I had wanted to invest in the US stock market since early 2012, but was advised to hold off a bit and watch how things would fare. The market’s recovery from the 2008 crash was still dicey and I was warned I could lose my small change as easily as a car can skid on an icy Texas bridge. As it turned out, between then and now (2014) I could easily have doubled my capital. So at the top of my to-do this January was to start out with what little I had.
I researched and found an investment company that matched my needs.
That was where I stalled.
You see, before you invest, you need to open an account on the company’s website. As it turned out, I couldn’t get past the first page because that was where you stated which country’s passport you carried. Apparently, being from Nigeria disqualifies you because the site returns an error page that politely turns you down. Not easily dissuaded, I went to the company branch in Austin.
“There must be a mistake somewhere,” I insisted. The agent made a phone call, spoke briefly to someone, and then nicely told me that my country was on a blacklist, and they wouldn’t touch my money. We were both embarrassed; he, for me and me for me. He tried to save my face by quickly switching the conversation to his UT Austin alumni status (he saw from my I-20 that I was a Longhorn too) and we had some small, pretend-nice talk. Hook ’em, we both signaled.
I left, depressed.
That experience is by no means limited to the stock exchange. You are likely to have a similar encounter if you are sending a package to Nigeria. As soon as you mention Nigeria as the shipping destination, their body language inadvertently changes from warmth to iciness.
But the blame is not solely theirs. They live in a modern world where there’s certainty. Things make sense, so to speak. Theirs is a system designed to pinpoint people and match them with their stated addresses. You mail a package to one such address, it doesn’t disappear into thin air. It gets to its destination. You take a loan, you pay it back. If there are anomalies in the system that threatens the guarantee of these simple, basic things, it can be fixed.
With Nigeria however, there are no such guarantees.
The big lesson is this: our world today is data-driven. We can get into such arguments as privacy rights and a “Big Brother” government, but no one contends the merits of a data-driven society. Despite frequent protests, no one in the West will exchange his situation with what subsists in the third world where data is virtually non-existent.
This is because basic governmental services without ready data on verifiable identities will have only minimal impact, no matter the good intentions. President Goodluck Jonathan said as much on Oct 17th, 2013 while launching a new enrollment exercise for national identity to be coordinated by an agency named National Identity Management Commission (NIMC): “If the work of law enforcement officers is to be enhanced; if consumer credit is to be accessible; if we are to reduce the cost of managing the naira cash component currently estimated at N192 billion per annum; if we are to reduce the amount of currency in circulation currently put at N1.93 trillion; if we are to achieve a multi-pronged approach to the fight against corruption; and, finally, if we are to introduce social security or welfare payments, then we must, first and foremost, establish and verify appropriately, the identities of individuals.” The agency has until December 2014 to have all Nigerians above 16 years registered, identified and verified. We don’t need a seer to wager that we would be talking about another such deadline a couple of years past this date.
Nigeria’s history has been fraught with half-baked attempts at national identification, yet obscene amounts of money have been squandered on the process. It was first launched in 1979 by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo and revived in 2001, this time, by the civilian Obasanjo. The process has been through numerous awards and re-awards in the intervening years by all administrations except those of Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar. Today, we are still on an odyssey to successfully identify who a Nigerian is and at least connect them to their locations. So far we have spent an estimated N187 billion on the project and that is not counting the amounts the reprobate Babangida expended on the same cause. That is an estimated N1000 per Nigerian per current population figures. Meanwhile India will spend about N260 per person to register 1.2 billion people. The process is not brain science; Ghana registered 14 million people in forty days in 2012, and Indonesia, even though composed of over 17,000 islands, registered over a 100 million people in less than a year and is on track to meet its goal of having 172 million people documented by the end of 2014. All of that for $600 million, about half what we have spent so far!
It is a no-brainer that any country should have a verifiable ID database for its population.
Benefits include the expansion of commercial transactions to include tens of millions more people. This will engender flexibility in the process, and consequently an increased and easier access to platforms for secure transactions. Financial services, both local and international, will be more accessible to people who have been previously denied same for lacking any tangible identification documents.
Knowing who a Nigerian is will facilitate certain government processes such as payment of salaries, pensions and similar entitlements. These processes should be simple enough but they are forever besotted with fraud and ghost worker issues. Having a synchronized system of national identification will greatly eliminate incidences of septuagenarians and octogenarians dying on long queues as they await manual verification exercises they have to endure before receiving their pensions.
Additionally, such a database creates a foundation for welfare payments, if Nigeria decides to go this way in the future. In the place of payment of fuel subsidies to importers -which has proven to be an avenue for atrocious embezzlement- the state can pay welfare monies directly to citizens. Identification also makes online identity authentication possible, which in turn intensifies activity on e-business platforms that have barely taken off in Nigeria, and gradually phase out our cash-reliant economy that has enabled sleaze and corruption. Governments at all levels are empowered to plan better, administer better, and appraise the impact of programs in a verifiable manner. Security will improve as identification of larger numbers of criminals through forensic evidence gathering becomes easier.
Furthermore, accountability of persons enables the implementation of a tax system that includes every working adult. In my estimation, one of the reasons there is so much corruption in Nigeria is because we have an apathetic citizenry who do not have a sense of ownership of the money being embezzled. The billions of dollars stolen by public officials are largely seen as easy money, sourced from oil fields far away. However, when taxation system takes root in the country, Nigerians will show more interest in how money is spent and demand more accountability from their officials.
The possibilities from keeping such database are almost endless.
Finally, conducting transparent elections, the results of which are not predetermined by the godfathers of the party in power becomes an attainable ideal. If we have the biometric details of citizens such as their fingerprint and possibly, iris details, we are more likely to have one-man-one-vote elections. In the 2007 presidential elections, I woke up on Election Day to find three of my housemates missing. They came back later that night to narrate how they were contracted to go to some village outside Ilorin metropolis where they worked all day, frantically thumb-printing ballot papers for state and presidential elections for a political party. They were paid N10,000 each – good money for a day’s work for a student. That is how elections work in Nigeria presently: he who can out-rig his opponents and out-bribe election officials, wins. But the sanctity of our elections, its place as an expression of the people’s will; the responsibility it places on candidates to sell a vision to the electorate; its function as a tool to weed out bad public officers and install better ones; all of these, are at the heart of our democracy and our survival as a nation.
The Economist said of India in 2012, “Poverty has many causes, and no simple cure. But one massive problem in India is that few poor people can prove who they are.” The same is true of Nigeria. We have been on this quest for physical identity for almost as long as the life of the nation itself, and have treacherously wasted hundreds of billions of Naira while at it. It isn’t a difficult task if there is the political will and if the state can find a few honest, knowledgeable folks to lead the effort. If we must, we should contract it out to the Indians, or the Indonesians, or the Ghanaians that have the requisite experience in a third world country. But we must get this done and properly too.
That is where we lay the foundational infrastructure to remodel a country that holds so much promise for the black race but has delivered so little. We may just revolutionize the country by getting right the question of who a Nigerian is, with a verifiable identity to this claim!
Mr. Ojinnaka is studying and researching for a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin
You can interact with him via twitter: @marcelojinnaka