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Digital ID in Africa this week: Nigeria’s expanding biometric web, pros and cons of national ID


africa digital id biometrics Identity management

Developments this week highlight the divide between African nations in terms of the level of maturity of their digital ID systems. Nigeria presses ahead, drawing in ever more services into its centralized biometric ID register, with finance professionals and pensioners having to re-register and the country digitizing its entire yellow fever system. Two opinion pieces – from Kenya and South Africa – consider the need for transparency in implementing systems that citizens can understand, but also the pitfalls and progress digital ID can bring.

Ghana: Tokyo embassy opens biometric passport facility to serve Asia

The Ghanaian embassy in Tokyo has been equipped with a biometric passport application center and visa section that will serve Ghanaians across Asia and Australasia. The facility was opened by Ghana’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, who was in Japan for the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7).

“Our Embassies in China, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia, and India will transmit their applications for printing in Tokyo,” Minister Botchwey said according to Peace FM.

A “mobile pack” for capturing biometrics will be stationed at the Guangzhou, China, for submitting applications to Tokyo for printing, reports Modern Ghana, presumably at the new consulate there. Guangzhou is host to the ‘Little Africa’ trading area. Modern Ghana notes that there are 7,000 Ghanaian students in China.

Nigeria: ‘e-Yellow card’ platform replaces traditional paper yellow fever certificates

Nigeria’s health ministry has launched a digital “e-Yellow card” system which replaces the existing paper certificates issued by medical centers after administering the yellow fever vaccination.

The yellow-colored card booklets are essential documents for entering countries with yellow fever eradication programs or for arriving in other countries when originating from a country with yellow fever, a mosquito-borne haemorrhagic illness.

The new system requires Nigerian nationals and residents to register online and pay the N2000 (US$5.50) registration fee. Then they take their existing paper certificate and passport to a Port Services office where their vaccinated status will be linked to their ID profile and they will be issued with a yellow card. This card has a code which can be scanned and checked against the database. The Port Services office can also administer the vaccines.

This is now the only accepted yellow fever vaccination document accepted for Nigerian nationals and residents. Non-Nigerian international travelers arriving in Nigeria and non-Nigerian residents can still use International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) certificates, provided they were issued outside Nigeria.

Enterprising officials at border crossings with yellow fever certificate requirements have typically offered unofficial ‘ways’ for travelers without the document to either acquire one on the spot or pass without one. Nigeria has had a huge problem with fake certificates.

Last month saw an outbreak of the virus in Ebonyi State and over 200 people have died so far this year in Nigeria of the illness.

Nigeria: Pensioners to undergo fresh biometric capture to link bank accounts and ID

Nigeria is continuing to extend the breadth of its national ID scheme as its National Pension Commission (PenCom) directs 8.5 million holders of Retirement Savings Accounts (RSA) to undergo fresh biometric capture to link their bank accounts to bank verification numbers (BVNs) and their national identity numbers (NINs), reports Sun News.

A statement from the PenCom said, “To enable the Pension Industry to comply, the National Pension Commission has directed all Pension fund administrators to update the records of their clients. Consequently, all retirement savings account holders, both active and retired, are hereby advised to approach their PFAs to provide their NINs and Bank Verification Numbers, as well as other mandatory biodata information.”

According to the Pension Fund Operators Association of Nigeria, failure to comply would means that RSA holders would be unable to access their contributions.

The Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) has also stated plans to link new 10-year passports to the holders’ BVNs, and ID numbers. The Sun News quotes the NIS Comptroller General, Muhammad Babandede, as saying, “The public is therefore advised to have one identity; one BVN number, one NIN number, and the same name and numbers must appear in all these data. We have done a lot to automate our systems. Businesses must be made easy and transparent without bottlenecks and difficulties. By this we will not issue any passport to anyone whose data doesn’t correspond to the BVN and NIN numbers”.

Opinion – Kenya, South Africa: African countries need the transparency of home-grown ID systems, opt for PPP

A Kenyan privacy and data rights activist calls for greater transparency in the creation of ID systems across Africa, while analysts in South Africa encourage public private partnerships as a funding strategy.

Writing for ITWeb Africa, Grace Bomu, an associate at the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), says, “Digital ID tech should not be built elsewhere and imported to Africa as a quick-fix to social or security problems.”

Bomu outlines the sheer ambition of countries’ efforts to encapsulate all information on all citizens for their entire lives: “The digital ID systems in Africa have several common features. Governments are centralizing all identity databases … to establish ’a single source of truth’ about every individual… By collating and centralizing identity information, governments imagine that they will maintain a single relationship with the individual and track every service they’re offered, from birth to death.” She adds that this collection is not just for adults in Kenya, but children whose “biometrics are collected as soon as they are considered permanently formed”, which saw six-year-olds required to participate in Huduma Namba registration.

Yet the people covered by these systems are kept in the dark about the technology being used and its provenance: “In both Ghana and Kenya, which are a mirror of other African countries, there is little public knowledge about the technology. Some petitioners sought the court’s help to also clarify the involvement of several multinational companies in the provision of digital ID technology.”

The lack of information available to citizens about the systems means there is no way for people to verify the standards of the technology and data protection: “Africans can only hope that the systems are designed to protect and promote their right to privacy and security online, since they do not know whether these standards were incorporated into the system design.” Ultimately this lack of transparency of systems dropped into place means the subject matter – the citizens – have no way to assess the systems, work with and improve them or hold them to account.

“Digital ID technology should be developed in consultation with citizens and as part of other solutions that improve the quality of life. It should not be built elsewhere and imported to Africa as a quick-fix to social or security problems.”

In an opinion piece for South Africa’s Business Day, Jakkie Culliers and Anton du Plessis, analysts at the Institute for Security Studies, discuss the role and potential of the private sector in development as technology advances.

“New technologies and modes of collaboration are opening up possibilities in poor countries and have many benefits, such as increasing opportunities for the inclusion of more people in the economy, increased access to government services,” states the note.

For example, national digital ID systems, which the pair believe can make swift changes: “whereas the establishment of a national population register and of births and deaths was historically a generational challenge, modern technology allows such efforts to be completed in a matter of years rather than decades”.

The ISS analysts largely agree with Bomu as to the governance of systems and integration, adding an international dimension as to why this is important: “As nations move forward with ID programmes it is imperative that they adopt standard laws and norms that ensure the integrity of these new systems and that lend them to regional inter-operability, given the need for regional integration such as with the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.

Culliers and du Plessis argue that one way to usher in and accelerate systems is via public-private partnerships: “If well managed, public-private partnerships provide important opportunities for rapid progress as well as drawing in the private sector in this regard. But possibly the most important contribution the private sector can play in these conditions is to adopt ethical business practices, stop engaging in corruption, commit to transparency and pay due taxes to governments, and not just to government officials.”

Updates and news in brief

In Brief – Nigeria: CardCentre, supplier of ID and voting cards, has invested N20bn ($55m) in the country over the past 15 years and will continue to invest.

Brief – Cote d’Ivoire: New civil society coalition formed called “Ça suffit!” (“That’s enough!”) to push for alternatives for the controversially expensive 5000FCFA ($8.40) new ID cards.

Brief – Japan/Africa: NEC promises to help with biometric authentication for WFP projects in Africa.

Brief – Nigeria: Financial Reporting Council urges financial service professionals to join it with biometrics, using national ID system will mean the council no longer has to hold members’ biometric data.

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