Has Pantami Gone Nuts?

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THIS REPUBLIC By Shaka Momodu, Email: shaka.momodu@thisdaylive.com, SMS Only: 0811 266 1654

By Shaka Momodu

I can visualise the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim, also known as Sheikh Pantami, watching videos and photos of desperate clusters of people at various National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) centres across the country attempting to obtain the National Identity Number (NIN) and gleefully feeling good about himself. You know that satisfaction some derive when they inflict pain and misery on others? Yes. Let me stretch it just a bit further, Germans call it schadenfreude. Researchers said it gives sadists an adrenaline rush.

That sudden realisation that you can just wake up one morning and order tens of millions of people around, just like that, and sit back and watch them stampede themselves in obedience will be hard not to relish by nihilists and people with a debased humanity. We have many of them in government positions with a sense of conquest and entitlement who see public office not as an opportunity to serve with diligence and thoughtfulness, in pursuit of the general good, rather they see it as an opportunity to inflict pain on the people.

Frankly speaking, government officials never cease to amaze me with stupid pronouncements, incoherent and bizarre policies. They leave you mouth agape in perplexing reverie of wonderment as to whether our policy formulators are sane people or are in a perpetual drunken state or even under the influence of some controlled substance when formulating policies for the country.

The latest policy from the ministry and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), giving tens of millions of Nigerians two weeks, in the first instance, to link their SIM cards to NINs issued by the NIMC or have their lines blocked is nothing but the product of unsound minds or a by-product of an impulsive brainwave from drunken sailors. The timeline was later extended to February 9th. But clearly, this is insufficient time to achieve the exercise in an orderly fashion, without causing a stampede. Even MTN Nigeria Communications PLC, the country’s largest mobile network operator, in a conference call before the Christmas holidays, informed concerned investors that at least six months will be required to link all registered SIMs in the country with NINs.

The question many are asking is: why have the telcos not aggressively voiced the unrealistic nature of the directive and asked for a 6-month to one year timeline. The answer is simple: no one wants to be hit with another draconian fine of $5 billion.

The telecoms companies have been cowed into obedience to any directive from NCC or its supervisory minister, no matter how senseless, to avoid a similar fate that befell MTN a few years back. He is even threatening to revoke any telecom’s operating licence that fails to comply. Threats, threats, threats. Meanwhile, this is a man who can’t even run a successful convenience kiosk but finds himself at the head of policy formulation for multi-billion dollars corporations.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this government and its officials lack the temperament to lead and should never have been entrusted with the mandate to govern this country. Yet Nigerians are smart people with a history of foolish choices.

Unfortunately, we have found ourselves in a cul-de-sac since 2015 when the wilfully-blinded majority decided they wanted a taste of danger and a trip back to medieval times because progress had become too predictable and boring. Five and a half years down the road, Nigeria has become a failed state where terrorists, herdsmen, kidnappers and bandits reign supreme. The country has become highly dangerous to live or work in, and fear is now the people’s constant companion.

As lawless terrorists, herdsmen and bandits seize control, killing and maiming innocent people in broad daylight, the government looks on in complete surrender – incapable or unwilling to perform the most basic duty of government which is the protection of lives and properties. And the agony goes on and on. Nigeria is now labelled annually the third most dangerous place to live in the world, courtesy of this government’s abdication of responsibility to God.

We have practically lost count of this government’s nebulous policies that have not only stifled individual progress but have ruined the economy. Such is the level of incompetence and anti-business attitude of this government that it has succeeded in making a somewhat progressing Nigeria, the poverty capital of the world.

The emperor Minister of Communications and Digital Economy of the Federal Republic had given over 50 million Nigerians two weeks to provide valid NINs to update their SIM registration records or risk having their phone lines blocked. Why is this such an urgent priority at a time like this? Who made this man minister? Where did this guy come from? By fiat of his irresponsible directive, the people of this country once again trooped down to registration centres in this era of covid-19 to save their phone lines from being blocked by the various networks acting on the senseless directive of a thoughtless minister who simply wanted to show Nigerians the power of his office. The country is doomed in the hands of these highly insensitive, power drunk officials presiding over our destinies.

