Only 2.8 million under-five children out of a population of 32 million in Nigeria have birth certificates. According to the law establishing the birth registration scheme in Nigeria, birth registration is free, and any child not registered legally does not exist. In the third part of the Birth Registration series, Jennifer UGWA reveals how officials of the Nigerian Population Commission (NPC) make birth registration difficult by extorting nursing mothers in Imo and Rivers States.
ON Thursday morning, at 8:00 am, March 14th, The ICIR reporter arrived at Isiala-Mbano Primary Health Care in Osu Isiala- Mbano Local Government of Imo State, the veranda of the health centre serves as the reception, with two long benches that had turned black with age. The centre was crowded with nursing mothers who came to immunise their babies.
The journalist struck up a conversation with one of the nursing mothers, Ngozika Wisdom, on how to get a birth certificate.
“Oh, that is easy, just meet Sister, she will give you, it does not take time,” she said, pointing at the entrance of the building.
Ten minutes later, the journalist was ushered in through a maternity hall leading towards the semi-detached office that served as the matron’s office. The cries of newly born babies filled the room, some barely a day old. They were held by their mothers who were surrounded by family or probably friends who cast questioning looks at the intruding journalist.
The matron, a soft-spoken lady, sat behind her desk in the small office stuffed with old files and medical equipment.
“The one I will give you does not have NPC logo, and it is N500, the NPC official that gives the official birth certificates is not here yet, but he will be here by 10 o’clock. That one will cost you the same amount or more, depending on the person,” she said.
But by 10 o’clock am, the NPC personnel was yet to arrive and the reporter was asked to visit the local government headquarters secretariat, a walking distance from the primary healthcare centre, to acquire the certificate.
Amongst the people waiting for the arrival of the registrar at the secretariat office was an elderly man who came to collect a birth certificate for his teenage daughter who just gained admission into the university. The father was surprised when he was told by others at the venue that he might have to pay to get the certificate.
“On my way to this place I lost N10, 000. The money I have with me is just the balance remaining from my transportation in my breast pocket. I don’t know anything thing about making a payment to the Local Government account,” he said, already frustrated by the news.
Vital or Civil Registration is the system by which a government records the key events of its citizens and foreigners resident in the country. Vital Registration creates legal documents which may be used to establish and protect the civil rights of individuals, as well as providing a source of data which may be compiled to give vital statistics.
Generation 2030 United Nations Children’s Fund report in Child Demographics in Africa reveals that by 2050, a fifth (16 per cent) of children under 18 in Africa will be found in Nigeria.
In Nigerian schools, especially tertiary institutions, one is usually required to present one’s birth certificate as part of the registration process. Also, some employers also request a birth certificate from the newly employed staff and it is for this reason that the employees scramble to procure the certificate.
Back at the LGA headquarters, a light-skinned man drove in on a motorbike several minutes later and introduced himself as Martins Duru. Though Duru issued the reporter a birth certificate at N1,500, it did not have the NPC serial number or the logo.
“If you want the one from NPC, the person to talk to is Onyenawi Francis. He is the residing NPC official in the LG,” Martins said.
At Francis’ office, he did not hesitate to write a certificate for a child that was not presented before him. The reporter came up with phantom names: Name of Child – Ikechukwu Charles David; parents’ name – Ikechukwu Charles and Jennifer Ikechukwu both from Umuozu Ama Umuozu Isiala Mbano.
“Hope they know how much they are supposed to bring?” he asked Martins who had accompanied the journalist to the office darting a gaze at journalist simultaneously.
When the journalist insisted that the certificate should be free, a wide-eyed Francis wouldn’t hear of it.
“If you want the free one the procedures are different because I can tell you to fill that form and submit, and come back in six months’ time. Once you leave this office, I will just drop it somewhere.
“Look when I am returning this duplicates, the person that I will submit it to will ask for money too and they won’t believe I did not collect money to give it out. The government will tell you that it is free, but the same people saying that it is free are the ones that will ask for money.
