This article is Part I of a series. Read Part II here.
Capturing the Nation
The current administration has kicked off its flagship ₦5,000 monthly conditional cash transfer programme. Predictably, controversy is emerging over who the recipients are and how they should be determined.
In response, the government has stated its intention to use a social register created in nine states for a prior World Bank-affiliated programme while it compiles a similar register for the remaining states. This response has not been entirely satisfactory, causing some to question the transparency of the process. Beyond this particular programme, the current situation points to a broader problem: Nigeria doesn't know who her citizens are.
Identification (ID) exists. If you drive, voted in the last election, travel abroad, or are employed by the government, you likely have some form of identification. In fact, Nigerians who are urban, educated, and employed in the formal sector are often "over-identified" with multiple ID cards. But these people form a small subset of the country's approximate 173 million population; most citizens in the informal sector or rural areas are under-identified – effectively ghosts.
The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) was instituted with the purpose of resolving this problem. The goal: harmonise the disparate ID systems and reach the unregistered by issuing every Nigerian with a unique National Identification Number (NIN) associated with fingerprints and photos. However, since its inception in 2007, the National Identity Database (NIDB) includes less than 10 percent of the population, and just a million ID cards have been printed so far.
In many ways, Nigeria's national ID management resembles our identity as a nation: fragmented and incomplete. As NIMC nears its 10th year of existence, it is worth asking why it has fallen short and why (or whether) we should push for its success.
The idea that a section of the population is over-identified is not an exaggeration: "biometric" has become one of the most popular words in Nigerian agency vocabulary in the last decade.
In 2007, the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation (OAGF) announced a new Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) that would include biometric data for all civil service employees as a fraud-prevention measure. The Nigerian Police Force jumped on the bandwagon by introducing a Digital Biometric Central Motor Registration (BCMR) system for vehicle registration in 2013. By 2014, between the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), people were required to turn up multiple times for "biometric capturing" in order to have a driver's licence, sim card or bank account. This trend extended to voting, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), JAMB, public school student IDs, and so on.
Other than biometrics, these initiatives share another feature: they were all announced in the same year as or just after the establishment of the NIMC.
NIMC frequently cites underfunding as the main barrier to its operations. Just last year, the agency was unable to pay its software licence renewal fees. In 2011, the amount granted to NCC for SIM card registration was ₦6 billion, compared to NIMC's budget of just over ₦5 billion in the same year. In fact, while NIMC's annual reports show that it spent ₦69 billion up to 2014 (accounting for depreciation and including set-up costs), the eventual cost of SIM card registration alone was ₦46 billion, due in part to the fact that people with multiple SIM cards had to register each one separately.
In light of the apparent duplication, a more sensible approach would have been to integrate the creation of each database with the national ID registration process. If for instance, NIMC had been involved in voter registration leading up the 2015 elections, a large part of the population would now have a NIN, and the government may have saved some money in the process. So why didn't this happen?
Incentives to Duplicate
It is possible that the other agencies had to move swiftly and involving NIMC would have slowed down the process. In this case, the approach of creating duplicates then sending the databases to NIMC afterward appears reasonable.
However, the methods used by other agencies may fall short of NIDB requirements. For example, about 45 percent of the data from SIM card registration is unusable due to missing information or improper registration. Including such tainted records in the NIDB would contaminate the database, setting the project back. Furthermore, NIMC would still have to deploy valuable resources to properly integrate these databases. This is one situation where a stitch in time saves nine.
A more difficult challenge is presented by the identification initiatives which form part of larger projects funded by external organisations. These groups are likely to be concerned with the immediate goals of their projects, not Nigeria's wider ID push. Consequently, the implementing government agencies may not actively seek NIMC involvement. IPPIS is a potential example as it was a component of a World Bank economic reform project. However, this argument cannot be extended to programs funded solely by the Nigerian government such as BVN and NYSC registration.
The previous explanations are based on the premise that these biometric schemes were designed with some form of efficiency in mind, but other incentives may also be at play. Nigeria operates what Shehu Othman terms a "contractocracy". Contracts are often viewed as opportunities for government officials to receive kickbacks or to reward political supporters, and high-value contracts are particularly profitable.
As a result of the hardware and software costs involved, biometric registration tends to be very expensive. The contract for BVN registration materials alone was $50 million. If government officials can award large contracts for the creation of a biometric database and reap large financial rewards, there is a strong incentive to sideline the NIMC.
A NIN-sized Hurdle
The NIMC's primary strategy to ensure the widespread use of NIN has been to mandate its use. In 2015, the agency published regulations that would make the NIN required for a variety of activities including getting a driver's licence or passport, opening a bank account, paying taxes, etc.
This strategy would make sense if the low registration rate was due to Nigerians' unwillingness to register; but as noted before, the problem is mainly supply-driven, stemming from the agency's funding issues.
Mandating the use of the NIN would, therefore, constitute an unnecessary hurdle in Nigeria's already inefficient bureaucratic process and erode any public support for the national ID initiative. If a NIN is required to open a bank account, people in the rural areas with low access to both banks and NIMC will face another barrier to financial inclusion. And unless NIMC can guarantee registration of the entire voting-age population within two years (a feat it failed to accomplish in ten), mandatory use of the NIN for voter's registration may amount to disenfranchisement.
Fortunately, this regulation has not been enforced so far. Nigerians would be better served by NIMC putting more pressure on other agencies. For example, the National Population Commission (NPC) estimates that it will need ₦222 billion to conduct the 2018 census, and this offers the Federal Government the opportunity to signal its seriousness over the national ID issue by involving the NIMC. And how will the census be conducted? You guessed it, by biometric capture.
This article is Part I of a series. Read Part II here.