Engineer Aliyu Abubakar Aziz, Director General/CEO of National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) explains the dynamics and roadmap of National ID programme in Nigeria in this exclusive interview with Technology Times.
Interview and photogaphy by Shina Badaru
Technology Times: If we have to look at your mandate to deliver a world-class identity solution for Nigeria; so far, how will you say you have fared on your watch since becoming the DG of NIMC?
Engineer Aliyu Aziz: My name is Aliyu Aziz. I am the current DG of NIMC and I took over on November 23rd 2015. So we are exactly one year now and at the time that I took over, we have built the backend and then we enrolled seven million Nigerians.
Right now, we have about 13.8 million Nigerians that we have registered and issued national identification numbers. However, we only issued about one million cards and activated about half a million.
So, I can say that in terms of national identification number, that we are doing very well, but in terms of the card, we are yet to achieve the optimum.
“Right now, we have about 13.8 million Nigerians that we have registered and issued national identification numbers. However, we only issued about one million cards and activated about half a million.”
Technology Times: What has been the challenge to the issuance of cards?
Aziz: We have the capacity to issue cards but as you know, we are issuing a general multi-purpose card. So it is not the same with ordinary ATM card because it has about 13 applets. It has e-ID applet, which has private and public key infrastructure in it and a travel applet. Therefore, it is like 80 kilobytes card compared to an ordinary ATM card, which is 4 kilobytes. So it is like 20 times that of the ATM card.
The processes that we carry out to print the card is not the same with the ordinary card. The previous card that we had was only a barcode card. But as you know, the technology has passed that of the barcode technology. The challenge is that the security of the chip has changed. The operating system has changed. Therefore, we had a pause to upgrade the security.
Right now, we have done that upgrade and we will soon commence the printing of the card. But before then, again there is also challenge of funding. But we still have some more cards to print and also we have many vendors that can print similar cards.
We have about five vendors in Lagos that have the technology to print the cards but again we need some form of funding to pay for the barcodes. And also, we commenced the printing of the card after issuing the National Identification Number (NIN) for about two years.
We commenced the NIN in 2012, but the card only started around 2014. So, this two-year card, we still have it until when we get the right funding. Then we can print all the barcodes. But we concentrate more on the national identification number because actually, the national identification number is your identity similar to your social security number. Your ID card is only a token. So we believe that very soon we will grow over these challenges.
Technology Times: You have adopted usage of biometric features for the enrollment of Nigerians, which is considered more or less international best practice with respect to identity management. For the benefit of everyday Nigerian, how much of a unique identification does the National Identification Number (NIN) provide?
Aziz: We had a deliberate policy and processes in the sense that unlike other systems before, we have not gone out to start capturing identities under the tree. When we started from state offices, then we moved to local government offices and moved to other special centres.
What we have been trying to do is to make sure that whatever we do is auditable; that we can audit the process. If a person goes into an enrollment centre, from that point up to the time that his biometrics are captured, is a form of a process that we can audit.
When you take the biometrics of an individual, it means that is what the person has and it is presumed that every individual has unique biometrics.
Every individual has unique fingerprints and also you have unique facial features and also unique iris. So far those are the ones that we are working with. So if we take this information, within 76 hours, we send this information to the backend. At the backend, then we have a process of de-duplication employing automated biometric identification system. So that is the system that helps us to de-duplicate or remove duplicates because it would then compare your identity with any other identity that is in the database.
By the time that we get to the last person in Nigeria, then it will compare the person’s identity with all the other identities in the database before it can then generate a unique number and this number is uniquely generated. It is a randomly generated number of 11 digits. So it is not a number that says you are from this state, your tribe or your religion. The number is just randomly generated and it is unique for that person and it will never be used for any other person again. So that number makes it very unique that even when the number is not valid for transaction, we need to authenticate. We need to then connect to the back-end and then ask that ‘have you issued this number?’ The first basic question. And after that, we check ‘who owns this number?’ ‘Is it so and so person that owns this number or whose picture that has this number?’ Then, we will be given this type of information and we will then have verified that the person with the photo is the one that has this number.
So, the number is unique and that is what NIMC is all about: to give this uniqueness. If we do anything else, then our system will not have the importance that it has. Right now, if you are filling the form for any visa, they will ask you for the national identification number and it is not that NIMC asked them to go there. But they found out that the NIMC process is unique and the identities are unique. So, they will be able to check that identity and in future, they may just ask you for only that number and crosscheck and give you the visa without asking you too many questions. So, because identity is not only within the shores of Nigeria, we have stakeholders all over the world.
