Editor's Note: This article was written by Adeboye Adegoke, director of the digital rights program at the Paradigm Initiative in Nigeria. It is part of our series on digital identification systems, developed in collaboration with The Engine Room. Check the microsite on digital identification to read a full research report about this global trend, and case studies in five countries that have implemented digital identification systems, including Nigeria.
Is it possible that Nigeria's digital identification system is really beneficial for citizens? Or is it another initiative that will only benefit “people with access”?
Probably, this question is being asked by many young people in Nigeria, who at the beginning of February learned that they should not present the digital identification number to enroll in the next university exams, which meant a great relief for many.
On January 11, 2020, the Joint Admissions and Enrollment Committee of Nigeria announced that it would cancel the relatively new requirement, despite having established it in October 2019.
To an external observer this may seem an innocuous change of policy, however, this reversal was an uncomfortable recognition of the defects of the digital identification system throughout the country, which tries to make the complex network of identification information systems more efficient that belong to different financial and public entities.
My organization, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, has followed the development of the system and worked for legislators to formulate comprehensive data protection and privacy laws in Nigeria, before continuing to collect citizen data as part of the digital identification system.
How should the system work?
The National Identification Management Commission intends that national identification numbers be a mandatory requirement for passport applications, voter registration, opening bank accounts and paying taxes, along with all types of transactions, from credits to consumption and health insurance and social security, even those related to land ownership and pensions. This includes a lot of information.
Naturally, the challenges of the system affect public policies. The initiative collects a wide variety of new personal data – including the ten fingerprints – that are not protected, or even contemplated, in Nigerian legislation. The system also faces more practical difficulties related to the registration process. Although the system was conceived in 2014, only 19% of Nigerians have registered to obtain the national identification number. In order to reach the entire population, the Director General of the Commission has said that it would be necessary to establish an additional 9000 registration centers, which add up to the one thousand centers currently in operation.
So far, on many occasions, it has been proven that the system has further complicated these processes and, in some cases, has discouraged citizen participation.
Challenges for students, travelers and Nigerians with disabilities
Students who tried to register to obtain the national identification number before the exams said the process was vitiated by extortion, bribery and other corrupt practices. A group of students published a statement stating that the process subjected the students to excessive stress.
Winifred Mark, mother of a student who wanted to enroll, said he attended three different registration centers in Lagos. In each one, the officials demanded bribes of between 5,000 and 7,000 Naira (between approximately 12 and 20 US dollars). According to the law, the registration to obtain the national identification number must be free.
The research conducted by The Engine Room highlights the number of registration centers that are not accessible to people with physical disabilities. Several people with physical disabilities described their attempts to register as humiliating.
While we were conducting our own investigation into the digital identification system, the Nigerian Immigration Service established the requirement that to apply for a passport it is necessary to present the national identification number. In August 2019, when a colleague needed to renew her international passport, she flew from Lagos to Abuja and went directly to the immigration headquarters, where her renewal application was rejected because she did not have the national identification number. Then, he immediately went to the office of the National Identification Management Commission in order to obtain the national identification number, but, upon arrival, he was told that the forms had been finished and that he would have to return another day.
In this case I personally intervened on his behalf, since I had recently met a senior Commission official, as part of my work. The official helped us and my colleague obtained the national identification number that same day.
Who really benefits?
Many will argue that they should at least be happy to have access to people with some power. However, this is precisely the problem. If essential services in Nigeria are only available to people who “have access”, what should the rest of the population do?
This problem has always existed in Nigeria, and the authorities have never invested enough efforts to solve it. The Government tries to apply policies that it claims as beneficial for the “people”, when, in reality, it is another initiative that will benefit only “those with access.”
At least two officials of the National Identification Management Commission told me, anonymously, that the financial resources received by the Commission are insufficient and that, therefore, it does not have the necessary budget allocation to fulfill its mandate. However, this is not the only obstacle to its success. There are some institutional problems that not even money can solve. A legitimate concern among citizens is that the digital identification system in Nigeria will not serve the interests of the population and is not reliable. Citizens who were discriminated against, humiliated and extorted when they tried to register realize this.
This does not mean that digital identification systems are intrinsically useless. Safe identification methods could become a key element in the design of economic and social policies and could even help the Government to improve the way to address poverty reduction, education, health and governance.
However, to establish a system that truly meets these needs and respects the rights of citizens, political authorities must begin by considering individual and collective privacy, security and inclusion, in addition to the other issues mentioned above.
Who owns the Nigerian data?
Our organization requested the suspension of the obligation to present the national identification number to access essential services, given the current difficulties of registration and the lack of a comprehensive data protection law in Nigeria, which guarantees the rights of citizens to their data, before an institution such as the National Identification Management Commission can demand its collection.
We are not the only ones who raise this issue. In a Twitter exchange in 2017, the user Tọ̀míwá Ilọ̀rí questioned to the National Identification Management Commission on its claim that it “owns” the data of Nigerian citizens. In its twitter biography, The agency maintained that its mandate was “to establish, possess, manage, maintain and administer the national identification database in Nigeria.” This statement cannot be based on its constitutive law.
“They are not the owners of Nigerian data,” Ilọ̀rí wrote on Twitter.
This excludes every Nigerians ’right to own their personal information, especially those given to you. Kindly check your bio as appropriate
– Tọ̀míwá Ilọ̀rí (@tomiwa_ilori) May 16, 2017
The ownership of private information entrusted to the Commission is social infrastructure in its care to keep it. You are not the OWNERS.
This excludes the right of every Nigerian to be the owner of your personal information, especially of the data provided to you. Please correct the biography accordingly.
These types of complaints are only a symptom of a bigger problem: the lack of a data protection law and the recognition of the right to data privacy in Nigeria. The digital identification ecosystem must respect the rights of individuals and communities, and should have prioritized the enactment of a data protection law as a prerequisite for its application.
Without an adequate privacy or data protection law, how can we protect ourselves from some of the biggest risks that such a system could expose us to? And the authorities have not even mentioned the dangers of state surveillance or the possible exploitation of data by private companies. These and other risks seem to be only civil society concerns.
In a joint report of the Paradigm Initiative and Privacy International entitled “The right to privacy in Nigeria,” worrying surveillance activities in Nigeria are identified, including government surveillance of cell phone activity in Abuja, the country's capital.
The development initiatives of the United Nations and the World Bank set the goal of providing access to a legal identity to all people in the world before 2030. The question we must ask ourselves is whether the legal identity should be done as a digital identification , especially in developing countries like Nigeria, where these processes are often poorly managed and where citizens have little confidence in public bodies.
For many citizens in rural Nigeria, the use of digital identification systems to access essential services may represent their first interaction with digital technologies. At present, some people run the risk of being denied essential services for their existence for reasons that completely exceed them. Before, citizens accessed different services, including banking, immigration, education, suffrage and property ownership, without a digital identification.
Should a digital identification be required for each of these services in the digital age?
Real reflection is needed on the application of digital identification in Nigeria. Failing that, digital identification will soon be required to access basic needs, but only those “with access” will be able to fully utilize the system.