NIMC’s Funding Dilemma

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Minister of Communications, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami

Business/E-BUSINESS

The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) has reached a critical level of its operation where external funding is inevitable, but it appears the federal government is either unwilling to fund NIMC’s operation or does not understand the importance of national identity system, writes Emma Okonji

Recent statement by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, through his official twitter handle, @DrisaPantami, is a clear indication that the federal government is not interested in funding NIMC at a time that the commission needed funding the most. According to the minister, “My strategic mission for NIMC is to ensure the commission is self-reliant and generates the money it needs for smooth operation without having to depend on the federal government for budgetary allocation.”

The statement has rather divided many stakeholders who are asking questions about the possibility of NIMC to be self-reliant. How?, they asked, while wondering if the minister wants NIMC to introduce operational charges for its services or commercialise its only product, which is the critical national identity data.

NIMC was set up by the federal government, with the mandates to operate and regulate matters of national identity in Nigeria with services covering National Identification Number (NIN) enrolment and issuance, National e-ID card issuance, identity verification as well as data harmonisation and authentication.

Since inception, NIMC has been struggling to fund itself, even though part of its mandates is to ensure free enrolment exercise, free issuance of NIN slips and free issuance of electronic plastic cards as national identity.

At first NIMC was under the direct supervision of the presidency, yet it was not getting the necessary financial support from its direct supervisor, a situation that slowed down NIMC’s operations in all its branches nationwide.

Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari, however, approved the transfer of NIMC to the direct supervision of the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, which Pantami oversees. Although the transfer came as a surprise to many industry stakeholders, some were however hoping that NIMC may get better attention in relation to funding, when being directly supervised by Pantami, but his recent comment in his official twitter handle that he expected NIMC to be self-reliant, shattered their hopes.

From August 2014, when the then President Jonathan Goodluck launched the National ID card scheme, NIMC enrolled and issued the plastic national identity cards free of charge up until 2015 when it eventually stopped issuance of National Identity ID cards for lack of funds to sustain it and it immediately resorted to only the issuance of NIN slips after enrolment. However, after 2015, those who desperately needed the plastic national identity card were asked to pay for the processing fees, which cost between N1,500 and N2,500. That was the point at which NIMC ‘s body language proved to Nigerians that it actually lacked the necessary funding to service Nigerians well, yet the government did not consider the funding of NIMC necessary and the commission continued in its financially deplorable state, that eventually slowed down NIN enrolment processes across NIMC’s branches nationwide.

Reactions

Industry stakeholders have continued to react to last week’s tweet by Pantami, when he commented that he expected NIMC to be self-reliant and should be able to generate the money it needed for a smooth operation without having to depend on the federal government for budgetary allocation.

Stakeholders have been raising questions as to how the strategic mission of the minister, in relation to funding could be achieved when in the first place, NIMC does not charge for services rendered and does not have operators under it that could pay Annual Operating Levy (AOL) to NIMC. The question they are asking the minister is whether his strategic mission for NIMC in terms of self-reliance is achievable. Of all the agencies currently under the supervision of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, such as NIMC, Galaxy Backbone, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NigComSat), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and Nigerian Postal Services (NIPOST), only NCC and NITDA could be said to be self-reliant, reason being that NCC collects AOL from telecoms operators, while NITDA gets certain percentage of remittances from all registered Information Technology (IT) companies annually. Aside those two agencies, no other agencies under the direct supervision of the minister, gets steady income from operators or industry players, including NIMC, yet government wants NIMC to perform magic and be self-reliant to serve Nigerians better.

President, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers (NATCOM), Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, is of the view that government must fund NIMC adequately, if government wants NIMC to perform creditably. “NIMC is a federal government agency, and should be well funded by the federal government, except government wants NIMC to rely on foreign donors, which may spell doom for the nation. Such foreign donors would have vested interest in our national identity data, especially when they are releasing funds for the project, which is supposed to be a national project that is devoid of any foreign interests,” Ogunbanjo said.

Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, has warned that the federal government must thread with caution in the area of funding of NIMC, in order not to compromise national security. According to him, “I do not know how NIMC, as an agency of government that has no commercial product to sell, will be able to become self-reliant and be able to sustain itself without budgetary allocation from the federal government. What I know is that all over the world, NIN registration and national Identity project are the sole responsibility of government.

“Based on this, government should be careful not to commercialise the identity management system of the country. NIMC should not be allowed to exchange reliable and critical data of Nigerians with foreign partners in the name of sponsorships since government wants NIMC to be self-reliant and the only product that NIMC has is identity data. Citizens data are critical just as national security and data all over the world, is like gold and raw material to companies who know the value of data.”

Adebayo further said, “Citizens’ data can attract very high commercial value and NIMC should be guided not to fall into the temptation of exchanging identity data because it wants to be self-reliant, to the extent of generating its funds that will make it less dependent on government. Technology companies and advertisers all over the world are looking for data and will be ready to release money to get data, which is the only product of NIMC at the moment.”

Agitations

Last month, precisely January 6, NIMC workers’ union called for strike action and asked all its members to down tool, in protest of poor welfare package and for lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) to work with that will prevent them COVID-19 infection, while attending to Nigerians during registration NIN registration process. NIMC workers embarked on a nationwide strike, in demand for a better welfare package. The staff shut down operations and suspended enrolment of NIN in all their branch offices nationwide.

The NIMC unit of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), directed members to embark on the strike, after its congress.

