From afar, his long puzzled face was conspicuous . At noon on Friday, Boniface Ani and his wife , Doris, had spent over six hours at the Alausa centre of the National Identity Management Commission in Lagos , waiting for a miracle to happen in an attempt to get their National Identity Numbers.
The couple had grown weary of a crowd milling around the entrance gate of the commission sharing premises with the Lagos headquarters of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.
After writing their names on a list provided by the NIMC officials, they were told to return in February for capturing as there was a backlog of previous applications on the rack .
Ani , who runs an accounting firm in the Ikeja area of the state , was torn in -between frustration and anxiety, unsure of getting his NIN linked with his SIMs (Subscriber Identification Modules ) before the February 9 deadline .
“ It is obvious I cannot get it before the deadline ,” Ani declared , disappointedly .
The Federal Government had declared on December 15 , 2020 , that all SIMs not registered with valid NINs on the network of the telecommunications companies would be blocked after December 30, 2020 .
It later extended the deadline for subscribers without NIN to February 9 , 2021 following criticisms that greeted large gatherings across NIMC centres amid a spike in COVID- 19 infections and growing death rates . The three weeks’ extension for subscribers with NINs will elapse on Tuesday, January 19 .
As of October, the total number of mobile network connections was 207 .58 million while only 43 million Nigerians have NINs , thus leaving 164 million telephone users at the risk of being deactivated.
As the extended deadline draws near , crowds keep surging at NIMC centres to beat the deadline , paying little or no attention to wearing of facemasks, physical distancing and other COVID- 19 safety protocols.
Rowdiness at the centres continues to mount on a daily basis as further extension has yet to be announced . The Nigerian Communications Commission on Wednesday said it was awaiting the advice of the Federal Government regarding the deadline .
The Director, Public Affairs , NCC , Ikechukwu Adinde , noted that the earlier announced deadlines were still in force despite the clamour for extension or outright suspension of the registration process .
If the deadline stayed, Ani and his wife , a businesswoman , feared their means of livelihood were on the line.
“ I have not gone to work today (Friday) , neither has my wife. Most of us , our livelihoods depend on our phone numbers and we don’ t want to be cut off ,” he stated in a tone laden with worries.
The 48 -year -old accountant told Sunday PUNCH that he and his wife met many people when they got to the NIMC office in Alausa at 6 .30 am and were asked to write their names on a list.
He said, “ The officials told us to come back on February 4 . I was shocked because that would be few days to the deadline . I waited till afternoon , thinking that I would see someone who can help me. The crowd keeps increasing and I don’t want to join them because of COVID- 19 pandemic . That was why I distanced myself.
“ The crowd was more than this when I came last week . It will require more than one year for everyone to get their NINs , and in light of COVID-19 , it is not advisable to stampede people into getting it done . If the government is saying the new strain of COVID- 19 spreads faster , it can only get worse in this kind of situation .”
The exercise has been more hectic for his wife, Doris, who had visited the centre thrice without any hope of getting captured soon .
Her first visit was in December when the sight of “ an extremely large crowd ” turned her off. She revisited the centre and Tuesday as early as 4 am, thinking she would strike it lucky.
She explained , “I still met a crowd and we wrote our names. I returned home and came back around 8 am . I could not find the list again. People I met told me that the officials were attending to those who wrote their names two weeks ago . They later told us to wait till February.
“ I have gone to another location on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way ( Lagos) , but I discovered that the centre is no longer there. The deadline is fast approaching and I can ’t function without my phone . I came today ( Friday) again to try my luck. The exercise is just frustrating . I have wasted today again now.
“ At this time when COVID-19 is raging, the registration should be a continuous process . You don’ t give a short period for Nigeria to register. The government should also open many centres in different areas so that the registration will be fast . An official there told me they only attend to 200 people every day . A friend of mine came here four days consecutively without going to work. She got tired and stopped coming .”
Frustration greets exercise
Frank Igegele runs a credit facility outlet at Ogba, Lagos. The nature of the service requires that he is constantly on the ground to monitor his workers. That is not the case for some days now; he has been resuming at the NIMC office instead of his workplace.