“The person collecting these things from Abuja will even ask for money too but because you came with this my oga, give us N2,000,” Francis said
Finally, the deal was struck at N1,000 and the new certificate was acquired.
Wisdom who had earlier spoken to The ICIR, shared the experience of her difficulty in getting her three-week-old baby boy immunised because some of the healthcare centres use the certificate as a criterion for immunisation.
Some of the mothers said they have to pay between N200 and N500 to get a birth certificate.
“I just hope that the nurse will immunise us, maybe by next week I will pay, but for now I don’t have that money,” she said.
“Once you are coming to the hospital, just come with N500 and you will get it. It is easy like that,” another nursing mother who preferred to be identified as Mummy Chijindu, told The ICIR reporter.
The first conscious effort to have a universal system of registration of births and deaths in Nigeria began in 1988 when the then Federal Military Government promulgated the Births and Deaths Compulsory Registration Decree 39 of 1979 which implied that any child whose birth is not registered does not exist. The authority to register these events is domiciled with the National Population Commission (NPC) and clearly states that the registration is free!
At the Imo State University Teaching Hospital (IMSUTH), Orlu, a 50-minute drive from Owerri the capital, The ICIR was given the contact details of Ohuakwanwa Sylvanus, the NPC registrar charged with the registration of births at the healthcare.
Sylvanus who had left the hospital by 1.10pm that afternoon asked to be met at the famous Orie Orlu Market also known as Orlu International Market.
At the market, Sylvanus a fair man clad in white brocade outfit walked the journalist briskly into a pharmacy shop where he was to issue the certificate.
Sylvanus started inputting the data of Ikechukwu Charles without asking for any proof of relation or immunisation card since the child was not present.
“You will give me N1000,” he blurted immediately he was done writing. “I am not even giving you a high price, you know this thing is urgent and I treated it so for you,” he said.
He wouldn’t budge and finally, the reporter gave him the sum of N1,000.
Extortion at National Population Commission and local council
The narrative is no different at the National Population Commission headquarters, Owerri, the Imo State capital.
“You said the certificate is for your sister’s child, right? Hope it is not a case of adoption because there are ways we will have to handle that one,” a registrar at the NPC asked the applicants.
She quickly filled out the original and duplicate copies of the birth certificate for Ikechukwu Charles–David which might join other duplicates stacked carelessly in the empty hall.
“Oyibo, (fair lady) you will give mummy something. You will drop small money for us, it’s not as if is by force but appreciate us for the work we are doing. Getting this thing did not even waste your time, so just do something,” the middle-aged woman said.
She received the N500 note handed out to her.
This style of subtle extortion in the name of “appreciation” was also observed at the local government secretariat.
At Orlu Local Government Secretariat, The ICIR meet Augusta Emeka an NPC official, who also demanded “appreciation” after the certificate was issued.
“You know it is to ensure that the office is moving so you have to appreciate. Because most of these things we use, we are the ones that make it available. The government is not helping us. We have to print the receipt ourselves,” Augusta said.
She too collected N500 “appreciation” fee.
Smith Ijeomah works for NPC at Azuabie Primary Healthcare in Port Harcourt. Although she initially asked for a proof of the relation between the reporter and the child she intends to register, she later gave the journalist the Form B1 to fill in the details of Ikechukwu Charles- David and commenced the registration, and after, he demanded N500 before he would hand the certificate over.
“No, it is not free. Are you trying to tell me that you don’t have N500? You are coming from Abuja, you have to give me oh,” the Smith insisted.
Contrary to what obtained in the PHCs visited by The ICIR, the United Nations Convention of the Right of Child, Article 7 and 8 stipulates that: “every child has the right to a legally registered name, officially recognised by the government, right to a nationality, and right to have an identity – an official record of who they are”.
At Rumuepirikom Primary Health Care in Obi-Akpor LGA of Rivers State, Priscilla Kogbo, who attended to women that came for immunisation and birth registration, decided to raise the bar.
