By Tonnie Iredia
One clear gain of the return to democracy in Nigeria in 1999, is the telecommunication reforms of the Obasanjo years – a commendable policy that enabled our people to make telephone calls with ample ease. There is doubt if any other sector in the country has made as much progress as telecommunication.
Arguably, well over 70 percent of Nigerians are today enjoying the policy. This is significant at this time when movement from one part of the country to another is greatly hindered by several factors. In the last few days however, some confusion has been introduced to the sector by some of the policy actors.
It all began with a directive that all Subscriber Identity Module(SIM) cards be properly registered – a directive that was well received because people whose cards were inappropriately registered or not registered at all were doing a number of unwholesome things with their SIM cards to the discomfort of the average honest subscriber.
At the end of the exercise some three months ago, Isa Ali Pantami, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy issued a second directive to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to embark on another audit of the Subscriber Registration Database. The objective of the new exercise was reportedly to verify and ensure that Mobile Network Operators complied with the correct standards and requirements of SIM Card Registration as envisaged by the minister.
Again, no one would have imagined that the new directive would pose any problem bearing in mind that it was intended to raise standards in the industry. But the full implication of the second exercise soon showed that it was to involve the immediate suspension of the sale, registration and activation of new SIM Cards until the audit exercise was concluded.
Could the minister have intended to place the growth of the use of telephones on hold? If not, what happens to many Nigerians who are fortunate enough during the period to attain the same status as other lucky citizens who can acquire SIM cards and handsets that would facilitate communication between friends, relations and business associates from the comfort of their homes?
Sadly, the directive allegedly prevented the network providers from even replacing stolen cards whose owners had verifiable evidence of the loss of their cards. The decision to replace such lost cards was said to have been placed beyond the network providers as such cases can only be granted by the NCC on the approval of the Federal Government.
Network providers were also allegedly warned that non-compliance with the directive would “be met with strict sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating license.” While many looked forward with hope that the directive would be reviewed, a new instruction surfaced last Monday requiring ALL Nigerians to embark on another registration exercise which must, this time, include each subscriber’s National Identification Number NIN.
The directive added that any SIM card not so duly registered by December 30, 2020 should be blocked by the relevant network provider. There are fears that the networks might tactfully use this to exploit subscribers under the guise of rushing to meet the deadline?
The process of registration is said to be simple; first there is a code designed by the networks which can disclose any subscriber’s NIN at a little fee of N20 only. While many could not rationalize such payment to network providers that could earn them billions of naira because of the large number of subscribers, we hear the N20 story is fake news.
The bigger poser however is why anyone needs to reach out to a network to provide a number to be resubmitted to the same network which in the first instance disclosed it. In other words, the NIN of every registered subscriber is already within the custody of the network provider hence she can provide it, yet after obtaining it, each subscriber is to resubmit the same number to the same network! Many Nigerians also believe that the directive would be hard to meet as the maximum time available for doing so is only two weeks.
At the same time, Nigerians in diaspora who might want to visit home this holiday will have no phones because, they are not likely to have NIN or any platform from where to dial the magical code that can produce their NINs. The same would be true of foreigners who might come to the country for business and tourism meaning that the new registration requirement can frustrate Nigeria’s dire need for foreign exchange.
It is therefore not irrational to conclude that if care is not taken the NCC might fall among many Nigerian organizations that dissipate their energies on too many directives.
With the high level of insecurity in the country today, the need to develop a good security system that can lead to prompt apprehension of any criminal minded person can hardly be over emphasized. On this score, the goal of using the SIM technology to accelerate a higher level of security in our nation is a worthy one.
Our premise is that the goal can lose its merit if the means for achieving it are so grandiose that its policy actors are distracted to pursue the means rather than the goal. It is therefore hoped that the NCC would clean its acts so as to avoid joining the group of Nigerian agencies that confuse citizens through unending registration exercises.
Incidentally, the NCC’s main purpose is to facilitate communication; in which case, she has no business issuing unclear directives, especially those which like military decrees always take immediate effect.
According to reports, the decision to compel subscribers to re-register and provide NIN was made last Monday December 14, the press statement by the NCC which made the decision public was published the next day i.e. December 15 while implementation was directed to begin 24 hours later, i.e. December 16.
This record is not better than those of Immigration, Custom, Vehicle licensing authorities, INEC, FRSC to name only a few which have all been collecting the same biometrics for unending registration from Nigerians at different costs.
Considering the hard times in Nigeria today, it is suggested that the NCC should be cautious with the registration exercise and to do nothing that can create panic and large crowds thereby subjecting citizens to the vagaries of the new wave of the on-going pandemic. We are therefore compelled to call on her to redesign the policy in such a way that it can have a human face.
This she can do by placing more premium on the networks to reach out to their subscribers and create easy avenues for meeting NCC’s directives. Persons who have genuine evidence of loss of SIM cards should also be assisted while leaving only new registrants with the burden of presenting their NINs to be part of the registration.
Most importantly, Government should also direct all agencies that have collected biometrics from Nigerians to find a way to synergize and produce a common data base which should be used not only for security purposes but also for such planning purposes as the payment of benefits to citizens the way other nations handle their social security numbers.