By Vivian Onyebukwa And Vera Wisdom-Bassey
In Nigeria today, if someone says to you in annoyance: “go to hell,” he means go to the National Identity registration centres, where thousands of citizens sweat it out everyday in their bid to get their National Identification Number (NIN), that would in turn, help them get their SIM card linked with necessary security data, without which they stand the danger of being blocked from further enjoyment of telecommunication services.
Many Nigerians who had had the misfortune of spending hours, days and weeks to get their data “captured” on the capturing machine before the NIN is given to them believe that the experience can be compared to going to hell and spending some hours, days, weeks in its raging inferno. Doing the registration under a sweltering sun heat should be able to give you a mental picture of what the people who compare hell with the place are talking about.
NIN offices: tollgates and COVID-19 super spread centres
In the weeks leading to the defeat of Donald Trump and his Republican Party at the presidential polls, majority of the American media chose to describe Trump rallies as “super spread” for COVID-19 pandemic. Reason: neither Trump nor his teeming supporters observed the protocols by wearing facemasks or maintaining social distancing or both.
Now the super spread phenomenon appears to have changed venue and address to the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC)’s offices spread across the nation as thousands of frustrated and angry citizens mill around the place without any regard for social distancing, even if some of them wore facemasks, as they try to beat the deadline for the obtainment of the National Identity Number.
But even with the deadline now extended by eight weeks to April 6, 2021, many of them are sceptical of the extension helping to douse the tension that has continued to build up at the “toll gates” called registration centres.
The statement released by the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and jointly signed by the Executive Vice-Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission, Umar Danbatta, and Director General, National Identity Management Commission, Aliyu Aziz noted that “NIMC has provided strategies to enable citizens attend the registration in full compliance with Covid-19 protocols – particularly the use of facemasks which remains mandatory and maintenance of social distancing.”
Earlier, the Federal government, had, in a similar statement issued on the exercise cancelled the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) and “Verification Fees” being collected by telecomm operators and relevant agencies but Nigerians who had been through hell to obtain the number after queing up for it for days and sometimes weeks, argue that the cancellation is of little comfort to them as many of them had to pay through their nose before they could be given the number.
Although telecommunications companies such as GLO, MTN and Airtel have been mandated by the Federal government to commence NIN registration at some of its retail outlets to ensure the meeting of the April deadline, Saturday Sun investigation shows that this announcement has not, in any way helped in reducing the teeming crowds at the registration centres. And, subsequently, various complaints have continued to trail the exercise.
Tales of extortion and frustration
Some citizens report waking up as early as 4am to go for the registration and data capturing. Yet they don’t leave the place until about 8pm. Some complain of not making any progress in their quests, after spending the whole day at the centres. The most painful aspect of it is the alleged extortion by officers-in-charge, male and female alike. It is such that it has now become something of the “new normal” in some quarters. It is alleged that some pay between N5000 and N15, 000 to get their NINs.
One of the citizens, Dan Nwogu, a freight forwarder, shared his experience with Saturday Sun on the day he went to Oshodi Isolo Local Government for his registration. “There were many people waiting to be attended to,” he said. “The queue was long. We were asked to pay N500 for the purchase of the form. I spent almost the whole day waiting to get the identification card after paying another N5000.”
But he is shocked, first and foremost, by what he sees as government acquisence over the extortion going on at the registration centres. “Some people have been complaining about this extortion by the officers, but I am shocked that the government has kept mute about it. Nothing in this country is straightforward.” In his case, Samson Odion, a young business starter has issues with his date of birth and needed to effect a change to reflect his correct birthday after his bank told him that the date of birth on his account opening records does not tally with that on his national identity card. This he thought he could easily do at the nearest NIMC office in Amuwo Odofin area of Lagos. After so much struggles to get in and meet an official who was to help him, his spirit was dampened when the official asked him to pay N45,000 before his date of birth in their records could be corrected.
John Okpala, a schoolteacher narrated how he was asked by a security man to cough up N7000 before he could get his NIN. “When I went to Surulere Local Government Area office, there were many people on the waiting list,” he said. “I tried to make enquiries from the security man and he told me to bring N7000.”
Our reporter’s visit to Ojo Local Government Area of Lagos State at about 9am early in the week, served as an eye-opener to what some of the citizens are complaining about. A woman, Ebere Uche, expressed her frustration at how she has continued to come to the place without success at what she was there for.
