Biometric ID is a tool for migrant instrumentalization in Nigeria, study argues
An academic study on migrants from five central and west African countries seeking refuge in Nigeria has found that biometric identification is among four aspects fueling migrant instrumentalization especially for election purposes in that part of Africa.
Migrant instrumentalization is a phenomenon whereby a country uses migrants to exert pressure on another for reasons which could be political or economic, a concept often hinged on geopolitical analysis. Such instrumentalization could also manifest through political mobilization where actors within a state such as politicians use it for various political ends.
According to the study, whose results are published by an academic journal Taylor & Francis Online, the migrants used as primary sources of data are from Cameroon, Chad, Benin, Niger and Togo.
Other factors responsible for such instrumentalization and manipulation of migrants, per the study, include regional migration regimes, state identity policies and politics, as well as monetary inducement.
Growing biometric adoption and migrant mobilization for elections
The authors note that while there is an increasing adoption of biometric ID systems in Africa, its deployment especially among migrants and undocumented groups is happening in a somewhat distorted or irregular manner and that is raising considerable political consequences which are not sufficiently discussed.
To demonstrate the growth of biometrics technology adoption on the continent, the study notes that the biometrics and digital identity document market is estimated at €1.4 billion (US$1.5 billion) by specialist firm Acuity Market Intelligence, with some of the biggest players in the industry running huge contracts.
The researchers argue that “the political mobilisation of migrants for election purposes in West Africa, especially in the context of Nigeria and her neighbours, presents a form of migrant instrumentalization which has been perpetrated by both state and non-state actors, and sometimes through mid-level intermediaries.”
They cite instances where some refugees from Niger in Nigeria were found in the past with either biometric national ID cards or permanent voter’s cards (PVC), documents which are supposed to be held only by bona fide Nigerian citizens.
This, according to the authors, has largely been blamed on the lack of migrant integration into diverse programs in their host countries, coupled with the poor management of migrant data which has led to poor migrant governance.
Recall that the West Africa economic and political bloc (ECOWAS) is running a World-Bank sponsored West Africa Unique Identification for Regional Integration and Inclusion (WURI) project which is intended to streamline regional movements and access to services for regional citizens including labor mobility, social registries, health and pensions, as well as financial inclusion.
“The growing use of digital biometric systems in Nigeria is clearly reshaping how people vote and who can vote in elections,” the study observes, but indicates that about 22.6 percent of voters for Nigeria’s general election in 2023 were identified by the ABIS system as ineligible.
The report asserts that the biometric voter system “is most at risk of being retooled for electoral purposes by state actors who mobilize non-Nigerians to enroll as eligible voters. This eroded electoral integrity and the credibility of elections.”
The study calls biometric registration for migrants in Nigeria who have not had full citizenship status of their host country as “biometric nationality,” obtained through registration for the digital ID, the bank verification number (BVN), the voter ID (PVC) and a SIM card. Nigeria’s ID law allows migrants to enroll for IDs, which is what the authors say has made it possible for them to register for elections, albeit illegitimately.
Some of the migrants are quoted by the researchers as saying that their travel to Nigeria was coordinated by powerful people, possibly politicians, who ensured their safe passage and stay in the country. Some admitted they had registered for the electoral roll and were ready to cast their ballot during election time.
“A predominant political network built on migrants’ patronage is always reinforced in each election cycle. Some Nigerian politicians traditionally engage in pre-election purchase of PVCs. It is at this rallying point that the confluent interests of the politicians and the migrants coincide and intricately weave into a coherent bias towards election manipulation,” a portion of the report states.
As a result of the many issues arising from migrant instrumentalization and mobilization for election purposes, the researchers raise critical questions, first on whether state actors should allow open borders in line with the ECOWAS 1979 free movement protocol even if some migrants do not have formal travel documentary requirements.
In conclusion, the research paper notes that mobilizing migrants with “biometric nationality” for purposes of election manipulation not only undermines the credibility of the electoral process, but also delegitimizes the state, subverts the ECOWAS protocol on free movement, and violates the Constitution of Nigeria.