Covid-19 as Litmus Test for National Identity Management

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The global outbreak of Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, has posed a serious challenge to Nigeria’s identity management system, following the difficulty experienced by the federal government in distributing palliatives to the poor and vulnerable people of the society during this period of sit-at-home order, writes Emma Okonji

The gradual spread of Coronavirus in Nigeria since its outbreak in the country in February this year has forced the federal government to implement and enforce the sit-at-home order, as one of the measures to stop its spread, which has turned out to become a global disaster that has claimed the lives of many citizens.

Although Nigerian government strongly believed that the sit-at-home order would help to reduce the spread and eventually put an end to it, government had however discovered that the poor masses and the vulnerable people, who are mainly old people may not be able to withstand the sit-at-home order for long, because the poor people among them live and survive on daily petty businesses.

In order to cushion the effect, the federal and state governments came up with the idea to offer palliatives in the form of cash and essential food items to the poor and vulnerable, but this noble idea is posing serious challenge for government because the government has no unique form of identification system that covers the entire 200 million Nigerians, a situation that has made it extremely difficult to achieve 100 per cent distribution of the targeted audience.

Something close to a unique national identity system, is the National Identity Number (NIN) registration, embarked upon by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), but the challenge with NIMC is that it has not been able to capture and registered all Nigerians, since the inception of registration in 2012.

Aside NIMC, Nigeria has pockets of registration channels like the Bank Verification Number (BVN), Telecoms Subscriber Identification Module (SIM), Drivers Licence registration, birth registration, among others, but all of these channels are in silos and do not integrate with one another.

Government therefore needs a unique identification number registration system to achieve complete and accurate identity system for all Nigerians. Today, the Coronavirus pandemic has become a litmus test for identity management in Nigeria, as government battles to identity the real Nigerians that are poor and vulnerable, in terms of equal distribution of palliatives that will cushion the adverse effect of the Coronavirus scourge.

LASRRA as Lagos identity

Recently, the Lagos State Government confirmed that SMS messages received by residents who are 60 years old and above emanated from the Lagos State Residents’ Registration Agency (LASRRA), saying the aged and vulnerable residents will benefit from the stimulus food package unveiled by the state government through the channel.

The State Commissioner for Agriculture, Prince Gbolahan Lawal, made the clarification in Lagos, while explaining that an SMS from the LASRRA was sent to the aged asking them to reply with a “YES”, “FOOD YES” or “SWITCH YES” if their registered home address with the agency remains valid.

Lawal noted that the Ministry of Agriculture, in collaboration with LASRRA, devised the initiative to ensure fairness and evenness in the distribution of the stimulus packages, just as he emphasised that Lagos residents duly registered with LASRRA will access similar social benefits in the future.

He, therefore, urged recipients of the SMS to respond promptly before noon on Tuesday, March 31st 2020, disclosing that responses will be collated and beneficiaries will start to receive stimulus food packages from the state government.

Palliative Distribution in Abuja

In Abuja, the federal government, it was gathered, devised a means of distributing palliatives to the poor and vulnerable people in local government communities, but the method is creating so much challenge because of the large crowd that turned out to receive the palliatives, who do not have valid means of identity. Government is thinking of distributing food items through community leaders, but the identity challenge was still an obstacle to equal distribution of the food items.

Some Nigerians who had earlier called on government to provide financial support to citizens during this period of sit-at-home order, have suggested that the federal and state government should transfer cash to Nigerians through their bank BVN, but the challenge is that not all the 200 million Nigerians have bank account, and could not be identified as such.

General Manager, Operations at NIMC, Mr. Abdulhamid Umar, told THISDAY that the effect of Coronavirus virus has become a litmus test for Nigeria’s identity management system. According to him, although Nigeria has several channels of identity registrations, the NIN registration of NIMC remains the most unique and better form of identity management registration because of its universal coverage.

“NIMC currently has 1,400 enrolment centres nationwide, and has enrolled over 41.5 million Nigerians before the order to close registration, following the outbreak of the Coronavirus.”

Identity database

Speaking on Nigeria’s identity database, Umar said NIMC has a unique identity database that could address the country’s identity management system, since it has the capacity to enrol all Nigerians, because of the current location of NIMC registration centres in over 550 local government areas, out of the total 774 existing local government areas across the country.

With NIMC, Nigeria has a dependable database that it can depend on in tackling identity management system, but NIMC needs the support of the federal government to overcome its challenges such as adequate funding and enhanced welfare package for staff.

According to him, NIMC has the capacity to harmonise the existing databases in the country, but would need adequate funding to achieve it. “If all these are addressed, the issue of identity management to deal with crisis situation like the Coronavirus, will not pose any challenge to government in terms of identifying citizens for equal distribution of palliatives,” Umar said.

Funding Challenge

NIMC had last year, expressed concern that the national identity programme may not succeed unless there is strong political commitment on the part of government backed by adequate funding.

The Director-General of NIMC, Aliyu Aziz, who raised the concern while speaking at the 6th General Assembly of the Northern Traditional Rulers Council (NTRC), which held at the Arewa House, Kaduna, said: “Like any government reform, political will and strong leadership are required to implement the national identity project.”

In his paper titled: Importance of National Identity to Nation Building, Aziz said, “Without strong political leadership and commitment, financial resources and stakeholder collaboration, the national identity programme will not be successful and sustained, despite the success recorded in the past four years.”

He, therefore, called on traditional rulers to show their support and fatherly advice, and find a way around of telling the federal government to pay particular attention to the country’s National Identity Management programme to ensure that it is adequately funded.

Aziz informed the gathering that all modern economic services were done digitally and rely on good identification to promote economic growth and opportunities.

“For Nigeria to enhance governance, help its people rise out of poverty, restore growth and participate in the digital economy, we need a unique digital identification platform that is linked to functional identity registries for accessing services,” the NIMC boss stated.

NIMC’s Mandate on National Identity

The National Identity Management Commission, established by the NIMC Act No. 23 of 2007, mandates NIMC 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 NIMC Act 2007 provides for the establishment of the NIMC, its functions, powers, establishment of the National Identity Database, assignment and use of General Multi-purpose cards, and the National Identification Number (NIN). The Act also provides the commission with powers to make regulations connected with its functions. The NIMC Act 2007 provides 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.