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National identity: Lest we get confused

National identity: Lest we get confused
September 08
13:20 2020

BY DENNIS ONWUEGBU

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From the blues came the news last July that the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) is to relocate from its present place of domicile which is in the Presidency (under the direct supervision of the Secretary to Government of the Federation – SGF), and is now under the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.

Unfortunately, this announcement which was made by the media adviser to the minister of communication and digital economy found apple mention in the media without any form of interrogation.

As a way of enriching our discourse on national development, and steering the ship of nationhood in the right direction, there are pertinent questions the purported relocation of NIMC announcement did not answer, and these are critical questions that need prompt attention, if we must avoid making a mess of the journey of building a veritable national identity programme.

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The NIMC was established by NIMC Act No. 23 of 2007 and has the mandate to establish, own, operate, maintain and manage the National Identity Database in Nigeria, register persons covered by the Act, assign a Unique National Identification Number (NIN) and issue General Multi-Purpose Cards (GMPC) to those who are citizens of Nigeria as well as others legally residing within the country.

The Act also provides the Commission with powers to make regulations connected with its functions. And as a way of avoiding any form of complications that may arise from the past botched attempts, the NIMC Act went ahead to provide for the repeal of the law that created the former Department of National Civic Registration (DNCR) and the transfer of its assets and liabilities to the NIMC.

Since the National Identity Management is established by an Act of Parliament it is only appropriate and proper to have the National Assembly amend the Act, define its new location under any ministry or agency of the state. This is important because Act 23 of 2007 situated the NIMC in the Presidency.

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Equally of importance is the reality that in the current global dispensation, national identity has moved from cards to digital platform in an age of intense mobility. Any amendment to NIMC Act 2007 will reflect this new trend and repeal the old order which makes it mandatory for NIMC to issue every citizen a multi-purpose plastic card.

If therefore the above are true going by the existing content of the NIMC Act No. 23 of 2007, why was this recent announcement of relocating NIMC not made either by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation under whose office NIMC is located or any of the two Presidential spokes persons?

Or, is this a case of making a public pronouncement on a matter of such enormous national importance before engaging the parliament for the necessary amendments? Certainly, we cannot place the cart before the horse otherwise we will only be making room for confusion.

These issues raised above are quite important and need clarifications if we must put at rest the minds of Nigerians who are old enough to know since we began this tortuous journey. This pain is only tolerable when we understand that building a reliable national identity database is germane to the proper development of the country.

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Most Nigerian adults can count the number of times they have defiled all odds to engage in this civic responsibility and to be registered as citizens of Nigeria. This sporadic move to relocate the NIMC can only further exasperate those patriotic Nigerians who have been on this intractable exercise.

While it must be clearly established that building national identity has not been an easy task for any country however, it requires immense political will power, speed and enormous resources.

The times are fast changing. With Moore’s law, artificial intelligence (AI) and other disruptive technologies, the processes for identity enrolment have become more affordable and accessible with little effort. In the recent past, to conduct an enrolment required a physical location with an agent, a digital camera with specific background, a desktop computer, 4-4-2 fingerprint scanner, a printer, source of power and an internet connection, to conduct an enrolment exercise.

However, that has been altered by technology. Now, the same result can be achieved using an app on any smartphone and enrolment can be executed within a fraction of the cost and time of the old method, with the same or mostly higher data quality.

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Why has Nigeria tarried this long on the road of providing a suitable national identity system? Three critical issues have constrained speedy delivery of the national identity project aside the basic funding issues.

The first and perhaps most critical of these elements is the political nature. The unpredictable risk that has befallen the national identity programme is that created by the changes in political leadership. Each new administration seeks to alter the social order, and it is immaterial whether such change is necessary or relevant to national ethos.

And automatically, these changes disrupt the execution of time-bound deliverables. With 2023 staring the nation in the face, the best gift that the Buhari government can give this nation would be to focus on speedy implementation of the national identity project and ensure that NIMC delivers substantially on this assignment, at least one year before the next election.

The second factor is also one that has been discussed in different forum. It centres on the value attached to the national identity. Presently, the national identity enrolment has a tinge of compulsion for the citizens and it is one which says without the National Identity Number (NIN) you cannot get services from some state agencies. Brilliant as this may appear, there are about a half of the Nigerian population that are outside this dragnet because majority of the citizens have no business with these agencies that insist on the national identity. This approach must change and in its place a more aggressive social net with the appropriate rhetoric that will bring in all Nigerians to the platform. It is this absent social net that is hindering government tax coverage and revenue.

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The third factor is the one that involves the reason for this article. Government in its bid to maintain a reasonable silo chose to domicile NIMC under the presidency as against the ministry of interior. The data harmonisation committees and the new digital identity committee are for the same reason.

Moving the NIMC away from the direct purview of the Presidency will be returning to the old order that the country has done away with through the NIMC Act of 2007. Government will do best to appreciate the challenges facing the incumbent process, provide it with every required support before a new administration in 2023.

Considering the efficiency with which the Bank Verification Number (BVN) was executed, many people have been tempted to condemn the NIMC project. The truth is that these are two different programmes and the BVN was mandatory for every person with a bank account. Furthermore, the BVN exercise was massively funded and still being funded.

The other option to speedy execution of the national identity and considering the continued paucity in government fund will be the Private Partnership. If suitability and speed are important elements to the successful completion of the national identity exercise, then the NIMC and Office of the Secretary of Government of the Federation will have to engage the private sector to achieve this mandate.

Dennis Onwuegbu is an information management expert, writer and gender equity activist based in Nigeria

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