“By the time that we get to the last person in Nigeria, then it will compare the person’s identity with all the other identities in the database before it can then generate a unique number and this number is uniquely generated. It is a randomly generated number of 11 digits. So it is not a number that says you are from this state, your tribe or your religion. The number is just randomly generated and it is unique for that person and it will never be used for any other person again.”
Technology Times: If you have to give an indication as the kind of financial resource that will be required to meet these goals and objectives that you have set for yourselves within the short, medium and the long term, what will you be looking at?
Aziz: Recently, we had a round table discussion with all the other agencies and the objective was to look at the identity ecosystem in Nigeria that we have been spending so much money and duplicating what we do across to the agencies.
The whole idea is to discuss about the presidential directive that we should harmonise and integrate. And looking at what we have been doing so far, the identity footprint is really very expensive. So the whole idea is now that we should work together.
If we all work together and put what we want to spend on identity and harmonise at the level of the data capture, at the level of the database itself and also at the level of the card, which is a general multi-purpose card. Then we will see that we will be able to optimise what we have spent.
But so far, right now, there is a lot that is required to be spent. And if you look at the Indian status, like I said, that every four months, they recoup what they have spent in the identity just through their cooking gas programme that they give to people and the service that they get.
Similarly, in Nigeria too, if we do that, we will save a lot for our elections. We will save a lot in the ghost workers that we have. We will save a lot in the reform that we do. We will save a lot in even the budgeting process.
The budgeting process is supposed to be based on the people that we have. We will save a lot in security and also save a lot in planning, not by approximation. So, identity sector requires a lot of funding.
Based on some of the calculations that we have done, to do the harmonisation of all the agencies, we will require about N20 billion to do that. Generally, if you take a few key critical agencies, you will require about N5 billion to do that. If you now include upgrading and making sure that you have unique identification for, let’s say about a 100 million people, then you will be talking something about N60 to N65 billion to do that. But all these you can recover in no time. But more importantly is that all the agencies should work together and spend the money wisely.
“Based on some of the calculations that we have done, to do the harmonisation of all the agencies, we will require about N20 billion to do that. Generally, if you take a few key critical agencies, you will require about N5 billion to do that. If you now include upgrading and making sure that you have unique identification for, let’s say about a 100 million people, then you will be talking something about N60 to N65 billion to do that. But all these you can recover in no time. But more importantly is that all the agencies should work together and spend the money wisely.”
Technology Times: The Presidential directive on the requirement or the mandate for MDAs to harmonise their data with NIMC was a major game changer in terms of silos of identities that we have in CBN, NCC, Federal Road Safety Commission and quite a number of other places where the efforts of NIMC is being duplicated. What can you say today in terms of the status first of all, of compliance with that Presidential directive and actual result of efforts being made by a whole of these silos of MDAs that are keeping national identity information?
Aziz: I can say since the coming of President Buhari, there has been very helpful collaboration between all the agencies. The very first one to close was the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Biometric Verification Number (BVN) integration. So, that has been going on very well. The second one that we have commenced up to testing the data is that of the SIM registration from Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC). That also is going on very well.
The CBN Governor and also the Executive Chairman of NCC, they are able to direct their agencies to commence these processes. The remaining agencies too, we have had discussions, but we have not started. So that is why I say that there are a lot of collaborations, a lot of efforts to carry out that exercise, but it also requires funding. Places like the passport registrar also, we had very good discussions and they are ready to carry out the harmonisation.
But when NIMC built the infrastructure, because we built the metropolitan network using fiber that connects all the agencies, but then, because of the road construction today, but we have not done that of link creation. And right now, the major problem with collaboration is having a very good link.
When it comes to the Road Safety, the same thing. They have 4.5 million unique drivers. They have many Drivers’ licences but the unique ones that they told us is 4.5 million and it can easily be integrated also.
The next major one is that of the Voters’ register. We have been in discussion with Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and we have agreed to even go and capture data again together to improve the quality of data and also the registration of children too.
We have a simplified process that once you register the parent or the guardian, then we will use the biometrics of the parent or the guardian to tie to the child and issue the number to the child without taking the biometrics of the children.
