Identity Collection in Nigeria: To Be or Not To Be?

The National Identity Number (NIN) project is being reawakened to aid in the development of building Nigeria’s digital economy and has set a five-year biometric enrollment target for the National ID system. This is yet another attempt to collate, centralize and store Nigerians’ identification. Over the years, different institutions, Public and Private, have succeeded in collecting the data that is now required for the digital economy: biometric data used to issue a BVN (Bank Verification Number), international passport, driving license, voters’ card to mention a few.  One could say providing this information is seemingly voluntary because of the beneficial services associated with them.

 However, the Nigerian Communication Commission’s (NCC) new order to suspend mobile numbers of people without a National Identity Number (NIN) has caused an outcry amongst Nigerians. Some believe the timing was insensitive as it was during the beginning of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic while others thought the subtle threat of blocking phones infringed on their human rights.

With a population of over 200 million people, Nigeria has an estimated 198 million active mobile lines and as of May 2020, only 41.5 million of this number have registered for identity cards, and that’s not up to a quarter of the country’s population.  Apart from the fact that there are no incentives for the registration for NIN, the issue of trust cannot be underplayed. And I will share some thoughts around that.

There exists anxiety about fraudulent abuse and misuse of data. Recall in 2006 when the census population count was estimated at 140 million, there was alleged malpractice that suggested the results could not be fully trusted. “Nigeria’s problematic relationship with data is best captured by its decades-long politicization of census numbers” according to Quartz Africa and The Guardian.

By using biometric and national identity numbers, citizens are entrusting the government to protect their data and to ensure that their personal information remains secure at all costs. By choosing to block all numbers without a registered NIN, the Nigerian government has denied the people of their choice whether or not to give up their data neither have they demonstrated the benefits to the 41.5 million-odd citizens whose data they have collected.

There also seems to be an absence of regulators in this field. “Up until January 2019, Nigeria did not have any dedicated general legislation on data privacy and protection” (Olumide Babalola, 2020) There is no specific statute regulating Data Privacy and protection except for the NITDA Nigeria Data Protection Regulations (NDPR) of 2019 which specifically addresses Data Privacy and Protection in Nigeria.  This is a regulation and not a statute, however, some believe that NITDA is not empowered by law within the ambit of Section 6 of the NITDA Act to make such a regulation.

I guess what I am mauling over is if the Government begins to provide services and incentives to those Nigerians with a NIN it may spur others to obtain theirs, and they simply won’t need to be this autocratic about it.

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