In a communique released at the end of the congress and signed by the Union’s Secretary, Mr. Victor Odia, and representative of ASCSN NIMC unit, Mr. Michael Asekokhai, the workers said the strike action became necessary to address issues of poor welfare package, lack of tools and risk of exposure to coronavirus during enrolment.

“The meeting was convened to discuss the state of the exposure of staff members to COVID-19, the salary structure, its representation in the annual appropriation, the irregularities in the conduct of promotions, and the personal protection and safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” part of the communique read.

The workers also demanded for a review of the ‘lopsided and irregular’ promotion done in 2017 and 2020, implementation of the approved salary structure and its appropriation in the 2021 annual budget as well as adequate provision of work tools for civic data enrollment.

They were also demanding for the provision of adequate monthly operational stipends, work tools necessary for the process of enrolment of civic data. The work tools also include power and connectivity (airtime and data connectivity), enrolment systems and peripherals, stationeries and consumables such as NIN slips, enrolment forms, and A4 papers.

The union asked all NIMC staff to suspend all enrolment activities with immediate effect pending when their demands were met.

Intervention and Promise

Disturbed by the strike action, the minister quickly met with the union and promised t9 meet their demands and asked them or return to work.

NIMC, in a statement shortly after the minister met the union, said “NIMC wishes to assure members of the general public that glitches experienced in the enrolment process were being resolved and normal enrolment would resume shortly. We apologies for any inconvenience caused and wish to assure you of our continued excellent service.”

The workers, however, gave the minister two weeks to meet their demands and warned that after two weeks, they would resume the strike action, if their demand were not met.

Three weeks down the line, the minister is giving a different signal, indicating that government is not prepared to fund NIMC, which Pantami said, should be self-reliant without depending on government for any budgetary allocation.

Funding

Nigerians, including NIMC staff members have expressed their concerns over the adequate funding of NIMC operations. They are of the view that NIMC must be properly funded in order to offer the best of national identity management services to Nigerians.

The Director General of NIMC, Mr. Aliyu Aziz, who also recognised the need for adequate funding, had in 2019, during the 6th General Assembly of the Northern Traditional Rulers Council (NTRC), which held at the Arewa House, Kaduna, had stressed that national identity management required the political will of government and adequate funding to succeed. According to Aziz, Nigeria’s national identity programme will not succeed unless there is strong political commitment on the part of government backed by adequate funding. “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,” the director general was of the view that without strong political leadership and commitment, financial resources and stakeholder collaboration, the national identity programme would not be successful and sustained.

He, therefore, called on the traditional rulers for support and give their fatherly advice, while informing 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,” he stated.

While explaining the importance of national identity to Nigeria’s existence and growth, he said: “There is a strong correlation between inclusive identification and nation building and this is central in effective delivery of important services to the people.”

According to him, a robust digital identity for Nigeria would lead to access to finance, gender equality and empowerment, access to basic health and educational services as well as child protection. Other benefits include migration and labour market opportunities, reduction in the cost of governance, better government service delivery and improvement in the enforcement of law and order thereby leading to improved security.

While bemoaning some of the challenges NIMC was facing in executing the national identity project to include poor funding, inadequate mobilisation, among others, Aziz appealed to the royal fathers to help with awareness and mobilisation as well as assisting their subjects with source documents to enable them enroll for NIN.

He reminded them of some of the government or social services for which the NIN must be presented and verified, to include application and issuance of passport, opening of bank accounts, purchase of insurance policies, all land related transactions, payment of taxes, admission into schools, voter registration, pension transactions and all relevant government services.

Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, who spoke to THISDAY about funding, called on the federal government to fund NIMC and also do well to meet its demands for better work conditions and adequate working tools.

Adebayo called on government to honour the request of NIMC staff as stated by the workers’ union. According to him, the need to honour the demands of the workers was necessary in order to keep the workers in their duty posts and avoid another strike action.

He said if federal government should handle the issues raised by the workers with levity and allow them to resume the strike action as threatened by the workers, it would likely truncate the on-going NIN enrolment exercise, which he said, would cause a great setback in telecoms development and erode its achievements in the past years.

“The earlier government resolves the issue, the better for the country. Any strike action will certainly slow down the wheel of progress at NIMC and it will definitely impact negatively NIN enrolment in the country,” Adebayo said.

Pantami had, last December, directed NCC to enforce the implementation of the integration of all registered SIM cards to NIN, and gave a window of two weeks to complete the exercise, which was later extended by six weeks to end January 19, 2021, for those, who have already registered for NIN, and February 19, 2021 for those who were yet to register for NIN.

Pantami warned that subscribers, who failed to integrate their SIM cards with their NIN, would risk outright disconnection of their SIM cards.

The fear of being disconnected, compelled Nigerians to throng the offices of NIMC nationwide, to enroll and obtain their NIN. Worried about the crowd, which became difficult to manage, NIMC staff demanded better welfare package, and additional work tools to manage the situation, but the inability of government to meet their demands, led to the strike.

Although the workers have since called off the strike and returned to work, the issues are yet unresolved, following the recent comment by the minister, stating that NIMC should be self-reliant and be able to generate adequate money to fund its operations, without depending on the federal government for budgetary allocation. The minister’s statement has, however, elicited reactions from among stakeholders, who are worried as to how NIMC could suddenly become self-reliant, when it has no commercial product to sell outside of national identity data management.