When Kano Pillars shared pictures of their new player, homeboy Ahmed Musa, 28, at the training ground flanked by 25-year-old defender Abdullahi Musa, many accused the latter of being older than he claims.
They arguably had fair reasons to doubt as accusations like this are not new. In fact, age falsification in football is so commonplace in Nigeria that it has earned its own moniker: “football age.”
In 2016, ahead of a qualifier match for the Africa U-17 Cup of Nations, 26 players from Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets team were disqualified after they failed MRI scans, suggesting that they were overage.
Far beyond the football field, falsifying age is rampant among job applicants, politicians, and even academics as was the case of Peter Okebukola, a former boss of the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) who used three birth dates interchangeably during his career.
This misrepresentation of biodata has been aided largely by the absence of a national identification system. To address this malaise, former President Jonathan Goodluck launched the new Nigerian national ID card in 2014. The launch followed an existing National Identity Database (NIDB) exercise which began in 2007.
To integrate the two policies, the federal government released an updated policy that required citizens and legal residents to integrate their biometrics-backed national identification number (NIN) with their Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards.
Network providers were thus required to create a Device Management System (DMS) with records of International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI), a 15-digit device identifier, to check the use of stolen mobile phones.
Aside from development planning and spurring financial inclusion, the process to link SIMs to NINs, federal officials have reiterated, is to ensure the safety and security of all citizens and legal residents, while also ensuring they all have a unique digital identity.
With financing support of $115 million from the World Bank and an additional $315 million expected from the European Investment Bank and the French Agency, the national ID database targets 148 million enrolments by July 2024.
Sections 27 and 29 of the NIMC Act 2007 provides for the mandatory use of NIN for transactions, including application and issuance of a passport, the opening of personal bank accounts, purchase of insurance policies, voter registration, obtaining credit, among others.
Usage of certain social infrastructure without the number attracts a fine, or an imprisonment of up to 14 years or both.
But marred by extortion and disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the exercise has captured about 54 million people with the new deadline for obtaining the number now June 30. After that deadline, SIM cards not linked to NIN risk being deactivated, authorities said.
The NIDB will take Nigeria into the league of countries like Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Zambia with mandatory biometric SIM registration laws.
In fact, over 60 countries have adopted the digital identity exercise and are on course to have a national eID scheme.
While the integration of the NIN and SIM was going on, the government ordered mobile operators to suspend the sale, registration and activation of new SIM cards as part of its audit of the country’s subscriber registration database.
“We are cracking down on multiple SIM registrations and fraudulent sales carried out by corrupt vendors to facilitate fraud and other dubious activities,” the Nigerian communications commission said in December.
Being a huge industry that raked in ₦1.96 trillion in revenues from 184 million active GSM lines in 2019 — an average of ₦5.3 billion daily – the suspension unsettled telecom companies and was met with heavy pushback.
Now with 204 million active phone subscribers, experts believe the losses at the time might have been more.
Although unverified, the Arewa Telecom Operators Agents and SIMCard Dealers Association (ATOASDA), estimated that 2 million young people were affected by the suspension.
Business owners were frustrated by their inability to acquire new SIMs or even expand their services. Some existing SIMs users were also barred from using certain services.
While the government insisted its decision was made out of good faith, some Nigerians on twitter believed it was not well thought out.
According to NCC, Telcos lost 11.8 million subscribers in four months. We need to review this freeze on number portability and new SIM registration, because we simply can’t afford to stall our major growth pole.
— Akin Oyebode (@AO1379) March 30, 2021
The ban on sim registration and retrieval has frustrated my business over and over. My phone was stolen along with my sim, at the point of retrieval, I was told I can't retrieve the number because I the passport photograph was not…
— The Ethical Guy (@kehindeomotoso_) April 14, 2021
@DrIsaPantami should please in the name of God allow us to sell our SIM cards it is our source of income. We are starving. We cannot go into stealing to feed ourselves and our loved ones. In the name of God, he should consider lifting the ban on SIM card registration.
— Babuje ND (@Blessed_Pikin) April 4, 2021
By mid-April, the Nigerian government would buckle under pressure by lifting the ban, raising questions of what the ban had achieved.
What we stand to gain
For one, an efficient national identity system will facilitate the creation of credit histories. That way, businesses and individuals will be able to get loans on the merit of the history of their credit discipline.
For instance, South Africa, whose identity management system is far more cohesive, has one of the most developed credit markets in Sub-Saharan Africa. So achieving a similar cohesive national register can lead Nigeria in the same direction and enhance the government’s social intervention efforts.
Experts also said the exercise can serve as a de facto identity and give access to communication and connections within cyberspace which will help track who is doing what and where.
Also, as stated in an April 2019 report by McKinsey and company, a global management consulting firm, countries implementing digital ID can create economic value equivalent to three to six per cent of GDP by 2030.
Apart from this, national identity can boost digital finance thereby increasing financial inclusion, which currently stands at 63.2 per cent in Nigeria.
Likewise, a biometric database of all Nigerians has been touted not only as potent in combating crime, especially for intelligence gathering and forensic investigation, but also to help check the menace of ghost-workers as well as identity theft.
But amidst these potentials, there are obvious fears too.
Save the guidelines published by the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and a single section of the country’s constitution, Nigerians do not get clear legal protection against data abuse.
Therefore, with its record of clamping down on dissent, people fear the Nigerian government may misuse their data. This fear is not far-fetched, given how the CBN froze the accounts of #EndSARS protesters in contravention of a court order.
Likewise, there are also fears that the rights to privacy, freedom of association and freedom of expression could be infringed.
This is particularly fueled by the instrument of the Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations, 2019 which allows law enforcement agencies to tap into people’s communication during surveillance.
Allaying the fears
Analysts said countries that have succeeded in their National eID scheme did two things very well: they implemented a service approach to win citizen’s acceptance; and they explain, express, and demonstrate a strong political will to change.
What this means is that the optics around the exercise have to encourage trust. In the case of Nigeria, the credibility of the exercise has not shown exactly that.
Countries like Austria, Portugal and Germany have succeeded in playing the “citizen card,” where the national identity scheme was promoted as a project of the citizens and for the citizens, to win acceptance.
Worried by their perception of the communications minister, Isa Pantami, who is being haunted by his own past controversial comments, (some of which he said he had denounced), Nigerians have raised questions about the safety of their data.
Calls for his resignation went viral on social media but did not move President Muhammadu Buhari. Mr Pantami himself said the calls were politically motivated.
“This issue that we are talking about, based on our preliminary investigation, many people are not happy with what we have been doing – linking National Identification Number with SIM,” the minister said.
“Because a situation will come that all the people using SIM to commit crime will not be able to do that. If they do that, the government will be able to intercept them easily. This is what they don’t want to happen.”
In truth, concerns over the use of biometric databases have stirred debates even in the developed countries.
In 2011, when U.K. citizens expressed fear that the government could use the information in a register of four years against them, the country had to destroy the database.
The Mexican government also repealed the mandatory SIM card registration and its Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (“IFAI”) was required to destroy all personal data of Mexicans contained in the registry.
So, if anything, the National Assembly may have to give Nigerians legal protection against abuse.
The cobweb of distrust around the national register, therefore, needs to be untangled for an efficient process to be achieved.
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