He said, “ The registration is not progressing as expected because of lack of coordination. The Federal Government needs to do something about it. Maybe they should allow other agencies to be doing it so that it will be fast . Many people are coming here to do it to the detriment of their work, yet they could not get it done .
“ I came around 7 am but there is no possibility I would be captured today. This is my third time of being here and there is always crowd . I wonder if it is the same COVID- 19 pandemic in other countries that we have in Nigeria . The government is preaching social distancing yet they expect millions of Nigerians to get their NINs within a short time . ”
It was the sixth time Titilope Ajayi would have to leave a warehouse in Agege where she works as a salesgirl for the centre. She was eventually captured on Friday, crossing the first hurdle of the onerous exercise.
Ajayi explained , “ The stress is much . Two weeks ago when I was here, they told me to come last Friday. When I came, they said they were on strike. I have taken permission from work six times. My boss even doubted if I was actually coming for the NIN registration. It is painful . I came here today ( Friday) around 5 . 30am . I was eventually called in for registration and they gave me another appointment to come next Friday for my NIN .”
Standing some metres away from the crowded entrance, Chinedu Uwakwe shook his head intermittently – in utter shock – at the reckless manner people gathered .
After being told at the Ikotun office of the commission to return in May for registration as a result of outstanding applications, he decided to try his luck at the Alausa centre. “ I blamed myself for coming here ,” he said regrettably , dripping with sweat .
He stated, “ I was at the NIMC centre in Ikotun Local Government Area secretariat in December but they told me they could no longer accept new applicants until the first week of May. They said they had thousands of names to attend to . They did not demand money .
“ I told them I have a pre -enrolment form that I downloaded from the NIMC website and asked if I could fill it and submit. They refused and directed me here . They even said they are no longer collecting pre -enrolment form in Lagos again . I decided to come here to see things for myself but I was shocked. There is no coordination at all; everywhere is rowdy; no social distancing. ”
Uwakwe , who lamented that the NIMC portal provided for online registration was not accessible , said it would have reduced the crowd if functional.
He added , “ This is where we can make use of technology. People don’t have to be queuing under the sun for registration. The government should get the portal working so that people can fill the form there, submit and get a date when they can go to a centre to collect the slips that contain their NINs . ”
To get his NIN, Oluwayemi Babatope, shuttled between the centre and his residence in Ibafo in the neighbouring Ogun State thrice before he ‘ hit the jackpot ’ on Friday. “ It was a big success after days of frustrations, ” he disclosed with an air of victory.
“ I was here on Wednesday but they could not attend to me. They said there was delay due to network problem . They are supposed to give out NIN immediately after registration but it is not like that.
“ The first stage is to get a tracking ID after registration and come back for the NIN later. I was here on Thursday but still could not get it. We have an NIMC centre in Ibafo but they take limited number daily . They register about 50 persons every day .”
At the NIMC office at the Ikeja Local Government Area secretariat on Obafemi Awolowo Way , the same tale of disappointment was recorded.
An applicant, Jacob Chukwuebuka, shared his harrowing experience with our correspondent who visited the centre on Friday.
“ It is nothing to write home about, ” he said. “ This was my third time of coming here. ”
He said he came at 5 am on Wednesday and waited fruitlessly for hours to get a form from the officials.
He added , “ I finally got one and filled it. I am waiting to be captured and I am not sure it will get to my turn today. I had to close my office each time I came here . It is affecting me. The government should get more hands . They can engage corps members to do it. With this slow pace , the deadline is not justifiable . I don’ t think I can get my NIN before the deadline . ”
A middle – aged woman , Mariam Babajide , and many other applicants who requested forms from one of the officials were denied and asked to return on Monday.
“ We cannot attend to any fresh applicants today again ,” the official announced abruptly before locking up the gate to a roomy office crammed with applicants.
“ I came all the way from Ojota. This is the fourth time I would be here yet they keep on telling us to come back. It is sad to waste the time I should have used to do my business here without getting result, ” Babajide lamented .
Commenting on the registration hitches in an interview with The PUNCH, the National Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet , Olusola Teniola , said the massive crowds at NIMC offices showed that it would be tough to register and integrate all SIMs with valid NINs .
