Nigeria: Ability to track individuals nationwide through the Bank Verification Number (BVN), ability of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) to track individuals across the country (2020–November 2022) [NGA201199.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. BVN

According to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), on 14 February 2014 the BVN was launched as a "centralized biometric identification system for the banking industry" (Nigeria n.d.). The same source adds that the BVN is designed to protect bank customers by providing them with a unique and single identity in the Nigerian banking system (Nigeria n.d.). The Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System Plc (NIBSS) – a corporation owned by the CBN and all licensed banks in Nigeria – indicates that the BVN's "purpose" is to "use biometric information as a means of first identifying and verifying all individuals that have account(s) in any Nigerian bank and … as a means of authenticating customer's identity at point of transactions" (NIBSS n.d.). The same source adds that at the time of enrolment, a person's BVN will be "linked to every account that the customer has in [all] Nigerian Banks" (NIBSS n.d.). NIBSS also notes that at a "point of transaction," a customer's BVN and the "unique features of [the] individual" are to be used alongside their PIN (NIBSS n.d.).

1.1 BVN Regulations, Including Access to BVN Information and the BVN Watchlist

The CBN's Regulatory Framework for Bank Verification Number (BVN) Operations and Watch-List for the Nigerian Banking Industry, which contains revised guidelines published in October 2021, indicates that the "Watch-List for the Nigerian Banking Industry" is a "database of customers identified by their BVNs, who have been involved in confirmed cases of breaches" (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 4). The same source states that NIBSS is responsible for updating the watchlist with the BVNs of individuals "enlisted" by the CBN, NIBSS, banks, or "[o]ther [f]inancial [i]nstitutions" (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 5-6). According to the Regulatory Framework, customers with a BVN on the watchlist are "prohibited from all electronic channels such as but not limited to" automated teller machines, point of sale systems, internet banking, mobile banking, and the issuance of third-party cheques; furthermore, they cannot "access or guarantee credit facilities," and they cannot "enter [a] new relationship" with a bank or financial institution (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 16).

The Regulatory Framework states that banks, "[o]ther [f]inancial [i]nstitutions," and mobile money operators, have "direct access" to the BVN database and do not require CBN approval to do so; however, "[o]ther [f]inancial [i]nstitutions" must obtain customer consent and banks must "treat [the BVN database] with strict confidentiality" (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 10). The same source adds that payment service providers, credit bureaus, and other entities approved by the CBN can only access the BVN database through the NIBSS and must obtain customer consent (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 10). The Regulatory Framework also notes that after having obtained a Federal High Court order, BVN information may be granted to law enforcement agencies, the National Pension Commission, pension fund administrators, and "[o]ther entities as may be approved" (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 11). The same source states that individuals are only permitted to access their own BVN information (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 11). According to the Regulatory Framework, the BVN may only be used for purposes identified by the CBN, and it cannot be used "to sanction individuals for non-financial offences," "for identification outside the banking system," or for any "other misuse" as defined by the CBN (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 11).

The Regulatory Framework provides the following guidelines concerning security and data protection of BVN information:

  • Parties involved in the BVN operations, shall put in place, secure hardware, software and encryption of messages transmitted through a secured network;
  • BVN data shall be stored within the shores of Nigeria and shall not be routed across borders without the consent of the CBN;
  • Users of the BVN information shall establish adequate security procedures to ensure the safety and security of its information and those of its clients, which shall include physical, logical, network and enterprise security;
  • Access to BVN information by customers shall be obtained through secured channels with appropriate authentication;
  • BVN participants shall ensure that BVN information is treated as confidential; and
  • All stakeholders shall comply with Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) or any regulation of the Bank on data protection and relevant extant laws. (Nigeria Oct. 2021, 11–12)

1.2 Ability to Track Individuals Nationwide Through the BVN

Sources reported that an individual can be tracked nationwide through their BVN (Senior Fellow 27 Oct. 2022; Managing Partner 20 Oct. 2022; PhD Candidate 26 Oct. 2022). In an interview with the Research Directorate, a PhD candidate in the Department of Finance of the University of Ilorin in Nigeria—who researches financial systems development, international finance in Nigeria, and the BVN—added that only the CBN or the federal government have the ability to track a person's location through their BVN and their location can only be tracked if the person attempts to make a transaction at a bank (PhD Candidate 26 Oct. 2022). The same source noted that it is not possible for a person to open a new bank account without providing their BVN (PhD Candidate 26 Oct. 2022). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, the Executive Director of the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ)—a Nigerian NGO based in Benin City that focuses on marginalized groups and the protection of socio-economic rights (ANEEJ n.d.)—provided the following information:

