By Ekweremadu Uchenna
In Nigeria today, the other thing as bad as being caught with a firearm is to be caught without any form of identification card. Even before you get frisked or the vehicle gets searched, the security officers first ask you to identify yourself, meaning that you display an identity card. They might not even look closely to ensure it is a valid one. Any card would do, so long as there’re writings all around, and a photo of you (which might have been taken nine years ago).
Few months ago I was in a bank in Delta State when a guy got sent away simply because he didn’t have the latest Voters’ Card. The guy got angry, turning to whoever that would listen to him, displaying a lump of notes, a blurry Secondary School Identity Card and a photocopy of the latest Utility Bill his house had paid. I’ve even heard somebody tell of a sick woman that was refused treatment in one hospital just because she didn’t have the latest Voters’ Card. At first, I was sure it was a lie. But then, knowing what a wonderful place Nigeria can be, where persons of authority most often go beyond their jurisdiction, I just shrugged. In fact, there are circles where the Permanent Voters’ Card or National I.D Card are talked about as if it is the 666 number that is said would become the sole means of buying and selling in the days of the Anti-Christ.
Sometime ago, when I could no longer withstand nagging family and friends, I drove to the Council Secretariat to register for the National Identity Card. I had a wedding to attend by 11am and I didn’t plan on staying long at the Council. On alighting from the tricycle beside the Secretariat gate, I was smacked with a spectacle that ate up my inner peace. Dozens of people sat about on the floor and on car bonnets, or clustered by the gate in order to be among the first to rush in once the gate keeper came and opened it. It didn’t look different than a scene from a Refugee Camp, except that they looked well fed. I learnt that some of them had come as early as 2am to take a number. These were artisans who ought to be in their various workshops learning new skills and improving upon already learned skills. These were petty traders who were supposed to be in the market. With many people coming from other Local Government Councils, just how many persons would get registered in a day, even if the operator was indefatigable and there was an uninterrupted power supply such that the laptop battery never ran down? Moreover, some people from this Council were also journeying to the Nigerian Air Force Base further north of the State, where the exercise was said to be lot faster.
I shuffled closer to a parked pickup around the bonnet of which a group of youths were gathered, debating over the contents of a football magazine. They seemed to not care about the world until anytime one of them noticed how far the minute hand of his wristwatch had moved since after the last time he checked.
“I hope you have your Two Hundred Naira ready for the data form?” a stocky bald close to me grunted. And to clear my confusion, he dug out from his breast pocket a sheet of paper which he unfolded and displayed before my face. He said filling the forms made the task less strenuous for both parties. “And this way,” he had gone on, “you won’t have anyone to blame for misspelling your name or something.”
When I tried to tell him that the entire exercise ought to be free, taken care of by the government, he just smiled. I only hung on for a little over two hours before trudging back home under the weight of a million questions.
Why subject Nigerians to all this trouble? Is there no way the government could have made use of INEC’s existing structure, of recruiting ad hoc personnel from ward levels to take part in this collection of data? Indeed, we have a pool of unemployed youths to draw from, who would be glad to engage for a stipend. Many of the unemployed Nigerian youths already have laptops. All the government would need do is take them through a crash course on how to navigate the NIMC’s portal and ensure an error-free collection of data. Apart from getting the job done in a week or two as opposed to this system that has dragged on for months, and ensuring efficiency of resources, it would also go a long way in seeing that only those qualified by the ACT get covered, since at ward levels almost everybody knows each other.
Back in 2004, Nigerians went through untold hardship during the inaugural National I.D card registration. I remember people queuing all day under the sun only to be turned away by 4pm which was the official closing time for the data collectors, apart from one or two centers where the community members offered the officers ‘something’ which made them stay into the night. Now the question is, what is wrong with the old National Identity Card which I still possess? What will the new one have that the old one doesn’t? The NIMC’s website doesn’t say much about that. The same thing happened with the National Voters’ Card. Just like that, in the usual Nigerian fashion, the former one that was used until 2011 was declared invalid and a new one was rolled out. One would have thought that the new Voters’ Card would be equipped with a microchip or such things.
I had to come back another day around 4am to get my name into the ‘list’, which qualified me to come the following day by 8am to give my biometric data and then return two days later to collect the temporary card. There is no doubt that with the rate this exercise is going, a good percentage of eligible Nigerians would not be covered. Other factors that may lead to that, even if all the identified technical hitches were to be fixed, are bias and sentiment. Due to the specialness of Nigeria, it would be a lot easier for Nigeriens or Sudanese or Malians resident in some parts of the North to lay hands on the National Identity Card or Voters’ Card than for Nigerians of Southern origin. In the same vain, it would be easier for a Cameroonian or Beninese or Gabonese to get one in some parts of South Nigeria than for a fair-complexioned curly-haired Katsina or Sokoto man. A lot of Nigerians gauge kinship by religion and physical attributes. And in many ways, such method of evaluation can be dangerous. But this is an issue for another day.
About Ekweremadu Uchenna:
Ekweremadu Uchenna is a Kaduna-based writer. His creative works have appeared in COE Review, Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Literary, A&U American Aids Magazine, Flashquake, Wilderness House Literary Review, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. He tweets his thoughts on socio-cultural issues via @Uche_Ekweremadu.
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