So, from enrolment to the harmonisation of the database and also issuance of the credentials, we all agreed to work together to achieve that purpose.
“When it comes to the Road Safety, the same thing. They have 4.5 million unique drivers. They have many Drivers’ licences but the unique ones that they told us is 4.5 million and it can easily be integrated also. The next major one is that of the Voters’ register. We have been in discussion with Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and we have agreed to even go and capture data again together to improve the quality of data and also the registration of children too.”
Technology Times: Talking about this collaboration with the various agencies, one peculiar one that attracted a lot of attention in the last one year has been the one with the NCC because of the huge number of people who use mobile phone. It was also an issue that also attracted attention to Nigeria when Federal Government imposed what was considered to be the biggest sanction on one of the mobile operators for improper registration of its subscribers. How much progress are you making with NCC? Are there peculiarities that you have seen along the way in terms of the records because they seem to have been gathered from various sources?
Aziz: Incidentally, we have been part and parcel of the SIM registration from the beginning and we also know what really happened. While the operators decided to capture data themselves, because it was agreed at the initial time that they should capture all data, but they said ‘No. NCC should capture the existing data.’ And also at that time, because Nigeria was also so called ‘rich’, we were operating in silos. So everybody will just do what he feels like doing and standards were not followed.
So instead of capturing the whole fingerprints and capturing the four at a time, only four fingers were captured. So these are the basic differences. But you see in Identity Management parlance, you take whatever that is already there and then put the intelligence on top of that data and then combine with other data to come up with an intelligent opinion. So I believe that now, all of us have come to our senses.
There is that need to collaborate. There is need to follow the standards. There is also need to work together. So I believe that there is a lot of compliance especially from the NCC. Like I told you, the EVC has given the order that the data should be pushed to NIMC and so far, we have gotten the test data and carried out the test. But we have not yet completed to get back to them. We have commenced taking part of the data at a time because it takes time as I said.
Also, the technology has a limit that it can take in a day. So in future, we need to add more infrastructure to take care of that. So far, what we have now, because if you enroll now, you will just get the NIN immediately. There is no other place in the world that you can get the NIN immediately. But first of all, we, because of our population, we think that the fourteen major areas that we have is not much. But now, we are increasing by seven major areas every year and that is the population of some countries. So we have a large population and we have to do the right thing. It may take some time to do that but we have to do it. That is the most important aspect of our work.
“And also at that time, because Nigeria was also so called ‘rich’, we were operating in silos. So everybody will just do what he feels like doing and standards were not followed. So instead of capturing the whole fingerprints and capturing the four at a time, only four fingers were captured. So these are the basic differences.”
Technology Times: You indicated you have a vision to register every Nigerian. Beyond Federal MDAs, we have also seen that some State Governments have initiated identity enrollment too. So, what can you say today about the status of your collaboration with the State and Local Government Councils to make sure that you can at least reach particularly the rural areas and these underserved areas to embrace the National Identity project?
Aziz: We have discussion with the Governors’ Forum also and discussion with some of the forward-thinking Governors and we think that they will be our champions talking to the other Governors.
Before, all the State Governors have a programme of at least providing free healthcare to children, to pregnant women and also even giving conditional cash transfers. But over the years, it has not been reaching the beneficiaries and most of the states carried out one form of identity management for children. It usually does not work, especially because here in Nigeria, we don’t have strict borders. So we don’t stop people moving from one state to another.
Currently, they have all realised that they need to participate in the NIN. They all want to have NIN in their individual database and by having that NIN, they can compare with the people in their neighboring states. The ghost workers that they have too might not have the chance of moving from one state to another if they embrace the NIN. And I have also seen that all the States and Local Governments always want Federal presence. Therefore, they usually provide office accommodation for the Federal Agencies and usually NIMC and INEC usually house in the same place.
It means that we can communicate, we can do things together and specifically some of the Governors, the Governor of Kaduna State and that of Gombe and Kano, they have provided power for us in some of our registration centers and we are collaborating with them to capture the data.
There are other States too: Delta State and Ekiti, and other States that we have collaborated before and also Cross River. So, these are states that we have been collaborating with and we believe that with this form of collaboration, we will be able to register a lot of people because a lot of people depend on the NIN for their identification.
As I have mentioned, the numbers, even BVN is about 27 million and INEC is seventy something million. So, it means that for the local person, if he goes to anywhere that requires identity, he will find the NIN. A lot of people, even when they go to the bank, they have problem with their BVN, they have to now come to NIMC to authenticate, to clarify their form of identification.
