The rowdiness at the waiting section of Ojodu Primary Health Centre on Gbadamosi Street, Lagos State, was deafening that Tuesday morning. At about 10am, visitors had filled up the available seats at the section. The majority of them brought their children for either immunisation or treatment of minor ailments.
At a right corner into the entrance, a female official sat on a chair sandwiched behind the door. She donned a white top and multi-coloured skirt with a white muffler to match; glasses rested comfortably on her nose bridge.
The spot is where the official of the National Population Commission uses as a birth registration centre. On her table were booklets and some other stationery. She had no workstation to facilitate birth registration process.
Our correspondent approached the commission’s official in the guise of a father wanting a birth certificate for his newborn without presenting the child or any hospital record as the procedures require.
Observing due diligence in a process as critical as birth registration mattered little — if at all — to the middle-aged official. All she needed to document Hanafi Abeeb Adeshina, a fictitious child’s name presented to her, is a sum of N1,000 for registration that is supposed to be free according to the commission.
She boldly turned down a N500 negotiation. “We did free registration three months ago. We have stopped it for now,” the official replied swiftly when Sunday PUNCH queried her for demanding money. She also turned a deaf ear to the request for a receipt.
Within 10 minutes, this correspondent filled a form indicating the child’s birth date, his parents’ names and address among other wrong details and was issued an original birth certificate for the imaginary child. Dated October 8, 2019, the certificate was duly stamped and signed by the registrar.
A birth certificate is a permanent vital record documenting the existence of a child before the law and establishes the child’s family ties. Ideally, it is used for national planning and is a requirement in school enrollment, processing of passport, employment into an organisation, etc.
Unfortunately, the official is not the only NPC registrar enmeshed in this shoddy practice. The poor registration process is the order of the day in almost all the NPC accredited birth registration centres including hospitals and local government areas.
At the NPC office inside the secretariat of Ikeja Local Government Area where our correspondent visited on the same day (October 8), the scenario was worse. One of the registrars at the centre issued a birth certificate for a non-existing two-year-old girl, Afeez Fatima Bolatito, after collecting N2,000.
Even though our correspondent told him the child was born in Ilorin, Kwara State, he assured him that she could be registered. Officially in Nigeria, children cannot be registered in an area outside their place of birth.
The NPC official inside the council claimed the registration is free but said the money was meant for processing two affidavits for which he initially demanded N3,000. One of the affidavits according to the stout dark-complexioned man is to show that no certificate had previously been issued to the child and the other is meant to state Lagos as her birth place.
Invariably, he encouraged our correspondent to engage in perjury, a serious criminal offence punishable under the law with a fine or jail term or both upon conviction.
“We can’t issue a birth certificate for a child born in Ilorin. We can only state that she was born in Lagos. You will need an affidavit to show that she had not been issued a certificate before. An affidavit is N1,500 but the certificate is free. We’ll do the affidavit for you right here,” he said crisply.
About 15 minutes into the transaction, he issued the birth certificate without preparing the affidavits. “I will do so later and put them in the file,” he retorted when this reporter requested to see the documents.
At the Lagos NPC centres in Agboyi-Ketu Primary Health Centre, Kosofe Local Government Area and Ifako Primary Health Centre under Ifako-Ijaiye LGA visited by our correspondent, all that the two registrars demanded were verbal details of the child and a sum of N1,000 for the issuance of a birth certificate. He promised to come back for the processing having established that they were ready to issue the certificate like their colleagues in the two previous centres visited did.
Birth registration procedures
After a child is delivered in a hospital, the institution issues a certificate to the child as a proof. The hospital certificate is then taken to any National Population Commission registration centre and submitted for the issuance of a birth certificate.
To obtain a birth certificate for a child born at a place other than hospital, the parent or guardian is required to go to the local government where the child is born and get an affidavit to serve as the proof of birth. The affidavit is submitted at any NPC office and a birth certificate is issued to the child.
The two NPC officials encountered by our correspondent did not ask for these essential documents even though they were respectively told that the “two children” were born at home and hospital.
In response to some of the frequently asked questions on its website, the NPC gives reasons for birth registration to include, “securing the child’s identity, nationality and name; for easy access to health care and good education; to help in national planning and to obtain a job in the public sector.”
Sadly, the poor registration mechanism aids documentation of fictitious – or even stolen –children, thereby making a mess of these objectives.
The commission also states that parents must “go to the registration centre with the child or evidence of birth,” noting that “mother, father or any adult relatives or caregivers,” can take the child for registration.”
