Emma Okonji writes that the recent directives by the federal government compelling telecoms operators to suspend the sale and activation of new SIM cards and to within a two-week period, link all registered SIM cards to National Identification Number, is an onerous task as subscribes kick against the directives
Nigerian telecoms subscribers with over 207 million active registered lines, last week, were taken by surprise when the federal government issued two directives, compelling telecoms operators to immediately suspend the registration and activation of new SIM cards, until the completion of the audit of the Subscriber Registration Database, while the other directive compelled telecoms subscribers to submit their NIN to their telecoms service providers within two weeks, from December 16 to 30 to enable service providers synchronise all registered SIM cards to NINs.
Worried about the urgency of both directives, telecoms subscribers across networks and from all walks of life, have kicked against the directives, saying the time line is not sufficient to achieve result. They cited various reasons that have made the directives too herculean to achieve, to include poor infrastructure for fast capturing of biometrics during NIN and SIM card registration; possibility of stampede while rushing to beat the two weeks deadline for submission of NIN and synchronisation of NIN to registered SIM cards; the busy period of yuletide when many Nigerians travel to celebrate Christmas; and the COVID-19 pandemic that has compelled Nigerians to observe social distancing in public places, among others.
Although they commended the federal government for its intention to address insecurity in the county through the initiative of synchronising registered SIM cards with NIN, they however said the approach was draconian, and would never achieve results. They strongly advised the federal government to consider extending the time and giving ample time to carry out the exercise. They also said the suspension of sale and activation of new SIM card while the exercise lasts, was not necessary, and it would make Nigerians incommunicado, should they lose their SIM cards for any reason, within the period that the exercise will last, since they will not have the opportunity to retrieve their lines and activate the lines for communication.
The first directive was to compel the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator, to immediately enforce the suspension of the sale and activation of new SIM cards, while the second directive was to direct telecoms subscribers to within two weeks, submit their NIN to telecoms operators for synchronisation with all registered SIM cards.
While announcing the suspension order, which NCC said would last till the completion of the audit of the subscriber Registration Database, which seeks to achieve global standards and quality in the issuance of SIM cards, the Director, Public Affairs at NCC, Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, said the action became necessary in line with the federal government desire to consolidate the achievement of the SIM card registration exercise of September 2019.
NCC therefore advised all telecoms operators to henceforth suspend all sales and activation of new SIM cards on their networks.
Part of the statement issued by NCC, read: “In line with the federal government desire to consolidate the achievement of the SIM card registration exercise of September, 2019, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, has directed NCC to embark on another audit of the subscriber registration database again.
The objective of the audit exercise is to verify and ensure compliance by MNOs with the set quality standards and requirements of SIM card registration as issued by the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the Commission.
Accordingly, MNOs are hereby directed to immediately suspend the sale, registration and activation of new SIM cards until the audit exercise is concluded, and government has conveyed the new direction.
NCC warned that MNOs must comply with the directive and that non-compliance with the directive would be met with strict sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating licence.
The second directive was issued during a stakeholders meeting convened by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami. The meeting was attended by the CEOs and management staff of the NCC, National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), NIMC, as well as the CEOs and management staff of all telecoms service providers in the country.
During the meeting some decisions were taken for immediate implementation by all network operators: Affirmation of the earlier directive to totally suspend registration of new SIMs by all operators; Operators to require all their subscribers to provide valid NIN to update SIM registration records; The submission of NIN by subscribers to take place within two weeks from Wednesday, December 16, 2020 and end by December 30, 2020; After the deadline, all SIMs without NINs are to be blocked from the networks; A Ministerial Task Force comprising the minister and all the CEOs among others, as members are to monitor compliance by all networks; Violations of the directive will be met by stiff sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating license.
The minister therefore urged the general public to ensure that their NINs are captured in their SIM registration data.
Reactions and Oppositions
Both directives have continued to elicit reactions from Nigerians who are angered by the two weeks ultimatum given to conclude the exercise, and they are more disturbed with the threat to block telephone lines that are not linked to NIN, after the expiration of the two weeks order.
The National Association of Telecoms Subscribers (NATCOMS), said the suspension order has made many Nigerians incommunicado, having lost their SIM cards to hoodlums and robbery attacks because they could not do the usual ‘welcome back pack’ to retrieve their mobile lines.
National Chairman of NATCOMS, Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, who narrated the ordeals of his members in Lagos since the suspension order was announced, said most of his members were victims of the recent Agege mayhem in Lagos, where their mobile phones were forcefully taken away from them by hoodlums who unleashed mayhem in Agege.
