‘Officials Initially Offered To Help But When The Number Of Able-Bodied Citizens At The Centre Increased, They Left Us Unattended To’

By IFEDAYO OGUNYEMI

With the imminent disconnection of the SIM cards of Nigerian phone users who failed to enroll for the National Identification Number (NIN) registration, IFEDAYO OGUNYEMI, in this report, unearths the unsavoury treatment of persons with disabilities at NIMC enrolment centres in the six South-West states which is in disobedience of the provisions of the Disabilities Act and other laws.

The first time Sokoto State-born amputee, Abdullahi Ahmed, visited the NIMC centre in Owo, Ondo State, security personnel there ordered the motorcycle that conveyed him to park outside the gate because of the centre’s policy. The motorcyclist had to carry Ahmed into the premises for biometric capturing.

Nigeria has continued to be plagued by insecurity. A 2020 report titled ‘Mapping Nigeria’s Kidnapping Crisis: Players, Targets, and Trends’ by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project on political violence and protest around the world, noted abduction/forced disappearance events in Nigeria “increased dramatically in 2020.”

Kidnapping for ransom (by bandits and gunmen) grew into an enterprise such that kidnappers contacted families of their victims with mobile lines that were unable to be identified and traced by security agencies.

To arrest this development, the Federal Government ordered the linkage of all Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM) with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC). It said the synchronisation would help the government identify crooks and provide a digital framework for improving security and strengthening the economy.

The Federal Government, through a statement credited to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) on December 15, 2020, directed telecommunication providers to disconnect all SIMs without a NIN attached by December 30, 2020. The deadline has been reviewed many times and is now pegged at March 31, 2022.

Between October 2020 – two months before the Federal Government directives on NIN/SIM linkage – and October 2021, a total of 63.972 million SIMs were disconnected. Data from the NCC showed that 293,554,598 telephone lines were connected in October 2020. The figure fell by 21.79 per cent to 229,582,206 in October 2021. No reason was given by the regulator but this may not be unconnected with the restrictions on new SIM sales and activations.

Since the announcement of the directive in December 2020, millions of Nigerians have defied COVID-19 directives on social gatherings and thronged the NIMC offices and enrolment centres which have now risen to 14,000 nationwide. Many of the applicants spent long hours in queues and endured sharp practices and inhumane treatment by officials.

One of the Nigerians lucky enough to have been successfully captured by the NIMC is visually-impaired Michael Lucky. He had had his registration at Human Resource Centre, Iju, Akure North Local Government Area of Ondo State. His disability had earned him exemption from the joining the queue and offer of assistance from the officials.

“They (NIMC officials) attended to me in time despite the fact that there were many people waiting for their turns,” he told Saturday Tribune.

Another visually impaired person who got lucky during the period is the youth leader of the National Association of the Blind in Ondo State, Nasrudeen Oladele and his blind friend. While they were well received by the NIMC officials at Owo Town Hall in Ondo State, they were only able to get assistance from a fellow enrollee. “The officials initially offered to help but when the number of able-bodied citizens at the centre increased, they left us unattended to,” he said.

NIN is compulsory for all…

Meanwhile, Section 27 of the NIMC Act stipulates that to partake and enjoy government services without NIN is an offence, punishable by fine or imprisonment. It should also be noted that the NIMC, in 2020, set a target of capturing all Nigerians in its database between 2023 and 2024. This was after the Federal Government secured a World Bank credit facility of $430 million for the NIMC under the Nigeria Digital Identification for Development Project. The project seeks to increase the number of persons enrolled for NIN from 36.894 million on October 11, 2019 to 148 million by June 1, 2024. Part of the target is also to enroll 65 million women and girls and 50 million children under the age of 16 by that date. The project also mandates the NIMC, as part of its intermediate results indicators, to periodically consult with beneficiaries, stakeholders, marginalised groups and government.

Did NIMC lose 5 million NINs in two months?

An interrogation of data periodically released by the NIMC showed that while there was an increase in the number of enrollees from inception up to February 2021, the number of persons on the NIMC database dropped to 51 million in April 2021 from the 56.18 million NINs the agency said it issued in February 2021 – about 5 million NIN records deficit in two months. The figure rose up again to 54 million in May and then in subsequent months.

While as of December 2021, over 71 million Nigerians had successfully been enrolled for NIN with about three to four SIMs linked to a NIN, data from the NIMC, however, failed to show how many of the about 29 million Nigerians with disabilities, children or women have been enrolled. Repeated efforts to speak with the Head, Corporate Communications of the NIMC, Mr Kayode Adegoke, on the missing NIN data and number of PWDs enrolled proved abortive. Repeated calls placed to his telephone line between December 2021 and January 2022 were neither answered nor returned. Text and WhatsApp messages sent to him were equally not replied.

Different disabilities, different challenges

Apart from extortion and distance, many PWDs still face varying daunting challenges while enrolling for NIN. One of them is mobility.

