By Abujah Racheal, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
When Babatunde Opeyemi, an indigene of Ilorin in Kwara State, applied for the Ashisaga Africa Initiative scholarship for higher education abroad, she had very high hopes. The scholarship covers tuition, accommodation, travel costs and other necessary fees. Only one thing stood between the 17-year old and her dream of acquiring a university degree abroad through the Ashisaga Initiative – a birth certificate duly issued by the National Population Commission, NPC.
Opeyemi, an orphan had no birth certificate, as her parents did not register her birth. When she met a National Population Commission official, she was asked to pay N10,000 on the premise that it was an urgent application. But the poor girl could not provide the money and thus failed to win the scholarship due to her inability to procure the vital document.
Opeyemi is one of millions of Nigerians facing hurdles obtaining birth certificates due to sharp practices by NPC officials, inadequate registration centres and poor capacity of officials. Her story is common.
With the increasing demand for birth certificates in virtually every documentation process in schools and other public and private establishments in the country, parents are now eager to get their children registered but the exercise is marred by extortion and lack of adequate registration centres in rural areas, the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) investigation reveals.
According to experts, demographic data emerging from civil registration allows a country to keep track of its population statistics, trends and differentials. The use of such data can lead to more accurate planning and implementation of development policies and programmes, particularly in health, education, housing, water and sanitation, employment, agriculture and industrial production.
UNICEF Impact Evaluation Report On Birth Registration (2012-2016)
The rate of birth registration has always been worrisome to demographers, health and populations officials. In fact, the National Population Commission with the support of UNICEF (Nigeria) initiated the Birth Registration Programme (BRP) in 2012 to address the problem of low birth registration in the country. Implemented between 2012 and 2016, the programme was aimed at accelerating birth registration rates particularly for under five children, as a means to contribute to child wellbeing and protection in Nigeria.
According to the report, birth registration rate was 41 per cent in 2011, indicating that three in every five children were not registered.
In an Impact Evaluation report on the programme, newly released by UNICEF, it was revealed that although considerable progress was made since 2012, approximated 50 per cent child births remain unregistered.
The report stated that the programme did not achieve its two intended immediate impact target for children under 5 which are achieving 20 per cent points increase in birth registration rates and reducing income related inequities.
According to the evaluation report, the programme only contributed an increase of 5.4 per cent to the registration figure according to the 2016 MICS data, while also missing the target of reducing income related equities.
Also, it revealed that in a primary data gathered to establish the current level of prioritisation for parents, birth registration emerged a secondary priority unlike health, education and feeding, implying that low prioritisation is an issue that has not changed.
“…For them (parents),priority needs were health, education and putting food on the table. For most, birth registration emerged as a secondary priority, important only to secure other priority services such as school enrolment or education”.
Extortion, low awareness of birth registration rife in Kwara
Suliat Issah, a housewife in Omu-Aran, Kwara State, knew the importance of registering the birth of her children but she failed to do so for her youngest children who are twins because she could not travel the long distance to the closest registration centre.
According to her, she paid N300 each for birth registration of her three children and N200 for immunisation of the third daughter.
“I was forced to choose between the birth registration and immunisation for her, so I borrowed money from my neighbour to get hers done. So for my twin boys, the thought of expending N1,000 on their birth certificates and the cost of transportation to the registration centre discouraged me,” she stated.
For Mrs. Ramat Musa, a birth certificate was not necessary as, according to her, she had the ‘live to birth’ certificates, which she obtained at the clinic where she had her children.
The trader explained that it cost her N3,000 to obtain each ‘live to birth’ certificate for her children. Musa said she later learnt that the NPC was issuing birth certificates for N1,000 in Kwara State while she learnt that it was free in Oyo.
“Spending N4,000 on birth certificates for four children was too much for me; we are okay with the one (live to birth certificate) issued to us by the hospital,” she said.
Speaking to our reporter at a clinic in Ilorin, where she brought her son for immunization, Mrs. Mariam Nasiru, said that she was not aware of the importance of birth registration. She expressed shock when she was asked to pay N300 by the medical staff.
According to Nasiru, “I was asked to pay N200 for immunization because the injection was exhausted by the time it got to my son’s turn; Now, they are asking for N300. How will I transport myself home if I gave them the whole money on me? I came here because in my area, the immunization kit was not available, so I am pleading with them to allow me to pay for just the immunization and go home.”
