Nigeria’s Endless Biometrics Projects

Nigerians have continued to be subjected to providing their biometrics at the introduction of any new policy by the government or its agencies. Some of these requests clearly bordered on extortion and provision of ‘jobs for the boys’. Biometrics registration has sometimes generated concerns among members of the public about the time, money and energy wasted in these multiple exercises.

Yet, analysts have argued that biometrics is based on individual characteristics of the subject and is, as such not necessary to be replicated or duplicated for authenticity. Our Editor, ROMMY IMAH takes a look at this unending exercise in Nigeria…..

What actually is the difference between the various biometric registration exercises in Nigeria? Why are there too many initiatives aimed at capturing citizens’ biometrics? Would it tantamount to crime against the nation to have a central database that has the biometric record of Nigerians? Why does Nigeria revel in complexities and confusions?

Experts define biometrics as referring to identifying an individual based on physiological or behavioral attributes including fingerprint, signature etc. That is why in recent times, biometric technologies have been used to analyse human characteristics as an enhanced form of authentication for real-time security processes.

Nigeria’s history is replete with a plethora of biometrics schemes promoted either by the Federal Government or its agencies. From National Identity Card, to Bank Verification Number (BVN), to International Passport procurement, to Voters Card, to Driver’s License, to SIM Card registration, and now National Identification Number (NIN), Nigeria has become a biometrics Supermarket.

However, there are four major official means of identification in Nigeria. Without any of these four means, one may not have access to so many things in the country. Obtaining these documents require similar processes including picture capturing, personal info, and fingerprints. These documents – International Passport, Drivers’ License, Voter’s Card, and the National ID Card (now National Identification Number (NIN) go hand in hand.

It’s no doubt that an effective national identification system is a necessity in any national government for the proper implementation and execution of its governmental policies and duties. Yet, the end seems not to be in sight going by what has become a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s national and economic planning journey. It is this recurring state of things that has made the whole exercise look confusing, vague, ambiguous and even doubtful.

In August 2010, Nigeria’s apex bank, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) introduced the guidelines on Nigeria Uniform Bank Account Number (NUBAN) scheme, which it claimed was meant to achieve uniform customer bank account numbering structure among all Deposit Money Banks in Nigeria, in line with requirements of the West Africa Monetary Institute, towards the economic integration of ECOWAS countries.

Bank customers in Nigeria had to comply with the directive and had to troop out on daily basis to bank branches to get their NUBAN. And in the usual Nigeria way of implementing initiatives and policies in such fire brigade approach, bank customers were subjected to very rigorous processes of obtaining NUBAN.

The BVN’s Uniqueness

Nigerians who had thought that the NUBAN experience was going to be the last were shocked when in February 2014, the Central Bank of Nigeria introduced the Bank Verification Number (BVN) project. The CBN stated then that the BVN exercise was part of the commercial banks’ Know Your Customer initiative.

The apex bank claimed then that the banks’ customers needed BVN as a solution to all banking problems in Nigeria since it was going to ‘be a unique number.’ It will also be used to protect customers’ banking transactions in the country especially, going by increasing incidents of compromise on conventional security systems such as password and PIN.

The CBN listed the benefits of enrolling for a BVN to include a unique identity that can be verified across the Nigerian Banking Industry (not peculiar to one Bank); protect customers bank accounts from unauthorized access; address issues of identity theft, thus reduce exposure to fraud; will enhance the Banking Industry chances of being able to fish out blacklisted customers; and it is accepted as a means of identification across all Nigerian Banks.

Once again, Nigerians in their usual manner keyed in into the BVN directive and were trooping into Nigerian banks in their numbers to make sure they got the ‘all-important’ BVN. Man hours were lost. Frustration reigned supreme in the process. Some went to the bank for days before they could be answered.

With the BVN, a Nigerian at any location, whether onshore, offshore or via the Internet, all an official or privileged individual need do is click on the BVN to get all of the information about its subject to tumble out-  pictures, personal info, fingerprints, addresses, bank accounts, etc.