So, in essence, I am saying that the common man, the person that requires the identity, the NIN is not within the passport photographs; is not within the Drivers’ Licence database; some of them are in the INEC database; some of them have telephones and some of them don’t have any. As you know, it is only in Nigeria that you can stay without having any form of identification.
In all other nations, you must have one form of identification and that is why we said it is the NIN that is the appropriate form of identification and it is for everyone, every person that is residing in Nigeria, especially the common people. And also remember that if you are given the card also, automatically you will have a virtual account. And if you can receive any benefit from the Local, State and Federal Government, then you can easily be issued and we have piloted with one bank, but it is open for all the other banks. And we are in discussion with the remaining banks to participate in the issuance of the card.
“As I have mentioned, the numbers, even BVN is about 27 million and INEC is seventy something million. So, it means that for the local person, if he goes to anywhere that requires identity, he will find the NIN. A lot of people, even when they go to the bank, they have problem with their BVN, they have to now come to NIMC to authenticate, to clarify their form of identification.”
Technology Times: Talking about that pilot that you did with the bank, there is a unique perspective that you brought to bear in terms of the fact that despite the fact that identity management process is a huge capital intensive venture, you also indicated that it also opens opportunities for return on investments in a sustainable manner. You have hinted about what India has done with its gas project in terms of getting return on investments. Are there other jurisdictions that we have seen return on investments of that nature that might then, because Nigeria is going through recession, that might then enable you explore funding opportunities either from multi-lateral agencies like World Bank or even from the private sector?
Aziz: Right now, we are working with the UN Women and they want us to register about 500,000 women. They want to give credit and then follow through. So, this is one of the real examples that are ongoing right now. But you see, identity is much of a social nature. That is why we say the NIN, as much as possible, enrollment and receiving the NIN, is free of charge. But anything from the card and other businesses can be built on this and one of the things that we are also looking is to expose the APIs, the Application Programming Interfaces, to the system, especially to our teeming workers and developers that they can even come up with other things we may not know. Like I told of an example of a woman that recently just got stranded with her U.S. Passport and Nigeria Passport but only the I.D. card was able to save her in the U.S. airport.
So, we may not likely to say all the benefits that you can get and all the kind of programs that can come up, but as we said in Nigeria, doing reforms, even reforming our judiciary, that is another example. If you can then file using your own NIN because then, your basic Know Your Customer (KYC) has been done therefore, you will get a faster response. And I know that we have a lot of cases, even judges who would have too much cases, some of them is based on identity. While they know the person and they will be able to follow up with the person, they can get justice easily.
Another area is the reform like in ghost workers like I mentioned before and also protection. It is only when we know the people that we can protect. It is only when the policeman in your own area knows the people around there that he can protect them. And you know we are living in a free country whereby you take your plate number from any part of the country and you move to any part of the country and you can stay there. But in some places, when you move to a different jurisdiction, you are given a time limit to change your passport and to change your plate number so that you can be protected, so that the police will know that.
And also, so far again, another area is that we have not yet started giving terminals in the sense that even the policeman on the street will now take your I.D. card to authenticate who you are. Even when you don’t have a card, you can put your fingerprint and it can authenticate that you are the person who you say you are.
There are so much happening online where you don’t even see the person and you have to be sure that it is a human being that you are talking to on the other side and it is not a machine or a server that is responding to you. In that sense, so we need digital certificates. We have already built that infrastructure. The public infrastructure is the only one that is working in Nigeria now and it is NIMC. So all other agencies are to utilise what has been built here.
Yesterday, I saw a news item that CBN is to allow use of Bitcoin, but the fundamental is public infrastructure and we have already built that. Without that public infrastructure, there is no way that you know who the person is at the other side or what you did not do and somebody else would say that you have done it. And also, using the proper identification, we can also eliminate the bad image that Nigerians have.
So if someone outside wants to do a transaction with you and if you can give your NIN, then he will be able to verify who you are and he knows that even if you want to disappear, he knows he has already known who you are. It will help reduce the 419 and also improve the image and return the trust. The whole theme of Identity management system is to rebuild trust in the 21st Century whereby you don’t see the person that you are dealing with.
