“I have not collected my national ID because it is very expensive,” Ishmail Jalloh, an IT Officer told me. “I have not seen the reason to collect it. I have my voter ID which I used in banks and other places,” he added, slightly laughing.
Jalloh is not the only Sierra Leonean who has not collected the National ID for the reasons he cited. Other Sierra Leoneans who spoke to Concord Times mentioned similar reasons for not taking the new National Identity launched about twelve months ago, in January 2023.
The National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) commenced production and issuance of the biometric ID and verification of the identity system after it was launched by President Bio. The process follows 2021 nationwide confirmation of personal details of people who have registered and a registration exercise of those who have not registered with the Authority.
While launching the Identity card at a well-attended event at State House, the President encouraged citizens to collect the ID and urged NCRA to expedite the assignment of NIN numbers to every citizen across the country.
Getting the national ID requires the fingerprints and face scans of those who want to acquire the Card. Among its features, is a unique, non-duplicating and non-replicating National Identification Numbers (NIN Code) assigned to every Sierra Leonean resident.
The NIN uniquely identifies everyone registered. It has also been said to be of a highly securitized system, introduced to ensure authentication and consistency in the storage of personal information of individuals, in addition to tackling inconsistencies in personal information such as, names, and dates of birth of citizens, which in the future could make crimes such as, human trafficking, illicit financial operations and other criminal conducts less successful.
However, many Sierra Leoneans do not seem to be patronizing the national identification card campaign.
The Authority did not set a target to register a specific number of citizens at a certain period. Moreover, getting statistics on the number of Sierra Leoneans who have registered and collected the ID is difficult. NRCA’s Director of Information, Education and Communication, Amadu Juana Kamanda warned me that it is safer to say that they have registered 80 percent of Sierra Leoneans, although it is unclear to determine how many of that percentage have collected the ID.
But his boss, NCRA Director General, Mohamed M Massaquoi, managed to tell me the percentage of people who have collected the ID is still very low.
Cost of securing the national ID
The National ID, according to the Government, is mandatory to access services including transacting with financial institutions, vehicle registration and licensing and recruitment into public and private institutions for consistency in personal information and verification.
Although the rule that makes the ID mandatory has not been fully followed, some steps have already been taken to ensure access to certain services are tied to the ID.
Last year, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered all mobile network companies to integrate the SIM numbers of their customers with the NIN, demanding that subscribers whose SIM Cards are not registered be blocked.
A similar order was given in the education sector to make NIN mandatory for students taking public examinations. That was set to affect many candidates who took the 2023 BECE and WASSCE exams. But the decision was reversed following a public backlash. Most of the students taking the exams at the time were not registered with NCRA and, in fact, many didn’t even have a birth registration certificate or documents needed to register them for the NIN.
Nevertheless, as the Government pushes to link the identity system to access to essential services, citizens are complaining about the cost of getting the ID.
The official price for securing the national ID is NLE140 ($5) but when you visit the Registration Center to acquire the card, an extra NLE5 is charged by officials handling the process, increasing the cost of the ID to NLE145.
Previously, Sierra Leoneans acquire national ID for Le12, far less than $1.
The production and verification of the Cards will be done in collaboration with the Constrat System SL Limited.
Constrat System SL Limited, the company which manufactures the Card on a public-private partnership basis with the Government, produces the biometric card along with other various categories of identity cards, including a mandatory Non-National ID Card for all foreign residents in Sierra Leone, ECOWAS ID for Sierra Leoneans, and the ECOWAS ID for members’ states of ECOWAS, which are non-mandatory.
The cost varies depending on the category demanded. The ECOWAS ID for Sierra Leoneans costs NLE240 ($10) and it’s valid for a year, while the ECOWAS ID for citizens of other ECOWAS member states is sold at NLE400 ($17),valid for the same period.
The cards have been criticized for being expensive, and the cost has become a tool that discourages people from acquiring them.
It’s important to have the ID, but looking at the cost, Le145 at this moment, is too much,”AiahKaminjah, a final year student at the University of Sierra Leone, said. “The cost is driving some of us away from taking the card.”
For Josephine Lebbie, paying 145 Leones ($6) when she’s already having another ID (voters) is a waste of money. “Food is expensive, the new ID again is expensive. I would rather use that money to buy food for my house,” she said.
Josephine, a mother of three spoke to me along with her husband, Ernest Lebbie, a Lecturer at Fourah Bay College, who reechoed similarly, saying he does not see the need to have the ID. “Maybe if it were free he said, I would have collected it.”
Apart from the cost of the ID, citizens also lack knowledge about the need to have the ID. The common notion is that the Voter ID and National ID are the same, and in a situation where one does not have the national ID, the voter ID could work. As a result, many citizens see no need to take the national ID, especially when it costs money.
