Nigeria’s journey to create a cohesive database of its citizens over the years has been a long and sorry history of agony and frustration for Nigerians and bumbling and riches for some public officials.
Yet, after all these years and suffering, it would seem we are far from perfecting a workable system or even creating a reliable database for our citizens.
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In 2016, I registered for the NIMC national identity card at their head office in Abuja. My biometric data was captured and a slip was issued to me. I was enthusiastically informed that once my identity card is ready, I would be notified via a text message.
It is 2021, and like millions of other Nigerians who registered, I am still waiting for that text message. The last time I made enquiries at the NIMC offices about this, an official said, “No one is talking about printing ID cards now.”
Nothing has shown up Nigeria’s muddled approach to planning in recent times more than the chaos generated by the government’s demand that all SIM cards be linked to National Identity Numbers (NIN).
That directive, a knee-jerk reaction to a Daily Trust news report on the prevalence of unregistered SIM cards in circulation, coming smack in the middle of a pandemic was not carefully considered. The rationale, to check the excesses of criminals who murder and feast without being traced, cannot be argued against.
But the initial window given for the linkage, a matter of weeks, meant millions of Nigerians trooped to NIMC offices, risking COVID-19 infections and wasting endless manhours at these offices. Of course, it was not feasible to meet this deadline and so the government had to push it back and has had to push it back several times.
The management of the situation and the data of Nigerians have been far from ideal. Having lost my slip in the period between 2016 when I registered and now, I tried to use the designated phone codes to retrieve my NIN. My data, I was informed by automated text message, was not available. Several attempts to wade through the bedlam at various NIMC offices to retrieve my NIN proved futile. I was asked to go to the bank and make some payments, then return to the office. In the end, an official informed me that since I registered in 2016, a while ago, my data might not have been uploaded on the new system. I was advised to register afresh. While doing this at a registered NIMC vendor, I expected that the system would flag my fingerprint since my biometrics had been captured before. I had hoped that would have brought up my previous registration and NIN. However, neither my BVN, phone number nor fingerprint raised any flag and my data was captured afresh. I was asked to check back in a week for my NIN. Two weeks later, that information was not forthcoming. My contact at NIMC informed me that I had registered at a vendor, even though approved by NIMC, data they capture are treated like the proverbial poor cousins by officials, they are often set aside until the ones captured by the commission’s staff are processed.
Doing anything by the book in this country is excruciating and my experience trying to retrieve this NIN was a sore reminder. In the end, after weeks of back and forth, I had to reluctantly call in favours from a contact at NIMC to help retrieve my NIN and as it turned out, my original data from 2016 was still in the system and a fresh printout was made.
Of course, the first thing I tried to do with this NIN was to link it with my SIM. I followed the prompt on the phone and after a short while the message returned: “Dear Customer, your NIN XXXXXX has failed NIMC verification.”
I laughed. This country will not kill me.
A couple of weeks have passed and I have tried several times. As I write, I am still waiting for the result of my last attempt to link my NIN with my SIMs.
The mismanagement of data has a long history that predates NIMC, which was established in 2007.
Since the idea of a national identity card was conceived in 1977, billions have been wasted by public officials with huge sums disappearing into private pockets and billions worth of equipment allowed to rot in warehouses.
Twenty-five years later, in 2003, the exercise finally commenced with 200, 000 staff of the Directorate of National Civic Registration (DNCR) spread across 60, 000 centres nationwide collecting biometrics data of Nigerians over a period of weeks. At the end of that exercise, some 54 million persons were registered for the national identity card.
I don’t recall exactly how much was budgeted for this specific exercise then and the data is not easily available but I recall at that time the permutations that based on the budget and the population of Nigeria (131 million, and considering the exercise was only meant for Nigerians 18 years and older) at the time, at least one million naira would have been expended to produce a single national ID card.
This was at a time when a dollar traded at N135 on the black market.
In the end, only about 30 million ID cards were issued between 2004 and 2007. The distribution system was as chaotic as anything you had ever seen. People were asked to go into the DNCR offices, squat on the floor and search among the thousands of cards for theirs like people trawling through gwanjo at the flea markets for choice used clothes. I was at home when someone who recognised me said salaam at the door and handed me my card. He had traced me by the address on the card. This card served me until I lost my wallet last year during the lockdown.
Unfortunately, it was a lot of time and money squandered for an exercise that ultimately failed and was scrapped only a few years later.
Since its establishment in 2007, NIMC has been allocated billions to collate and create a centralised biometrics and demographic database of Nigerians. Over a dozen years later, the biometrics of Nigerians are collected at various points, while registering for BVN, SIM cards, driver’s licence and national identity cards. The fact that the National Identity Database Base (NIBD) remains scattered and inaccessible to relevant security agencies having spent billions to generate one is telling. The last national census in 2006, like the others before it, was a very good example of how not to conduct a census.
With another census years overdue and Nigerians like crabs in a bucket struggling for a NIN number that ideally should be issued at birth, and despite billions being frittered away, there are in effect, 200 million untraceable ghosts in the Nigerian system. And that, dear reader, is a thing to inspire worry in a country dancing dangerously on the edge of anarchy.