Nigeria's ID (Cards) and Ego: II

Feb 09, 2017|Ebehi Iyoha

This article is Part II of a series. Read Part I here

Nigeria's Golden Eaglets had 26 players removed last year, a day before they were to play a qualifying match for the Africa U-17 Cup of Nations. The reason? MRI scans suggested that the players were overage. Such accusations are not new; in this country, "football age" – the euphemism for age falsification – extends far beyond the football field. From job applicants circumventing age restrictions to public officials delaying retirement, in the absence of a national identification (ID) system, many Nigerians have chosen to misrepresent their age at some point in time. 

Although ID cards are the most visible aspect of an identity management system, the real value lies in the supporting database. The purpose of the National Identity Database (NIDB) is to assign each Nigerian a unique National Identity Number (NIN) that can be used for verification purposes throughout her lifetime. In an ideal system, children are assigned numbers at birth, and their records are updated as they become adults and begin to access public or financial services. When people die, their numbers go with them, and when people get married, their names change, but their numbers do not. 


Ushering in a New Age

While it is easy to see how a functional NIDB would curb the age falsification problem in the country, it is not immediately apparent that this is desirable. After all, the Golden Eaglets have bullied their way to a record haul of five FIFA U-17 World Cup victories. Sometimes, cheats win.

As for job applicants, who can blame them? Between admission delays, disruptive strikes, and a lengthy wait for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) call up, many entry-level job seekers are within touching distance of thirty when they first enter the labour market. As firms state maximum age restrictions, age-cheating may be considered a way of levelling the playing field. 

From this perspective, the NIDB will just spoil the party. 

However, these are situations where rational individual actions impose large external costs on society. One obvious one is reputational. These days, every Golden Eaglets victory is tainted by the suspicion of age-cheating. Beyond that, this practice may damage the performance of the senior team. One reason proffered for the Super Eagles' frequent failures is that many "young" players tend to burn out quickly. At the same time, the growth of new talents is stunted as their slots are taken by their age-cheating colleagues. 

The labour market has not been left unscathed. A peculiar ecosystem has emerged from the chaos: a booming market for fake birth certificates and 'sworn affidavits' that makes the country's official documents almost worthless internationally. Finally, the presence of overage public officials bloats the civil service, creating a domino effect in an already competitive job market. These are problems that will be solved through the NIDB. 


Financial Possibilities 

Age verification is only one advantage of effective identity management. In 2014, the World Bank launched the Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative in recognition of the role that proper identity management systems could play in development. Social programs such as cash transfers and vaccination drives could be better administered and audited, and financial services may become more accessible to underserved populations. 

For Nigerians in particular, mature consumer credit markets would be a useful by-product of the NIDB. Parents often need credit (loans) at the beginning and end of school terms when children are not allowed to start school or take exams unless fees are paid in full. In emergencies, families sometimes risk financial ruin or loss of their loved ones due to unexpected hospital bills. Even when loans are available, interest rates are often exorbitant because lenders do not have sufficient information to discern good borrowers from bad, and need a way to recoup their money if debtors default.

A functioning ID system can mitigate this problem by facilitating the creation of credit histories: people with a history of paying back their loans will have access to lower interest rates – a more efficient case of separating equilibrium. South Africa, whose identity management system is far more cohesive, also has one of the most developed credit markets in Sub-Saharan Africa. If the NIDB were to facilitate a similar phenomenon in Nigeria, it could have a ripple effect on the real estate market and reduce the incidence of 'ghost estates' – housing developments that remain unoccupied because people cannot afford them.  


Limits of Use and Misuse

That said, a tool is only as good as its users, and many of the benefits of the NIDB are contingent of the workings of other institutions. For example, a biometric database of all Nigerians is only useful for combating crime if the police force is equipped to carry out forensic investigation. Another example is the ghost-worker problem which may not be solved but instead, evolve into another pernicious problem of identity theft. In the US for instance, about 10 percent of children's Social Security Numbers have been used fraudulently. It is not hard to imagine that NINs could also be used in the same way, considering that children already appear on padded payrolls.

Institutional inefficiency is not the only problem we need to be concerned with. There is also the possibility that the government may use the data in oppressive or unpopular ways. For example, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has tried to use the Bank Verification Number (BVN) to enforce limits on Nigerians' ability to purchase foreign currencies. Another more worrying scenario is that information on state and local government area of origin contained in the database could be used for targeted and widespread ethnic discrimination. Given the near-permanence of fingerprints and other biometric markers, it would be difficult for potential victims to avoid detection. 

Similar concerns stir debate over biometric databases in developed countries. For example, the UK created such a database in 2006 and then destroyed it four years later because citizens were worried that the government could use the information against them. 

The crux of the matter is that Nigeria lacks comprehensive data and privacy protection laws. Other than the guidelines published by the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and a single section of the Constitution, Nigerians do not have clear avenues to seek legal redress if their data is mishandled. This should be a priority for the National Assembly, whether or not the potential of the NIDB becomes fully realised.

This article is Part II of a series. Read Part I here


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