“The truth is that there is no separate room for persons with disabilities and I found it difficult to navigate to the appropriate offices,” he said while also bemoaning the delay in the collection of post-enrolment slips which forced him to visit the centre for the second time. “The process is stressful for people with disabilities,” Abdullahi Ahmed quoted earlier lamented in Owo, Ondo State.

He told Saturday Tribune that “I wasn’t able to do the registration until about three to four weeks from my first visit. Telling them that I was a deaf didn’t yield quick attention from the officers and most of the officers lacked the technique of interpretation.”

Gloria Aribo who is confined to a wheelchair didn’t get the same treatment Mr Lucky or Oladele got when she visited the NIMC centre inside Ilaje Local Government secretariat in Ondo State.

NIMC office at Ibadan, Oyo State
“My sister and other people who came for their registration had to help me take my wheelchair across the gutters (in the premises). There was no room set aside for physically challenged persons. If not for the SIM that they threatened to disconnect, I won’t bother myself because I already have my voter’s card and the National Identity Number is useless from the onset,” she told Saturday Tribune.

Imo State-indigene Susan Kelechi who lives in Ojota, Lagos is yet to enrol for her NIN. Living in a wheelchair as a result of her physical disability and far from the enrolment centres has made Kelechi one of the candidates whose SIM card will soon be disconnected by the FG.

“I don’t feel there’s any conscious effort to make it accessible for persons with disabilities,” she said. “Nobody looks into proximity (of these centres) to our residences considering the fact that mobility is key for any person with disability. Payments are also made to get NIN, how will a person with disability who is struggling do that?”

Gale of complaints

Middle-aged Seun Akinkugbe accompanied her sister to the NIMC centre at 13, Olora Street, off Ifaki Road, Ado Ekiti, a couple of times before he spoke to Saturday Tribune. “Today, we have been here for more than five hours but we are yet to be attended to,” he said while urging the government to abolish the policy.

Same was the complaint of Mrs Femi Dede whom we met standing on the queue at the centre in the stead of her sister who lives in a wheelchair. “To take my sister across the staircase is tiring. I don’t understand the motive behind doing the NIN since the government cannot provide adequate aids for people on wheelchairs coming for the registration,” she lamented.

The chairman of the Joint National Association for Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD) in Osun State, Kehinde Onitiju, told Saturday Tribune that even regular citizens and officials were neither patient nor friendly with persons with disabilities.

He said: “Whether PWDs go earlier or not, regular people don’t allow them to be given a priority. They are not friendly at all.

“The centres are not conducive for all categories of person with disabilities. There are no interpreters for the deaf. There are no ramps for physically-challenged persons, safe floors for the visually-impaired. Those with albinism are kept in the sun. The officials need to give PWDs time in terms of biometric capturing because it takes a long time for those who crawl to quickly get their fingerprints captured. Sometimes the prints have faded off as a result of crawling and sweat.”

Saturday Tribune caught up with persons living with leprosy at the Lepers Colony in Iberekodo, Abeokuta.

At the colony, a 52-year-old woman who identified herself simply as Bolaji said that anytime they got to the enrolment centre at Akomoje, they usually met a large crowd and the officials told them they could only register an allotted number daily.

She said: “We have gone there about five times, yet we couldn’t get it done.

“It has been over eight months since I did it and I can’t collect the slips. I can’t do anything without it because they said I need my NIN to be able to open a bank account, among other things. I asked them if I could do it again elsewhere but they said I couldn’t.

“The bank officials told me I couldn’t open an account unless I came with my NIN. I even asked them if it was possible to make use of my child’s NIN but they said no; that I must present my own NIN.”

In February 2021, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, revealed the plan of the Federal Government to replace Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) with the NIN. The Federal Government further mandated NIN for transactions, including opening bank accounts, voter registration, payment of tax, etc.

As a result of this mandate, 38-year-old Sunday Olaitan has been unable to open an account, a situation that has made him ineligible for the monthly N5,000 stipends distributed to vulnerable people in the state by the Federal Government through the Conditional Cash Transfer-Household Uplifting Programme (HUP) under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. The issue: he has no fingerprint.

Olaitan said: “The issue I had with NIN was that I had no fingerprint. When I put my finger on the computer, it did not come up. Almost 500 people wanted to register at the centre and once it got to your turn and your fingerprint did not show, they would ask you to step aside for the next person.

“Some family members asked me to send my account number so they could send me money for my upkeep but I do not have an account number.”

The meeting with the lepers at the colony was facilitated by the secretary of JONAPWD in the state, Mr Jimoh Ahmed, who noted that the “challenge we saw is that some people who could not read or write registered and made a lot of errors.”

He said: “Some people who were supposed to have ‘A’ at the beginning of their names made the mistake of adding ‘H’.

“And when such a person wanted to use the NIN for SIM registration, they rejected it. I have sent people over there (to NIMC) and they said we should bring N15,000 to rectify it in Abuja. This is a huge challenge for most of our people. They can’t find their names in the database after they have been registered.”