Rarely do banks open an account (individual/corporate/domiciliary) without the requirement of linking a BVN, and in some cases individuals are required to verify with BVN biometrics before certain transactions are processed. This could be used to track an individual's location, where the person is invited to update his/her record at the nearest bank branch or review of the last branch where his/her biometrics was last captured. (ANEEJ 27 Oct. 2022)

The ANEEJ Executive Director noted that because a person's BVN includes "personalized data" only accessible by financial institutions and the CBN, someone seeking to track a person's location through their BVN would "require some legal and regulatory backing" (ANEEJ 27 Oct. 2022). The same source added that the "security agencies and anti-corruption agencies liaise with the CBN, NIBSS, Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) and [o]ther [f]inancial [i]nstitutions to track individuals" through their BVN (ANEEJ 27 Oct. 2022). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a managing partner of a Lagos-based Nigerian law firm—which specializes in digital rights, privacy and data protection, and banking and finance—noted that people including "enforcement agencies, wire fraudsters, identity thieves, and kidnappers" are known to track individuals nationwide through their BVN (Managing Partner 20 Oct. 2022). In contrast, in correspondence with the Research Directorate, a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)—a US-based independent organization focused on international affairs (CFR n.d.)—indicated that they were not aware of any groups or organizations that are known to track individuals nationwide through their BVN (Senior Fellow 27 Oct. 2022), and the ANEEJ Executive Director stated they were not aware of any private organization "with the legal mandate" to track individuals through their BVN (ANEEJ 27 Oct. 2022).

The PhD Candidate, in response to a question about the circumstances under which the CBN or federal government would track a person's location through their BVN, indicated that if a person was deemed to have "obtained money through false pretenses" or had "committed bank fraud," the CBN or federal government would issue an alert to all Nigerian banks; if that person attempted to withdraw money anywhere in Nigeria, their location would be traceable through their BVN (PhD Candidate 26 Oct. 2022). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The Managing Partner stated that the following "sensitive personal data" could be tracked through a person's BVN: "fingerprint identification, facial images, telephone numbers, national identification number, contact address, and date of birth" (Managing Partner 20 Oct. 2022). According to the PhD Candidate, tracking a person using their BVN would provide access to the following information about that person: contact address; mobile number; employment; employment address; next of kin; mother's name; facial image; and thumbprints (both thumbs) (PhD Candidate 26 Oct. 2022). The Senior Fellow indicated that since a person's BVN is linked to their bank account and personal information, "any interested institution or agent" could track and identify the location of a person through their bank transactions (Senior Fellow 27 Oct. 2022). The ANEEJ Executive Director noted that someone with "appropriate access" or "authorization" to a person's BVN could gain information concerning their "bio[metric] data, financial history, and recent bank branch visits" (ANEEJ 27 Oct. 2022).

2. The NURTW

In an interview with the Research Directorate, an assistant professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University—who has researched the NURTW and has published a book on corruption and transport labour in urban Nigeria—indicated that the NURTW has "immense informal power" which "extends nationwide" (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022). The same source added that the NURTW is popularly perceived to be "powerful and politicized," and added that the union employs "young men and women" who are perceived to regularly resort to "physical and psychological violence" (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022). The Assistant Professor indicated that the NURTW is "caught up" in Nigerian politics such that it is "impossible for political parties to gain political power without the union's support," and that the NURTW has "people in high places" (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022).

According to an article published by Explore Parts Unknown [1], the NURTW in Lagos is a "private association that collects tolls by any means necessary from all public transporters" (Explore Parts Unknown 12 Oct. 2017). The same source reports that agberos [an "informal word used in describing a person, usually a thug, who collects rates, fees, tolls and others forms of tax around motor parks" (ICIR 19 July 2021)] who are found at bus stops and motor parks are "often employees of the [NURTW]" (Explore Parts Unknown Oct. 2017). According to the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), an "independent, non-profit news agency" headquartered in Abuja (ICIR n.d.), in Lagos, agberos collect 3,000 naira (NGN) [C$9] from each commercial vehicle driver every day, which, according to an estimate by the ICIR, equates to a total of 225 million NGN [C$ 684,427] per day (ICIR 19 July 2021).