“You said the person is 16 years old right? Fill out this form and bring your N3,000, the person is already matured,” she said tersely.
The ICIR observed that the mothers willingly paid for the certificates. Priscilla billed the mothers using her own discretion, ranging from the sum of N800 – N1, 000.
“This money I am collecting from you is even small. Go to other places you will pay higher than this.
“You people should keep this certificate very safe because if you come back to replace it, you will pay N10,000. And don’t laminate it,” she cautioned her audience.
One of the mothers claimed that her relative had paid as much as N13, 000 to get a birth certificate at another centre, saying that Priscilla was actually being considerate on the amount she charged.
Finally, Priscilla collected the sum of N2,500 from this reporter for the certificate of a non-existing Ikechukwu Adaeze Lisa born on the 14th of February 2003.
Jumobaraye Daka, the Director of the National Population Commission, Port Harcourt, told The ICIR, that birth registration of persons between the ages of 0-17 years of age is free. He stressed that any form of extortion from the registrars is punishable under the laws guiding the birth registration processes in Nigeria.
However, it appears the act of demanding money for birth registration remains widespread in Rivers State, as checks by The ICIR at Rumueme PHC has shown.
NPC Owerri – We are underfunded
Agwu Innocent, the Imo State Head of Vital Registration, told The ICIR in an interview that the commission was underfunded and that lack of funds was responsible for the subtle extortion being experienced at the various PHCs.
He also said there was nothing new in officials requesting for some sort of appreciation after rendering a service.
“We generate a human index and the fund required to generate this kind of data is very huge, and we are hampered,” he said.
“If not for the support we are receiving from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), we would have closed shop.
“The materials for the registration comes from UNICEF, even the birth registration certificates form that we are using currently is printed and supplied to us by UNICEF.
“In terms of capacity building, that is also from UNICEF, they provide what is called counterpart contribution, then the commission is supposed to make their own counterpart contribution before you get the main budget, but the commission is forced to work with what comes from UNICEF alone,” Innocent lamented.
In Port Harcourt, Daka, the NPC Director, said funds and material to work with are not serious challenges for the NPC as UNICEF and the Federal Government make proper provisions.
He said the major challenge facing the commission is manpower, ignorance, and phobia on the part of parents.
“We do not have enough manpower and this puts a strain on the advocacy part of the commission which is important because most parents still do not want to register their children,” Daka said.
“They are ignorant to the impact that the birth registration of their children will do in the life of the child in terms of security and social necessities.”
Daka insisted that the issue of extortion by the registrars was not a factor limiting birth registration.
“It is not the issue of extortion. Most times, it is not even our staffs that collect money from these people,” he said.
“From monitoring, we discovered that some of them are health officials in the hospital and just because we gave them the certificate to issue in the absence of the NPC registrars, they use it as an avenue to extort people,” Daka said.
Absence of birth registration equals zero planning
Chukwuedozie Ajaero, Director of Research and Capacity Building, School of Postgraduate Studies University of Nigeria Nsukka, said the importance of appropriate vital registration, especially birth registration, cannot be overemphasised if proper developmental planning in the country is to be put in place.
“For instance, when the federal government wants to provide healthcare facilities, some areas that do not need such structures are included and it is called under the federal character because there is no data to back up where they are supposed to erect such buildings,” Ajaero said in an interview with The ICIR.
However, the academic said extortion in the birth registration centres contributes only about 20 per cent to the problems of effective birth registration in Nigeria.
“The major problem is ignorance and the misunderstanding of the vital use of birth registration. Most people do not even know about it.
“Most people that get birth certificates do it when it becomes an absolute necessity. While some have very myopic view about it, they believe it is a way the government can keep tabs on them, know what they are doing at a particular time. It is a social-cultural problem.
“If we have the vital registration system working very well, even the census we spend lots of money to carry out will not be necessary.
Ajearo said it was the responsibility of the government to carry out proper advocacy and incorporate awareness for birth registration into the social syllabus to foster the exercise.