The same fate befell 50-year-old Aliyah Adeniji who enrolled for NIN in 2019 but her details weren’t found on the register. “When they took us to the place where we were to collect the NIN slip, I was unable to collect it, even till now. They took my picture, gave me a form, but since then I am unable to get it.”

The JONAPWD chairman in the state, Dr Lekan Mohammed, who is also an educator and specialist in deaf education, bemoaned the bitter experiences and extortion of deaf students waiting to write WAEC examination in 2022 who registered for the NIN as mandated by the examination body, adding that “they (the government) are trying. However, more needs to be done.”

Most of the reported cases of discrimination and neglect in Lagos State revolve around physical access to the venues used for the registration.

“There is the need for them (NIMC officials) to understand how to relate or support persons with disabilities​ that come to register,” the chairman of JONAPWD in the state, Dr Adebukola Adebayo, said, adding that for different disability groups, accessibility meant different things.

“If we also look at the way other citizens who come for this registration comport themselves, the place is usually very rowdy, very disorganised and it is obvious that you cannot fulfill the National Disability Act which provides that people with disability will be given priority on queues in places like that.

Adebayo said: “I remember a person with a disability reported being molested by the official conducting the registration and the other registrants who were waiting. Provocation is very high in many of these centres and they don’t spare anybody.

Assistant National Secretary of JONAPWD, Yusuff Raheem, decried the inhumane treatment of PWDs while noting that some of them do not enroll at all until they need the NIN for an important government process.

“In most of the policies and plans of the government, people with disabilities are not always put into consideration. Even with the establishment of the National Commission of Persons With Disabilities, things are not really going well because most of the things that are provided for in the law are not yet implemented. So, as a result of that, we are still facing discrimination, negligence and so on and so forth,” Raheem said.

NIMC head office at Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State
Adeboye Adegoke, the Senior Program Manager at the Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights advocacy group, bemoaned the inability to access the digital identity scheme as a result of lack of facility or aids for PWDs, describing it as unacceptable “because it promotes exclusion from such service.”

Adegoke said: “When we talk about digital inclusion, we ought to ensure that everybody is captured, including persons with disabilities. It is expected that there should be provisions for everybody. It would be great to hear what they have to say about this but it should not be heard of in this age, in 2021, that for provision of a service that is supposed to be as significant as this, you won’t make arrangements for PWDs. It has implications for the overall goal of digital rights and inclusion.”

 

Breaking the law with another law

It should be noted these treatments run afoul of the provisions of the Disabilities Act which caters for the right of PWDs to access to public buildings, including provision of accessibility aids such as lifts and ramps.  Section 8 (Sub-section 2) of the act prescribes a daily fine of N10,000 for corporate bodies and N5,000 for individuals that fail to comply with the provisions upon conviction.

While stipulating a five-year moratorium from the day of assent for the implementation of the act during which the buildings must be made accessible to PWDs, most of the enrollment centres visited do not have these disability-friendly aids.

Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Festus Ogun, told Saturday Tribune that the bitter-sweet experiences of PWDs is an indication that the Nigerian authorities are not committed to the plight and welfare of those with disabilities who ordinarily should be treated with utmost care, comfort and a sense of belonging.

Ogun said: “Despite the clear provisions of the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 that mandates the authorities to provide access to physical structures, they have failed, refused and/or neglected to respect the law of the land. Though the neglect of the Federal Government is punishable under Section 8(2) of the Act, the government has always breached the law with impunity. It indeed shows the inhumanity of those in the seats of power.”

Entrance of the NIMC centre in Oka-Akoko, Ondo State
Many NIMC officials declined to speak with Saturday Tribune. At a centre located at the post office in Owo Local Government, an official asked our correspondent to get permission from the NIMC state coordinator before posing questions and taking pictures.

When our correspondent visited the Oyo State coordinator of the NIMC, Mr Olusola Sotayo, in his Ibadan office, he declined to comment on the agency’s policy direction on PWDs and their treatment, saying he had no authority to speak with the press. He referred Saturday Tribune to the head of the corporate communications unit of the commission who consistently failed to answer his calls and reply text messages.

Before Saturday Tribune left the office, an NIMC official was seen directing an enrollee to pay N15,000 with details on the commission’s website and produce legal documents backing records to be updated.

But two officials at the NIMC in two of the states who spoke on condition of anonymity said the commission had a mandate to prioritise vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, aged persons and PWDs.

One of the officials who Saturday Tribune learnt is the manager of the centre said “people with disabilities are given utmost attention” whenever they come around the centre for their enrolment slips.

Another official told said that errors during enrolment affect all categories of enrollees and not just PWDs, adding that the procedures for updating such records were on the commission’s website.

While the Federal Government has enrolled almost half of the Nigerian population on the NIMC database, insecurity has continued to rear its head in the country. Only time will tell as to whether enrolling all Nigerians will reduce insecurity in the country.

This investigation was supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

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