It maintains that the child must be presented at the point of registration “unless it is impossible to do so.”
Poor birth registration and child trafficking: A nexus
Child trafficking has reached an alarming rate with several kids caught up in the deplorable web and subjected to hard labour, abuse and dehumanising treatment. In broader terms, it encompasses selling of children either stolen or with their parents’ consent.
Although statistics of child trafficking in Nigeria could not be obtained from authorities in country, the International Labour Organisation estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year.
In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the percentage of child victims had risen within three years from 20 per cent to 27 per cent. “Every year 300,000 children are taken from all around the world and sold by human traffickers as slaves,” it added.
In Nigeria, children, especially newborns, are increasingly becoming victims of trafficking and reduced to objects of transactions. Tens of children have been abducted and sold at ridiculous amounts ranging from N100,000 to N1m.
While security agents were able to rescue some – perhaps many years after– from their buyers who adopted them as biological children, a number of others have remained missing, leaving their parents in perpetual anguish and trauma.
Few weeks ago, the Kano State Police Command rescued nine children after busting a syndicate which specialised in abducting children from Kano and sold them in Anambra.
The news caused uproar and President Muhammadu Buhari gave an order for investigation. The Kano State Government also set up a panel of investigation into the crime as more than 47 other children suspected to have been abducted in a similar manner are still missing.
Piling onto this disturbing figure are two siblings, Chinasa, three and Chikamso Okpara, 18 months old, stolen on May 14, 2016 by an apprentice known only as Rose in a stylist shop run by their mother on Cemetery Street, Ajegunle, a densely populated community in Lagos.
The children are now seven and five years old respectively, yet their whereabouts remained unknown, their mother, Ijeoma, told Sunday PUNCH during the week. She sounded depressed.
Given the poor, shoddy procedures for birth registration in Nigeria, a child buyer can easily obtain a birth certificate in the name of a stolen child and claim to be the biological and legitimate parent of such child.
Invariably, the certificate, which can be issued within 15 minutes without presenting any proof from the hospital or relevant authorities, ultimately becomes a viable means for an illegal adopter to legalise the hitherto criminal act.
In August 2019, the Ogun State Police Command rescued seven-year-old Joshua Otubo in Anambra State from one Mrs Blessing Ozor who bought him for N1.05m.
Otubo and his siblings – Deborah, six, and three-year-old Abraham who are still missing – were abducted from their parents’ rented apartment in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, on March 4, 2018 by a co-tenant known only as Mary.
In an interview with Sunday PUNCH, Otubo said the woman renamed him Chisom and enrolled him in a school.
He said, “The woman (Ozor) beat me whenever I misbehaved, but she always gave me food. I was the only person living with her. She took me to school but I was not happy. I wanted to see my mummy and daddy. I was happy when I saw them. I don’t know where Abraham and Deborah are. I want to see them.”
While the name of the school and documents requested for his enrollment could not be ascertained, it is likely that Ozor submitted Otubo’s birth certificate which is one of the basic requirements for enrollment in Nigerian schools.Like this reporter, she might have obtained the birth certificate under the same questionable registration mechanism.
Meanwhile, advocates for human and child rights, who spoke to our correspondent, sad there was the need for thorough and data-based birth registration process to protect children.
The Coordinator, Advocate for Children and Vulnerable Persons Network of Nigeria, Mr Ebenezer Omejalile, said a situation whereby anybody can walk into an NPC office and get the certificate, “is an abuse of birth registration and can encourage child trafficking.’’
“Even if a child is born at home, there should be evidence because the baby has to be taken to a hospital or health centre for further attention,” he added.
Omejalile lamented that birth registrars working at the local government secretariat did not have computers to work with and called for their capacity building.
The National General Secretary, Network of Civil Society Organisation Against Child Trafficking, Abuse and Labour, Mr Fela Bright, said it was unfortunate that the officials disregarded the procedures for pecuniary purpose.
He said, “The moment they see money, everything about them is gone. Some people get appointment without knowing what they are supposed to be doing and when you call their attention to it, they tell you to go to blazes. That kind of nonchalant attitude will definitely aid child trafficking. Someone who buys a child can easily get the child registered as theirs without being caught.”
Bright, who is also the Project Officer and West Africa representative of Africa Region of International Federation of Social Workers, called for active engagement of trained social workers in the commission and other government establishments such as schools for adequate protection of child rights.
