• Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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National identification as bedrock for sustainable development, economic inclusion

National identification as bedrock for sustainable development, economic inclusion

Over 100 million Nigerians have no identity. They cannot be formally identified and are effectively ghosts. These include the poorest and the most vulnerable groups – women and girls, the less-educated people, migrants, internally displaced persons, people with disabilities and many people living in rural and remote areas.
Understanding the poorest and most vulnerable groups is a hard enough task in any country, but our large, ethnically and regionally fragmented population makes it an even more onerous task. Compounding this task is the fact that we do not know exactly how many Nigerians there are. Understanding our population is critical to guiding the effective delivery of all government responsibilities to its citizens. And good quality data can take us a step forward. Unfortunately, the dearth of quality data especially on matters to do with national identification has held current and previous governments back from achieving many of the goals they set for the country.

As we grapple with the effects of a global pandemic, the importance of being able to identify our country’s most vulnerable is highlighted by concerns around the accuracy and efficiency of the current government’s conditional cash transfer programme, and whether support is reaching the right people.

This points to the foundational and more critical issue: Nigeria does not know who her citizens are.

The Nigerian reality

In an ideal system like can be seen in the US, individuals are assigned numbers at birth, and their records are updated as they become adults and begin to access public or financial services. When people die, their numbers stay the same – even when their names change through marriage or other legal means, the numbers that are used to identify them remain unchanged.

Read also: Here’re 5 implications on Nigeria’s economy as MPC trims MPR by 100bp

In Nigeria, the reality is very different. There has been increasing discourse and emphasis on identifying Nigeria’s population over the last two decades. In fact, “biometrics” has become one of the most popular words in the vocabulary of more than 13 federal agencies and three state agencies offering ID services in Nigeria. But the Nigerian government manages more than 13 sets of identity systems – most of which do not communicate with each other, each achieved at a high cost.

Take Omolola Bello, for example. Born in Lagos, Mrs Bello worked as a civil service employee. Between the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mrs Bello has likely turned up for her “biometric capturing” multiple times – in order to have a SIM card, bank account, driver’s licence and International passport, respectively. But people like Mrs Bello, who likely have some form of identification, account for only about 38 percent of the country’s approximately 200 million population; the remaining 62 percent of the country’s population remain under-identified.

Although ID cards are the most visible aspect of an identity management system, the real value lies in the supporting database. The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) was instituted to provide and maintain an interoperable National Identity Database (NIDB) system by assigning every Nigerian with a unique National Identification Number (NIN) that can be used for verification purposes throughout their lifetime. However, since its inception in 2007, the NIDB includes only 41 million Nigerians while other agencies continue collecting various data for different purposes such as International Passports, Bank Verification Numbers (BVN), etc.

Not only is this process fragmented and costly, it has proven inefficient at capturing the requisite information required to identify our country’s populace.

Changing the narrative

What any fragmented system needs is coordination. In our case, it would have been useful to integrate the creation of each database with the national ID registration process; allowing communication and exchange of information between the different databases or agencies (e.g., INEC, CBN etc) in a timely and low-cost manner, subject to appropriate privacy and security safeguards. This would have allowed NIN to assume the role for which it was created – the foundational identity – with other forms of functional identity only requiring the additional metrics not already captured by NIN. The economies of scale, speed and efficiency benefits of this type of coordination would have removed the identification hurdle that prohibits many from being formally included and enabled the associated benefits that come with being identified.

It was the need for this type of coordination that triggered the 2015 harmonisation process spearheaded by the Vice President’s office – which looked at how we could harmonise all the existing ID processes and systems. The outcome highlighted the synergy between NIN and BVN, two systems that already speak to each other and could easily be coordinated. Not only was this harmonisation possible – it was also the sensible option. The possibilities of coordination were immense – efficiency, speed, more inclusion at a grassroots and bottom-of-the-pyramid level and timely – as we package, coordinate and disseminate COVID-related stimulated packages – a better way to identify people.

Then, in December 2019, five years after BVN was introduced and only 41 million people registered, the CBN announced the launch of BVN Lite to fast-track registration for rural Nigeria. BVN had been unsuccessful in identifying this demographic for reasons which include unavailability of registration points and associated infrastructure (power, etc.), undetectable fingerprints or poor imaging – all things that made the cost of registration a disincentive. What would have been expected, following that harmonisation process, would have been the CBN making a clear statement that the NIN is acceptable for a Tier-1 account allowing for a consolidation of existing efforts and infrastructure rather than a reduplication of an already duplicated process. But this didn’t happen.

