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National identity – an access barrier for shared prosperity

Attaining a world where everyone has access to robust systems and structures that deliver social interventions, access to financial services and free flow of critical information, regardless of their economic status or location, should not be difficult to achieve. However, we continue to record instances of restricted access due to diverse barriers – cultural, locality-based, educational and, most importantly, a lack of proper documentation in the form of an Identity Document (ID).

This type of exclusion is not novel. A large percentage of the population, many of whom operate at the bottom of the pyramid, are excluded from accessing many basic living amenities and public and private sector-led social interventions due to the mechanisms and requirements that act as barriers, thereby inhibiting or, in some cases, cutting off access. Existing trends and research findings continue to point to a limited or total absence of access as one of the major reasons Nigeria is yet to make significant strides in the realm of innovative poverty alleviation interventions that reflect positively in the realities and living conditions of the bottom of the pyramid.

An ID presents one of the most important factors required to foster the achievement of national developmental goals targeted at creating inclusive access to opportunities, support structures and shared prosperity. It is, therefore, laudable that the Federal Government of Nigeria has shown commitment towards instituting a national identity system which, if successfully implemented, can yield considerable dividends in the long term. However, the key determinant of success is the inclusiveness of the national identity registration and rollout process and systems. The current approach adopted which includes wide disparity in availability of registration centres in rural vs. urban areas and a lack of adequate infrastructure and connectivity as well as the requirement in some instances to present an acceptable form of ID to complete the NIN registration process means that many who are already living on the periphery of economic activity and broader society will have difficulty being identified and continue to be marginalised as a result.

Read Also: 56m Nigerians now have NIN- NIMC

Since the National Identity Number (NIN) launch in 2014, almost 54 million Nigerians have been assigned NINs, out of an estimated population of 201 million people, according to information provided as of May 2021 on the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) website. There is an urgent need to review the process especially in the face of an impending deadline for NIN-SIM linkages that threatens to block telephony access for all who are unable to be registered ahead of the June 30 deadline. The impact of such a disconnect for many at the bottom of the pyramid, for whom their phones are an important bridge to economic and financial opportunities and their only connection to family, can be truly devastating.

The unidentified population of Nigeria

Following the global outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen devastating socioeconomic consequences, many of which are regressing, and in some cases, overturning solutions and interventions that had already begun to yield positive results for vulnerable groups. The Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP) COVID-19 impact survey results indicated that the pandemic had negative impacts on citizens’ savings, businesses and overall patronage.

With identity acting as a major factor in the determination of access to critical resources and services like access to credit, insurance, social programmes, SIM cards, bank accounts and banking solutions, we can begin to see how much harder it is for vulnerable groups to navigate something as hard-hitting as a global pandemic – unable to access the help they need. It is difficult to qualify just how negatively impacting and limiting not being able to be identified is unless we experience life in Nigeria through their lenses. Notwithstanding, we can meaningfully speculate that access is the primary barrier keeping vulnerable groups from being truly included in the formal economy and enjoying the basic amenities required to improve their economic outcomes.

The government has instituted various social intervention programmes including N-Power, the school feeding programme, National Conditional Cash Transfer, GEEP and, more recently, the National Poverty Reduction with Growth Strategy (NPRGS). Despite the availability of these interventions and more, many vulnerable people who truly need these resources cannot access them because of the lack of an acceptable ID. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) 2019 Poverty and Inequality report, 83 million Nigerians live below the poverty line, the impact of COVID-19 having driven more people below the poverty divide. Earlier in the year, the World Bank predicted that an additional 15-20 million people may be pushed below the poverty line by 2022.

The situation is even further complicated when other forms of identification including state-issued ID are required to obtain access to social intervention programmes. Many of our vulnerable population cannot meet the requirements and remain excluded and unable to access critical support.

Nigeria’s complex national identity framework

The Nigerian government’s efforts at implementing a national identification framework date back to the year 1986. Following several decades and million-dollar influxes, the government was finally prepared to institutionalize the nation’s identification system, spurring the intention to digitise the process and its value chain. Though commendable, the variables of the internet and education, as well as the robust infrastructure required for successful implementation, play a role in entrenching issues of access for the bottom of the pyramid. Citizens are required to fill a pre-enrolment form online via the NIMC portal, and then download and print an accompanying slip, presenting a knowledge and infrastructure gap for this segment of the population.

Alternatively, NIMC has an available offline option for enrolment. However, access to this option is dependent on the proximity of centres, available infrastructure and condition of biometric capture equipment and more, which creates additional barriers for people looking to be identified. In addition, NIMC has experienced five years of lingering issues in the creation and distribution of ID cards to registered citizens. An example – Innocent Chizaram, a Nigerian writer, gives an account of his experience with the agency; having registered since 2016, he is yet to receive it. Drawing on his recount, it becomes easier to imagine what the experience is like for Nigerians within vulnerable groups who do not share the same access privileges as the writer – an added barrier to costs, poor governance perpetuates accessibility issues that the bottom of the pyramid population experience, thereby increasing the number of citizens without an identification.

Mitigating the disparity on the bottom of the pyramid

The fact that many groups at the bottom of the pyramid lack access to critical economic alleviating resources is a well-known challenge. Many international, local and private developmental organizations constantly highlight the issues. The problem, therefore, isn’t a lack of knowledge but one of the solutions that do not serve or protect vulnerable groups. There is an urgent need for engagements between the government, policymakers and critical developmental stakeholders to quickly formulate solutions drawing from their knowledge and experiences serving the bottom of the pyramid. These types of structural challenges in Nigeria can only be mitigated by tangible political will and a deep understanding and appreciation of the challenges of the bottom of the pyramid by identity management staff as well as the government’s commitment to bridging the gaps that propel limited access, socioeconomic oversights and inequitable requirements for marginalised groups. Until all these are sorted, we will only imagine a Nigeria where shared prosperity is the order of the day while ongoing efforts continue to miss critical targets.

National identification means broad inclusion to both private sector services and critical public sector solutions such as healthcare, education, financing and other such programs. We continue to see evidence of how truly marginalised displaced persons are – often being left out of consideration in the planning of processes, systems and interventions designed for the broader population. Where other vulnerable groups have it bad, IDPs have it worse making their reintegration and self-sufficiency more of an uphill task. Creating truly inclusive access to these measures will not only empower Nigerians to hold the government accountable but will also have a bicameral effect of protecting the lives and livelihoods of the marginalised segment of the population, and help build resilience into our fragile economy. At its core, the guided enactment of a people-centred approach that is also innovative will facilitate and ensure access for all. “Leave no man behind” needs to be the mantra of the Nigerian government; citizens’ lives depend on it.

*Bello, an independent editor, lives in Nigeria.

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