There have been serious concerns around the issue of national security and management of telephone lines in Nigeria, a development that has triggered moves for policy change even as concerns mount over possible consequences of such moves. OMOBAYO AZEEZ writes.
The core mandate of a government should transcend provision of economic resources for the prosperity of its people as protection of lives and properties within its territorial integrity is also a primary responsibility of government. This mandate demands that the government deploys every arsenal at its disposal to tackle threats to its peaceful existence, whether in the physical domain or in the cyber space.
Beyond doubt, the fastest growing crime in the world today is cyber crime which defies borders across the globe. No country is immune from this scourge yet and no one country will likely ever be, according experts.
Concerned by this fact, the Nigerian government has accentuated the need for players and regulators in the telecoms and ICT industry to work in collaboration with security agencies in the country with a view to finding ways of securing Nigeria’s cyber space, failure of which will cost the country dearly.
Stern regulation of SIM card usage as a way out
In order to combat the spate of insecurity in the country, Ali Isa Pantami, the minister of communications and digital economy, has proposed more stern regulation of subscriber identification module (SIM) cards in Nigeria. Making reference to reports from the security agencies, he said there is hardly a crime that is committed without usage of telephone lines.
This is however not surprising as the telecoms services have been nicknamed ‘an enabler of socio-economic growth’. Just that on the flip side now, criminally-minded individuals are equally leveraging on telephony to perpetrate their illicit acts.
The minster, therefore gave a directive to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to review the policy guiding SIM card registration and usage in the country, and suggested some new inputs into the policy.
In part, the directive, which was signed by Femi Adeluyi, the technical assistant on information technology to the minister, had stated thus: “This is in line with the powers of the minister as stated in Section 25(1) of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003- the minister shall, in writing, from time to time notify the commission or and express his views on the general policy direction of the federal government in respect of the communications sector.
“The revision of the policy was based on the feedback received from the security agencies following the successful revalidation of improperly registered SIM cards in September 2019 and the blocking of those that failed to revalidate their SIMs.”
The reviewed policy was expected to include provisions such as ensuring that the National Identity Number (NIN) becomes a prerequisite for Nigerians registering new SIM cards, while for foreigners, their passports and visas should be used, while already registered SIM cards are to be updated with National Identity Number (NIN) before December 1, 2020.
Some of the directives also seek to ensure that only fully accredited agents support the SIM card registration process without pre-registering SIM cards themselves, while the eventual registration should be done by the operators; there should be a maximum number of SIM cards that can be tied to a single individual, possibly a maximum of three; ensure that no unregistered SIMs are ever allowed on mobile networks; ensure that subscribers can easily check the number of SIM cards registered to their name, along with the associated phone numbers and networks.
Others include, ensuring that mobile network operators fortify their networks against cyberattacks and ensure that they adhere to the provisions of the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR); and also ensure that SIM cards that have been used to perpetrate crimes are permanently deactivated. The Minister ordered NCC to provide him with the progress reports on the implementation of the revised policy.
Nigerians and SIM card usage habit
From findings, business A.M. can report that only few Nigerians can account for the number of SIM cards they have activated in the last few years. This attitude, it was observed, is fueled by factors such as low prices or no cost of SIM cards. Many operators today give free SIM cards to customers and register same without collecting a dime.
Nigerians have also been found of using as many telephone lines as there are promos, tariff plans and internet bundles they would like to subscribe to, a practice that has been made possible by the cheap cost and process of getting SIM cards. Minister Pantami recently related the case of a young Nigerian found in possession of about 60 SIM cards from the same network operator, with all registered to his name.
The minister said this kind of telephone line usage attitude should be managed properly by sanitizing registration and usage, noting that left unchecked; such attitude can give fillip to crime to blossom.
Justifying multiple, limitless SIM cards
However, some analysts have argued that one or regulated number of SIM cards is not good for Nigerians. Analysts at Cordros Securities Limited noted that Nigeria is the largest dual SIM market in the world with at least two-thirds of active lines among two or more numbers shared by a single user, according to OpenSignal. Two key reasons given for this habit are quality of service (QoS) and price competition.
Nigerian telcos have historically struggled to maintain quality service, and in order for subscribers to keep themselves connected and minimize downtime, they subscribed to multiple network providers. Also, price competition has been historically intense as various telcos offer myriads of deals and promotions of which subscribers wished to take advantage.
As a result of the proliferation of SIM cards, the percentage of active lines as a percentage of total connected lines has fallen from 82.5 per cent in 2011 to 68.7 per cent in 2019. This means that as at December, 2019, out of a total 269.72 million connected lines in the country, only 184.7 million are active, and 85.02 million have been abandoned.
Subscribers reject three SIM limit proposal
Immediately the communication minister issued the directive on restriction of SIM ownership to maximum of three lines, subscribers have kicked decisively against the move.