And indeed, customers physically visited their bank branches and their biometrics, their fingerprints, photos, were taken, in the CBN’s KYC directive to banks.

If this is the reason for doing the BVN, why then subject adults of 18 years and above to other rounds of biometrics registration such as voters card registration, international passport, SIM Card registration, and now NIN-SIM integration?

Sonala Olumhense, writing in the Guardian Newspaper of January 24, 2016, on the topic – ‘Be Very Nervous (BVN), Nigeria Banking Population,’ said that the Nigerian banking system is one of the most corrupt and inefficient, which is how Nigerians found themselves swimming in the sewage in the first place.

“And we managed to achieve that without any structured information about who is banking with whom, and to what extent. Now, all of that information, and about families, neighbours and friends, is available to faceless and untraceable people at the click of a computer mouse,” he wrote.

Mkpe Abang, veteran journalist, publisher and entrepreneur once asked: “With information and communication technology at its best in Nigeria, what is government doing that at each turn, the same sets of people have to gather at one point or the other, wasting valuable and useful time, wasting scarce resources and energies, all in the name of one biometric registration exercise or the other?”


The NIN-SIM Integration

On December 15, 2020, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), acting on the orders of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, issued a statement ordering the suspension of the registration of new SIM cards by all Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in the country while at the same time giving two weeks for persons with SIM cards to link them with the NIN or risk the numbers being suspended.

At a meeting of key stakeholders in the communications industry including the Chief Executive Officers and Management of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and others, the following decisions were taken for immediate implementation by all Network Operators:

  • Affirmation of the earlier directive to totally suspend registration of new SIMs by all operators.
  • Operators to require all their subscribers to provide valid National Identification Number (NIN) to update SIM registration records.
  • The submission of NIN by subscribers to take place within two weeks (December 16, 2020 – December 30, 2020).
  • After the deadline, all SIMs without NINs are to be blocked from the networks.
  • A Ministerial Task Force comprising the Minister and all the CEOs (among others) as members is to monitor compliance by all networks.
  • Violations of this directive will be met by stiff sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating license.

Though this deadline was later extended by five weeks, but it did not come without panic and apprehension among millions of Nigerians who not only questioned the wisdom in such directives but the practicability in such short period of implementation especially in the midst of a ravaging pandemic.

The NIN directive came at a time the global community, including Nigeria, was battling seriously with the COVID-19 pandemic which as at then, had resulted to 92million cases and almost 2million deaths. It was a time the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised that if COVID-19 was spreading in your community, stay safe by taking simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, etc.

Not a few Nigerians questioned the wisdom in introducing such initiative at that critical time in the world; a period the world was at the mercy of a devastating pandemic. It was a period Nigeria lost so many of her citizens no thanks to the pandemic.

Yet, that was the best time the Federal Government through the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami had to enforce NIN-SIM Card linkage. The result was that many Nigerians were subjected to the harrowing experience of being made to compulsorily wait in crowded, endless queues, to capture data to register and obtain the elusive National Identification Number (NIN).

The early stages of the NIN registration exercise were a period of panic for many hapless Nigerians who scampered to meet the first deadlines of January 19 and February 9, 2021, in the face of a ravaging COVID-19 pandemic.

And like Elvis Eromosele, a Lagos-based Corporate Communication professional and public affairs analyst wrote, “Some have asked: Must it be done right now in the midst of a global pandemic whose second wave is proving deadlier than the first?”

Eromosele advised that “The ministry should focus rather on a national database or establish the framework for the harmonization of the existing databases – SIM Registration, Voter Cards, NIN, BVN, Drivers’ License, International Passport.”

Ikeazor Akaraiwe, former 1st Vice-President, Nigerian Bar Association wrote in Thisday Newspaper that “the directive issued by the government would seem to reflect lack of proper coordination amongst governmental agencies, unnecessary duplication of efforts and wastage of limited resources.”


