Abdu Malik urges the media to always cross check information at its disposal

Governance doesn’t have to be steeped in confusion nor do actions of political and government functionaries need to be mired in needless complexities buried in inexplicable blind alleys.

A section of the media in Nigeria has been awash, since Monday, July 31, 2020, with reports that the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the institution of government charged with identity management in Nigeria, has been ‘transferred’ to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.

NIMC’s role is a crucial and critical one. Established by the NIMC Act No. 23 of 2007, the commission’s mandate is 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.

Furthermore, the NIMC Act 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 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.

The data security implications of a national identity database must have informed the reason NIMC had been placed directly under the supervision of the Presidency, rather than a ministerial supervision. With increasing worries amid endless data breaches and cybercrime, this informed position was well thought out, and becomes even more prophetic.

This is why reports such as mentioned should be treated with the utmost seriousness, in order to help those in government see where they might have left some things unnoticed.

Sadly, very few, if any of the reports did more than paste the press release issued by the spokesperson to the minister in charge of that ministry, by the name of Uwa Suleiman. Even sadder: none of the reports – at least up to the last seen by this analyst – did as much as mention where NIMC was being ‘transferred’ from. That is to say, those who published thus, still owe the readers explanation as to where NIMC was or is, that it is being ‘transferred’ to the ministry.

Yet, the saddest aspects of those reports, which expose how the media in Nigeria – the avowed Fourth Estate of the Realm – are abandoning their important and inalienable responsibilities of checks and balances for the government, are in the questions the media left unasked before publishing, which, if asked, would have helped to bring out the salient yet missing ingredients in the reports, which must be presented to give a full report.

The statement by the minister’s spokesperson alluded that the presidency has approved the said transfer, without quoting any memo to that effect. President Muhammed Buhari, has two spokesmen: Messrs Femi Adesina, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, and Shehu Garba, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity. If the president, as has become the ‘new norm’ from at least the last two or three presidents in Nigeria, wishes to make a pronouncement, it is either of these two spokespersons that issues statements. Then, any writer may attribute it to being from the Presidency.

None of the reports so far has bothered to ask either gentleman to confirm the said transfer. The media are doing the public grave injustice. In fact, the Fourth Estate is shirking its responsibility of asking questions to fill the gaps where government spokespersons have not covered all the grounds. The minister’s spokesperson who issued the statement never claimed that she was speaking on behalf of the President!

Besides, there is indeed the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, which will normally issue memos to the effect of such transfer. None of the reports has reached out to the OSGF to validate the said transfer. It is not the duty of the public to go to these areas to confirm stories, but that of the media; and it would seem plausible to conclude that the media is turning its back on this key role – in this report.

Assuming that the government through any of its functionaries, had taken an action in a hurry – good as the action may be – it is the duty of the media to ask the appropriate questions before rushing to publish what may turn out to be an embarrassment to the government on the process of moving one agency from one supervising area to another.

There is also the germane question of the legal instrument of NIMC. The commission was established by the Act 23 of 2007, hence it went through the thorough process of parliamentary law-making leading to its eventual establishment.

None of the reports did any work of tracing where the act currently places NIMC. Were any of those reports to have done this – all of the above which should take no more than a few phone calls and digging up from the internet – the entire process would have been so clear as to the appropriateness or otherwise of the statement issued by the minister’s spokesperson.

While it is absolutely the role and responsibility of the president to reshuffle even his/her cabinet of ministers by moving them around, so it is same with moving agencies from one location to another. In fact, in this country, we have had experiences of merges of ministers and later, splitting up of such ministries – by presidents.

President Oluegun Obasanjo (during whose tenure incidentally NIMC was established) met the Ministry of Communication and the Ministry of Information. He merged them to be called Ministry of Information and Communication. When he served out his two tenures, the ministry was soon split back to their former status; and, only recently that of Communication added Digital Economy to its nomenclature. The same way, Obasanjo merged Works and House with Power. Both have since been divorced and reclaimed their former positions.

Dynamism is the game of governance; just as change is the only constant. So, if indeed the president had ‘transferred’ NIMC from one supervisor to another, and an announcement was made in what could be described as a yet-to-be-tidied up process, it is the job of the media, which received the press release to help or question whoever issued such a statement, to toe the right step – of producing a presidential memo, either from the presidency or from the secretary to the government, validating the action. This will be one way of helping to tidy up things for government to present and uphold the fine art of governance.

The other way would be to question the legal process that had not been taken: has the act that established NIMC been amended to validate the transfer? It is well known that a president or governor or even a court of competent jurisdiction can make a pronouncement freeing someone being held in prison custody. The prison authorities will never release such a person until the documents to that effect are presented. Did someone say ‘a most recent case is that of Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of Abia State?

President Buhari means well for Nigeria. He is also historically a military gentleman. He became military head of state at President Shehu Shagari ouster on December 31, 1983; and so, he might still be having a bit of the hang-over of military commands which at times could be verbal; and, where even when written, could be issued with despatch, because the army wants immediate action. But in a normal democratic setting, as we have it today, due process must be followed. It is the media’s place to ask: has due process been followed?

Movement of any agency at all, from the president to any ministry, surely requires very serious thinking. In this case of NIMC, the Legislature, which passed the Bill that became an Act in 2007, needs to play a role, in discussing whether or not such a move is to the best interest of the government and the people ultimately; and subsequently to amend the aspects of the law that places NIMC in the Presidency.

For instance, questions could be asked: what is wrong with NIMC being where it is currently, in the Presidency under the supervision of the Office of the Government of the Federation? If there is a need to transfer it to a ministry, has there been enough consultation to determine to which ministry such a transfer should be done? Could it be better in a ministry like that of Interior? Could it be placed under the supervision of the National Security Adviser, given the security implications of identity management and the identity database? Where, for instance, is the National Population Commission? Where is the Independent National Electoral Commission? Are they under any ministry?

These are some of the questions the media should have raised; rather than merely pasting a press statement issued by a ministerial spokesperson, who obviously was merely doing the job she is charged to do.

Malik wrote from Abuja