According to her she was there from Monday to Saturday last week in a bid to get registered. “Today the 1st of February, I arrived at the centre by 7am. It’s now 1.30pm and I am still waiting to be given the card I paid for”. Taking our reporter for a new person who was there to obtain her NIN, she advised her to go and come back the following day as it appears to be too late to start the process at that time of the day.
According to her, she parted with N6, 000 to get it done for her. Yet, she is waiting to get her NIN. “When I met one of the agents, he said I must fill a form and wait till September for me to get the complete card. I asked him if I could pay something to get it, he said it is free. But it’s all lies and deception because, not knowing who is who, they don’t want to be caught off-guard by anticorruption security agents.”
When Saturday Sun reporter tried to chat with some of the agents she was introduced to, two male and a female, she found one of them uncooperative. Adebayo, by name, he claimed to be tired and said she was in no mood to talk. He simply asked her to go and get the form. The second agent, Eze, he is called, asked her to come back the following day, obtain a number from the gate, submit the form, and then come back in September to submit the form. But some minutes later, he was seen calling out names on a list in his hand and anyone whose name was not written there was not allowed to enter the office to collect the card.
One of the female workers who spoke to the reporter asked her to pay N7, 000 to get the card if she does not want to wait till September. She explained the sharing formula. “I will give the officers in charge N5, 000, while I get N2, 000.” She asked the reporter to go and buy the form. This she did with a promise to be back to pay the expected amount, as she is not ready to wait, she said, till September to collect her NIN.
She asked the reporter to give the money to her “sister” (actually a female co-worker), whom she pointed to, in case she is not around on the day she calls back. “My sister will write your name on the list of people with me,” she assured.
Discouragement and dilemma
Mrs Stella Oji, a mother of three, who was there with her newborn baby said she was coming for the first time. She lamented the situation and said she would not wait to fill the form as she had to bring her children back from school. Another woman called Mama Chichi counseled our reporter to get ready to bribe the NIMC officials, starting from the gatemen, if she truly wants to obtain the card, adding that although the government said it is free, it is not.
Ben Alozie, a media consultant said that if there is anything these harrowing experiences have done it is to discourage people like him from making efforts to go register for NIN. “I wake up everyday thinking about the NIN registration and the deadline but confused about what to do. Reports of frustration that Nigerians have been subjected to, in their quest for the NIN, is discouraging. Endless long queues under the scorching sun, amidst the danger of contracting resurgent COVID-19 pandemic make the scenario outside scarier. The recent creation of registration centres across local government government areas in Lagos is a good idea, but it remains to be seen how it will work to serve millions of people out there who are eager to beat the deadline extension.”
Ngozi Okpalakunne, a journalist, said that stories of what people pass through before they are able to obtain the number is what is making her wary of participating in the exercise. “How can I go there and spend the whole day and also pay to obtain it when the government has told us that it is free?”, she asked. “Why can’t we get things right in this country? Nigerians see every situation as an opportunity to milk people and make quick money. The populace is already stressed after series of challenges they have passed and are still passing through. Asking people to go out there and queue the whole day under the scorching sun is adding another problem to the existing ones.”
Iya Bolu, a hairdresser living at Ijesha, Surulere, Lagos, also claimed that as the reason she is not eager to continue to go for the exercise. Unlike Okpalakunne, in her own case, she had made efforts but failed. She told Saturday Sun how a church member assisted her daughter to do the registration free of charge, even though she is yet to collect her number.
“A church member that works with Coker Aguda Local Government Development Authority (LCDA) promised to help my daughter, so I decided to go along with her, but the person attended to only my daughter,” she said. “When we got there, we found that there were a lot of people. A woman I spoke to who also came for her NIN told me that she had visited the place throughout the week but to no avail. She said that although she has been able to pay for, fill and submit the form, she is yet to collect her number. People are paying as much as N10, 000 to obtain the number, but I don’t have that kind of money to spend on the registration which the government told us is free. This country is in a mess. People take advantage of every little opportunity to fleace their fellow citizens.”
“The President appreciates Nigerians for their patience and commitment to update their identities,” the statement issued by NIMC and the Minister for the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami, read. “The Federal Government also thanks all stakeholders for their compliance with the directives.”