(By Adewale Okoya)

Take it or leave it, Nigeria’s sovereignty was compromised long ago by its heavy reliance on Western technology in virtually all sectors of the economy. If anyone is in doubt, the reverberations that followed Snowden’s revelations should serve as a wake-up call. From all perspectives, reliance means vulnerability. Everyone whose e-mail address ends in a dot com, including this writer, is already under surveillance by authorities in the U.S.

FROM all indications, the management of National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) was unprepared for the uproar that greeted the unveiling of the e-ID card in August when President Goodluck Jonathan formally launched the card and received the first biometric card, which will double as a payment card. Thus there has been a needless frenzy of activities by the NIMC management in the last few weeks to justify its collaboration with MasterCard, American payments solution company, in the implementation of the electronic identification (e-ID) card project for Nigerians.

   When NIMC initially revealed the plan to collaborate with MasterCard on the e-ID card at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in May 2013, in faraway South Africa, very few Nigerians paid attention to its implication on national sovereignty or otherwise. Now that the reality of a compromised National e-ID has dawned on Nigerians, those with an outlet to voice their concerns have condemned the partnership in no uncertain terms. Surprisingly, the leadership of NIMC has adopted a confrontational attitude instead of a conciliatory one in addressing the misgivings of Nigerians on the payments aspect of the project.

   Excluding the promoters of the idea and their collaborators, Nigerians watched in horror as the President, beaming from ear to ear, brandished his freshly issued e-ID with the MasterCard logo emblazoned on it and proceeded to make withdrawal from an automated teller machine (ATM) installed for the purpose at venue of the ceremony. In a truly democratic environment, the indignation expressed by several commentators afterwards would have resulted in a heated debate and subsequent review of the partnership at the end of which the matter would be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

   But what has happened since then? Did the National Assembly bother to investigate the NIMC and MasterCard partnership? Did the NIMC indicate any movement towards adjusting the card to accommodate the concerns of Nigerians? Considering the huge amount already sunk into the project and its long history, is it not desirable to address all grey areas now instead of leaving it for future governments? The Federal Government must understand that as long as these issues remain, the identity card scheme will remain a mirage.

   The recent effort by the NIMC Director General, Mr. Chris Onyemenam to explain away the commission’s partnership with MasterCard smacks of deception and hypocrisy. To my mind, he was simply blowing hot air and engaging in sophistry while saying nothing. When did the Federal Government become a retail banker to every Nigerian?  Can the NIMC DG possibly explain away why I need the e-ID as a payment card when I am already in possession of ATM cards issued to me by my bankers? Besides, what is the rationale for the MasterCard app on the e-ID when it is clear that more than 95 per cent of Nigerians will choose not to activate it?

   Among the objections to the NIMC and MasterCard partnership that I have seen so far, the title of “Federal Republic of MasterCard” used by Olusegun Adeniyi in his Thursday column ‘The Verdict’ published in ThisDay Newspaper in September is clearly the most compelling argument against what the e-ID promoters dubbed as the largest roll-out of a formal electronic payment solution Nigeria and the broadest financial inclusion initiative of its kind on the African continent.

   Undoubtedly, the reasoning that the partnership compromises national security and therefore the country’s sovereignty is a sentimental one. But it should not be dismissed without due consideration as it draws attention to serious lapses in the management of the Nigerian economy and the security implications. The other argument that it is another form of colonialism holds no water in an import-dependent economy where rent-seeking is given preference over production or manufacturing. For whatever it is worth, the promotion of the so-called stomach infrastructure over qualitative engagement of the citizenry at all levels of governance in the country is responsible for the miserable state of affairs in the country today.

   In today’s technology-driven global economy, much of the civilised world is under massive surveillance by intelligence agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and UK’s GCHQ based on information supplied by NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden. Given the widespread collection of information, apparently from central servers of major Internet companies and from other core servers that form part of the Internet backbone, activities of billions of people across the world including Nigeria have been caught up in a dragnet-style surveillance software known as Prism.

   The NSA’s Prism, according to a classified document published in the aftermath of Snowden’s revelation, provides access to the systems of Microsoft (and therefore Skype), Facebook, Google, Apple and other U.S. Internet giants. Either these companies have provided “master keys” to decrypt their traffic ((which they deny) or the NSA has somehow found other means. What is now indisputable is that anyone who is plugged into any of the devices or technology solutions on offer by the U.S. Internet giants is already under surveillance.

    Take it or leave it, Nigeria’s sovereignty was compromised long ago by its heavy reliance on Western technology in virtually all sectors of the economy. If anyone is in doubt, the reverberations that followed Snowden’s revelations should serve as a wake-up call. From all perspectives, reliance means vulnerability. Everyone whose e-mail address ends in a dot com, including this writer, is already under surveillance by authorities in the U.S.

   From the perspective of a marketing professional, the blatant defacement of the e-ID with the MasterCard logo is a massive error of judgement. Obviously, NIMC could not have granted such advantage to a local technology firm because competitors will be up in arms. Law 16 in Ries and Ries authoritative “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” states that “After a symbol has been associated with a name for a long period of time, the symbol can represent the name.” This explains why the Swoosh symbol on any item is easily recognised as the Nike brand. The same goes for the Apple logo and many other successful brands with easily recognised logo.

   Since Nigeria is not the Federal Republic of MasterCard but the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the presence of MasterCard logo on the e-ID should be seen as deeply offensive by patriotic Nigerians. As a respected legal practitioner, Mr. Fred Agbaje, told a newspaper recently, by adding the MasterCard logo, the company can enjoy copyright (ownership) over the cards. “You cannot say something is national and put the emblem of even one of the states of the federation on it not to talk of a private company. Why is the government cheapening the people of Nigeria?

   “By carrying the national ID card with the MasterCard logo on it, they are indirectly saying I should be a means of advertising for a private company. What is my interest in the company? Am I a shareholder there? It is unconstitutional,” Agbaje said.

   To the professional banker, turning the e-ID card into a payment solution is encroaching on their turf while the individual is unnecessarily saddled with the extra burden of ensuring that he is not rendered penniless by the mere loss of an identity card which may be very difficult to replace due to bureaucratic bottlenecks that he is bound to encounter. The e-ID card is a document that should be with its owner at all times while owners of ATM cards may decide to carry the card on their persons only when they intend to make use of the card. Considering the pervasive insecurity in the land, it will become double jeopardy for Nigerians as criminal elements would have a field day forcing people to activate the MasterCard app on the e-ID card and fleecing them of their hard earned money.

    Rather than compete with the private sector, the Federal Government should concentrate on providing the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. The NIMC should concentrate on its constitutional duty of managing the database of the identity of Nigerians and leave banking operations to professional bankers. Besides, the ongoing Biometric Verification Number (BVN) project of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is capable of resolving the identity challenge in the banking sector.

   It is shameful and saddening that for almost four decades successive governments have been unable to conclude a simple exercise of giving its nationals identity cards. Interestingly, the expertise that can ensure a smooth and seamless implementation of the project is available locally.   The drawback to such progressive approach has unfortunately been the preference for stomach infrastructure over excellence. May God deliver us from the ineptitude and slapdash conduct of those who have been entrusted with the management of our common wealth.

• Okoya, former executive editor of Marketing Edge Magazine, lives in Lagos. 

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