© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Groping in the dark: More than four million Nigerian children are unaccounted for each year
Each year, more than seven million babies – equal to the population of Sierra Leone – are born in Nigeria. But over four million of these babies do not exist legally because their births are not registered. They do not have a birth certificate.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in its Article 7 points out that all children have the right to a legally registered name which is officially recognised by the government.
But as important as birth registration is in child protection, it is an afterthought in Nigeria. Last year, only 2.6 million children under the age of one were registered by the National Population Commission (NPC). This year so far, 1.6 million infants have been registered, despite the fact that the law stipulates that birth should be registered within 60 days.
Birth registration is not commensurate with birth rate in the country. On New Year’s Day alone, more than 20,000 babies were born in Nigeria, the third highest in the world on that particular day, according to Unicef, the UN children’s agency.
One in five births in Africa takes place in Nigeria and the country accounts for 5 per cent of all global births. Unicef estimates that from 2015 to 2030, 136 million births will take place in Nigeria — making up 19 per cent of all African babies and 6 per cent of the global total. Unicef also projects that by 2050, Nigeria alone will account for almost one-tenth of all births in the world.
While these estimated births take place in the country, Nigeria does not know exactly where these children are in the country – for example, the communities that are having more children. Hence, it becomes difficult to plan for these children.
Child protection experts believe that the oversight of Nigerian government in birth registration does not only deny the children the rights to essential protective services but also expose the children to the risk of rights violation at every stage of their lives.
A birth certificate is regarded as the most important document a child can possess. It gives the child identity. It can guard against abuse and trafficking as well as stop the wide-spread age cheating in sports and age falsification in civil service. Yet, the Nigerian government has not taken birth registration seriously. There are only 3,641 birthday registrars across the country, according to NPC.
NPC which is the statutory body for birth registration is widely known for only the census, shirking from its responsibilities for taking records of birth, death, marriage and divorce in the country. However, with the support of Unicef, the commission has stepped up in birth registration.
Sharon Oladiji, child protection specialist with Unicef, told The ICIR that there is a poor level of awareness on the importance of birth certificate. “That child without a birth certificate is just nobody,” she said. “With no record anywhere, their access to basic service is under threat. They are faceless, uncounted for and unknown. In legal terms, they don’t exist.”
Oladiji said she noticed that whenever the organisation carries an intervention to create awareness about the birth certificate, the number of registered births increases. “The success we had in Bauchi State is encouraging us to go to other states,” she said.
To monitor the progress on birth registration, Unicef developed data tracking tool that collects and collates real-time information using Short Messaging System (SMS). Now, NPC birth registrars across the states upload the number of registered births at the middle and end of every month to the RapidSMS dashboard. But since 2011 that the data on birth registration began to be kept, the record has been very poor.
Francis Fadairo, director of NPC in Ekiti State, told The ICIR that Nigerians do not register births because there is no sanction for failing to do. He believes that until there is a sanction, many children will continue to grow up without a birth certificate.
“People are nonchalant because there is no sanction, no punishment for not having a birth certificate,” Fadairo said. “We are supposed to have been enforcing in it in some institutions like hospitals and schools.”
Fadairo argued that no child should be immunised without a birth certificate. “How do you know the child’s age?” he said. “The height and stature of a child do not indicate the age. It is only the birth certificate. If that is stick to, people will go and get a birth certificate.” He also argued that no child should be admitted to any school without birth certificate.
PARALLEL BIRTH CERTIFICATE
Although the law empowers NPC to issue a birth certificate, local government in some cases also issue a birth certificate. Again, court issues affidavit and declaration of age. NPC, however, insists that it is wrong for any court to issue a declaration of age to children.
Most Nigerian institutions accept a declaration of age as a substitution for a birth certificate. Some of the staff of NPC that spoke to The ICIR said that many Nigerians do not feel obliged to obtain a birth certificate for their children because they can easily walk into any court to get a declaration of age whenever the need arises. This, they say, undermines NPC to issue birth certificate and maintain the record.
They said until Nigerian institutions stop accepting birth certificate other than the ones issued by NPC, birth registration in the country will continue to remain an afterthought.
Hapsatu Isiyaku, assistant director of Vital Registrations in NPC, said since 1992, NPC is the only constitutionally recognised body to issue a birth certificate.
Tracing the history of birth registration in the country, Isiyaku said birth registration in Nigeria began in the colonial era in 1863, with the promulgation of the Ordinance No 21 which provided for the registration of births, deaths, marriages etc in Lagos colony. She said this programme was later extended to communities at close proximity to the Lagos colony such as Warri in 1903 and Calabar 1904.
Isiyaku said in 1951, the regions were empowered to enact laws that made civil registration mandatory, adding that despite the non-uniformity of the laws among the regions, poor publicity and limited coverage, registration continued to be carried out until some years after independence when the registration activity virtually stopped.
She said the first conscious effort to have a universal system of registration of births and death began in 1988 when the federal government promulgated the Birth and Deaths Compulsory Registration Decree 39 of 1979.
Isiyaku said the promulgation of Compulsory Registration of Births and Deaths etc. Act No 69 of 1992 gave NPC the responsibility to register these vital events, adding that the law also empowered the commission to establish vital registration systems across the nation. This mandate of the NPC was further strengthened and recognised under section 24 of the 3rd schedule of the 1999 constitution.
While the law clearly stipulates the role of health facilities to give information concerning a birth to the registrar in the area in which the child is born, about 62 per cent of children in the country are born outside health facilities. With only about 35 per cent of births occurring in health facilities, only 30 per cent of births are registered in the country, according to 2013 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey.
In many cases, children born in health facilities only have birth recognition issued by the health facilities. Others born outside hospitals go to their local governments to obtain a birth certificate or to court to get affidavit or age declaration whenever the need for a birth certificate arises.
“Your child cannot travel abroad with the birth certificate issued by the local government,” said Jumbobaraye Daka, director of NPC in Rivers State. “The difference between what they issue and that of NPC is that NPC is constitutionally given the mandate to issue a birth certificate.”
Daka told The ICIR that any institution that accepts birth certificate not issued by NPC is ignorant.