When NIMC Staff Protested Poor Working Condition

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Emma Okonji reports that the industrial action by the staff of National Identity Management Commission, who were pressing for better welfare package and work tools, caused hitches and anxiety in the SIM-NIN integration exercise and may defeat the ultimate objectives of the system, if the workers’ plight and grievances are not addressed

The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) staff across its branch offices nationwide, have been working under difficult situations, among which are poor funding, inadequate work tools, poor working environment among others. But in spite of these, NIMC offices nationwide have always been open for business on a daily basis, except on Saturdays and Sundays.

Although the staff have complained openly even to Nigerians, who visited the offices for enrolment, government had always turned the deaf ear to their complaints, until they decided last week, to suspend all enrolment exercises and embark on a nationwide strike, after holding a congress on Wednesday to access their performances under poor working conditions.

At the end of the congress, which was called by the NIMC unit of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), the union directed its members to suspend all enrolment and to embark on a strike, which took effect from Thursday January 7, 2021, an action that has paralysed NIMC’s operations and the enrolment of the National Identification Number (NIN).

Industry stakeholders have, however, blamed government, especially the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, for not attending to the demands of NIMC, despite the efforts of staff members in ensuring steady enrolment exercise under difficult work environment.

The Strike

Staff of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), on Thursday last week, embarked on a nationwide strike, in demand for a better welfare package. The staff shut down operations and suspended enrolment of NIN in all their branch offices nationwide.

NIMC, on its official twitter handle same Thursday, said: “NIMC wishes to assure members of the general public that glitches experienced in the enrolment process were being resolved and normal enrolment would resume shortly. We apologise for any inconvenience caused and wish to assure you of our continued excellent service.”

The NIMC unit of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN) directed members to embark on the strike, after its congress, which held on Wednesday last week.

In a communique released at the end of the congress and signed by the Union’s Secretary, Mr. Victor Odia, and representative of ASCSN NIMC unit, Mr. Michael Asekokhai, the workers said the strike action became necessary to address issues of poor welfare package, lack of tools and risk of exposure to coronavirus during enrolment.

“The meeting was convened to discuss the state of the exposure of staff members to COVID-19, the salary structure, its representation in the annual appropriation, the irregularities in the conduct of promotions, and the personal protection and safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” part of the communique read.

The workers are also demanding for a review of the ‘lopsided and irregular’ promotion done in 2017 and 2020, implementation of the approved salary structure and its appropriation in the 2021 annual budget as well as adequate provision of work tools for civic data enrollment.

They are also demanding provision of adequate monthly operational stipends, work tools necessary for the process of enrolment of civic data. The work tools also include power and connectivity (airtime and data connectivity), enrolment systems and peripherals, stationeries and consumables such as NIN slips, enrolment forms, and A4 papers. The same things they clamoured, even with this recent exercise, had been their age-long demands.

The union asked all NIMC staff to suspend all enrolment activities with immediate effect pending when their demands are met.

According to the communique, “Consequent upon the just concluded congress of the above-mentioned association that took place on January 6, 2020, the unit executive directs all members of grade level 12 and below in the head office and state offices to report to their respective duty posts from January 7, 2020, and do nothing.

“All members at the local government offices and special centres are advised to stay away from their various centres as task force and implementation committees would be on parade to ensure total compliance with the directive.”

The Genesis

The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, had in December last year, directed the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), to enforce the implementation of the integration of all registered SIM cards to NIN, and gave a window of two weeks to complete the exercise, which was later extended by six weeks to end January 19, 2021, for those who have already registered for NIN, and February 19, 2021 for those who were yet to register for NIN.

Pantami warned that subscribers who failed to integrate their SIM cards with their NIN, would risk outright disconnection of their SIM cards.

The fear of being disconnected compelled Nigerians to throng the offices of NIMC nationwide, to enroll and obtain their NIN, a situation that led to unprecedented crowd at all NIMC’s branch offices nationwide.

Worried about the crowd, which became difficult to manage, NIMC staff demanded for better welfare package, and additional work tools to manage the situation. However, the inability of government to meet their demands, led to the strike action.