The bigger picture

If we are to achieve the developmental benefits associated with accurate population data, we must overcome these and all the other challenges that inhibit success. One major challenge with rolling out national-level identification schemes is that they require important privacy and security safeguards, which often make them complex and expensive to implement. In Nigeria, there is the need for a central, easily accessible form of identification that serves as the foundation for other records to be built upon. In March 2020, the World Bank, in recognition of the impact of the successful identification of population on development, announced an IDA credit for the NIMC, to identify and include Nigeria’s poorest in its development plan and initiate the economic recovery of the country.

A month before this intervention, the president had inaugurated a Committee on Citizen Data Management and Harmonisation to resolve, among other things, the identification imbroglio, by harmonising citizens’ data held by the different government Ministries, Departments and Agencies with a view to ensuring a single database owned and managed by the Federal Government (FG) – thereby providing a foundational identification upon which all other sub-sectors can build. This Committee chaired by the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, formed three sub-committees, one of which was to focus on the Harmonization of Public Data and is chaired by Dr Isa Pantami, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. The CBN governor, chief executive officers of the NIMC and the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) were also named members.

Again in June, the FG announced a steering committee for the Nigeria Digital Identity for Development Ecosystem Project to “fast-track the implementation of the Strategic Roadmap for accelerating digital identity development for Nigeria” professing digital identification as central and critical to realising the government’s Economic and Recovery Growth Plan (ERGP). Among other briefs, the role of this ‘highest body’ is to review the legal and regulatory framework for digital identity development with a clear objective to accelerate a digital identification system that can grow the enrollment database by 187 million between 2023 and 2025.

Nigeria is said to have spent about N120 billion on identity management so far. With the World Bank 2020 intervention, the country appears to be redefining identity registration and operation processes in a way that moves identification away from the possession of a plastic card or slip to the NIN in itself – similar to the Social Security Number system used in the US.

To show its determination perhaps, the Federal Government transferred the supervision of the NIMC from the Presidency to the Federal Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy (FMCDE) which is overseen by the chairman of the sub-committee for the Harmonisation of Public Data. The FMCDE is supervising ministry of the NCC which has access to data of over 96 percent (more than 191 million) of Nigeria’s mobile subscribers presenting a potentially huge leverage in terms of access to citizens’ database and possible harmonisation.

But still, Nigeria has much to learn from its developing peers.

The India example

The Aadhaar system currently implemented in India offers a biometrically safe and unique identifier which makes it possible to provide essential development services like healthcare and financial services. India’s Identification System provides residents with a 12-digit unique number (Aadhaar) based on both biometric (facial image, 10 fingerprints, and iris scans of both eyes) and demographic data. Beyond being a robust, safe and secure system, the aadhaar system has been successful largely because of the scale of the government’s ambition to see it through to fruition.

When the biometric identifier is added to a bank account, individuals can receive welfare payments through direct deposit. They are also able to access food by performing an iris or fingerprint scan at welfare distribution points. Seeing the direct link between being identified and accessing welfare has provided an added layer of incentives for the Indian population and helped to ensure that funds and benefits earmarked for the poor reach them, thus making it much harder for bureaucrats to divert citizens’ benefits. This coupled with the government’s political will to deliver a fully identified India has resulted in the success we see today.

Beyond this, having multiple forms of biometric scanning (finger and iris scans), while more expensive, allows for more robust and accurate identification especially in rural areas where farming and other types of labour can make fingerprint capture harder to achieve.

To understand the impact of this system better, let’s take Kumar, a micro farmer who would usually need to go through a middleman agency to access his welfare benefits from the government. Now with Kumar’s aadhaar number his benefits are directly paid into his account without the extraneous influence of any middleman. The system empowers the Kumars and every single Indian with an efficient identification system that delivers a benefit.

Besides India, the wide success gap for developing countries served as the catalyst for a group of government and private institutions to collaborate with the World Bank in developing a set of principles that should be considered when developing Identity for Development (ID4D) systems. The Inclusion, Design and Governance principles serve as a blueprint for building a transferable model for researching, designing, executing and assessing guidelines for identification systems – all which must be employed if Nigeria is to successfully harmonise and better her current ID systems.

What’s the way forward for Nigeria?

Put simply, we need to prioritise data collection and coordination.

As paramount as data is in understanding the poor, a country that does not even have the data collection culture necessary to determine its population size accurately definitely has a long way to go in using identification for development. Identification has been recognised formally as a critical enabler of many other SDG targets – from implementing social protection systems to financial inclusion to women’s empowerment. Understanding the World Bank principles for identification systems, and learning from the approach and challenges of success stories – like India’s Aadhaar system – is a good first step in improving the quality of our data collection in Nigeria, investing in the necessary execution and implementation is the next one.

This is arguably one of the most critical gateways we must resolve in order to understand the scope, scale and depth of many of the challenges we face. Without solving our identity conundrum, we will be stuck in a cycle of underperformance, inefficiency and slow growth.

*Bello is an independent journalist based in Nigeria.