He stated, “Social workers have a lot of work to do in this country but unfortunately they have not been recognised. When you engage the people who have been trained over the years in social development, it will help in addressing child trafficking and other social challenges. A social worker who is interested in how a child can achieve their full potential in life is quite different from somebody who just wants to collect salary at the end of the month.
“The NPC should engage social workers and define their scope of work vis-à-vis making sure that these irregularities are addressed. They will be able to work out the modalities for doing the work well and achieve better results. Being an NGO (a non-governmental) person does not make you a social worker; social work is a professional calling. One of the things a social worker realises is that once you find anybody wanting, you don’t compromise. You make sure the person is prosecuted.”
In her submission, the Director, Office of the Public Defender of the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, Mrs Olayinka Adeyemi, faulted the current birth registration process, noting that it foreclosed deeper investigation into whether the person requesting a birth certificate for a child is their biological parent or not.
She added, “Worse still, sometimes you don’t have to take your child to the centre to get the certificate. So, that process does not protect children. The process of registration of birth should be detailed enough to prevent this kind of practice. Of course, to a great extent, there is a connection between the process and its encouragement of child trafficking.”
Baby factory on the prowl
Whereas some parents are victims of child abductors, desperate quest for illegal means of survival has also driven many people into child selling. Several others, including rape victims and teenage mothers, who hide their pregnancies from parents have ended up in illegal orphanages that operate baby factories.
A 2006 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation report stated that the south-eastern parts of Abia, Anambra and Imo states have most of such homes.
The police described a baby factory as a well-organised crime, sometimes with medical doctors involved in running the factory operated like a maternity home while the babies produced are sold out.
One of such illegal orphanages was discovered in 2013 at Umuozuo, Osisioma Local Government Area, in Aba, Abia State with 32 pregnant ladies rescued. According to the police, a male child was sold for N450,000 while a female attracted N400, 000 at the clandestine facility. A teenage mother was paid N100,000 if she was delivered of a boy, as against N90,000 paid mother of a girl child.
On September 19, 2019, the Lagos State Police Command bust four of such illicit homes in Ikotun and Abaranje, Lagos suburbs, and rescued 19 pregnant women and four babies. Three teenagers, Joy, 15, Happiness, 17 and Favour, 17, who are rape victims, formed part of the figure.
“It was one John that raped and impregnated me. One aunty brought me to Lagos; I can’t remember her name. They promised to give me N300,000 after I gave birth,” Joy from Akwa Ibom State told our correspondent.
Echi Uche, 32, from Okigwe in Imo State, said she intended to sell the baby after delivery so she could use the proceeds to take care of her three children.
“A friend, Chinyere, told me her brother’s wife in Lagos had no child and that she wanted to adopt one. We agreed that I would go to Lagos and when I gave birth, the woman would take the child and settle me. They didn’t tell me the amount I would be paid, but I wanted to use the money to take care of my children,” she said.
A quack nurse taking the delivery of the babies at one of the factories, Mrs Sherifat Ipaye, and a caregiver, Happiness Ukwuoma, were also arrested by the police.
Ukwuoma, who worked for the owner of the baby factories (one Oluchi), said three babies had been sold within the three months she was engaged by Oluchi on a monthly pay of N20,000. Oluchi is still at large.
Complex adoption procedures, culture fuelling child buying
The OPD director, Adeyemi, opined that the complexity of adoption procedures coupled with subtle resentment for adopters in Nigerian culture discouraged many people from toeing the line of the law, thereby indulging in child buying.
“Cultural issue is the greatest issue impeding adoption in Nigeria. Many people are worried that the society won’t see the child as theirs and that adoption is an admission of not being fertile to have children.
“Some people will prefer to do adoption secretly, particularly if it is a baby. Some people can go as far as packing themselves with different stages of pregnancy kits and travel out of the country or to somewhere else and when delivery time is approaching, they will return with a baby to pass as theirs. In some cases, they buy the babies.
“Adoption process is a bit cumbersome but it should be so because we are talking about life. One has to be sure that the person seeking adoption is really sincere.”
The Lagos Zonal Commander of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, Mr Daniel Atokolo, also stated that “excessive bureaucracies” surrounding the adoption process could be attributed to child buying.
Collaboration, digital registration the way out
A pediatrician and Head, Medical Centre of Federal College of Education, Akoka, Lagos, Dr Rotimi Adesanya, decried the practice of issuing birth certificate to a child without evidence of birth from the hospital where such child was born. He said the NPC needed to liaise with ministries of health nationwide to have a comprehensive list of hospitals registered with them.