Another victim of extortion, Mrs. Halimat Oba who paid N400 for birth registration, told NAN reporter that she coughed out the money because she needed the certificate to procure a Nigerian travel passport for her child.
The NAN correspondent confirmed the absence of formal and informal registration centres in some areas in Kwara state. In a move to fill the gap, ‘live to birth’ certificate being issued by churches, hospitals and traditional birth attendants were used in place of official birth certificates.
Checks indicate that birth certificate was not a prerequisite for admission at many schools in the state. Rather, prospective pupils are simply asked about their age and then offered admission. The disadvantage of this is that the records kept by hospitals, churches and traditional birth attendants are not reliable or credible and cannot be used for demographic or planning purposes.
Furthermore, the process is prone to errors and the certificates issued by unofficial sources is susceptible to falsification since it is not designed to record facts about the child but simply as a record of payment for services rendered.
Further findings by NAN indicated that awareness about birth registration is low in many parts of Kwara State. It appeared that individuals and families place little or no value on registration of new-borns.
Over 62 individuals who spoke with our reporter complained about the absence of birth registration centres close to their communities and about 32 others paid for their children to be registered.
Though NPC claims to have 91 centres in the 16 LGAs of the state, our reporter could not confirm this as most communities visited in the course of her investigation do not have adequate registration centres. The health centres do not have the registration facilities. Only the government hospitals were operational, while the others do not conduct routine birth registration services. Against this backdrop, most children in the state have been missed and are not accounted for in the national database.
Investigation revealed insufficient infrastructure to support the logistical aspects of the registration process, which could have mitigated the challenges families encounter in registering their children. On the whole, it appears, many people had to choose between paying for birth certificate or immunization both of which, ordinarily, are meant to be free.
But the NPC Deputy Chief Registrar in the state, Mr Oba Ibrahim insisted that birth registration was absolutely free, noting that the commission cannot be everywhere to monitor its officers “but they have been warned over that allegation over and again.”
Ibrahim said that the commission would equally set up a surveillance team to ensure that perpetrators are caught and sanctioned. He lamented that the commission lacked adequate staff that could cover the health facilities in the state.
Birth registration awareness high, but new parents are ripped off in Kano
In Kano State, investigations by NAN revealed that many mothers are discouraged from registering their children due to extortion by NPC officials who demand money to register new births. A visit to some health centres in Kano confirmed the alarming practice.
Investigations revealed that parents who paid for birth certificates were not given receipts for the payment. In all the centres visited by our correspondent, mothers were asked to pay between N200 and N500 for birth certificate.
Some mothers who spoke to NAN decried the “high cost of registration,” stating that the registration, including child immunization was not free. In some of the hospitals visited by the NAN reporter where the NPC has its registration centres, including Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Imam Wali General Hospital, Murtala Mohammed Specialist Hospital and Nassarawa General Hospital, a birth certificate costs between N200 to N500.
It was only in Maternal and Child Centre, Middle Road,Sabongari, Fagge Local Government Area that registration was free.
More than 41 individuals who spoke to our reporter paid for their children’s registration, while twelve other individuals were aware of the importance, but could not afford it.
Mrs. Husseina Abbas, who attempted to register her son at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital said she was denied the certificate because she could not afford the N200 fee which she insisted was contrary to an earlier announcement by the state government that the document was free.
A housewife, Mrs. Hadiza Musa said she had to borrow N1,000 to register her twin boys at Murtala Mohammed Specialist Hospital, Kano.
Malam Sule Danjuma, a woodcarver, said that he paid N300 to register his child at Imam Wali General Hospital.
He said: “Our local chief advised me to register my son, being my first child. I wasn’t aware that my wife had done it earlier so when I got home we found out we had the same thing.”
“When I presented the certificate my wife had earlier collected, the NPC officials said the document was not NPC certificate and I was left with no option than to go back home. Curiously, the certificates they gave to my wife and I were signed by the same person,” Danjuma noted.
He observed that charges for birth certificates had discouraged many parents from registering the births of their children.
