#GoodID lessons: Why Nigeria needs more than the NIN
t least 48 countries in Africa have national identity programs at several stages of development. The widespread effort to ensure that people can identify themselves stems partly from the low civil registration rates in many African countries, where millions of births and deaths often go unrecorded. Currently, four out of 10 people in Africa lack access to identification. Without appropriate birth registration for instance, people are susceptible to difficulties and exclusion in key activities such as school enrolment, obtaining citizenship, government social services and access to financial services. Target 16.9 of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – "By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration" – seems to have cemented the critical importance of identity to human development at the highest international level.
International development agencies such as the World Bank and the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement) have backed the efforts of many African countries in the implementation of these ID systems, mainly through funding and technical advice. The World Bank has supported at least 60 identity projects in developing countries and has produced ample technical advice on how best identification systems are to be implemented in local contexts. However, a cursory observation of the implementation of national ID systems in some countries suggests that such advice is sometimes ignored. For instance, in September 2021, Renaper, Argentina’s national ID system, was reportedly breached by hackers who accessed the records of millions of people. Identification data of Argentinians was put on sale on the dark web, suggesting the absence of data protection safeguards like tokenization. This February in Nigeria, a prolonged breakdown of the server that powers the country’s national ID system highlighted the practical difficulties that arise when a country mandates a single source of identity and ignores the need to provide trusted alternatives.
Nigeria’s national ID system
Given its population of over 200 million, Nigeria’s national identification program is arguably the largest in Africa. It was launched in May 2007 after the passing of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Act. As of January 2022, the NIMC, the nation’s identity administrator, had enrolled 72.7 million Nigerians. Enrolment for the national ID involves the capturing of personal data and biometrics in over 7000 centres across Nigeria’s 36 states, after which the National Identity Number (NIN), a unique 11-digit identifier, is conferred. The World Bank, a major funder of Nigeria’s national ID project, has provided updated advice that the mandatory use of the NIN should be abrogated through amendment of section 27 of the NIMC Act, which gave it its legal mandate. Since January 2019, a NIN is required to access key services such as obtaining a SIM card, driver’s license or permanent voter’s card; opening a bank account; participating in the National Health Insurance Scheme; tax payments; pension payments; social transfer programmes; transactions with social security implications, and land transactions. This model fits well into the idea of a national ID being the "the single source of truth" about the citizens of a country. But what happens when that single source of truth becomes inaccessible? Nigerians recently found out.
For more than 10 days this February, the NIN verification platform (hosted by the government’s ICT service provider) experienced a downtime, leaving citizens unable to access critical services listed above. Service providers first had to have their NINs verified by the NIMC – a function the technical glitch did not permit. A workaround using the virtual NIN (vNIN) also presented difficulties, which caused delays and infuriated both service providers and customers.
The outage illustrates why Nigeria should not be reliant on a single national identity provider. Besides the abovementioned updated advice of the World Bank, it is an internationally recognised #GoodID design principle that in the provision of identity, people should be afforded choices. Governments should never mandate a "single source of truth", but rather provide a set of trusted identity providers for people to choose from. This has been the standard in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
"Governments should never mandate a 'single source of truth', but rather provide a set of trusted identity providers for people to choose from."
I previously worked in a civil society organisation that advocates for digital rights such as the provision of choice and agency in IDs. Having been labelled one of the "busy bodies" for fighting for western "utopian" ideals, I suppose the recent 10 days in Nigeria has led me to realise that these ideals are not utopian afterall. Indeed, those who were denied critical services during NIMC server outage may have endured significant difficulty, including financial losses. It also resulted in serious economic consequences for telecommunications service providers who lost millions in revenue.
Why did Nigeria make the NIN mandatory?
The decision to mandate the NIN as the defacto national identity stemmed from Nigeria’s experience with its previous identity ecosystem. Previously, at least 13 IDs were used in the country, thus entrenching duplication and waste. Nevertheless, moving from 13 options to 1 compulsory system could be seen as a knee-jerk reaction that foists exclusion when problems arise with the singly mandated identity. We must also consider the developing country contexts of most African countries and their challenges with technology infrastructure. It is unlikely that the NIMC platform blackout will be the last we see. Moreover, in today’s world of cybersecurity risks and attacks, the necessity for technological resilience dictates that there are alternatives when a particular technology system is down.
Another argument often advanced against removing the mandatory use of the NIN is that Nigerians will not enrol if it was not made compulsory, and so government’s enrolment targets would be unreachable. This argument falls flat on its face because 15 years after the creation of the NIN, only 72.7 million people out of a population of over 200 million have enrolled. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the majority of those enrolled are individuals who already possess trusted identities. The majority of those who really need the benefits of identity – rural dwellers and the marginalised poor – have probably not been reached, and it may take some form of social grant intervention to do so.
So, here is a #GoodID suggestion for Nigeria: What if, in keeping with best international practices, the NIN forms part of a trusted 5-ID ecosystem which gives people agency and choice, and NIN enrolment is aggressively taken to the areas where it is needed the most, while government also actively invests in civil registration? Then, when (not if), the next infrastructure downtime occurs, citizens and business will have alternatives and would be spared from the consequences of digital exclusion.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.
(Main image: Applicants queue to obtain national identity numbers at the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) office, in the Lagos state capital of Ikeja, on 30 December 2020. - PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)