Of “ghosts” and legal identity: meeting Sierra Leoneans in Zambia
October 22, 2019
By Sulaiman Momodu
I have just returned to Ethiopia from the Zambian capital Lusaka, where I was privileged to attend the Fifth Conference of African Ministers Responsible for Civil Registration at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre.
More than 750 delegates, including experts, from 53 African countries, United Nations and other partners, attended the conference under the theme: “Innovative Civil Registration and Vital Statistics System: Foundation for Legal Identity Management”.
Essentially, the meeting was about what everybody needs – an identity from birth – through life’s events and circumstances – to death. I was thrilled to be there and it was also exciting to meet compatriots and to listen to their presentations.
In my years of sojourn beyond borders, sometimes I have attended conferences where Sierra Leone is most times only seen, and if heard, the impression most people usually have is that the country is where man-made tragedy was born and only goes visiting other countries. But is the Sierra Leone narrative changing from a corruption-infested country to one where people are ready to take the trajectory of true transformation?
In Zambia, I was faced with the reality that not all questions could be easily answered with a “yes” or “no”. Again and again different people at different places asked: “Is this your first time in Zambia”?
As one of the countries that stands prominent in the liberation struggle on the continent, my “yes” response would have been inaccurate just as a “no”. The point is that I had visited Zambia before while en route to Zimbabwe. In this regard, from out of the belly of an airplane, I had walked out and touched Zambian soil.
At a time when some people are dealing with identity complications, visiting Zambia to attend a conference on civil registration and vital statistics vis-à-vis using new technology platforms was quite refreshing.
From birth to death through the pathway of the gains and pains of life that we contend with between these two major life events – education, health, marriage, divorce and the like – we need legal identity which is a human right. Come to think of it, even when someone steals a goat or a high profile personality robs the nation by the stroke of a pen, the first thing that would be required is the person’s identity – who stole ? Who embezzled?
As the conference was about civil registration and vital statistics, it was not surprising that delegates to the conference were required to register online which was understandably verified before the issuance of a delegate badge. When it was my turn, a young lady beaming with smiles enquired: “Are you from the media”? I was mildly surprised by the question as I was not physically carrying any journalistic paraphernalia – microphone or cameras – again, my response here was “yes and no”.
“Do media practitioners have a special look?” I asked as I wondered why she did not ask if I was a lawyer, doctor, engineer or the like. Many years ago, the perception people had of journalists in Sierra Leone was that media practitioners were a bunch of poor and hungry busybodies usually with severely battered “I look up to God” shoes. Today, journalists have largely rebranded themselves and are contributing to making a difference to society notwithstanding challenges. Back to the young lady, I clarified that I was not at the conference to report for any media outlet but for one of the international organisations supporting the conference. Some journalists from mainstream media were present though.
Inside the hall with flags of African countries and organisations adding colour to the atmosphere, the discussions on legal identity were thought-provoking.
From Sierra Leone, there were representatives from Statistics, Ministry of Health, the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA), Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Information and unicef. I met the Minister of Internal Affairs Edward A. Soluku; the Deputy Minister of Information Mamadi Gobeh Kamara; Director General Mohamed M. Massaquoi of NCRA; and Ag Director of Births and Deaths, Brima Victor Kamara. I also had a discussion with Stefano Schwarz from unicef.
Before presentations and discussions, delegates were first taken on a tour (via video clips) of the land of the legendary African walking safari, Victoria Falls, the wild Zambezi River, abundant wildlife, and raw wilderness. Blessed with awe-inspiring natural wonders, an abundance of wildlife, huge water bodies and vast open spaces, Zambia is acknowledged as one of the safest countries in the world with the finest Safari experiences on the planet.
As the conference got underway, generally, the big picture is that Africa has an identity problem with about 550 million people not having any ID. This means these people “do not exist”.
In his presentation, Director General Mohamed Massaquoi outlined the effort of Sierra Leone with a population of 7,075,641 (2015 Census). Among other things, the conference was informed that civil registration existed in Sierra Leone since 1791.
Fast forward to 2014, Cabinet adopted a policy document entitled ― National Policy on Civil Registration Reform in Sierra Leone and a National Civil Registration Act was enacted in 2016, which established NCRA that provides for the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal registration of births, deaths, stillbirths, marriages, divorces, nullities, adoptions, legitimization and recognition and the issuance of National ID Card with unique National Identification Numbers (NIN) assigned to every resident in Sierra Leone.
It was pointed out that all civil registration and vital statistics and ID functions, which were formerly fragmented, are now integrated and managed under NCRA.
Today, NCRA providing CRVS and ID services is functional in all 16 administrative offices across the country. Currently, there is availability of biometric data on about 75 percent of the country’s population with plans to capture the remaining 25 percent by end of 2019. In addition, a unique non repeatable, non-duplicating and non-reusable NIN is generated and assigned to all residents, including the 75 percent of residents captured so far. Biometric data is linked with education for enrolment, employment, driver’s license, tax administration, social security benefits, financial inclusion, immigration service, health, internal security/ defense and so on.
Minister Edward A. Soluku said Biometric IDs and NIN were used to clean payroll system of government that tracked about 9,000 duplicated and non-existent workers thus saving over USD6 million for government annually. The exercise made the payroll system accountable and precise. “If you have no identity, you are a ‘ghost’,” stressed the minister. With “ghosts” previously chopping millions of leones every year in the country at the expense of the living, this sounded like music to me.
Are there challenges? Like other countries, Sierra Leone named low awareness on CRVS and ID benefits, inadequate financial support, overlapping CRVS functions and other legal issues, unpredictable donor support, training and capacity building.
The Sierra Leone team noted that for you to improve a system, you must know what is not working, and “in order to have an active labour population we need to know what is killing the people”.
The conference ended with Member States agreeing to scale-up efforts to address the huge identity gap that exists on the continent.
Although I am not very easily impressed, I must say the performance of Sierra Leone was outstanding in Zambia. Well done, Sierra Leone!
About the author: Sulaiman Momodu is a former editor of Concord Times newspaper. He is currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.