms. Luckily for the Police it found a way to claim its right by charging less than half the FRSC fee. Only a few days back, the ample light which Senator Ayo Arise threw on the subject on national television diminished the persuasive outing of the police. He said the police fee of N3, 500 is also too high arguing that INEC used N65 only for the same project. Really?
Beyond costs however, there are too many unanswered questions. First, what image does the proliferation of biometrics give to our government? Can the relevant data required by all the bodies not be domiciled in one agency? One school of thought says that since the police is empowered to retrieve data from any other body, it should not have gone into the industry at this point of proliferation.
Another school of thought is angered by the gradual transformation of the FRSC into a security agency which it is not. If so, why is the body dissipating its energy on law enforcement rather than ensuring free movement on our roads? Anyone who travels on the Lokoja-Okene road would testify that with or without the FRSC, the hilly spot in Okene before the fuel station where southwest bound vehicles turn right is forever jammed. Could it be that the FRSC deliberately allows the hold-up or does the build-up occur when road safety officials are busy with security functions? Obviously many people think FRSC should leave security to the police. But are those saying this aware of the numerous new provisions in the amended FRSC law?
Whoever is right between the Police and the FRSC, there is no denying the fact that the biometrics issue is another good example of lack of collaboration and cooperation amongst government agencies in Nigeria. The other day, the National Security Adviser himself had to condemn the lack of synergy between and among the security agencies in our clime. Why do Nigerian officials find it hard to share information and strategies when they were not set up to compete against each other? Again, when will Nigeria itself dissuade the replication of statutory functions in the polity? The Oronsaye Panel which was set up to rationalize our unwieldy bureaucracy made the point when it frowned at the setting up of bodies like the FRSC and the anti-corruption agencies to carry out certain police functions without excising such functions from the police.
Now, let’s return to the biometrics posers. Not long ago, the new chairman of the National Population Commission was under fire for seeking to flaw previous census exercises in the nation. Will his own team get into the biometrics business like his predecessors or would the team go for biometrics from only those who were not in the previous exercise? In the past, an international passport was designed to last 5 years and renewable for another 5 years. In these days of biometrics, renewal has been technically cancelled because at the end of the first 5 years, every holder must follow the same process of getting a brand new passport. Why should this be so? One citizen imagined that it is the best way to charge new fees. If so, is it not ridiculous to periodically subject the same person to repeated exercises on biometrics?
At a forum on the Media and Elections in Abuja last Thursday, INEC was reported to have said that its plans to distribute permanent voters’ cards to persons registered in 2010 were almost concluded-the same statement we have been hearing all through this year. Why does it take a minimum of 3years to get a “permanent” card from INEC biometrics arrangement when it takes about 3days to get those done at other agencies? Is INEC awaiting a distribution law from the National Assembly or are national identity cards, international passports and drivers’ licenses of inferior quality?
Considering the high fees charged by FRSC, curious Nigerians may begin to speculate on the special source of its own biometrics equipment. May be it is not a matter of equipment but that of design. One analyst imagined last week that perhaps the commission wants vehicle owners who purchase the new plate numbers to appreciate that every purchase comes with a beautiful copy of the map of Nigeria!