By Gbenga Odegbami
Identity management is important and cannot be overemphasized. It is so strategic that almost all the past government administrations in Nigeria since 1976 have considered it a critical space for development.
Recently, the Presidency, via the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF), inaugurated a Steering Committee for the Nigeria Digital Identity, to develop the Ecosystem Project to ensure that issues of identity management stay at the forefront and ensure that the government achieves its objectives.
Considering that my company, Youverify, is a key player in the Nigerian identity management ecosystem, some stakeholders have repeatedly sought my opinion on developments in this industry. Here are my thoughts on how Nigeria arrived at where we are presently, lessons learned from history and steps to achieve the nation’s identity management objectives.
So far, we have spent some much, with little results
The World Bank has estimates that Nigeria is on the track to spend about $4.3b on identification and addressing programmes. This figure seems realistic when you consider the fact that Nigeria spends an average of over $500m on each voter registration cycle before an election.
To ensure that the thrust of this article is not missed, I will refrain from focusing on the two major factors that affect every public initiative in Nigeria; the first being corruption (the bogeyman of all problems in Nigeria, according to popular perception), while the second is lack of continuity after the change of regime.
So let’s examine the issues that really count.
Citizens’ identity management is beyond the BVN
A review of the Biometric Verification Number (BVN) exercise conducted within 18 months less that the time frame prescribed by the Banker’s Committee (lead by the CBN) agreed to shows it was successful a successful initiative. However, some stakeholders believe that it is focused only on the financially included, thus, excluding more than 60% of the population.
For this reason, the BVN cannot be used for voter registration or economic intervention in Nigeria i.e. National Social Register (NSR).
Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the gains from adopting the BVN, especially within the Fintech space and the resultant economic value and security we enjoy today. I believe that if we galvanize the identity system to cover for almost all Nigerians, the economic impact will be widespread.
NIMC Has its Challenges
As human in a democratic society, we are quick to blame the government agencies for failed systems without really considering the requirements and realities of operating such systems in our polity. Perhaps you are among those who applied for the National ID 4 years ago and have not received it. Statistically, transformational projects such as a National ID scheme have an average of 30% success rate of meeting their objectives across the globe. Nigeria is not an exception. I have analysed four factors, from my perspective, responsible for the failure of the National ID scheme.
1. Value to Citizens
The bottom line is ID compliance is largely driven by the perceived value to citizens. For many years, we have repeatedly failed to emphasize this point, and people only wilfully submit to an identification process when they appreciate the benefit or need for them. For instance, the success attributable to the adoption of the Permanent Voters Card is largely due to the desire of people to vote during elections. Even still, INEC has registered just above 80m Nigerians in 2 years. For the BVN, you cannot partake in the financial ecosystem without one, therefore you must enrol to participate.
The success of all National identification efforts in other countries is because the citizens are required to use it to access social intervention/ insurance/retirement packages and to file personal income taxes.
In Nigeria, this never existed until the creation of the National Social Investment Office (NSIO) (now Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs). However, this ministry is focused on the vulnerable and poor for now and it therefore excludes some section of the populace. I believe we don’t have enrolment problem but a value one.
Like all non-revenue generating agencies, NIMC struggles with obtaining timely funding to achieving its stated objectives. We perpetually run a budget deficit, and the focus seems to be on capital-intensive infrastructure project for the real sector, while other projects, like citizen identification, are neglected and pushed to compete with other the projects designed to provide basic services like food, jobs etc.
The balance is grossly uneven and agencies like NIMC are forced to halt or delay in delivering on their objectives.
I doubt if NIMC has gotten $200m combined from inception and they have enrolled more than 40m Nigerians, which is significantly productive based on the data from other climes. As important as NIMC’s mandate is, it has struggled to get the funding it required because we have so many competing priorities.
3. Silos in Government
Although we have had presidential committee(s) to ensure harmonization of identity management efforts, often such committees stymie the effort on the long run. This issue is not unique to Nigeria. Government agencies led by political appointees and career civil servants naturally protect their empire or try to increase it. Considering that political powers and organizational influence are at play here, the silos in Nigeria can be as complex as it gets.
Even though NIMC operates an open-door policy with other agencies, it takes more than open-door policy to tango in government even with direct presidential oversight.
4. Technology appropriateness
The technology deployed for identity biometrics has evolved significantly over the years, making this the process more accessible, efficient and affordable. NIMC ought to stay updated with developments in technology. Considerable time is required to identify the technology and complete the procurement process, which is be hampered by government bureaucracies.
I will illustrate this malaise When the project commenced execution, there were cheaper alternatives in the market. For instance, the NIMC smart card was ahead of the game and probably the most forward-thinking ID approach. Today, the tech space has moved on to digital identity apps on smartphones and blockchain-based platforms.
In the same vein, not too long ago, you needed: a physical location with an agent, a digital camera with specific background, a desktop computer, 4-4-2 fingerprint scanner, a printer, electrical power and internet connection, to conduct an enrolment exercise. Presently, these processes can be replaced with an app on a smartphone and executed at the fraction of the cost and with the same or higher data quality.
