Identity in Crises

Identity is an essential component of any national infrastructure, and we belabour Nigerians with a plethora of disparate biometric identity systems that are yet gain universal acceptance by the citizenry. Partially because these different identity systems are functional identity systems permissioning government services like voting, international travel, driving and non-government (and regulated) services like banking and mobile telephony utilisation. According to EFInA data, the voters’ identity database with about 70 million entries is the most adopted. Despite the high tele density levels attributed to mobile telephony adoption, the subscriber identification module (SIM) registration is fraught with data veracity reports.These independent systems are siloed, working independently within their respective ecosystems, there is also a lack of cohesion across systems.

The unifier foundational national identity system operated by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) is the de facto identity system also known as the national identity number (NIN) is yet to gain mainstream adoption, further increasing the identity poverty of Nigerians and limiting their access to governmental and non-governmental services. Likewise, supply side costs of acquiring the data, especially in non-urban locations lacking infrastructure, are delimiting.

Government services are mandated to harmonise the disparate identity systems by linking the different functional identity systems with the national identity system. To the best of my knowledge, the passport application linkage is in effect while the driver’s license link is yet to begin. With the regulated agencies, the financial services bank verification number (BVN) system links NIN harmonisation, but less than one third of the identities in both databases have been linked, precisely 15 million as last reported by NIMC. By design, the BVN system makes provision for NIN generation, even though the BVN-generated NINs are subject to validation with banking customers having to complete the identity registration at a NIMC enrolment centre.

The time constrained harmonisation of the SIM data announced on December 15, 2020 has sparked a surge in national identity registrations. This pronouncement triggered a tsunami of activities for the mobile network operators (MNOs) and their 207.58 million active SIM registrations when compared to the 43 million NIN enrolments. The enrolment of no less than 60 million active mobile subscribers in less than 3 weeks is a Herculean task. Where the penalty for non-compliance includes the impending threat of license revocations and loss of income for the operators, the implications for mobile subscribers includes loss of economic and social connectivity, a clear and present danger for a micro businesses whose mobile telephones are invaluable.

The MNOs immediately developed portals to link existing customer NINs to SIM registration data. Second, for the lion's share of subscribers without NINs, MNO registration as national enrolment agents. Collectively, the MNOs have submitted 43 million NINs for NIMC verification. Likewise, telecom subscribers lacking NINs besieged enrolment centres for the coveted NINs, increasing NIN registrations by 2 million.

Unwittingly, the Nigerian government has triggered a dependency factor that enforces NIN enrolment and also increasing their enrolment capacity. In one move, the Government has killed two birds with one stone and this piece will not be complete without the challenges. The sheer scale and effort required in the short time frame resulted in timeline revisions that are still a tall order. Since the December 20 announcement, we have captured about 2 million additional identities.

Despite the questionable timing (amidst a COVID-19 pandemic), the desirability of mobile telephony has overpowered the government’s quest is to aggregate diverse datasets, burdening Nigerians and enrolment staff. However, the extent of the data verification is a mystery and the ensuing implications for data inconsistencies. For example, for SIMs registered by proxy, which NIN is valid - that of the phone user or that of the SIM registrant? Alternatively, with lost SIMs, reallocated numbers, misplaced NIN registration slips, and so on. Scary still is the recent development of packaged deals where pre-linked SIMs are available for sale, another clear and present danger.

Well, the jury is out as this intrigue keeps evolving…

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