© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Birth registration: How population officials milk mothers dry (PART II)
Birth registration is the first step towards recognising a child’s inalienable right as a human being, but unfortunately, statistics have shown that Nigeria is still grappling with achieving universal registration of births. In this part two of the series on Birth Registration, Adetola BADEMOSI investigates how officials of the National Population Commission (NPC) have contributed to low birth registration in the country, particularly in Abuja and Lagos.
“MADAM, you will pay o. Is there anything that comes free in Nigeria?” a receptionist at a popular hospital at Ogba, Ojodu Local Government Area of Lagos State, told Sunday Tribune during an undercover investigation on registration of new births in Lagos.
Although the receptionist, a lady, claimed not to be directly in charge of birth registration, she said: “A government official from the local government office comes to the hospital periodically, especially during immunisation days to register babies. You can come with N1000 when you are ready; come very early.”
Birth registration is supposed to be free in Nigeria. But in most parts of the country, this most important task of documenting the birth of precious new citizens of Nigeria has been taking over by touts and profiteers who collect dubious fees from unsuspecting parents.
Though the National Population Commission (NPC), apart from conducting periodic census exercises, is mandated to record births and deaths, as data obtained from these records are used to update the census figures on an annual basis for national planning purposes, public records show that birth registration data are still relatively low in the country and observers have blamed this on limited financial support for birth registration processes, illegal fees collection by registrars, insecurity, shortage of manpower, lack of awareness, illiteracy and decline in women’s access to maternity centres because of increased poverty and high medical costs.
Although the commission had repeatedly declared that the registration of newborns and under 18-year-old children is free, investigations by Sunday Tribune revealed that registration is still being paid for in health centres, hospitals and birth registration centres across the country. For this reason, the registration rate has continued to dwindle.
However, owing to the importance of birth registration and consistent default of Nigeria in the registration of new births, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), took up the issue with lawmakers at the National Assembly (NASS) urging them to address the issue before it gets worse.
In a report entitled ‘Good practices: Working towards free and universal birth registration’ presented to the Senate Committee Chairman on Population, Senator Suleiman Hunkuyi by UNICEF, which was obtained by Sunday Tribune, the United Nations agency adduced that costs related to fees have always been a barrier to increased birth registration. The report, therefore, recommended the prohibition of payment for birth registration in some countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, and Rwanda, among others.
It stated that waiver of fees collection was made in Nigeria due to low birth registration, adding that children from poor and uneducated parents living in urban slums and far-flung rural communities may not pay to register.
Interestingly, statistics has shown that new births are on the rise in the country. In a survey of 10 countries carried out by UNICEF, Nigeria ranks the highest in the number of births among countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Niger, Kenya, Sudan, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt. But little is being done in the area of documenting these births.
The UNICEF also took the Nigerian situation further by predicting an astronomical rise in the children population. The organisation in its Generation 2030 Africa Report, projected that by 2021, Nigeria›s child population would be 109 million, and by 2030, no fewer than 136 million births would have taken place, adding to its already bursting population figure as the highest in Africa and one of the fastest growing in the world. According to the report, Nigeria will contribute more than a fifth of the total growth of the African population between 2015 and 2050 while its population will be 2.5 times its current size, reaching 440 million.
However, out of 32 million under-five children population in Nigeria, only 2.8 million are believed to be registered. This implies that the rest, legally, do not exist, a population that is nearly the entire population of Ghana in 2018.
This record shows poor compliance of the Federal Government›s Decree No. 69 of 1992 on vital registration, which states that registration shall be carried out free of charge, within a period of 60 days from the date of birth of a child. The decree presupposes that every child born in Nigeria has the right to be registered.
A process under the cloud of suspicion
Part of the defence of NPC on why Nigerians must pay to register newborns and under-18s is the need to quicken and digitise the process of registering births. This need, the commission claimed, informed its decision to go into a Private Public Partnership (PPP) with a firm, Socket Works Ltd, to get the job done. But this innovation came at a huge cost to poor citizens, as interested parents are expected to pay between N500 and N5,000, a good part of which goes into the company’s account.
However, investigations conducted by Sunday Tribune in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Lagos State, revealed that despite the intervention of the NASS that the fees be discontinued, they are still being collected by some individuals. Though these charges for birth registration indeed are not uniform in all accredited public hospitals including primary healthcare centres (PHCs) and private hospitals, parents pay between N500 and N5,000 to NPC officials in the hospitals visited.
Interestingly, however, NPC has denied none of its staff members was asked to collect such money.
