By Patrick Dele Cole
WHEN I read the recent directives by the NCC on SIM card registration and the National Identity Number I was astounded at the willingness of those in government to place their people in danger, in order to solve a problem of their own making.
We find ourselves where we are because of the long-term and persistent failure of government to understand the most fundamental data set it needs. To know who its people are, where they are and how to communicate with them. That is not the fault of the people. They should not suffer for it.
The issue of data management and national identity is one that I have been interested in for a long time, and have written about before. It is a clear and undeniable fact that to be able to govern with any modicum of impact, a government needs to be able to know how many people live within its borders.
Whether it is to enable civic participation (through voting, the payment of tax), to deliver services or palliatives (and we have seen recently how difficult government finds that), or to plan for future infrastructure investments like roads, and power. Without it, how does government make decisions?
It is not the need for Nigeria to urgently address this deficit that I take issue with. That is clear, and I’ve said it before. It’s the manner in which government chooses to expose its inability to do the job, the insensitivity it demonstrates to the welfare of its own citizens and the absolute confusion and unnecessary stress it ends up causing.
The insensitivity and irresponsibility of government: A government is in trouble when the people no longer believe what it says. Such a government has lost legitimacy. Some of this loss cannot be anything else but incompetence although most people believe that the loss of legitimacy is because the government is lying. Incompetence can be overcome by efficiency.
Lying suggests something sinister: that the government knows really what is happening but thinking that its people are fools, lies to them, and this shows it does not trust the people. For example the people do not believe that Boko Haram is foreign controlled; they believe that this is a secret army, pursuing a not so secret policy of grabbing and keeping political power.
It is immaterial whether these perceptions are true or false; they are political and must be addressed politically. Each outrage on our (please note, I use our, not your) children – boys and girls must be followed by fulsome condemnation of the kidnappers, Boko Haram or whatever, by the leaders of Nigeria – both Islam and non-Islamic. More important, the government must make it clear to all that such activities will not be tolerated and would be punished wherever found.
When I see young boys and young girls begging in the streets I weep because of lost opportunities – one of them may be Marie Curie or Isaac Newton, or Ibn Batuta, etc. I ask where are their parents? Which kind of parents would allow their children to beg in the streets at age five to 10? What kind of country tolerates this? What kind of leader accepts this?
So it is with the NCC and the NIN. It may not have dawned on Nigeria that the NIN is different from the National Identity Card. Even if you had it, how do you get it reconciled with your handset? It is clear that the steps have not been understood by the people who see these regulations as one more burden imposed by a government which does not care nothing for them; but would at every turn use regulations to make money for the government officials, politicians, members of the National Assembly, State Assembly and Local Government.
My village has no MTN, Airtel or Etisalat office or registration centre. The nearest is about two hours to the next big town. First a person there must get his NIN: he goes to town to MTN, Airtel, Etisalat office to register. Has anyone gone to any of the outlets of these organisations to see the hundreds of thousands waiting to meet this idiotic demand? If the NIN numbers are in the State or Local Government headquarters, money changes hands before you get your number.
Nor do I believe that having an NIN would detect ATM robbers. I can easily think of several ways to beat the system of NIN. If, however, I cannot beat the system, then presumably facial and finger print technology will identify the kidnappers or armed robbers if they are Nigerians. What if they are not Nigerians?
Consider the following: Mr. Ade has a phone he has not confirmed with NIN. He catches COVID-19. It is, therefore, impossible to call him and trace his contacts. Meanwhile he continues unwittingly to infect others. It was earlier calculated that one infected person was responsible for 42,500 infections!
I think everyone would agree that it has been a difficult year, perhaps the most difficult in recent decades. Nigerian’s have been assailed by a health crisis, an economic crisis, a fast accelerating security crisis and it has manifested into severe civil unrest. This is not the kind of environment that you seek to destabilise any further and yet that is precisely what the NCC directives do. During a pandemic one of the most important things to be able to do, is to stay in touch with people. Whether to know when they need assistance or simply to maintain human relationships when physical contact is so restricted.
The second thing that you need to do is to ensure that the physical interactions that propagate the spread of the virus are restricted. These NCC directives, if implemented, will simultaneously remove the ability of millions of people (and probably the most vulnerable), to communicate with each other remotely. It will force them back into physical contact, but they will also create huge physical congregations at NIN enrolment locations as people desperately seek to avoid being cut off.
I am told this is already happening, in places like Alausa At a time when the police and other security services would probably rather the government did not force people to congregate? Is this the outcome they wanted?
How can any government believe that this is a good idea? Surely, there is a better targeted way of working with telecoms companies and others to remove some of the current ways in which the system is abused or manipulated by various interests? That, after all, is the stated aim of these directives. To prevent terrorists from being able to communicate anonymously.
Well isn’t the government about to create its own, self-imposed mass casualty event? Who needs the terrorists?! They should take a long break. Their job is being done for them. How many people will die of covid because of these directives? How many poor people will lose their ability to communicate with customers, or those who can assist them, because they are not able to get their NIN’s, despite many of them being willing to?
How many victims in remote areas will lose the ability to call in help? Surely the government thought of these things before they acted, and the fact that they chose to proceed anyway, simply demonstrates their disregard for the lives of their people.
- The failure of government
What makes this situation worse is that the challenge we face is of government’s own making. It is the sole responsibility of government to issue national identity cards and to maintain a national database of citizens. It is not the responsibility of banks, telecoms companies, or other private sector ‘agents. But because of government’s inability to fund, or deliver the logistics of such a programme, it has been out sourced.
First as BVN, this was paid for and rolled out by the banks, and now, as SIM registration, which will be paid for and rolled out by the telecoms companies. Yet, I read in the last few days, that the government is telling the population that NIN registration is free. Well yes, it will be, to the people, but it is not ‘free’ and it is not being paid for by government. It is being paid for, under duress, by the private sector.
What danger does that put us in as a country? Do we have the data protection legislation in place to avoid the potential abuse of these enrolment structures? What message does its end a foreign investor to say, ‘we cannot implement a programme like this on our own and we are willing to force investors to do it for us, with no compensation and an unclear legal framework’?
This is manifested by the fact that we have such a plethora of identity databases. Last time I counted, I included the passport database, BVN, NIN, the voter’s database, the driver’s license database and the Sim registration process. While I appreciate that each of these is made easier if we have the one central system, could we not have made the process simpler, more integrated and easier? Is the way we have done it optimal?
Why have we not looked to other countries, who have experienced similar challenges, and yet managed to find solutions without this level of disruption, like Pakistan?
- The confusion of the compliant
My own personal experience of this demonstrates that it is not just the non-compliant, or the poor, who are left in an identity limbo. I have lived through quite a few attempts to build a national identity. I enrolled early on in one of the first, which I think was managed by CHAMS. I have a national identity card. But then a new structure emerged, and another call for enrolment began.
What I don’t know is whether my first registration means I am in that database!? Should I now, as an 80year old man, go and queue with thousands of others, and expose myself to covid, in order to find out? How is it even possible that someone who complied as early as me does not know their status?
I have a BVN, a Sim registration, a passport, a voters card, a driver’s license and the first ever version of an identity card, but I suspect that I too, will be deemed to be non-compliant. We are all in this together. Let’s hope government realizes you cannot build the solution by hurting and disenfranchising the people it is designed to help. We must all work with them, in order to solve this problem once and for all, because if we do, it will be better for ALL of us.