According to sources, the Lagos State government "suspend[ed]" the activities of the NURTW from the state's parks and garages (Premium Times 11 Mar. 2022; The Guardian 10 Mar. 2022). Sources state that in 2019 the Oyo State government banned the NURTW (The Guardian 31 May 2019; ICIR 19 July 2021), "due to impunity and absence of transparency" (ICIR 19 July 2021). The Assistant Professor noted that recently across Nigeria there has been a "heavier crackdown" on the NURTW's activity, particularly "in motor parks and bus terminals," and in some parts of the country the state has taken a "stricter stance" against the union (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022). The same source added that the NURTW has been "banned" in southwestern Nigeria and that this ban has "held" since its inception (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022). The Assistant Professor indicated, however, that historically, since 1999, the state will engage in "lip service" or a "performance" of "banning" the NURTW but that these bans have never held very long (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022).

2.1 Ability of the NURTW to Track Individuals Nationwide

The Senior Fellow, in response to a question about whether the NURTW has the ability to track individuals nationwide, stated that although the NURTW is "very powerful," they "doubt[ed]" that it has the "locus standi or resources" to track someone nationwide (Senior Fellow 27 Oct. 2022). In response to the same question, the PhD Candidate indicated that the NURTW is not capable of tracking people, including their own members (PhD Candidate 26 Oct. 2022). When asked the same question, the Assistant Professor stated that formally the NURTW does not have the necessary information or registration system to track people nationwide, and they noted that most of the union's "system" is still paper-based and records are "often lost" (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022). The same source added, however, that informally the NURTW possesses significant power, such as access to "local knowledge" and "eyes and ears everywhere" including the state level and the "street" level; they stated that if the union "is determined to track someone, we cannot underestimate their power" to do so (Assistant Professor 2 Nov. 2022).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Note

[1] Explore Parts Unknown is a digital food, travel and culture and publication that is jointly edited by CNN and Roads & Kingdoms, a media company focusing on food, politics, and travel (Explore Parts Unknown n.d.). Ayodeji Rotinwa, the author of the Explore Parts Unknown article on the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) (Explore Parts Unknown 12 Oct. 2017), is a journalist covering West Africa and is also the Deputy Editor of African Arguments, a magazine covering politics, economics, and culture in Africa (Heinrich Böll Stiftung n.d.).

References

Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ). 27 October 2022. Correspondence from the Executive Director to the Research Directorate.

Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ). N.d. "About ANEEJ." [Accessed 7 Nov. 2022]

Assistant Professor, Harvard University. 2 November 2022. Interview with the Research Directorate.

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). N.d. "About CFR." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

Explore Parts Unknown. 12 October 2017. Ayodeji Rotinwa. "The Birth of the Agbero: A Toll Collector, a Menace of Lagos." [Accessed 7 Nov. 2022]

Explore Parts Unknown. N.d. "About Us." [Accessed 7 Nov. 2022]

The Guardian [Nigeria]. 10 March 2022. "Lagos Suspends NURTW from Operating in Parks, Garages." [Accessed 8 Nov. 2022]

The Guardian [Nigeria]. 31 May 2019. Rotimi Agbouluaje. "Oyo Government Bans NURTW." [Accessed 8 Nov. 2022]

Heinrich Böll Stiftung. N.d. "Ayodeji Rotinwa." [Accessed 8 Nov. 2022]

The International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). 19 July 2021. Odinaka Anudu. "Money for the Boys: How 'Agberos' Pocket Billions of Lagos Transport Revenue." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

The International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). N.d. "About." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

Managing Partner, law firm, Lagos. 20 October 2022. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Nigeria. October 2021. Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Regulatory Framework for Bank Verification Number (BVN) Operations and Watch-List for the Nigerian Banking Industry. [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

Nigeria. N.d. Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). "Payments System: Bank Verification Number (BVN)." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System Plc (NIBSS). N.d. "Bank Verification Number (BVN)." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

PhD Candidate, University of Ilorin, Nigeria. 26 October 2022. Interview with the Research Directorate.

Premium Times. 11 March 2022. Ben Ezeamalu. "Lagos Govt Suspends NURTW Activities." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022]

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). 27 October 2022. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: African Development Bank; Nigerian law firms specializing in banking and finance (4); Nigerian lawyers specializing in banking and finance (2); Premium Times; professor of social sciences at a university in Nigeria specializing in the NURTW; senior lecturer of law at a university in the UK specializing in Nigerian digital rights.

Internet sites, including: African Development Bank; Al Jazeera; AllAfrica; Amnesty International; Australia – Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Bertelsmann Stiftung; Factiva; Financial Times; Foreign Policy; Freedom House; Human Rights Watch; International Journal of Business and Administrative Studies; Netherlands – Ministry of Foreign Affairs; The Punch; Quartz Africa; Reuters; UK – Home Office; US – Department of State; Vanguard; Voice of America Afrique.