Having National Identity Numbers (NIN-SIM Registration and Public Health CompromiseNIN-SIM Registration and Public Health Compromise) and linking it with Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM), is a welcome development. According to the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), "Apart from enhancing our general safety, this will help in such vital exercises like National Budgeting, Policy Planning, Social Intervention programmes and many more". As desirable as this exercise is, is the NCC and National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) going about it the right way? Is the exercise enhancing or impeding public health, particularly against the background of the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic? Are there no better ways to handle this national assignment?
Order from Above
Recall that on December 15, 2020, the Federal Government declared that after December 30, 2020, all SIMs that were not registered with valid NINs on the network of telecommunications companies, would be blocked. The press release signed by the Director Public Affairs of NCC, Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, stated that: "Following the earlier directive on the suspension of new SIM registration by network operators, the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami) convened an urgent meeting of key stakeholders in the Communications industry on Monday, December 14, 2020. The meeting had in attendance the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Management of the NCC, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the NIMC, as well as the CEOs and management staff of all service providers in the industry".
The statement read further that "At the meeting, the need to consolidate the achievements of last year's (2019) SIM registration audit and improve the performance and sanity of the sector was exhaustively discussed, and all stakeholders agreed that urgent drastic measures have now become inevitable to improve the integrity and transparency of the SIM registration process. To this end, the following decisions were taken for immediate implementation by all Network Operators: Affirmation of the earlier directive to totally suspend registration of NEW SIMs by all operators; Operators to require ALL their subscribers to provide valid NIN to update SIM registration records; The submission of NIN by subscribers to take place within two weeks (December 16, 2020 and end by 30 December, 2020); After the deadline, ALL SIMs without NINs are to be blocked from the networks; A Ministerial Task Force comprising the Minister and all the CEOs (among others) as members, is to monitor compliance by all networks; and lastly, violations of this directive will be met by stiff sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating licence".
This statement sent many Nigerians yet to register for NIN, scampering to NIMC offices across the country. Public outcry led to a three-week extension for subscribers with NIN from December 30, 2020 to January 19, 2021, as well as six weeks extension for subscribers without NIN from December 30, 2020 to February 9, 2021. Here lies the problem. Given the fact that less than 50 million Nigerians have so far been enrolled on the NIN, how feasible is two months to accomplish this Herculean task?
JAMB's Aborted Attempt
It can be recalled that ahead of the 2020 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) similarly insisted that all applicants must have their NIN, before they will be allowed to write the examination. In a press release in September 2019 signed by its spokesman, Dr. Fabian Benjamin, the Board said "The JAMB will, during the 2020 registration exercise, use the National Identity Number (NIN) generated after successful registration with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC). This includes the capturing of biometric and other necessary details, for the registration of all prospective candidates. Candidates are enjoined to register as the board will no longer be responsible for the capturing of candidates' biometrics ahead of the examination, as all information required will be uploaded from the data captured by the NIMC. Henceforth, the NIN will be compulsory for the UTME registration". However, on Saturday, January 11, 2020, the registrar of JAMB, Professor Ishaq Oloyede, announced the suspension of the directive. He said the move was to provide more time for candidates to get their national identification numbers, and also to address the technical challenges experienced at some NIMC registration centres.
Let's Remind Minister Pantami, in case he forgets
In a recent interview, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy blamed Nigerians' lackadaisical attitude, for the crowding of the NIMC offices for NIN registration. According to him, initial directive for all Nigerians to get enrolled on NIMC database was issued on February 4, 2020, and that Nigerians had 10 months within which to comply. He said this against the barrage of negative media publicity, on the insensitivity of giving Nigerians two weeks to register for NIN and link it to their SIMs. However, much as the Minister was right about the nonchalance of many Nigerians, he ought to also have borne in mind that it was that same month of February 2020 that index case of Covid-19 was discovered in Lagos, and since then, things have not been normal in Nigeria again as the country went through lockdown and shutdown, and by the time we thought the worst was over on Covid-19 there was a resurgence of the pandemic. Recall that due to the pandemic most government offices including those of NIMC across the country were shut down, with only skeletal services going on as workers on Grade Level 12 and below were asked to stay home. As at first week of this month, three NIMC staff reportedly have contracted Covid-19. This has caused a scare at the Commission, with workers now demanding for Personal Protective Equipment among other requests.