At a popular private hospital in the Central Business District, Abuja, an official of the NPC who visits the hospital only on immunisation days to register the new births charges N1,000 before a certificate is issued. A bio form (B1) is also given out to the baby’s parents to fill. The form provides space for details of parents such as names, occupation, and date of birth, among others.
At the Gwarinpa General Hospital, between N500 and N4,500 is charged depending on the age. The money is paid to the NPC official attached to the hospital.
The birth registration official was not on seat when Sunday Tribune visited but a nurse on duty at the immunisation section disclosed that initially a sum of N4, 000 to N5,000 was being charged for the certificate, but that stopped earlier this year. “The hospital now charges N500,” she said.
A new mother, Mrs Amara George, who spoke with Sunday Tribune said: “I registered my baby about two to three weeks after her birth and the man (registrar) collected N500. I was unaware that it was free. I was sceptical at first when my friend asked me to do it, but I felt that N500 is small money that someone can sacrifice. It is even now that I came to realise its importance,”
Another nursing mother at the hospital, who refused to give her name, also said that her six months old baby is still unregistered because she was asked to pay N500, which she, then, could not afford.
“Not that it is too much but you know at that time, I had nothing on me. Since then, I have not had the chance to do it. Maybe one of these days,” she said resignedly.
Mrs. Oluwole, a mother of three children on her own part, said she parted with N2,000 to register each of her children earlier in the year.
Also, at AMAC Primary Health Centre located at Lugbe, Abuja, mothers were also required to pay N500 but, unlike other instances, the official filled the form via a handheld device.
Although some mothers at the centre were seen paying for the registration, several others look unperturbed. “I don›t have that money now, maybe later,” one of them told Sunday Tribune.
A youth corps member, also a nursing mother who simply gave her name as Mojisola, said she has not registered her baby.”They said if you had your baby here and you did not register him that same day, you would have to pay N3,000 afterwards. There is no need to rush. Moreover, I will not need it now, so it can wait,” she said.
At the Kuchingoro PHC, the NPC official on ground, who refused to disclose his identity, said the price is determined by the age of the applicant. He confirmed that the least amount being collected is N500.
But further findings by Sunday Tribune revealed that the fees charged differ from hospitals to hospitals. A civil servant who simply gave her name as Mrs. Abdulsalam confirmed this much when she told Sunday Tribune that the reason she had not registered her baby who is now six months old was that she was asked to pay N5,000 rather N500.
“Something I don’t see as important and I want to do it to fulfil my obligation and somebody is telling me to pay N5,000. That is why I have not done it but maybe now that you have said it, I will go and do it for her. It is the money that discouraged me at the time,” she lamented.
In Lagos, all the hospitals visited by Sunday Tribune requested for fees starting from N1000. At Ifako Ijaiye General Hospital, at College Road, the registration official demanded a sum of N500 from Sunday Tribune, even assuring that the certificate will be issued the same day.
Mrs. Akpabio a teacher in a private school was stunned when she was told the registration was free. She said she was not aware that the registration could be free. According to her, she paid to register her new-born.
“…Is it free? I didn’t know because when I had my son in 2015, I paid and they registered him and gave me a certificate. But I cannot exactly remember how much I paid, but I certainly paid. The inscription at the entrances of the health centre says that birth registration is free but all is a lie; they collect money,” she added.
Madam Adenekan, who sells groceries in a small makeshift shop, had no idea of the registration in question. She said when she was delivered of her last baby in 2018, she was told to pay a sum of N1,000 for birth registration but she was confused. She eventually did not pay.
At the Maryland PHC, a female NPC official who was asked if the exercise was free told Sunday Tribune that it would cost N1,000, adding that the certificate would be available after two days.
“How old is your baby?” the officer asked. “You will pay N1,000 and collect it (certificate) latest Friday,” she assured. Asked whether a receipt would be issued for the payment, she said «no».
Who collects the fee?
But who collects this money since the process has been declared illegal and stopped after the intervention by UNICEF? Where does the money so collected go?
Sunday Tribune sought the attention of top NPC officials in Lagos to know how the payment came into being and why the fee is still being collected despite the directive to stop. Mrs Semiat Lawal, NPC Deputy Director, Public Affairs in Lagos State, explained that in the first instance, Lagos State did not subscribe to the Socket Works’ proposition that applicants should pay for birth registration since most hospitals in the state are still grappling with low turnout. According to her, the exercise is free, as asking parents to pay for birth registration might worsen the setback.
“In Lagos, we didn’t start the Socket Project because we were recording low response when the firm approached us. Our commissioner, Mrs Abimbola refused to implement it in Lagos because she is aware that we are having challenges with people coming out to register their births and if we now have to put a price tag on it, that means they will not even come out at all. So she refused to embrace that project,” she said.