The public health consultant explained that with this collaboration, information collected by a birth attendant upon delivery of a child could be transferred to the commission to enable it verify the authenticity of the document presented at the point of birth registration.
He said, “We have birth attendants in hospitals who record the child, the day of delivery, time of delivery and the name of the parents. This information is transferred into the hospital birth certificate which is not acceptable for legal transaction.
“The Information contained therein is supposed to be taken to the NPC office for onward transfer into their own record. The NPC needs to be confirming the facts with the hospitals. They need to have the register of hospitals that attend to delivery. All they need to do is to get across to the ministry of health in every state to give them names of hospitals registered with them. Once a parent comes for birth registration, they can easily confirm.”
To address instances whereby hospital birth certificates are forged, the medical doctor called for the application of digital operations that allow the use of biometrics.
“This way if a child is born, biometrics will be carried out at the hospital and the process is repeated at the point of registration at the NPC office. That way, we can drastically reduce the chance of parents registering children that are not theirs,” he added.
Also speaking on the issue, a human rights lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye, said the process and procedures for child registration ought to be reworked.
According to him, it looms danger if there are no “Standard Operative Practices” for child registration other than assumed parents presenting themselves at an NPC office with documents of the child presumably obtained in a hospital.
He stated, “One, it will not be possible for the registrar of birth to truly authenticate the claim of an assumed parent that he or she is the true parent of the child. Even if documents are acquired from the hospital, there is no interface between the NPC and the hospital or maternity to authenticate the document.
“Even if we have that kind of authentication, people still take children to trado-medical centres for delivery. Thus what we should be doing now is reworking the system in such a way that we will take the advantage of digital information age. The NPC offices should be able to go to a portal to verify whether the information of the child had been transmitted to it.
“We must move the procedure from the parent showing up at offices to register children to a procedure by which NPC offices are able to interface and liaise with hospitals all over the country no matter their number. And for facilities such as trado-medical centres outside the coverage of the Internet, we can have procedures for this interface.”
The lawyer said a legislative intervention to address the anomalies in the current birth registration process in Nigeria should look into these suggested areas otherwise, “we cannot plug the loopholes.”
He also called for a rework of the adoption procedures, noting that the bureaucracy did not necessarily encourage the baby factory phenomenon.
“We need to simplify the adoption law and procedures so that it will not be too cumbersome. But we also need to fight criminality. Some of those buying children already have children; they use the children they buy for rituals,” he added.
A lawyer and Social commentator, Mr Liborous Oshoma, said the chances of registering stolen or trafficked children at the NPC centres were high and called for a major concern.
He said, “This can be curtailed with due diligence. In abroad, from the hospital where the child is registered, the hospital has access to the central database like we have National Identification Number in Nigeria. They give the child a name immediately and it is with the name that the child’s details are inputted in the certificate. They then request a social security number for the child. We can replicate the same thing here. All we need to do is proper monitoring.”
He noted that adoption procedures were stringent to deter criminally-minded people, adding that it could be simplified through electronic means rather than manual processes.
“Also everyone is operating orphanages which can be checked through a central database. We need to put structures in place. The Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Youth and Sports, Ministry of Women Affairs and Ministry of Health need to collaborate,” he added.
We’ll tackle lapses, says NPC
The Director, Public Affairs of the Commission, Mr Mohammed Isah, confirmed the breach of the procedures for birth registration narrated to him by our correspondent, noting that “the commission is aware of all the issues and is taking proactive measures.”
He stated, “The last survey we conducted, National Health and Demographic Survey of the country, it was discovered that over 60 per cent of women that live in the rural areas have their birth at home. It will be difficult for those parents to obtain birth certificate in the hospital for their children. And there is no how we could not have registered their children because they gave birth at home.
“We recently discussed the issue of money for birth registration with the acting chairman and the commission is taking a proactive approach towards solving this issue once and for all. It is not permissible to collect a kobo from any parent who wants to register their child. The certificate is absolutely free and we are urging parents to resist giving anything to anybody if they are asked to do so.”
To prevent the exploitation of the deficient procedures for registering stolen children, Isah said the commission would soon go digital.
He added, “The only solution is digitalising and automating the birth registration. We have got some funds to start the process and hopefully it will begin by next month. By the time we acquire tablets and other necessary materials, we will not be using hardware anymore.
“That will help to checkmate all the ugly scenarios you mentioned. You are absolutely right. People can even use the advantage of the manual process to register twice. One may register in Lagos and go to Kano to do another registration because the mechanisms to check are not properly put in place.”