Implications

Thousands of applicants, who went for enrolment last Thursday at NIMC’s branch offices nationwide, were locked out and were not attended to.

In Lagos and Ilorin in Kwara State, hundreds of applicants who went for enrolment were locked out at various NIMC offices, following the strike embarked upon by the workers of the commission.

During visits to NIMC offices across the country last week, our correspondents noticed that many applicants who had arrived as early as 7am on the day the strike commenced, were disappointed as the gates to the offices were locked by security officials.

Speaking on the possible implications of the strike action, the Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, said: “Implications for the strike action are that NIN enrolment will be paralysed and Nigerians will not be able to get their SIM cards integrated with their NINs, which of course will be a challenge for government in implementing SIM-NIN integration exercise.

“Without NIN, Nigerians cannot integrate their SIM with NIN as directed by government. Again, without NIN, no one can embark on activation and replacement of old SIM cards as well as registration of new SIM cards. So it becomes a challenge for both government and the subscribers, if they cannot enroll for NIN as a result of the strike action embarked upon by NIMC staff.”

Adebayo added that the bottleneck would now be on NIMC and it would likely ground all operations of NIMC. He said government must rise up to the demands of NIMC staff and ensure the staff return to work quickly in order not to jeopardise the whole exercise of NIN enrolment and integration with SIM cards.

“The earlier government resolve the issue, the better for the country. The strike action will certainly slowdown the wheel of progress at NIMC and it will definitely impact negatively NIN enrolment in the country,” Adebayo said.

Addressing the issue of proper funding of NIMC, Adebayo said: “Enrolment of NIN by licensed telecoms operators, may be done free by the operators as ordered by NIMC, but the truth is that there are cost implications for the enrolment exercise, which the telcos themselves bear and NIMC has to address this issue. So NIMC should be well funded to successfully carry out NIN enrolment nationwide.

“But again, our role is to assist NIMC in the enrolment exercise and we are doing our part, but we cannot verify NIN. Only NIMC that can verify NIN. We will sure do our part to enroll Nigerians and send details of enrolment to NIMC for verification. We are not NIMC, we are not verification agency, and we are only licensed to support NIMC in enrolling Nigerians. So NIMC staff must be operational for NIN verification, the more reason why government should address the issue of funding and also meet other demands of NIMC on time and ensure NIMC staff return to work as early as possible, otherwise the strike action will affect the economy negatively.”

Addressing the issue of possible disconnection of SIM cards that are not integrated with NIN, Adebayo said: “Now we are under instruction from government to disconnect all SIM cards that could not be integrated with NIN at a certain date, and we are under obligation to do so at that particular time, except there is a counter order to that effect. We are mindful of the deadline giving us by government to achieve NIN registration and integration and we are working with NIMC to achieve that order. The issue of strike by NIMC staff is far beyond our control as telecoms operators and we appeal to government to quickly address the issue.”

The National Chairman, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers (NATCOMS), Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, blamed the Minister for the short notice on NIN enrolment and integration with SIM, without adequate plans to equip NIMC staff and all licensed registration agents that are involved in NIN enrolment. He said NIMC must be properly funded to successfully accomplish the task of NIN enrolment.

“Subscribers across networks are not happy with the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, because of the harsh order he gave to telecoms operators to disconnect telecoms subscribers who are unable to meet up with the deadline given for SIM-NIN integration. With that draconian order, the minister is only fueling the second wave of COVID-19, when he is supposed to join forces with government to reduce human crowd and physical contact of people. We will hold the minister responsible if telecoms subscribers are exposed to the second wave of COVID-19,” Ogunbanjo said.

He, therefore, called on the federal government to impress it on the minister to remove all timelines for NIN enrolment and integration with SIM cards and allow Nigerians to accomplish the task at their own pace, while observing the COVID-19 protocols. Ogunbanjo also called on the minister and the Nigerian Communications Commission to meet the demands of NIMC staff and ensure that they return to work without further delay.