Comparison with the BVN Exercise
Let us consider the challenges listed for NIMC ID-ing in comparison to the BVN project:
- The value proposition and narrative for the BVN exercise were easy and simple for all citizens to understand. Furthermore, the use and access of bank accounts was tied to the BVN thus making it mandatory.
- The BVN was well funded from commencement and it is still funded through a sustainable model that doesn’t require government grants.
- It does not have to deal with government silos because executed within financial industry where government plays a regulatory function mostly.
- The timeline between planning and execution was very short so technological changes in the landscape did not affect the execution of the project.
The INEC registration exercise enjoyed similar circumstances with the BVN.
Speaking objectively, the OSGF and NIMC comprise of erudite individuals with relevant experience, who have consistently tried to address these factors within the legal and procedural frameworks available to them.
Suggestions on the way forward
Based on the existing roadmap, NIMC secured funding approval from the World Bank, as part of Africa ID4D, to accelerate enrolment and create the infrastructure to achieve becoming the foundational IDs for all other programs. The cost is pegged at $4-7 per person. For NIN to be a viable foundational ID, enrolment must be done for at least 51% of the population.
Considering that our population is forecasted to grow exponentially to 450m people by 2050, NIMC needs more funds to successfully deliver on its mandate. Based on World Bank estimates, it should cost between $400m – $700m to complete. Assuming funding issues are resolved, we have 3 more factors to consider.
The first and arguably most unpredictable factor is the risk associated with change of power, post-election. Every new administration seeks to change the social order, whether or not such change is necessary or relevant. This disrupts the execution of time bound deliverables. I recommend that shorter time frames be implemented to ensure NIMC closes the project at least 10 months before the next election.
The second factor is creating a value-rhetoric among the citizens. The existing approach is to basically forces people to use NIN by making the certain agencies to require it before rendering services. While this is a brilliant approach by NIMC, we will probably not capture 50% of Nigerians this way because the majority of the citizenry do not interact with these agencies requiring the national ID. We need a more aggressive and all-encompassing social net and rhetoric for all Nigerians to help prepare Nigerians for the realities of Nigeria post-identification, and to accelerate universal ID enrolment. In addition, social net helps government agencies at levels increase tax coverage and compliance, thereby increasing revenue.
The third factor is the influence of government silos. The bid to solve this problem was the reason NIMC has been domiciled under the presidency, and not the ministry of interior. That was why we have had data harmonization committees and the reason the president has formed the new digital identity committee. Our best bet is to understand their challenges, support the incumbent process and hopes we make sizable progress before a new administration comes in 2023.
Is a Private Sector Partnership the Answer?
Stated plainly, yes! The final factor and most crucial factor in expediting this exercise is understanding technology appropriateness and responding to the changes by implementing suitable and relevant technology to ID citizens.
It is not hidden that suitability and speed are extremely important to the success completion of this exercise, thus the best approach is to leverage on the private sector.
INEC used an overwhelming amount of its funding and private sector ingenuity to achieve their enrolment numbers. CBN and Bankers’ committee used the technological advancements and financial industry structure and efficiency to make BVN compliance a success.
NIMC and OSGF need to engage with the private sector to work towards achieving the mandate. Presently, there is a thriving, robust and internationally-recognized identity industry that can mitigate against the issues faced in our ID projects.
For example, the traditional industry watchers typically focus on fingerprint standards and operational environment required for enrolment, i.e. electrical power, physical space, training etc. Today’s leading identity players do not need a computer, physical space, electrical power at the location, or a dedicated device for fingerprinting to achieve the desired quality. Moore’s law, artificial intelligence (AI) and other disruptive technologies have ensured processes like identity enrolment keep improving and getting more affordable and accessible to all with little effort. Locally, we have indigenous platforms like Youverify that enjoy a reputation for having tested experience in executing efficient and fast ID processes, using the best and most current available technology.
The present technology employed in the identification industry results in a reduction in the need for space, internet connectivity and power across the nation. These will also create new opportunities for self-enrolment and enable anyone with a smartphone to become an enrolment agent. That’s millions of jobs in the offing!
If we are worried about the possibilities of impersonation, AI will help solve that concern. AI has created so many possibilities in the imaging space that can help uniquely identify millions of people. The best part is that the chances for human errors are largely minimized.
Technology will also foster global usability especially now that the government is pushing for e-services as an aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nigeria does have a huge talent base, a ready ecosystem, data privacy framework and digital economy focus to drive this pending transformation. The big question is, are we willing to align our ID structures to these new realities?
If we are willing, NIN can drive a new national digital economy in the same manner BVN drove a digital revolution in the banking space.
The question is: when?
Dr. Gbenga Odegbami is a co-founder and the CEO at Youverify Inc. Youverify is a Lagos-based digital identity firm that facilitates the automation due diligence and compliance by using data-driven initiatives and related-technology.