It is time we rise in protest against this senseless directive (the duration of the extension doesn’t still make sense), it is time we tell these unqualified people who reason and think in reverse order that enough is indeed enough. How many times do we have to register our SIM cards? How many times do we have to update them? Whatever happened to the previous registration exercise? Has the data been lost, compromised or deleted by the foreign vendors that probably host the data for us? What on earth happened to the numerous databases for BVNs, driver’s licences and international passports that various institutions of government and the private sector gather on a daily basis? Or is the communications minister, who is supposed to be an authority on information and communication technology, ignorant of the role artificial intelligence can play in linking and updating all the country’s data points, without having to penalise Nigerians?

At a time when other countries are coming up with measures to ameliorate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on their people, we are being ordered to register and link SIMs to NINs or be blocked. Nigeria is the only country in the world that does this to its people – deliberately creating ways to punish them. I have never heard the US, UK, Germany, Canada, Russia, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Cameroon, Benin Republic etc ordering their citizens to perform such multiple registration under any guise like we have here.

Look at the senseless and highly provocative press statement from the NCC and judge for yourself whether these people in government positions are at all reasonable: “In line with the Federal Government’s desire to consolidate the achievement of the SIM Card registration exercise of September, 2019, the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), has directed the Nigerian Communications Commission (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 Mobile Network Operators 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, Mobile Network Operators (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.

“However, where it is absolutely necessary, exemption may be granted in writing by the Commission following approval from the Federal Government. MNOs are to please note that non-compliance with this directive will be met with strict sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating licence.

“As the Minister has earlier directed in January, 2020, all citizens are urged to immediately secure Digital Identification from the National Identity Management Commission and submit it to the Network Operators.”

As you can see, not only is the statement threatening, it is condescending, an indication of the disrespect policymakers have for Nigerians. Effectively, someone just woke with a brainwave and in complete disregard for the prevailing perilous health situation in the country and around the world, and ordered millions of people to different NIMC centres around the country to go and struggle to get NINs within two weeks. Failure to do so, would lead to blockage of their lines so that they won’t be able to interact or work remotely by phone at a time of physical distancing when phone lines offer the only measure of hope for an increasingly lonely subsistence.

Expectedly, the crowds at the centres after that announcement have simply been crazy.

What is worse is that the head of the so-called Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19, Boss Mustapha who is daily lamenting the surge in new cases of Covid-19 infection in the country, has not considered it necessary to call the sadistic minister and the executive chairman of the NCC to order. He is blaming poor Nigerians for not abiding by the Covid-19 protocols but sadly closes his eyes to Sheikh Pantami’s directive on NIN that requires large-scale gatherings at various registration centres with all the inherent danger of becoming superspreader flashpoints. I am just flabbergasted by the thinking in government circles. Is Pantami so big and powerful that no one can call him to order? Having seen clearly the unrealistic nature of his directive, and the health danger it poses to Nigerians at a time like this, can’t common sense just prevail for him to rescind the directive and wait for an opportune time if the need to link SIM to NIN is important?

I think there should be some limit to official madness or experimentation with irrationality. Sheikh Pantami’s crazy directive at a time like this must be fought with every fibre of our being because he is wilfully endangering the health of Nigerians. We cannot allow him to get away with such insensitive directive.

The federal government is in one breath ramping up containment measures, viz.

directing universities to suspend academic activities, ordering a certain cadre of workers to stay at home, states are restricting social activities, closing pubs, and even threatening another round of total lockdowns. Yet, Nigerians must troop out to NIMC centres or accredited contractors to get NINs on the orders of a reckless minister!

Again, read this particular paragraph in that condescending press statement from NCC and note the bizarre reason that was given for the directive: “The objective of the audit exercise is to verify and ensure compliance by Mobile Network Operators 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.”