“I don’t think there is a need to take a national ID when I’m using my voter ID. Government has not told us to stop using the Voter ID that was given to us,” Jalloh said.
The Voter ID is a voluntary document that people register and collect if they want to vote in any electoral period. Just like the passport, which is only compulsory for travelers outside the country.
Until recently, the VoterID has also been a form of national identity, the criteria to vote and the accepted identity to access essential services where an identity card of an individual is required.
The national ID card is now the primary card. Everyone must have the National ID as long as they have attained the age of 12 and above according to the NCRA Director General, “the information contained in the national ID now informs the acquisition of both the national passport and the Voter ID.”
But sensitization about the ID is low. People need to understand that the new national ID is now the primary and authoritative source of identification.
Lack of integrated ID system
Even with the new biometric National ID, Sierra Leone still operates with a multiple ID system ranging from voter cards to cards printed and issued by various MDAs and financial institutions.
In other West African countries, Ghana, for example, it’s been done differently. All of those cards and local IDs in the country controlled and issued by other MDAs have been integrated into a single ID system known as the ‘Ghana card,’ free of charge for all Ghanaians based in the country.
Ghana has gone a step further to replace its tax identification numbers to match the NIN on the Ghana Card. Just with the Ghana Card, you can access seventeen (almost all) transactions or services in Ghana and use the same card when traveling outside the country.
Unlike Ghana, people still have to move with multiple cards for access to various services in Sierra Leone, even after the launch of the national ID.
Victor Jones, a journalist said he has like nine ID cards. And each of those cards serves a singular purpose.
“Why should I be working with all of these cards?” he wondered, suggesting the need for a unified identity system where each of these cards could be integrated into a single card. “It reduces the weight and the burden on your wallets. It gives you optimum security. You can protect that single card.”
“I have the voters’ ID, I have a driving license, I have a NASSIT card, I have other IDs, the cards are too much on me, the Fourah Bay College lecturer, Lebbie also said.
The lack of a synchronized identification system is also a reason people do not think that they need to go for the National Identification card. Because people can use the voters and other IDs to do all transactions or access services, they see no need to go for the national identification card which they have to pay for.
So I put a question to the NCRA Director General – whether Sierra Leone will ever get to a point where a single ID card will be used for all purposes in the country.
He responded: once you are issued an NIN, you are easily identified. Through this, you can be assigned a NASSIT number, tax identification number, a passport,and a PIN CODE that is tied to the NIN without being issued another card.
“Integrating the ID system is the essence NCRA was created, he said. “All the other IDs issued by other agencies are not important and those agencies should not be really issuing those cards.”
Various institutions and government agencies dealing with identity, like the National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT) still issue IDs to people, and each of these agencies have a budget for printing cards, an expenditure that a well-integrated national ID system with MDAs could help save.
Integrated or as the World Bank says, accurate and inclusive identity system is essential for both the government and its people. It unlocks opportunities and enables financial and economic inclusion, social protection, healthcare and education, gender equality, child protection, agriculture, good governance, and safe and orderly migration.
This becomes difficult when people are not properly identified. And as Director Massaquoi puts it, lack of identity poses a risk to the people and the country in terms of security, concerning manipulation of identity. If people are not identified, there will be no link to trace them when the need arises.
“We want to intensify our outreach efforts to end the confusion of people that say because they have the National passport or other IDs, they do not need the National ID,” he said. “People need to understand they have to be identified.”
Also, there’s a need for the Government to look into the concerns citizens have raised with regards the cost of the ID while intensifying outreach efforts to let more people know about the essence of the national identity card and attempting to put an end to the confusion people have about the voter ID and the national. Beyond that, the identity system has to be integrated, so people can see the need to go for it.
In January this year, NCRA commenced the production and issuance of the scrutinized, multi-purpose Biometric Identity Card known as the National Identity Card, but people are not going for it. According to the Director General of the National Civil Registration Authority or NCRA, the percentage of people who have collected the national ID is very low.
From interviews conducted with various people, Concord Times found out that the cost of getting the ID and inadequate education or sensitization of the public about the essence of ID are key factors preventing people from collecting the ID.
Many of those who spoke to Concord Times said they have not collected the ID because it is expensive. Some said they have the Voter ID and other identity cards, which they use to access services, so they see no need to have the National ID.
Part of NCRA’s mandate is to merge or integrate the national identity system with MDAs and ensure the ID becomes the central card for access to services. This has not been fully achieved, as MDAs like NASSIT still issue out cards to people, contributing to the low interest in getting the national ID.
This report was produced under the DPI Africa Journalism Fellowship Programme, organized by the Media Foundation for West Africa with support from Co-Develop.