The Hub

October 20, 2011

ID card: A cat of nine lives

By Josef Omorotionmwan
WE are convinced beyond all reasonable doubts that the Federal Government must have been listening to Mr. Ogidigan. There is also no doubt that the Federal Government’s hearing must be partially impaired. Otherwise, the lessons of Ogidigan’s full experience would have been very instructive.

It was on the eve of one of those elections during the SDP/NRC era. As usual, we had all gathered in the house of Ogidigan, Chairman of the party, waiting to be mobilized for the election, only for the Chairman to announce that the money brought for the purpose had fallen into his pit toilet. Certainly, this was not good music for the ears. Nobody heard him well until he repeated it a second time.

It didn’t take too long for the Chairman to realise that he had made a costly mistake. While some of the boys were pounding him, others had gone to the backyard to tear the latrine open and they found that there was no money in the pit. Close to the point of death, the Chairman confessed that he was only playing pranks as no money fell into any latrine. By fire, by thunder, the old man quickly rallied round to bring money for party men. This was a question of using what you have to get what you want.

Long after Ogidigan had outgrown his pranks, the Federal Government is still fixated at that elemental level. The Federal Government has been playing Ogidigan with the identity card project.

Its latest entry was on Thursday, September 29, 2011, when the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, announced that the Federal Government is to spend yet another N30 billion on the project. Going by modern history, this is the fourth time that the Federal Government is throwing colossal sums into the pit latrine since the re-emergence of democracy in 1999. It would be recalled that the ink on his inauguration papers had hardly dried, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo awarded the project to a French Company, Sagem, at the cost of $300 million, about N38 billion.

At that time, virtually everybody, including the National Assembly, which on two occasions struck out Obasanjo’s budgetary request, raised serious objections on the project. Like the stubborn fly that would accompany the corpse into the grave, Obasanjo still went ahead with the award. It is doubtful whether a single card was issued to anyone, including Obasanjo himself.

In 2003, the same Obasanjo administration re-awarded the project. A lot of controversy trailed this award. Nothing happened but Obasanjo remained “kampe”. Again, in April 2006, Obasanjo re-awarded the contract. A storm of indignation burst forth and that was when THE PUNCH in its editorial opinion of April 13, 2006, expressed utter dismay at the rough game that Obasanjo was playing with this country.

On April 18, 2006, THE GUARDIAN in its editorial expressed similar feeling, that the project had become “a major conduit pipe for draining national resources and the corrupt enrichment of government officials”. To people’s mountains of objections, Obasanjo had blocked both ears with cotton wool; no shaking!

Whereas every successive administration in Nigeria has developed a soft spot for its pit latrine, the Identity Card Project has remained a common denominator for all. The sorry story of the ID card scam dates back to 1967, during the Nigerian civil war. As the spate of bombings on Lagos increased, it was suspected that it must be the handiwork of the Igbos who remained behind; those who refused to return to the rebel enclave.

It was then suggested that identity cards should be issued to them as a way of monitoring their movement. There was the strong argument at that time that this would amount to double jeopardy: in Nigeria, they were being treated as second class citizens and in Biafra, they were regarded as outcasts for refusing to come home to answer Col. Ojukwu’s call. At that point, the idea was dropped.

When General Obasanjo came to power after the assassination of the Head of State, Murtala Mohammed on February 13, 1976, he revived the programme. Before Obasanjo handed over the reigns of power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari in October 1979, the project had gulped $16 million, which was about N10 million in the money of that time and it was by direct labour under the then Department of National Civic Registration, now the National Identity Management Commission. Under this scheme, only Obasanjo and a few members of staff got their own ID cards.

Enter Alhaji Shehu Shagari. We were returning to democracy after 13 years of military interregnum. Shagari quickly handed the scheme over to a party chieftain, who perhaps did not know what to do with it but simply handed it over to two American firms, one to source for the funds and the other to execute the project over a period of 18 months. At the end of the contract period, nothing was delivered. Through the front door, the contract was terminated in 1981 and through the back door, it was re-awarded to the same defaulting firm at the cost of N56 million. By 1983, the contract sum had been reviewed upwards to N96 million but there was virtually no single ID card to show for it. All the money had fallen into the latrine!

Our concern today is for the image of this country. Just because the world is watching us, let us at least pretend to add some atom of decency in whatever we do. Let he who is lying, lie intelligently. Surely, this cat of nine lives has been over-abused. In the hall of “Good People, Great Nation”, it has expired.