Bilesanmi, national chairman of Association of Telephone, Cable Tv and Internet Subscribers (ATCIS), contended that instead of limiting consumers to three telephone lines, the ministry, in collaboration with the regulator, NCC, National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), telecom operators (Telcos) and other stakeholders should establish more sophisticated machinery and integrated databases that will ensure that all telephone lines are properly registered and can be traced to their owners with a unique identity code.
He recalled that just last year, the NCC has put a measure in place to relieve the telecom sector of redundant telephone lines when it announced that subscribers will start losing their telephone lines after 12 months of desertion. He said even if a person has 10 lines, there will not be problem if they are properly registered and are active.
“SIM card are just like banks accounts. As of today, Nigeria has about 22 different commercial banks and no law is restricting bank users to a certain number of accounts they can operate. People operate different accounts for different reasons. Instead of limiting them, the biometric verification number (BVN) was established to link all these accounts and trace them to the bearer.
“The situation is the same with telephone lines. Any attempt to take this freedom away from subscribers will be counter intuitive in the light of the digital economy drive championed by the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy,” Bilesanmi said.
Security at the expense of operators’ revenue, financial inclusion, mobile money?
Expressing concern on the proposed review policy on SIM usage and registration, analysts at Cordros Securities Limited have expressed concerns that the move may eat into operators’ revenue, stifle financial inclusion drive, and open more loops of insecurity.
The firm noted that the directive, if implemented, would have a neutral effect on telecoms companies’ earnings in the near-term, adding, however that there were also risks to the long-term earnings potential of the telecoms operating companies (Telcos).
It however said with a three SIM limit, Nigeria would likely fall in line with Cuba, Lebanon and Singapore, adding that it was unclear if there would be exemptions for corporates with large numbers of SIMs registered, since revenues from corporates made up about 12 per cent of MTN’s revenue in 2019.
Looking at the neutral impact and risks of the directive on telecoms business, the report stated: “We see the NIN stipulation as a risk to mobile money adoption and potential revenues expected to reach $889 million by 2023 for telcos, and financial inclusion targets of 95 per cent by 2024 for the government.
“The unbanked population of about 60 million, which is the target of mobile money services, will be most affected by the NIN stipulation due to the significant challenges surrounding registration process.”
Can the NIN save the day?
According to the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the National Identification Number (NIN) is a set of numbers assigned to an individual upon successful enrolment.
Enrolment consists of the recording of an individual’s demographic data and capture of the 10 fingerprints, head-to-shoulder facial picture and digital signature, which are all used to cross-check existing data in the National Identity Database to confirm that there is no previous entry of the same data.
Truly, making NIN a prerequisite for SIM registration process will help to link many existing telephone lines to their owners using this unique number. However, the management of NIN itself has not been as progressive and satisfactory as expected such that even the country’s lawmakers on Wednesday 19th of February ordered a probe into the process.
The decision followed a motion of Urgent Public Importance moved by Rep. Ben Igbakpa (PDP-Delta) during plenary presided over by Femi Gbajabiamila, the speaker, House of Representative. The Federal Government reportedly made NIN, the national identity card, as a requirement for all financial and institutional dealings in the country with millions of Nigerians yet to get it.
As the rollout of NIN remains problematic, the cause may not be far-fetched. Mr. Aliyu Azeez, the director-general of NIMC, recently admitted in a national daily that they are overwhelmed with work because, whereas they need about 4,000 centres nationwide, they make do with only 1,000 centres at the moment, which further findings show are even in deplorable conditions.
This poor state of affairs has led to many failed attempt to use NIN for some important registration in the country such as experienced in 2019 for Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), and currently, lawmakers in the lower chamber are dealing with a motions tagged “The Need for the PTDF to Suspend the National Identity Number as a Precondition for Scholarships, and Related Matters”.
It is then questionable if over 184 million active telephone lines in the country would successfully get linked to NIN by December 1, 2020 deadline set by minister Pantami, in a process that has failed even registration of lower magnitude.
This situation, therefore, calls for urgent attention. Experts are worried that although the NIMC Act was passed in 2007, the NIMC, the body in charge of issuing NINs and maintaining the database, was not established until 2010.
They maintained that worse-still, the commencement date for the enforcement of the NIN was on 1 January 2019, six years after the initial SIM registration process ended.
“This implies majority of all registered SIMs in the country do not have NINs attached. Mandating that all SIMs are updated with the NIN effectively re-starts the entire SIM registration process from square one, especially if done in the same manner as the initial phase,” says a report by Cordros Securities Limited.
While the federal government adamantly believes it can launch a successful war against insecurity in the country through stricter management of telephone lines, by introducing NIN and limiting Nigerians to certain number of SIMs, it is instructive that it goes about this without putting the cart before the horse.