“And also, so far again, another area is that we have not yet started giving terminals in the sense that even the policeman on the street will now take your I.D. card to authenticate who you are. Even when you don’t have a card, you can put your fingerprint and it can authenticate that you are the person who you say you are.”
Technology Times: You underlined a very key factor and that is the issue of trust. It is often said that the reason the Nigerian financial sector has not been disbursing a lot of loan is still that issue of verification of identity. So how do you think identity can radically change the nation’s credit system and probably, the overall economy at that?
Aziz: When it comes to identity, you have what is called foundational identity and then transactional identity. We have taken the foundational data and we take the individual’s biometrics. So we are not interested in the transaction that is really happening but we have taken a biometrics of the person and then will allow you to now authenticate and utilise this identity in way and manner in which you will know your own customers.
So, if we are to take the biometrics, take fingerprints of the person, take the picture that is standard picture that we can use for facial recognition and also take the I.D.
So we are saying we have simplified the process so you don’t need to take this information in carrying out your transactions. So there are basic electronic KYC (know your customer) that is assumed that it has been done. Of course, you want to know more information, to build more relationship and to even know the person more than only himself so that you can be sure.
What we are in essence saying is that the basic KYC is done and based on that basic KYC, you can give even a loan to a certain unit. And also, since even the card also has a virtual account, immediately, you can even credit the person with some sum of money. Also, it allows you to trace the person and again 99% of Nigerians are really very transparent and it’s only the 1% that is really spoiling the bag of beans.
So what we are trying to say is that we are rebuilding this trust and based on this trust, if someone is registered and has a National Identification Number, and you are able to authenticate and verify the person, then you can safely issue the person the loan and you will be sure that unless the person goes out of circulation, but it is very easy to trace who the person is.
Technology Times: What do you think we should expect from NIMC in the next few months or the year ahead in terms of other key milestones that you have set or other activities that you would expect from the agency?
Aziz: Part of my vision is that by 2019, we should have at least 100 million unique records and therefore, in the next few months, following that Presidential directive and our roundtable discussions, I will see a lot of coalition that is going to happen between NIMC and the other agencies. With that, there will be a lot of actions that will happen with NIN enrollment not only in NIMC offices, but also in other MDAs. And with the regulations that we have publicized, then we expect to also license other firms, other small-scale enterprises or even individuals to now license them, certify them so that they can commence enrolling and then the numbers will then grow.
That is what I expect to happen and the authentication is going to happen easily and then the APIs will be available for the developers to know other things as value add to the identity management system.
Technology Times: The draft regulation on your website says that after a specified period of time, the existing I.D. cards that were issued by the defunct agency will be invalidated. Why was that decision taken and have you already set out a time frame?
Aziz: One thing that we should understand is that every security document that stays more than five years, then the bad people will take advantage of that document and start issuing fake ones. And as you know, that document was issued more than 10 years ago and it has only 2D barcode technology.
And if you can remember, when the banks also started using that technology, you would be sitting in Lagos and then, you would get alert from Sokoto. So they had to move into the chip-enabled card. Since we have moved to this card, actually, our process before is that once you are issued your NIN, it means that you are registered onto the new platform, then, your old card should have been invalid.
But again, we are being just realistic that we are yet to cover all the numbers. So that is why we allow it to go for some time. But we always also have a technology that authenticates, that is, verify if anyone that brings the old, especially the old I.D., is verified because the scammers already know how to either remove the passport or to put a fake 2D barcode on the system.
As you know, we had 35 million of those cards in circulation and it is not easy to just remove that kind of system. But what we are asking is that it should be verified. Very soon, if you see a lot of activities going on, then it means that we will cover large numbers of people who have the NIN especially from the harmonisation and collation, then we are about to stop using that old card. So, the old card is being used with caveat that you need to authenticate and verify. Don’t just take the card at first value and I believe that the financial sector is already aware. Most of them, they always write us to verify that and with the NIN and also electronic verification.
I believe that we will soon leave these old cards and move forward because it’s too old and so many bad people already know how to fool other people. That is why we ask for verification. They should try to verify or ask the person to simply go and do a NIN. Then you are sure the person has and verify the NIN too. But at least his data is in the backend.
“As you know, we had 35 million of those cards in circulation and it is not easy to just remove that kind of system. But what we are asking is that it should be verified. Very soon, if you see a lot of activities going on, then it means that we will cover large numbers of people who have the NIN especially from the harmonisation and collation, then we are about to stop using that old card.”