Africa’s economy is growing increasingly digital, and the pandemic already promises to bring long-lasting changes. Access to widespread digital identity is a key component of digital change. And the ability to identify a person has ripple effects on sectors like health, banking, and education.
For the past 13 years, Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country — has struggled to have a central database, with data either non-existent or little and far between. At least that’s the impression that dealing with any government agency will leave you with.
However, Titi Akinsami, a digital economy and policy expert, begs to differ. She insists that even without a driver’s licence, a passport, or voter’s card, data exists, albeit scattered across different places and often unaccounted for.
“One way or another, you must have been captured by the government,” she says. “It’s either in your schools, your local governments, or your health centres.”
When the government needed to distribute palliatives at the heart of the pandemic, the lack of a central database was a clear stumbling block. Despite the issues behind the quest for digital identity, Nigeria’s Ministry of Communications and the Digital Economy decided to take drastic action.
On December 15, 2020, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) ordered all mobile subscribers to link their National Identification Number (NIN) to their Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards. People without NINs were to quickly register or risk being blocked by December 30, 2021.
At the time of this order, there were 207 million mobile subscribers, and 47 million registered NINs. This seemingly sudden move was the outcome of months of ministerial orders and regulatory directives.
The warning signs
When Dr Isa Pantami assumed office as the Minister of Communications, he championed the Ministry’s renaming to the Ministry of Communications and the Digital Economy. He set targets for the NCC and the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) among other agencies under its supervision.
In response, the NCC blocked 2.2 million SIM cards, with the help of telecom companies, and deactivated improperly registered SIMs.
The NCC ordering millions of MTN subscribers to redo their SIM registrationsin September 2019 should have been a major warning sign.
Due to poor service, high call and data charges, and less than decent network coverage, the average Nigerian has at least three SIM cards from various network providers. Others also patronise ISPs and sometimes have separate SIMs for calls and Internet access.
According to the NCC, the average Nigerian subscriber has at least 3 to 4 SIMs registered. Being one such average Nigerian, it’s disheartening to observe that quality Internet remains a dream in most parts of Nigeria despite having several options.
The NCC planned to regularise data from subscribers holding multiple SIMs to provide a clear picture of Nigeria’s unique mobile subscribers. However, nothing much has come of this, as Nigerians would later learn.
In February 2020, the Minister set a December 30, 2020 deadline for subscribers to link their SIM cards with their NIN; he also stated that they could not hold more than three SIMs going forward. My colleague, Oluwanifemi Kolawole, explained that meeting the new requirements would be challenging given Nigeria’s peculiar circumstances.
The country struggled economically as the pandemic hit hard in March 2020. A lockdown was initiated, hundreds of people died, thousands were hospitalised, and nothing much was said of the NIN-SIM linkage in light of the rampaging pandemic.
On August 31, 2020, the Presidency approved the transfer of the Nigerian Identity Management Commission (NIMC), previously a standalone agency, to the Ministry of Communications and the Digital Economy.
A central citizens’ database comes with several benefits that can help the Nigerian government improve healthcare, security, welfare policies, and education.
This data is also important to innovators, entrepreneurs, and for research and development.
The Bank Verification Number (BVN), launched in 2014, has been the focal point for most financial innovation in recent years. A case in point is this hackathon where a team of developers worked to use soundwaves for last-mile payments.
Know Your Customer (KYC) and identity verification have long been a tough nut to crack for companies and governments. At the time of launch, the BVN seemed like a duplication of effort, considering that the NIN, which the government kickstarted in 2007, would serve the same purpose.
Adedeji Olowe, Trium Networks CEO, believes that if the NIN exercise is successful, it could replace the BVN as a critical piece for financial innovation.
The ICT ministry has all but confirmed that the NIN would replace the BVN, insisting that while the former is backed by law, the latter is merely a banking policy.
The government has made the NIN a prerequisite to retrieve lost SIM cards, shop on global eCommerce platforms like Amazon and AliExpress, and more importantly, get your driver’s licence, and international passport.