The ongoing National Identification Number (NIN) enrolment exercise in the midst of the deadly second wave of COVID-19 has caused a sharp division among President Muhammadu Buhari’s ministers.
A presidency source said the issue has thrown the ministers into opposing camps as majority of them want the exercise suspended while the other camp, led by Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, wants the exercise to continue.
Since the commencement of the exercise, there have been concerns as crowds thronged the offices of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and registration centres after the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) directed telecommunication companies to block SIM cards not registered with NIN.
The rush by applicants is intended to beat the February 9 deadline for registration, verification, and subsequent linking of NIN to Subscribers Identification Modules (SIM) cards. Crowds defied COVID-19 safety protocols such as social distancing and wearing of facemasks which, many fear, may trigger the spread of the virus.
On Monday, Olorunnimbe Mamora, the Minister of State for Health, said the Federal Government may suspend the exercise to avoid the spread of COVID-19 as a result of large crowds. He said the NIMC needs to reorder the whole process so as to ensure that crowds are well-managed and the people protected.
“I don’t feel good looking at the picture where people are gathered in multitudes. It’s like a super spreader event which we don’t like, but I’m also aware that the relevant ministry, which is the communications and digital economy, is looking at this,” Mamora said.
Speaking with our correspondent on Thursday, our source said the development and the rising cases of COVID-19 had caused a sharp division among the president’s cabinet.
“Right now, we have two camps in the cabinet. There is a camp which believes that the registration exercise is not a life and death matter and should be suspended to a reasonable period when COVID-19 would have gone or drastically reduced. This camp is in the majority.
“However, there is another camp which believes that the exercise should go ahead as the registration is crucial to curtailing the rising wave of insecurity in the country. This camp, led by the Minister of Communications, believes that the exercise can continue if people are orderly. I believe the president will review the situation and take appropriate decisions soon,” the source said.
When contacted, an official in the Ministry of Communications said the exercise could go ahead if the NIMC staff were proficient, noting that the enrollees take responsibility for their health and safety and security agents help maintain orderliness.
According to her, if the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can conduct governorship elections in Edo and Ondo in the midst of the pandemic without hitches, then the NIMC should be able to do likewise.
Speaking on the development, Monday Ubani, a former Second Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), said anyone saying the exercise should continue in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was unreasonable.
He said: “It doesn’t require any person to know that if any person wants this exercise to continue, in the light of the deadlier era we are now with COVID-19, it means the person is not reasonable.
“They are saying the exercise is for security, is it not about the security and safety of the lives of Nigerians?
“You are at the same time risking their lives by asking them to congregate and cluster in an environment where they will be exposed to the deadlier COVID-19 that is ravaging the entire world.
“Does it require anyone to know that that is unreasonable? How will any person even support such a thing?
“How will President Buhari support the idea that people should congregate and be made to be infected with the disease? Yet, every day, the government is reeling out guidelines, asking us to observe safety protocols. You have set up a Presidential Task Force that is looking into the matter of COVID-19 and they have given us briefings on what to do to observe protocols, at the same time, you are asking people to congregate and be exposed to the virus?
“The person asking Nigerians to go ahead with the exercise has an ulterior motive that is sinister. He is the only one that knows the reason why he is doing this.”
On its part, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Lagos State chapter, said the development had clearly revealed division, lack of coordination, and internal crisis in the Buhari administration.
While declaring support for the registration, the party’s Publicity Secretary, Taofik Gani, however, said it shouldn’t be done in an atmosphere that may endanger the lives of Nigerians.
“To us in the PDP, it is just another reflection of the division, lack of coordination, and internal crisis in the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. That is why Nigerians have lost hope and have given up on this government. They have made things far worse for the populace.
“How can we have such disagreement in the government? The other time, Pantami said on television that the law on NIMC and the National Identity Card was passed 13 years ago and everybody must be registered within six months.
“The question he should have been asked is, when did he (Pantami) register? We in the PDP support the fact that people must be registered to curtail the influx of foreigners into the country but it must not be done punitively or targeted to punish Nigerians or put their lives at risk of this pandemic,” he said.
Matthew Ogunba, a lawyer and rights activist, said the exercise was to distract Nigerians from the failures of the Buhari administration.
He also said: “It is disheartening that ministers that should put heads together to solve Nigeria’s problems are working at cross purposes.
“The exercise should be suspended. No two ways about it. If you remember, the minister ordered the exercise during the period the National Assembly asked President Buhari to appear before them. It is just a ploy to distract Nigerians from the failures of the government. Nothing more,” he said.
However, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, a former Minister of Education, said the registration should continue but the government must find a solution to the surging crowds at the venues through the use of technology.
“My position on the issue is that it must continue because Nigerians have a way of trying to run away from challenges. When challenges occur, we are supposed to face them. This is the age of technology. We should be able to devise ways, in spite of the pandemic, to handle such simple issues as this one on registration. The people who are in charge should be resourceful and think through to find a solution to this challenge.
“That is the essence of their going to school. They should use their brains to find solutions to problems, not that they will see a problem, they run away and the problem remains. Nobody knows when COVID-19 will go. We are praying that, by the grace of God, it should go in the next one or two months.
“At the same time, there is no certainty about that. So, we will have to live our lives. We should not shut down our lives simply because we have this challenge. We should find solutions and I believe that Nigerians are creative enough to find solutions to any problem once they are determined to do so,” Adeniran said.
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