Promises of Harmonisation

In 2015, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) said it had begun collaborating with other federal agencies in the issuance of National Identification Number (NIN) to create a strong national database, according to a report by Business Day.

NIMC immediate past Director-General, Chris Onyemenam in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria, said that the collaboration process was in its advanced stages, with several collaborating agencies being named.

These agencies include Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Pension Commission, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) and Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Onyemenam said then that it was seeking to develop a strong national identity card database that would help security agencies to track and prevent corruption cases, noting that upon completion, the agencies would eliminate cases of double enrolment during registration for national data.

”It is expected that with the planned harmonisation, which will effectively link all federal ministries, departments and agencies (MDA) biometric databases, citizens will not be required to have their biometrics taken every time by these institutions in the near future,” Onyemenam said.

“Also, the MDAs will invariably act as valid agents to the NIMC, collecting their own data as well as providing data required for the issuance of the National Identity Number (NIN) by the NIMC.”

For Victor Odili-Idiagbor, the significant advantages that the existence of an operational central database repository would bring not only to the country but to all citizens, as the central database should provide useful information for planning at national and local levels.

“As expected, the NIMC would lead other government agencies such as ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), and private sector organisations. It is imperative that all the organisations key into this central repository, to create uniform information to be used by all the bodies.

Sometimes in 2015, Nigeria’s Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) said it had begun consolidating its biometric data with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) as part of plans revealed by President Muhammadu Buhari, adding that the harmonisation of the data with the NIMC will ensure a central database for the country, where information can easily be traced.

President Muhammadu Buhari had earlier stated on divergent sources of biometric data tracking each citizen, that a “harmonisation” was needed to lower costs and improve efficiency.

“It will be more cost effective if you work together. It helps even the credibility of the election process, as Nigerians of voting age can be identified easily,” said the president who wondered why each agency would gather its own biometrics, when such data could easily be shared.

Yet again, in September 2017, the Federal Government said it had intensified moves to harmonise the biometric database of Nigerians as part of measures to ensure greater security of the country.

Vanguard quoted the then Acting Secretary to Government of the Federation , SGF, Dr. Habiba Lawal, who disclosed this while inaugurating the Governing Board of  NIMC, headed by former Osun State governor, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, as saying that “The proliferation and duplication of efforts at biometric based identity systems is neither cost effective nor security-smart.

“Aside from being unwieldy, the cost of operating multiple discordant databases and infrastructure is unsustainable. From the ongoing work at the National Identity Management Commission, NIMC, it is hoped that the regime of duplicate biometric databases gives way to harmonisation and unification with the electronic identification system being operated and managed by the commission.”


Failed Promises

It is not only under the administration of President Buhari that the Federal Government had made promises of biometric database harmonization. In fact, in 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan had directed that all ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) should work with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the agency providing biometric database for the country to ensure the establishment of a central database..

There were media reports that nothing was done about the President Jonathan’s directive as several agencies continue to demand biometric data from Nigerians. Now, it is the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) through the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy headed by Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami.

Analysts posit that biometrics is based on individual characteristics of the subject and is, as such not necessary to be replicated or duplicated for authenticity, arguing that there are no two persons with the same set of finger prints, palm prints, or retina in the world.

“Since biometrics is therefore, as individual as the DNA of a person, any pretensions about needing to capture same in a multiplicity of places for security efficiency and effectiveness falls flat on its face. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Nigeria with biometrics data collection becoming one big racket.

“In the last few years, Nigerians had been made to provide their biometrics, some of which clearly bordered on extortion. Several agencies of government including the National Population Commission (NPC), the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and indeed the Nigeria Police had at different times asked Nigerians for their biometric data, and sometimes generating concerns among members of the public about the time, money and energy wasted,” Thisday wrote in its editorial of August 17, 2015.

But the question remains: When will Nigeria put a stop to this seemingly endless biometrics exercises?