Inadequate Registration Centres
The point is that the time given for Nigerians to enrol on NIMC database and obtain their NIN is still grossly inadequate, despite the six weeks extension. The country is battling the second wave of Covid-19, with many sectors of the country including schools, being asked not to resume until January 18, 2021.Why the clearly infeasible deadline? What is very fundamental with NIN and SIM linkage that cannot be done in years, say, in three years? As at December 2020, NIMC has licensed 173 centres and 30 State government institutions to conduct the enrolment of the National Identity Number (NIN) across the country. This number is obviously inadequate, to register the over 160 million Nigerians who are yet to be captured on the NIMC database.
Options for Consideration
If Federal Government feels registering all Nigerians in a record time of two months is non-negotiable, then let NIMC do what the Independent National Electoral Commission under Prof. Attahiru Jega did in 2010, when it wanted to have a fresh nationwide voters' registration exercise ahead of the 2011 General Election. The Commission submitted the budget for Polling Unit based Voter Registration exercise, and got funding for about 130,000 Direct Data Capturing Machines (DDCM). With that INEC was able to do a PU level enrolment at its 119,973 Polling Units, and in about two weeks, it had registered all eligible voters. Thus, Federal Government should deploy more resources to NIMC to buy more machines, hire ad-hoc staff, train and deploy them to INEC Polling Units for NIN registration. If the budget for that will be too much, NIMC can be mobilised to do Ward Level NIN Registration. INEC has 8,809 Registration Areas, also known as Wards. Let NIMC deploy to this level, and in one month or less, all Nigerians would have been captured on its database. If this will still be too costly, let NIMC be resourced to deploy to the 774 Local Government Areas.
If the aforesaid does not gel with FG or NIMC, then sufficient time should be given to Nigerians to get enrolled. I actually like the ecosystem option mentioned on Weekend File of January 9, 2021 on Nigerian Television Authority by the Director General of NIMC, Engr. Aliyu A. Aziz. He said the Commission is proposing situation where if anyone goes to Nigerian Immigration Service to renew or obtain international travel documents, he will be registered for NIN alongside registering to get his international passport. Similarly, if you go to obtain your Driving Licence, you can also register for NIN, even if you go for SIM registration at the mobile telecommunication outlets, in addition to the primary reason of going there, you can also register to obtain NIN. This is laudable! However, it is imperative that the set deadline of January 19 or February 6, needs to be lifted. People should therefore, be able to register in a seamless manner when they need certain services.
What's the Status of the 2015 Presidential Directive on Biometric Data Integration?
By the way, what has become of the presidential directive for data harmonisation and integration of 2015? Recall that after President Muhammadu Buhari was enrolled by NIMC and issued his NIN, a marching order was issued to all government agencies collecting demographic and biometric data of citizens and legal residents to aggregate their data into a single databank, to be domiciled with and managed by the NIMC. The directive was issued by Vice President Osinbajo at a meeting held at the Presidential Villa on Monday, December 21, 2015 and attended by data collecting agencies of Government and the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS). Vice President Osinbajo also directed that a technical committee be set up, comprising the affected agencies and to be coordinated by NIMC, to define the parameters and methods to achieve the data aggregation. The committee was given until the third week in January 2016 to submit a preliminary report to the Vice President. Prof. Osinbajo explained that Government's interest in the aggregation of citizens' data, is basically to assist it cross certain hurdles in its quest to improve the socio-economic landscape of Nigeria, particularly targeting the poorest and most vulnerable persons, as well as to issue unique identification numbers to every Nigerian and legal resident for the improvement of national security, among others.
Right now, Nigerians have their biometric data with banks before being issued Bank Verification Number, better known as BVN. Similarly, to obtain an International Passport and Driving Licence, all the biometric data of the applicants including facial picture and fingerprints are captured. When INEC registers citizens to enable them vote, these same details are captured, likewise when they register for their SIM cards. If this data integration ordered six years ago had been complied with, those who have not been registered on NIMC database would have been identified and issued NIN without having to undergo fresh registration. For instance, I recall that in Egypt, when I was there to observe the 2014 presidential election, the Egyptian voters used their National Identity Cards to vote, and did not have to register separately to vote.
The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy and his task force team members, must understand that the security and welfare of citizens are primary reason of Government according to Section 14(2)(b) of 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, as amended. The implausible deadline issued for Nigerians to enrol for NIN is compromising public health and safety, as there are stampedes in many NIN registration centres across the country. Exploitation of desperate enrolees has also been widely reported in the media, even as NIMC has had to sack some of its staff for this corrupt practice. In order to nip all this in the bud, NIMC should lift the deadline and decentralise the registration procedures. It is better to be safe, than to be sorry.
Jide Ojo is a Development Consultant, Newspaper Columnist, Author, TV Show Host and Public Affairs Analyst