A COUNTRY OF UNDOCUMENTED CITIZENS
Did I hear someone ask? Which useless country is that? Well, it is with great shame and despair that I announce that Nigeria is one of those countries that are inhabited by undocumented citizens.
Yes, Nigeria is a country of undocumented citizens. This starts from birth. Recently the Nigeria Population Commission which is the government agency responsible for registering birth, announced that their budget has been cut for the last six years, as such, they cannot perform their functions including registering births. A nation that does not register its births cannot provide for its people. Period!
Let’s look at law enforcement. Based on conversations with friends with knowledge of the workings of the Nigerian Police, I was informed that the Nigeria Police identifies individuals that have been through the criminal justice system in Nigeria by putting a bullet hole in their ankle. Nigeria Police shoots suspects in the leg, so if they ever get released and get rearrested the arresting police officer pulls up their trousers to check if they have the ankle mark. This is the Nigeria Police in 2010, a clear ten years after the turn of the century!
When I hear all these so called economic experts and government officials throw around numbers, such as economic growth of 5, 10 or 12%. I ask myself whose economy they are measuring. Is it the economy that has effectively shut out close to 75% of the Nigerian population? Let all these economic experts and government officials show the raw data where all these number are derived, then everyone will know that they are all made up. Even foreign information sources like the CIA Factbook, also use these bogus numbers. For instance, unemployment rate in Nigeria in 2009 was reported at 4.9%, but with a caveat that the data is based on 2007 estimates and the statistics contain only the percentage of the labor force that is without jobs, and recognizing that substantial underemployment might be noted, but not reported. Everybody living in Nigeria or has visited Nigeria recently will know that these numbers do not in any way reflect the reality in Nigeria. It is more like 4.9% employment rate!
This is information that is central to national development, but it becomes very difficult to generate this information, because we live in a country of undocumented citizens. If a citizen is documented, government knows of the citizen’s existence. However, in Nigeria, government does not even know how many people are in the system. With a documented citizenry, statistical information needed by government for socio-economic planning can easily be generated.
The financial industry in Nigeria has really borne the brunt of this malaise. Interest rates are high in Nigeria, because it is too risky to provide consumer or business loan to an individual without a secure personal identifier that the bank can use to confirm the person’s identity and/or an informed insight into the person’s credit history. Believe me, if Nigerians become documented in their own country and each Nigerian, regardless of tribe and tongue, has a unique personal identifier, such as social security number in the US and national health insurance number in the UK, it would mark the beginning of good things in our dear country. It will become easier for Nigerians to transact business, because both parties can independently verify each other’s identity. Police will also not need to expend scarce bullets by shooting suspects in the ankle for future identification, all they need to do is take the suspect’s biometrics and match it to the suspect’s unique personal identifier for future reference.
I have intentionally left out the National ID Program in this article, because I literally broke down when I started reading about how much waste the program has been. On a recent trip to Nigeria, I met a fellow Nigerian on the airplane, who showed me his National ID, but the guy also told me that he could not necessary prove his identity with it, because there is no database to cross-check the information on the card. My personal opinion is that the program was doomed to fail from the beginning, it is currently a failure and Nigeria should cut its losses and scrap the program. As difficult as that decision may be when you consider the colossal amount of money already spent, I believe we should try a less politically controversial move.
I am not one to talk about problems without solutions, so in that spirit, I am proposing this alternative arrangement. The Nigerian Passport (the travel document) is today the most secure and reliable personal identification document in Nigeria, and I will like to point out that this did not happen because the Nigerian government took the initiative, but because of the international community’s concerns about terrorism, money laundering and other international crimes. The old, non-machine readable Nigerian passport was not going to be valid for international travel, and this was going to directly affect the Nigeria elites and their families, as they would not be able to travel abroad to go on shopping sprees. And so, the Nigerian government was essentially forced to introduce the machine-readable passports, and the latest introduction of the new Nigerian (ECOWAS) passport, with full digital data collection and sharing capabilities, is a step along that line.
Based on the above, using the Nigerian Passport Number as a unique personal identifier provides the best short-term fix to this problem of undocumented Nigerians. Government should start by opening passport offices in each of the over 700 local governments in Nigeria. However, I want to warn that prospective job applicants for these new positions should not have their lives endangered during the interview process, as was the case of deaths, resulting from excessive physical activities reported during an earlier interview process conducted by the Nigeria Immigration Services (NIS) – NIS issues Nigerian Passports. Moreover, these new jobs are desk jobs for individuals processing Passport Information Number applications.
There is also the need for the executive and legislation to work on a Personal Information Act. The law should require that a Passport Information Number (PIN) be established for every Nigerian. This number is basically the passport number that currently appears on the new ECOWAS passport. This program does not in anyway, require every Nigerian to have an international passport. Individuals who do not require or are exempted from possessing a valid travel document will be issued a Passport Information Card. The Card will have just the holder’s name and the Passport Information Number. The card will not carry pictures because it is not a photo ID card.
To achieve this objective, a five-year program that will be jointly funded by all tiers of government has to be instituted as a matter of urgent national priority. The first is to require every Nigerian above the age of 16 to obtain a Passport Information Number (PIN) issued by NIS. The PIN will then be utilized in issuing either a Passport Information Card (PIC) or the new ECOWAS Passport. The applicant’s biometric and demographic information is collected and stored electronically. If the program is started now, it would have captured close to 5 million Nigerians, most of them living abroad, by the end of 2010. This is because the new ECOWAS passport will be only valid form of travel document issued by the Nigerian government from 2011. This is potentially 2.5 billion Naira in revenue for the NIS at the current official rate of 5,100 Naira required to procure the new ECOWAS passport.
The program should also incorporate anti-corruption elements into its activities. This should however, be a two-pronged approach of incentives and punishment. The incentives should include above average salaries, around 50,000 Naira monthly minimum salaries for NIS employees. It should also include a system of reward for NIS employees who have exceeded expectations in the performance of their duties, and lots of attitude adjustment trainings that will continually remind them of their responsibilities, examples of corrupt practices and the consequences of such crimes. The punitive element should include effective enforcement of Passport fraud laws. The intelligence unit of the NIS, which I never knew existed, until recently when I had to procure the new ECOWAS passport, should be saddled with the responsibility of investigating and making recommendations for prosecuting people suspected of contravening the passport laws. The unit is currently more involved in anti-human trafficking activities, but with expected boost in recruitment, the unit should be able to expand its responsibilities to include enforcing passport laws. The current IT infrastructure that supports the issuance of the ECOWAS passport makes it easier to catch passport fraudsters.
The law should wind down the current National ID card project and pass it assets to NIS. A lot of the assets from the National ID Card project can be deployed to issuing Passport Information Cards (PIC) for individuals who do not require or are exempted from holding the ECOWAS passport. The PIC should be issued free. However, NIS can put in place fees for added services, like replacements and renewals.
The program should be funded jointly by the Federal, State and Local Governments. Based on some analysis, the program will require an investment of 2.5 billion Naira annually for the next five years from the Federal Government, 1.5 billion Naira annually (joint contribution from all state governments, based on number of applicants from each state) for the same period from State Governments, and 500 million Naira annually jointly contributed by Local Governments. This investment of 21.5 billion Naira will quickly act as an economic stimulus. It will create at least 38,000 jobs at NIS (50 employees per local government), and additional jobs that will be created by vendors supporting NIS operations.
For any country to grow economically, access to reliable economic data is front and centre. If the Nigerian government implements this program, we would have achieved the greatest social engineering feat in the history of modern Nigeria. We would have succeeded in pointing the ship of state firmly on course to achieve the much talked about Vision 2020.