“Aside the Agege mayhem, which affected some telecoms subscribers, some other subscribers were victims to robbery attacks in different parts of the country in the last few days, while some misplaced their mobile phones and none of them could retrieve their mobile lines nor purchase a new SIM card because of the suspension order on the sale and activation of new SIM cards. Most of our members who owned and run their businesses, and have lost their mobile phones in the past few days, can no longer communicate and their customers can no longer reach them on phone for business transactions,” Ogunbanjo said.
He therefore called on the federal government to intervene and re-order NCC to lift the suspension order on new SIM cards, to enable Nigerians retrieve their lines and reconnect to their business partners, customers, friends, relations and well-wishers. Ogunbanjo who faulted the suspension order, said the order had inflicted so much pain on Nigerians, since people could lose their mobile phones at different circumstances beyond their control. He said the planned re-audit of subscriber registration database, which was the reason for the suspension of the sale and activation of new SIM cards, would not in any way be affected by the continuous sale and activation of new SIM cards.
The Executive Secretary, Information Technology Systems and Security, an interest group of the Nigerian Computer Society (NCS) in Lagos, Mr. Rogba Adeoye, told THISDAY that the initiative was laudable, but that the two weeks period would not be enough to achieve result.
“Nigeria lacks adequate infrastructure to accomplish the task, coupled with the yuletide season and the COVID-19 pandemic that is still with us in the country, which calls for caution to avoid unnecessary stampede. With these factors, it is evident that two weeks will never be enough to achieve the desired result.” Adeoye therefore advised there should be extension of time and that the Computer-Based Centres (CBC) that were used during JAMB exams, should be deployed to facilitate enrollment and SIM card registration and synchronisation.
Also, an expert on technology and Managing Director of DAS Energy Services Limited, Warri, Delta State, Chief Sunny Onuesoke, has said the two weeks ultimatum is not realistic.
Onuesoke, who made the observation in Asaba, Delta State noted that such an exercise, which involves no fewer than 100 million telephone users across Nigeria and in Diaspora is not something NCC should come up with overnight.
Onuesoke, who stated that the policy was dead on arrival and a clear-cut violation of individual privacy, wondered how millions of subscribers could update their records in two weeks, arguing that, even in the developed world, it is not realistic except the synchronisation is automated.
A Professor of Political Economy and Founder of the Centre for Value Leadership, Prof. Pat Utomi, told THISDAY that he did not consider the directive a serious matter to ponder on and warned Nigerians to be wary of the government’s intentions.
The Director General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Dr. Muda Yusuf, told THISDAY that government should exercise utmost care in order to avoid creating fresh disruptions in the economy with its latest policy on SIM management.
Yusuf also pointed out that it was impractical to accomplish this task in two weeks as stipulated in the government’s announcement.
Also, a Professor of Economics at Akwa Ibom State University, Prof. Akpan Ekpo, warned that the implementation of the policy without extending the deadline for between six months and one year would cause serious economic disruption as most Nigerians rely on their mobile phones to connect and transact businesses.
However, an Economist and the Chief Executive Officer of the Economic Associates Limited, Dr. Ayo Terbia, has urged Nigerians to cooperate with the government to ensure the successful implementation of the policy because of its security dimension.
Meanwhile, Paradigm Initiative has dragged the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and all the major telecoms operators before a Federal High Court in Lagos, for what it described as violation of human rights as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. Paradigm Initiative dragged them to court over the directive issued by Minister to suspend sale and activation of new SIM cards, as well as the plan to block subscribers’ number who fail to submit their NIN to service providers for synchronisation with their SIM cards, within two weeks, which elapses December 30, 2020.
In the suit number FHC/U/1823/2020, which was filed on Thursday December 17, 2020, Paradigm Initiative declared that owning and operating a telephone line or SIM card is an exercise of right to freedom of expression as provided for and guaranteed in Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended.
Paradigm Initiative also declared that the proposed blocking of SIM cards or telephone lines that are not linked to NIN by the network operators, will likely interfere with the applicant’s member’s right to freedom of expression guaranteed under section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended.
Paradigm Initiative further said the directive on the proposed blocking of SIM cards was unlawful and unconstitutional as same is not stipulated by a law and not being a restriction that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society as required by Section 45 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended.
Paradigm Initiative therefore asked the court to restrain all respondents in the suit from carrying out or giving effect to the directive on blocking of SIM cards that are not registered with NIN by network operators until all Nigerians have been conveniently afforded the opportunity to register for and obtain valid NINs and update their SIM registration accordingly.
Call for Extension
The House of Representatives has however urged the federal government to extend the deadline for the synchronisation of SIM with their NIN by telecommunication service providers to 10 weeks.
The House at the plenary last week, said NCC should give a reasonable amount of time to enable Nigerians to comply with the instruction.
It also mandated the House Committee on Communications to ensure compliance.
The resolutions followed the adoption of a motion of urgent public importance, moved by the Minority Leader, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu.
In the motion, Elumelu noted that as laudable as the idea behind the policy may seem, the timing was very wrong because Nigerians have not been properly sensitised.
He said if the NCC was not urgently called to halt their plans there may be unnecessary panic in the country, which may lead to the exploitation of vulnerable Nigerian thereby causing more pains in an already pathetic situation.
According to him, the timing is very wrong because Nigerians have not been properly sensitised as only a few educated persons, who bother to read the dailies might have heard about this instructions, therefore, trying to enforce this policy in a period where most Nigerians are gearing up for Christmas festivities may lead to stampede in the process of rushing to get registered, which could lead to unnecessary death and injuries.”
He said if the NCC is allowed to carry out this directive, it will bring about untold hardship as millions of subscribers will be disconnected during the yuletide period, which he said could spell disaster in an already volatile situation. Adopting the motion, the House resolved that the exercise should end on February 28, 2021, as against December 30, 2020.
In spite of the agitations towards the recent directives on the suspension of sale of activation of new SIM cards and the two-week ultimatum to synchronise all registered SIM cards with NIN, the federal government seems determined to implement the directives, despite all odds.
This is evident in the recent licensing of over 200 agents and institutions for NIN enrollment.
NIMC, the federal agency responsible for registration and issuance of NIN and national identity cards, last week, released the list of 173 Private Sector Agents and 30 State Governments/Public Sector Institutions, approved by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, to conduct enrollment of Nigerians and legal residents into the National Identity Database (NIDB) on behalf of the NIMC.
In a statement issued by NIMC in Abuja, its Director-General/Chief Executive, Mr. Aliyu Aziz, explained that the licensed agents were approved after successfully fulfilling all the conditions in the advertised Expression of Interest (EOI) which was done in 2019 as a first step towards the take off the National Digital Identity Ecosystem project.
Although the approval was made while Nigerians were protesting the tall orders given by government on SIM cards and NIN, the Head, Corporate Communications at NIMC, Mr. Kayode Adegoke, however told THISDAY that the approved agents would facilitate NIN enrollment and that the agents had the mandate to issue NIN to every Nigerian that registers with them. Adegoke however stressed that the enrollment remained free of charge.
Some Nigerians, who reacted to the timing of the approval, said it was a clear indication that government was determined to implement the recent directives, despite protests from Nigerians.
A breakdown of the successful licensees shows that 16 state governments were licensed, including Abia, Akwa Ibom, Gombe, Lagos, Kaduna, Katsina, Kano, Oyo, Ogun, Sokoto and Zamfara states.
Prominent among the public sector institutions licensed are NCC, National Pension Commission, Central Bank of Nigeria (through the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement Systems Plc), National Population Commission, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Joint Tax Board and Nigeria Postal Services.
Other public sector organisations issued licences include Military Pensions Board, Abuja Enterprise Agency, Corporate Affairs Commission, National Health Insurance Scheme, National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services and National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons.
The main mobile network operators in Nigeria, MTN, Airtel, Globacom and 9mobile are among the 173 private sector organisations licensed, while Etranzact, VDT Communications, Unified Payment Services were also licensed.
Seven NGOs, namely Africa Youth Growth Foundation, An Nadaa Educational Foundation Arrida Relief Foundation, Hadejia Ina Mafita Initiative Community Based Organisation Mimido Initiative & Development and Murna Foundation were also licensed.
“The initiative is to support the federal government’s effort at tackling insecurity in the country. The project aims to eliminate the bottlenecks involved in the enrollment process. It will also improve the identity authentication of citizens and make all identity-related transactions safe within and outside the country,” Adegoke said.
Now that the agitations are increasing by the day, the federal government should consider the feelings and complaints of telecoms subscribers, by shifting its earlier position and create room for dialogue.
Pix: Pantami (Minister of Communications) And Digital Economy.jpg, Danbatta (Executive Vice Chairman, NCC).jpg and Aziz (DG, NIMC).jpg, Prof. Ayo Teriba.jpg and Prof. Pat