“A visit to NIMC offices in Lagos, clearly showed that NIMC is underfunded and have no sufficient logistics to manage the crowd that throng to their offices on a daily basis,” Ogunbanjo said.

Some subscribers, who spoke to THISDAY, also blamed government for poor funding of NIMC operations. According to them, NIMC staff had to literally beg applicants who visit their office for enrolment, for money to buy fuel to power their generator and to buy stationeries to work with, before they could attend to applicants. Some centres do not even have generators to work with, that said.

NIMC Staff Suspend Strike

However, NIMC on Friday night issued a statement, announcing the resumption of enrolment exercise of the NIN after two days that of the nationwide strike.

According to the statement, which was signed by its Head, Corporate Communications, Mr. Kayode Adegoke, “NIMC is glad to inform the general public that normal enrolment services for the National Identification Number (NIN) have been fully restored at all NIMC offices nationwide as the glitches experienced since January 6, 2021, have been sorted out.”

The statement further said: “Enrolment services were temporarily disrupted when the local chapter of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN) of NIMC embarked on an industrial action on Wednesday, 6 January, 2021 immediately after their congress. However, the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, who promptly intervened in the matter, has assured the workers of looking into their grievances and advised them to empathise with Nigerians especially at this time that linkage of the NIN with the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards is ongoing for the security of lives and property in the country.

“While thanking Nigerians for their understanding in the face of the challenges posed by the two-day hiatus in enrolment, Director-General of NIMC, Aliyu Aziz, stressed his management’s avowed pursuit of the welfare and health of all staff of the Commission across the country.”

Although the NIMC staff, who came under the umbrella union agreed to suspend the staff and resume work, they gave the management 21 days to grant their requests, failing which they will resume the industrial action.

Reactions

Nigerians from all walks of life had opposed to the directive on timelines given by Pantami on SIM cards registration and integration. While some were calling for outright review of the order, which they regarded as harsh, others were calling for the outright cancellation of the order, and allow reasonable time for SIM-NIN integration.

In one of those calls, the House of Representatives urged the federal government to extend the deadline for the synchronisation of subscribers’ SIM card registration with their NIN by 10 weeks.

Pantami had issued a directive that made it compulsory for all SIM cards to be linked to National Identity Number (NIN), giving a two-week deadline for compliance.

But the House at a plenary 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.

Elumelu, moving the motion 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 is 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.

After several agitations, the federal government, however bowed to pressure from Nigerians when it announced the lifting of the suspension order on the replacement of Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card.

Nigerians had kicked against the suspension order on the sales of new SIM cards and the suspension order on the activation of old SIM cards that have been retrieved by their owners, and have continuously put pressure on government to rescind its decision.

The decision to lift the suspension order, was reached at an emergency stakeholders meeting convened by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami.

The federal government through the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, had on December 9, directed the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator, to implement the suspension order of the sales of new SIMs as well as the suspension order on activation of old SIMs.

The suspension order had elicited reactions from Nigerians who kicked against it, insisting that it will make Nigerians incommunicado, especially for those who lost their SIMs during robbery attacks in different parts of the country, as they will not be able to retrieve and reactivate their SIM cards.

Licensing NIN Enrolment Agents

In order to meet up with the timeline for SIM-NIN integration, which was later extended to January 19, 2021 for those who have already registered for NIN and February 19, 2021 for those who were yet to register for NIN, the federal government, through the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, has approved the licensing of 173 agents and 30 state governments/public sector institutions to conduct enrollment of all persons, including legal residents into the national identity database of NIMC, on behalf of the commission.

The approval, which was given in different categories, includes all telecoms operators and private companies, and they are expected to commence enrolment into the NIMC database.

Despite the licensing of NIN enrolment agents and the extension of the timeline for SIM-NIN integration from December 31, 2020 to January 19, 2021 and February 19, 2021, NIMC could not manage the unprecedented crowd that throng at its branch offices nationwide on a daily basis, a situation that prompted NIMC staff to demand for better work tools and better welfare package to handle the situation. Rather than yielding to the demands of NIMC staff, government decided to treat their demands with levity, a situation that prompted the strike action.