Nairametrics| It is no news that the planned Census exercise, scheduled for 2018 is estimated to cost about 272 billion naira. These official figures were given by the Director General of the National Population Commission, Ghaji Bello in an interview in early April, sparking off debates about the wisdom of spending such an amount in the current challenging economic climate. Concerns have also been raised as to the timing of the exercise and the high risk of politically-motivated manipulation if the census is conducted before the 2019 elections.
What is the money for?
According to Mr Duruiheoma, Chairman, National Population Commission, the sum of N272 billion would be required for “procurement of hand-held devices for the biometric based census, engagement of 1. 5 million field staff, training of field officers and other preparatory activities”.
We probably all know that there are myriads of bio-metric data sets currently available to the Nigerian government. If you have an international passport, driver’s license, voters card or national identity card, your unique bio-metric data exists in all these disparate data repositories. This then begs the question: why does the government want to expend huge resources to create yet another biometric identity database silo?
A better way
My suggestion is to start with the largest data set currently available: the GSM number database.
According to Nigerian Bureau of Statistics figures, as at January 2017, there were about 150 million GSM subscribers. Factor in that most Nigerians have at least two numbers, and we can estimate perhaps about 75 million unique identities captured in the bio-metric databases and fully accessible to the government. This represents about 40% of the total Nigerian population, a high percentage even by international standards.
MVN not BVN
The regulatory requirement for registration and biometric data capture for all GSM and telephone lines could be seen a step in the right direction, but this was only the first step. With a bit more strategic thinking and planning, this exercise could have been conducted with the same approach as the Banker’s Verification Number (BVN) exercise and in this case would have produced what I call a Mobile Verification Number (MVN). Considering that the current BVN database size is about 30 million, it is obvious that the MVN represents a much larger sample set and in actual fact is a superset of the BVN database, since can safely assume that every bank account holder has a registered phone number. The logical conclusion of this is that if we had a consistent, verified Mobile Verification Number system, the entire BVN exercise with its associated costs would have been unnecessary. All that would have been required was to get all bank account holders to VERIFY and LINK their bank accounts with the existing biometric identities as captured in the MVN database.
Better late than never
So the National Communications Commission (NCC) didn’t get that one right, but it is not too late. Advanced deduplication technology is available to merge and harmonize the disparate biometric data from all the various GSM and telecoms providers into one consolidated database. Indeed, this deduplication process was applied successfully to remove identical records during the voter’s registration process for the 2015 elections.
If the NCC, in collaboration with National Identity Management Commission, can succeed in producing consolidated biometric identities each of which we can describe with a unique Mobile Verification Number (MVN), then this can form a ‘master’ National Identity Management base-line, within which the BVN can either become a single data field, or be replaced by the MVN and become obsolete.
Registration/application for all other identity related documents like the International Passport, driver’s license, voters card or national identity card would be verified against the master database simply by placing fingers on a fingerprint scanner.
The benefits of a consolidated, ‘living, breathing’ identity management system for the Nigerian economy are innumerable: Everything from government social intervention schemes, universal healthcare, banking credit, national security, crime prevention and prosecution, the electoral process and pretty much every aspect of the economy is dependent on an efficient Identity Management System.
Regardless of how much the 2018 national census will cost, these funds and the accompanying colossal effort should not be wasted on a fresh biometric capture exercise.
Rather, the strategy should be for biometric verification of the 75m identities that have already been documented, and capture of only the remaining undocumented part of the population.
My guess is that this will not cost up to N0.27 trillion.