The NPC Commissioner in Kano State, Dr. Suleiman Lawal, condemned the extortion by his staff, calling on residents to report such cases with the evidence of the illegality to the commission for further investigation.
The commissioner explained that following complaints of allegations of extortion, the state government and the NPC officials undertook a tour of the 44 LGAs in the state to sensitize the people that birth registration is free and every child’s right.
“I wish you can identify our staff that are doing this so that we can take action right away. We will also investigate all these allegations; we will keep warning them to stay away from such a wicked act because if caught, they will be sanctioned,” Lawal said.
Kano State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Kabir Ibrahim Getso said there was need for the NPC to collaborate with the Ministry of Education and to also fine-tune its collaboration with the ministry of health.
“The Ministry of Education can play an important role in advocating and facilitating birth registration and establishing links with registration authorities at various levels. Such actions are likely to have a multiplier effect, such as empowering parents to deal with local and other authorities, encouraging them to visit health centres with their children and to send their children to school, even if neither parent is literate,” he said.
Despite claims by officials, commercialization of birth registration exercise by hospitals in the states is also rife as investigations in Kano and Kwara states show. Many medical personnel have turned the exercise into a business venture.
Our reporter also observed lack of due diligence and the indiscriminate issuance of birth certificates by hospitals. Through a third party, our reporter successfully obtained four birth certificates from different government established hospitals despite not presenting a child for registration. The go – between was given the birth certificates after parting with some money in Kano state. Interactions with the NCP officials showed that many of them were neither educated nor capable. Their communication skills are poor and many of them find it difficult to write simple names correctly.
Birth registration is essential and should be absolutely free, experts say
Experts insist that birth registration is essential as it marks the official and positive recognition of a new member of society, who is entitled to all the rights and responsibilities of a valued citizen.
A professor of Counselling Psychology, Prof. Bolaji Adana, explained that extortion by NPC officials is not the only cause of low birth registration in the country.
He said the main constraints and challenges facing the process were also related mainly to lack of financial resources and trained personnel.
The professor said birth registration requires an intensive, continuous follow up and long term commitment of the government.
According to him, it would take some time to develop a common understanding of the key functions of such a system and its importance.
Adana noted that “areas that need immediate attention include promotion of awareness, raising capacity, building of birth registration systems and increasing of coverage to reach the remote areas and even the children on the street.”
On low birth registration, a demographer, Mr Adebayo Oluwadare, said the Nigerian government should not overlook this area. He cautioned that the recent UNICEF figure of 29 million should not be celebrated going by Nigeria’s population of over 180million people.
Adebayo said that birth registration information could be used to determine fertility rates. Accordingly, figures collected through birth registration over a period of time, can be used to estimate the growth, structure and geographic distribution of the population.
The demographer said that every child deserves a right to identity. “From the moment a child is born, he or she has rights, including the right to an identity. A birth certificate is one of the most important documents a child will ever own. It is evidence that the child exists and that the Government has certain obligations with regards to the child”.
Dr Samuel Eleojo, a public health practitioner observed that one of the barriers to birth registration was the lack of efficient communication between rural people and national birth registration officials.
Eleojo, who questioned how the records collected were kept, said they were typically paper based and were therefore easily lost, damaged or destroyed.
He, however, advised the government to go digital in registering births to avoid duplication of registration and also checkmate foreigners.
Mr Chijoke Ijeh, an Information and Communication Technology expert, said that the NPC should computerize its system of registering birth, adding that ICT is the new generation of windows and escape routes out of many hitherto insurmountable problems.
“NCP should explore all the possible role of new ICTs such as computers, internet and mobile phones as well as new social media such as Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, etc in achieving accurate and reliable information in the two most important vital events birth and death,” he advised.
Ijeh advised again that NPC should develop and implement an innovative mobile application to register children under 5, which would simplify the process of registration, as the data would go into a mobile phone and sent via SMS to the commission directly.
“This will ensure that newborns can go home from the hospital with a birth certificate.The application will be designed to work on all mobile phones and operating systems, and will only require mobile coverage to send and receive data.
“The NCP should seek partnership with UNICEF in this initiative. It will also be a service that should be provided for free. This will curb extortion. I was privileged to be in Tanzania in 2013, where something like this was carried out and its working for that small nation till date,” he said.
* This investigation was done with the support of Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR