The regulator should be allowed to pursue genuine reforms in the industry
After a false start that seemed to have been designed to harvest Covid-19 for most Nigerians, the federal government last week extended the deadlines for the synchronisation of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards with the National Identity Number (NIN) for different categories of subscribers. It was the right thing to do. Perhaps if the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the regulator, were allowed to take charge from the beginning, we probably would not have ended with the embarrassing situation.
For the record, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami serially interferes with the regulatory activities of the NCC. Indeed, the current case of NIN-SIM data linkage, where the minister erroneously thought he could perform magic within two weeks, is one of many slips, even though his directive to halt further SIM registration was not without justification and could have been better handled. This idea was to give the regulator a good opportunity to assess and evaluate the introduction of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) that commenced almost 20 years ago. With the evaluation, it will also help to enhance national security objectives and encourage consumer protection. The evaluation processes will provide further assurance on the integrity of the SIM registration database. The additional directive for subscribers to upload their NIN is also along this direction.
In many countries, to register or purchase a SIM card, the person in question must provide a verifiable means of identity. In most cases, an International Passport or Drivers’ Licence is preferable. This regulated process is to help build a strong database and it is used when the need arises, especially for security purposes. But what is obtained in Nigeria is a charade as no precautionary measures are put in place to check abuses. Today, there are subscribers with multiple SIM cards with no verifiable means of identity. Against the background of the current national security challenge, a credible subscriber registration database is a veritable tool for law enforcement agencies in resolving crimes which leverage on easy access to the national telecom networks.
However, for a minister to begin to issue ill-digested directives that subscribers who could not link NINs to their SIM data within two weeks would have their lines disconnected from the networks is not only counter-productive but also arbitrary. The directive also failed to take into account the Covid-19 pandemic and its protocols. Ironically, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) does not have, as yet, the logistics and capacity to issue NINs to the 207 million registered mobile lines on the networks. Available records indicate that in the last 13 years, NIMC has only been able to issue just above 43 million NINs with about half of this figure being non-telephone users.
The pertinent questions therefore are: How will NIMC be able to carry out the registration of the large number of registered phone lines on mobile networks within two weeks, even with the support of over 200 registered agents and other private and public institutions, considering that the agents will go through procurement and certification of the machines to be used for capturing Nigerians? Why are Nigerians saddled with multiple citizens’ data requirements for International Passport, driver’s licence, Bank Verification Number (BVN), NIN, SIM data, health records, etc., that are not sychronised?
Ordinarily, the process embarked upon by the NCC is backed with the enactment of the telephone Subscribers Registration Regulations of 2011 and the Technical Standards and Specifications issued by the Commission. It was given an added boost in August 2015 when the MNOs were given a deadline to disconnect SIMs found not to be fully compliant with registration requirements. This was followed with the setting up of a SIM Registration Task Force in 2017 to further harmonise registration practices across all networks.
While we therefore endorse the idea that all SIM cards be traceable to their real owners with the least effort, we strongly condemn serial hit-and miss interference in the delicate regulatory role of NCC and the penchant for showmanship that is at odd with public good.
Against the background of the current national security challenge, a credible subscriber registration database is a veritable tool for law enforcement agencies in resolving crimes which leverage on easy access to the national telecom networks