Have the minister and NCC weighed the implications on the economy? Do these people know the level and amount of economic transactions carried out on phones, from Gombe to Kano, to Babamutum in Jigawa State, and from Lagos to Onitsha and Aba? A lot of people don’t even go to banks anymore, they use their phones to pay for groceries and transfer money in an instant for whatever purposes. The communications minister simply doesn’t know the importance of the digital economy he superintends. So instead of growing it, he wants to kill it.

Since his appointment, he has done nothing to grow the digital economy, no fresh ideas, no innovation from him to broaden the untapped potential of the digital world which has grown in spite of his best effort to frustrate it.

Simon Kolawole put it very succinctly in his article on the back page of THISDAY on Sunday recently when he wrote: “So my 75-year-old mother will have to go and queue up with the crowd to get a national identification number (NIN) in this season of COVID-19 — which targets her age group? And if she doesn’t take the risk of catching COVID within two weeks, you will cut off her mobile line? And, then, my mum and I would not be able to communicate? You will disconnect her line, deny telecom companies income, block vital tax revenues for the government in these hard times, stifle the growth of the life-saving telecoms sector and further shrink an economy that is already in recession? This is yet another concrete evidence of the wretched quality of thinking in government. Daft.”

Aside this, the vast majority of networking devices, tablets and point of sale machines (or card terminals) carry SIM cards, imagine if our power drunk minister’s directive was implemented – millions would not only have had their phone lines blocked, several millions more would have been cut off from the web and had their transactions truncated by now. This would have made the almighty Sheikh Pantami, happy hun?

He ordered the suspension of sale of new SIMs? Really? So no one can buy a new SIM in Nigeria today on the orders of Sheikh Pantami? So tourists and business people who come into the country on short visits can’t even buy a SIM card to connect to people? By that directive, Emperor Pantami has frozen the digital space in an economy in recession. There is such a big deal made of owning a phone by this government. Yet, it is the most basic device to get in other parts of the world.

With this reckless ultimatum, what happens to Nigerians in diaspora with local mobile lines? Many countries around the world are in one form of lockdown or another. Is Sheikh Pantami going to block their lines for failure to link their SIM to NIN? This man has made us a laughing stock to the global community of progressive people.

I can bet my last kobo that if President Muhammadu Buhari were president in1999 at the outset of the current democracy in the country, there would have been no mobile telephony in the country, Nigeria’s economy would have been very small in size. All the liberalisation and privatisation policies pursued by past governments would never have taken place. Buhari would have been content with just holding on to power, appointing people of his ethnic stock to head those companies. NITEL would have remained the only telecommunications company in Nigeria – reason? National security! And we would have been queuing at telephone booths to make calls.

But while Sheikh Pantami is trying desperately to block the use of phone lines over non SIM cards linkage to NINs, and constrict telephone penetration in the country, Google is setting out an ambitious programme with its Project Loon to bring the next-billion users online by delivering the internet to the rest of the world. Google is working assiduously and developing technologies to achieve that goal – an effort to bring the internet to remote areas in Africa and around the world using massive balloons floating miles above the earth’s surface.

According to reports by the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that tracks global internet usage, two out of every three people in developing countries—and close to 4 billion people worldwide—lack basic internet access. As such, the search giant wants to bridge this gap and has been developing technologies to get its fleet of inflatable internet beacons off the ground since 2013.

Experts believe Loon might be the company’s most mind-boggling endeavour yet. Picture this: Thousands of balloons, the size of school buses circling the globe, beaming internet connectivity to areas well outside the reach of traditional cellular or broadband networks. Imagine if Google were a Nigerian company, this incompetent government would have done everything, as it is doing to the telecommunications companies, to frustrate that ambitious and laudable goal of expanding internet penetration to rural communities on the grounds of national security. Clearly, this government has lost its marbles! Happy New Year to my esteemed readers.