She, however, implied that some individuals, who she called “mercenaries” could be carrying out unethical practices but she refuted the claim that staffers of the NPC in the various hospitals were involved in the scam. According to her, no staff member of NPC would participate in such act, insisting that applicants were not supposed to pay for birth registration and certificate issuance.
“We have touting challenge in Lagos, third party issues, mercenaries; they are the ones that charge. If you actually want to collect your birth certificate and you get to our office, they will demand your ID card. UNICEF has trained them and they know that birth registration is free,” she told Sunday Tribune.
Mrs Lawal further stressed that efforts are being made to clamp down on erring NPC officials and sanction them.
Why we initially introduced fees – NPC
Explaining why the issue of fee payment arose, Director of Public Affairs, National Population Commission, Mr. Mohammed Isah, told Sunday Tribune that the NPC had a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with an IT firm, Socket Works, which was contracted to digitise the birth registration process. The process, he said, led to the N4,000/N5,000 charges placed on registration and issuance of certificates.
Explaining what the private company was contracted to do, Isah said unlike the previous analogue arrangement the firm would collect the information of prospective persons and process it in a database after payment of N1000 for registration, adding that applicants who are afterwards interested in the certificate are required to pay an additional fee of N3, 000 to N3,500.
“The information gathered through the forms are normally taken to the centre and filled into the system. It means that the child has been registered and has to pay more money for the certificate,” he said.
In the past, the form B1, he stated, would be given to parents of the child. This form, he explained, takes information about the child as well as the parents adding that, “instantly we transfer the information into our register and we issue the certificate.” He lamented that halting the automated process is a setback on the part of the commission.
According to him, the charges by the IT firm, he said did not go to the coffers of the government as revenue. They were meant for the IT firm to cover the administrative cost of the digitisation process, adding that this has since been stopped by the National Assembly as it was apparently causing a setback to achieving total registration of all births in the country.
“Initially we had a private-public partnership with a private company, Socket Works. Because of the fact that they use a lot of modern gadgets to register, they were permitted to charge more, but we discover that Nigeria as a country has not got to a situation where the commission or private firm should be collecting money from individuals who want to register their children.
“We are fortunate that the National Assembly listened to the complaints of parents and resolved that issuance of birth certificate to every prospective child under 18 should be free and this is what the commission is doing now in the 774 LGAs of the federation and in the over 4000 birth registration centres in the country,” he said.
On why the commission has been unable to achieve its given targets or automate the process by itself, he listed funding as one of the stumbling blocks.
“Of course the commission is interested in automating the issuance of birth certificates but not at the expense of the parents. We want a situation where the government will make available adequate funds for the commission so that we can migrate from analogue to automated issuance of birth certificate,” he stated.
What NPC must do to staff who extort … UNICEF
But UNICEF which directly oversees issues relating to children and their general wellbeing was not impressed when Sunday Tribune contacted it over the issue, saying such charges are illegal. Sharon Oladiji, UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist disclosed that the body had raised concerns over fees attached to birth registration in the country. She maintained that UNICEF was unaware of the public-private partnership with the firm until it became a cause for concern. She also stressed the need for Nigerians to report such cases as this may continue to persist.
“We had opportunity to meet the Senate Chairman on Population and were able to raise issues of privatisation with him and informed him about the best practices across other countries. We believed this contributed to the House stepping in to speak against collecting money for birth registration.
“We also had the opportunity to meet with the vital registration committee of the NPC and Socket where we raised the issues that when they were planning the PPP, UNICEF was not consulted. For us, we are working with the policy and decision makers, those that can influence decisions at the lower level to practically deal with the current issues. This is the much we can do,” she said.
She, however, commended Socket Works for introducing the digital process, adding that the UNICEF had always advocated such, just as she argued that the cost should not be levied on poor Nigerians while advising the commission to strategise on how to fund its digitisation process.
Speaking on sustaining the war on paying for registration of birth, the UNICEF chief said: “We are working with the population commission management itself to use more sanctions against their staff taking money. We will keep shouting to NPC and the media that this issue of collecting money is affecting birth registration data and dragging it down, as we are missing on many children not registered.”
As a result of the projected population explosion in Africa especially Nigeria, it became imperative for the government to prepare for these demographic shifts by planning for the increasing populace.
This, however, can only be achieved through the Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems which will strengthen development planning at all levels. Without accurate demographic data and analysis, it is difficult for a country to plan adequately for the required increases in essential services that Africa’s burgeoning child population will require.