“ It is clear that the dates that we are trying to achieve are not going to be met, ” he said.
The President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria , Ikechukwu Nnamani, also said it was obvious that the number of persons without NINs was large.
Opposition against NIN registration amid COVID- 19
The NIMC workers had embarked on strike on Thursday, January 7 , after three officials in Abuja tested positive for coronavirus.
The President of the Association of the Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria , NIMC unit, Asekokhai Lucky , who confirmed the cases to journalists in Abuja , said the workers were angry because the management was aware of the development, but kept it from them.
The workers complained over exposure to COVID- 19 risks , lack of personal protective equipment and poor funding but called off the strike a day after . Since then , crowding of applicants at the commission centres has resumed .
Meanwhile , the Nigerian Medical Association warned that the large crowds at NIMC centres could worsen the spate of coronavirus infections and urged the Federal Government to suspend the exercise .
Nigeria recorded 1867 cases on Friday, the highest daily tally so far, dragging up the curve to 107 ,345 cases while death toll shot up by 28 to 1 , 433 .
The NMA President , Prof. Innocent Ujah , at a press conference in Jos, Plateau State , on Tuesday noted that NIN registration should not warrant emergency in light of public health crisis, noting that the crowds would lead to more COVID- 19- related mortalities .
He said , “ This NIN exercise should be suspended for now. Crowding in one place for the exercise will increase the death of people from COVID-19 . Suspending the NIN exercise will not lead to death. The exercise can resurface later, after it ( pandemic ) has come down. ”
Also, a Lagos -based public health consultant, Dr Rotimi Adesanya , urged the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to prevail on the NIMC to suspend the registration exercise, saying that the gatherings posed dangers to the population .
He said, “ The crowd is usually very much and some people are not compliant (to safety protocols) . One of the strategies to fight the pandemic is social distancing. But people are queuing to register and mingle with one another. It is a danger to the whole population. If we don’ t do the registration in six months ’ time , will Nigeria cease to exist? We are not getting the priority right .
“ If we don’t do it in six months , it won’ t affect our economy but if we keep exposing people, many people will get infected and it will affect the economy. Even though the government is saying it is not planning a lockdown , if the situation gets out of hand, they will impose a lockdown on the nation and when that happens , the NIN registration can ’t go on.
“ The exercise should be suspended for six months when the pandemic would have gone down. If the ministry involved is saying they will not postpone, they will be doing more harm than good . If they ( the government ) are saying people who are attending parties are exposing themselves to risks, what we see at NIMC centres is more than partying . People may not get too close to one another in parties compared to the crowd in the centres . The PTF must insist that it must be suspended. That is the best approach . Meanwhile , the online registration can go on. ”
A public analyst and lawyer, Mr Liborous Oshoma, accused the Federal Government of causing confusion by advising people to observe COVID -19 safety rules in one hand and fixing a deadline for subscribers to synchronise their SIMs with NINs on the other hand.
He stated , “ The government is complaining about the second wave (of COVID-19 ) as the cases are increasing day by day . Yet, they are asking people to register for NIN without automating the system. Hence, people must gather.
“ The exercise should be reorganised. There are ways to do it without physical gatherings. The government should create apps for the registration and people can upload their passport photographs . They can also decentralise the process and extend the deadline . ”
Also, the Minister of State for Health, Dr . Olorunnimbe Mamora, while featuring on Channels Television ’ s Sunrise Daily on Monday, hinted that NIN enrolment may be suspended over COVID- 19 risks amid the crowd trooping into the centres on a daily basis .
The minister, who is a member of the PTF on COVID-19 , said that the government had a duty to ensure Nigerians were protected at all times. He enjoined the NIMC to come up with plans to avoid large gatherings.
He said, “ I don’ t feel good looking at the picture where people are gathered in multitudes. But I’ m also aware that the relevant ministry which is the communications and digital economy is looking at this.
“ My understanding is that the whole process may be suspended to reorder the whole process in terms of management of the crowd because it was never intended that it would become a rowdy process like that. ”