Improving African biometrics market boosts Nigerian identity plan

May 23, 2017 - 

Nigeria’s relationship with biometrics and other vendors working on its National Identity Number (NIN) program has significantly improved, along with the results according to National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Director General and CEO Aliyu Aziz.

In an exclusive interview with Biometric Update last month at ID4Africa 2017 in Windhoek, Namibia, Aziz said the mix of companies supporting the program has changed since the NIMC began building its national database in 2010.

Nigeria is the seventh most populous country in the world, with an estimated 191 million people, and it is working towards registering its full population, with images for all ten fingerprints. The country will also issue eID cards, leveraging the fingerprint-backed digital identity for broad use across different social programs, payment systems, and for travel.

Its challenges along the way include developing infrastructure, and a remote rural population, but also difficulties which should be more preventable related to vendor-lock in and data portability which were widely reported at the third annual event of the ID4Africa movement.

“Because we have been working in this area for a very long time, we have built some better relationships,” said Aziz. “Before we used to have turn-key contracts and they did not work very well. Now we have plug-and-play, and we deliberately built the system in such a way that the vendors cannot hold us to ransom, and that makes the relationship very good.”

The marketplace for digital identity solutions and tools in Africa has evolved drastically over the course of the program, as well. Nigeria uses a mix of local and international companies, including locally sourced enrollment software utilizing licenses from international firms. Aziz explains that it is inevitable when you have many vendors involved in a project that some particularly help make the relationship between companies and government identity authorities work. Some may have ideas that differ from the commonly held perspective, and some may hold onto information, Aziz says, but other companies will work to move the project forward, and gain a positive reputation.

“The world is open now,” and no vendor wants to be known for causing problems among other stakeholders, according to Aziz. “If you have an open mind and information sharing, then you will be able to have better relationships with your vendors.”

Even with the improved commercial ecosystem, Nigeria’s ambitious plan faces difficulties in collecting and integrating biographical and biometric information. Shortly before ID4Africa 2017, a United Nations official urged the country to combine its biometric platforms, as it has been working towards under the NIMC since 2015. Nigeria has a longstanding harmonization committee which Aziz told Biometric Update meets regularly for the purpose of “rubbing minds together,” and sharing self-criticism, best-practices, and insights picked up from forums like ID4Africa.

“It’s difficult for a very big country to enforce a blanket rule for everyone. We have to emphasize the best-practice, and then with time you get improvement.”

Because data on individuals needs to be updated regularly to remain current and useful, there are many opportunities for improved information quality and data sharing, such as through the regular cycle of the electoral commission. Data collection is standards-based as much as possible to assist harmonization, but Aziz says the important thing is to continue to improve agency systems, gradually bringing them closer together.

The mission is driven by an effort to improve overall government service delivery, and mitigate problems like “middle-men” who intercept benefits often intended for farmers, the poor, children, pregnant women and vulnerable populations.

“If you don’t have proper identity systems to manage those kinds of social safety net programs, then you find out that the officials and others become middle-men, and anything can happen in between,” Aziz says. “Instead of middle-ware to take information from the back end to the front end, they take it sideways, and the target beneficiary does not get the intended benefit, and at the end of the day the program will not be successful.”

That means the successful delivery of Nigerian government programs depends on the success of the NIN and eID card programs. The NIMC’s present mission is critical, and it has recently taken steps to drastically increase the number of farmers registered, as well as renewing Safran’s contract for de-duplication and ABIS services, which Aziz says is the biggest single element in the system. At the same time, the system has been designed to make greater use of face, and eventually iris biometrics, which Aziz sees being phased in once the country’s population has surpassed 200 million.

Nigeria’s commitment to improving its digital identity system continues to make gradual progress, and was explicitly recognized by Dr. Joseph Atick, ID4Africa executive Chairman, as Abuja, Nigeria was announced as the host city for ID4Africa 2018. By that time, many more Nigerians will have received their NIN, and the country will have an opportunity to show off its progress, but much work will remain.

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About Chris Burt

Chris Burt is a writer and contributor to Biometric Update. He has also written nonfiction about information technology, dramatic arts, sports culture, and fantasy basketball, as well as fiction about a doomed astronaut. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @AFakeChrisBurt."