By Obi Nwakanma
Last Tuesday, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan launched the Nigerian National Identity card to great expectations. The National Identity Card project has been long in the making. The first proposal for the National ID project was mooted in 1976, but various interests, including cultural and religious concerns, pressured the administration into abandoning the idea.
Dr. Alex Ekwueme has himself revealed how he spearheaded the idea to create a National Population database which would provide consistent demographic information in Nigeria, but which was scuttled by pressures even within the administration in which he served. Clearly, there are those for whom accurate national population statistics serves very little interest. Indeed, for this group, it is not in their interest for Nigeria to have a clear population index and a national means of citizenship identification.
But a national identity card, which will capture Nigeria’s national population data is both desirable and welcome. The Jonathan administration may however have undermined the possible goodwill this project may enjoy by contracting Nigeria’s National Identity Card Project, to MasterCard, the Worldwide Financial Services Company, with its headquarters in Purchase, New York. The first reactions began to emerge soon after Nigerians saw the MasterCard logo besides their names on a National Identity Card, whose basic aim is to provide Nigerians with their sovereign status and legal identification.
There is a third platform: the National ID offers the ability to make financial transactions. As President Jonathan opined in the launch of the NIMC Identity Card, “The card is not only a means of certifying your identity, but also a personal database repository and payment card, all in your pocket.” It sounds all swell. But according to newspaper reports, Nigerians who witnessed the unveiling of the National Identity Card by President on Thursday were not taken by the talk.
They were rather taken aback, and there was widespread outrage in reaction to the embossing of the MasterCard logo on the National Identification Card to be issued to Nigerians. One report of the event in the media is so poignant that it merits a reproduction here on the Orbit, just to situate the context of its umbrage: “Nigerians” the Premium Times reported, “expressed shock and fury, Thursday, at how the Nigerian Government, through the National Identity Management Commission, NIMC, would surrender a symbol of national sovereignty and pride to a foreign commercial organisation by not only sharing the biometrics of 170 million Nigerians to the firm but by also allowing the firm to boldly engrave its insignia on the IDs.
Many Nigerians raised the alarm over the implications of the agreement in an age that has seen intense data surveillance by the National Security Agency of the United States of America, MasterCard’s home country.” Critics of the project and of MasterCard’s involvement in it point very clearly to a national security breach. Nigerians are first, loath to cede their National population database to a foreign commercial concern, particularly in this era of global surveillance, and second as Shehu Sani, Human Rights advocate and Executive Director of the Civil Rights Congress said, “The new ID card with a MasterCard logo does not represent an identity of a Nigerian.
It simply represents a stamped ownership of a Nigerian by an American company… it is reminiscent of the logo pasted on the bodies of African salves transported across the Atlantic.” This is very serious, perhaps even exaggerated, but it ought to give us all pause.
The allusion to the middle passage – that deadly trade across the Atlantic – and its historical implications for Africans, the African economy, and the African humanity continues to ramify in the contemporary African’s attitude to issues of contemporary trans-Atlantic security as it affects their lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps Nigerian critics of these forms of contact and its implication of the overwhelming dependency of African systems on external systems of control are too naïve to expect any different, given the reality of globalization and the dominance of the global system by powerful and more sovereign entities, yet we must note that such naiveté does not foreclose expectations. What the Jonathan administration had done, according to his critics, is to cede the capacity to protect Nigeria’s strategic national demographic data – the strategic access for which nations make war and peace – to a foreign multinational commercial entity.
MasterCard basically acquired a strategic portion of Nigeria’s national economic intelligence, on a platter of gold; without firing a shot, says a retired former Senior Economist in the Economic Intelligence Team of the Central Bank of Nigeria. He opined that some of the good things the present administration does, it does very shoddily.
The question most Nigerians now need to ask is whether the president sought and received parliamentary clearance to embark on this contract with MasterCard on a project as sensitive as the Nigerian National Population Database, for indeed, that is what this is all about; and capturing that data, presents a clearly powerful leverage, and ought to be protected under a National Identity Protection legislation.
The federal government must as a matter of urgency review this contract with MasterCard. Nigeria’s population and National Identity must remain a sovereign concern. No other nation in the world gives access and authority to an external system that could mine its strategic national population data. This contract leaves Nigerians vulnerable. This is the concern of Nigerians. Secondly, it is crucial in this moment to review the Act of the National Assembly that established the NIMC. Part of the great tragedy of Nigeria is in the often needless duplication of functions by the creation of extra-ministerial commissions and Agencies to do the basic work already established in the Public Service system.
What the NIMC does now is the work for which we have the Federal Bureau of Statistics which ought to be properly housed in the Ministry of Labour and Establishment, liaising with Health, Home Affairs, Education, and the Attorney-General’s office as the data-gathering nodes of the republic. That the Federal Bureau of Statistics has been unable to do its work has much to do with the Nigerian government’s deliberate destruction of the public system; its failure to recruit, train, re-orient, and reposition its public service with a new generation of highly trained civil servants to do the work of the 21st century with 21st century skills under 21st century conditions. It is this failure that is at the heart of Nigeria’s development crisis and its inability to deliver value.
It is this which makes it impossible for even the president of Nigeria not to see the folly of ceding Nigeria’s strategic national data to a foreign profit-driven commercial entity in spite of its national security implications. As the Igbo say, “o di kwa egwu!”