OPINION: Nigeria Not Alone In SIM Card Registration


By Sonny Aragba-Akpore

While some Nigerians bicker and are uncomfortable with the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card registration, and integration with the National Identity Numbers (NINs)it should be noted that the country is not alone in this exercise even when it appears to be a late comer.

Indeed, Nigeria is a late starter in this regard. Although we must admit that there have been bottlenecks and complexities dogged by inconveniences dotting the process, the exercise is for the general good of the people.

But victims of barred SIM cards seem to have limited understanding as to why the exercise was introduced at all.
In reality, government has advanced several reasons for the exercise primarily linked to security challenges and activities of criminal elements in the society.

Financial crimes through SIM swap underlines why government imposes SIM registration to protect consumers. Kidnappings for ransom, banditry, and threats to lives via telephone are also strong reasons for the exercise.

It is also a means of verifying the identity of a SIM user and safeguarding both the user’s identity and mobile line from SIM-related crimes.

Besides curtailing crimes, the sim reg strengthens the capacity of Law Enforcement Agencies to tackle criminal use of mobile phones by checkmating activities of criminals.

This equally helps in identity verification process and thus enables more secured transactions and interactions using mobile devices to boost confidence and participation in the digital economy.

Nigeria took a decision to go beyond just the SIM card registration but to link such SIM cards to their National Identity Numbers (NINs).

In December 2023, the regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission( NCC) ordered Mobile Network Operators(MNOs) to disconnect and bar Subscribers whose SIM cards were not linked to their NINs by February 28, 2024.

By that date, no fewer than 42 million subscribers were disconnected and barred from their various networks.
Government took the decision of this linkage in order to minimize criminal activities and other vices perpetrated via telecommunications networks.
The country occupies an unenviable cybercrime position in the global crime index.

So in order to curtail and address all of these challenges, government said, register your SIM card so we know who owns which line especially now that terrorism and kidnapping for ransom have become a major revenue avenue for alleged criminals.

Barring improperly registered SIM cards was a long route taken by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

Through several deadline extensions, the integration of SIM cards to NIN data began in December 2020 and was officially closed on April 4, 2022, after which MNOs were consequently directed to suspend services through one way barring to SIMs not associated with NIN with effect from that date.

An official explained that “In this regard, SIMs not associated with NINs were partially barred for outgoing calls and subsequently removed after integrating them to their NINs.”

And under the Know Your Customer (KYC) drive, quite a number of subscribers’ NINs were unverified against the KYC records associated with the SIM and require regularisation
including subscribers with over 100 SIMs (and in some cases more than 10,000) associated with NINs that are unverified and as such the identities of the actual SIM users cannot be ascertained.

“This has grave national security implications, necessitating the robust verification requirements and subsequent barring of these SIMs to ensure as may be required and cleanup of the sim registration database “ another official explained.

Elsewhere in the world, no one gets connected to any network on arrival without proper documentation including biometrics, passport photos, fingerprints, and others.

For instance, in major economies like the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Japan. In China and others, no visitor gets connected to any network without proper documentation including biometric identification.

So Nigeria is not alone in the quest for proper identification of subscribers and users of telecommunications services.

African countries with mandatory SIM registration laws include Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Amidst the widespread adoption of this law on the continent, critics have challenged the strategy especially because it has not adequately curbed the challenges that it intends to tackle stating that the risks of SIM card registration, outweigh any possible benefits.

In South Africa, the Right2Know Campaign took telecom operators—MTN, Cell C, and Telkom— to court on the transparency in handling data provided during SIM registrations. Pre-paid SIM cards are preferred by many mobile phone users. Even at that, Mobile Network Operators have adopted the Know Your Customers (KYCs) module in many African countries.

And the government of Nigeria has gone beyond the KYC by Insisting that all subscribers link their SIM card to the National Identification Number (NIN).
Is there any problem with this?
Many Nigerians think there is but this writer has a different opinion.

The NCC has been in the process of SIM registration since 2011 but Some subscribers thought it was a huge joke until the NCC came hard on barring nearly a 42million unconnected subscribers, to verified NINs, after which everyone saw the regulator as serious.
And today, the recalcitrant subscribers remain disconnected from their various networks.

They have between March 29 and April 15, 2024, to link their SIM cards to their NINs.

During the course of weeding the system to be sure that the barring exercise was done correctly without hurting innocent subscribers, the NCC found out that there were situations where one single subscriber had 10,000 SIM cards in his name. Apart from multiple pre-registrations, there were also situations where people had multiple National Identification Numbers (NINs) and it became even more complicated to observe.

As the cases and different scenarios turned out, the NCC had no choice but to borrow those SIM cards based on these discrepancies.

So while affected victims bear their fangs on the regulator and Mobile Network Operators (MNOS), the blame rests squarely on the subscribers who probably never believed anything would happen afterward until it happened. They were cut off from the various networks.

Although the NCC thinks it has done its utmost based on the extant laws and regulations, operators are worried about the number of subscribers lost and by implication, revenue losses too.

They think critically too that it will not be out of place to extend the timeline for the SIM and NIN linkage.

To some operators, the process should be Work In Progress to enable those beleaguered subscribers time to do the right thing.

Aside from the turbulence experienced by the regulator in the weeding exercise, operators have had to contend too with threats from subscribers who are victims of the exercise.

Workers in various locations and operators outlets have had to contend with these visible threats from the subscribers who felt peeved by the exercise blaming everybody else except themselves for the disconnected SIM cards.

But there is another angle to the crisis.
The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the custodian, author, and finisher of NIN has not lived up to its billings despite huge funding by government and some MNOs who went outside their financial plans to create possibilities for ease of NIN registration exercise.

Nigerians believe that the registration process for NIN has been clumsy and sloppy and NIMC has not helped matters as it maintains sealed lips over its inefficiencies.

Essentially, understaffed NIMC resort to the use of registration agents has not helped the situation either as there have been alleged under-the-counter transactions that have left many registrations incomplete and so not captured in the database.

Besides, there are millions of would-be registrations that were captured but not located anywhere.

Indeed some of the SIM and NIN linkage victims were believed to have been traced to the inability of NIMC to be at home to its responsibilities thus standing out as a weak link in the whole exercise.

Despite the reported investments on equipment by some MNOs to facilitate the registration of NIN by NIMC,there is very little improvement in that regard.
That is why the MNOs plead with the NCC for extension of time to allow their subscribers to link their SIM cards to the NIN.

The disconnection and barring of subscribers had been phased by the NCC . The first phase ended on February 28,2024 with over 40million subscribers barred.

The second phase is due for March 29,2024 with another category of subscribers to be disconnected and barred while the third phase will be on April 15,2024 whereby subscribers with more than four SIM cards linked to a single NIN will be barred.

Describing the next phases of disconnections are massive,NCC officials said this will be done based on the anomalies discovered on the networks showing massive duplications of SIM cards and NINS traced to single individuals,and some instances where single individual could register as many as 1,000 SIM cards with multiple NINs, and thereby negating the security architecture of the country.

The March 29 disconnection exercise will focus on subscribers that have more than five registered SIM cards that are attached to unverified NIN, while the April 15 disconnection exercise will address subscribers that have less than five registered SIM cards that are attached to unverified NINs.

Worried by manifest revenue losses experienced as a result of the massive disconnections,MNOs are pressing for extension of the March 29 and April 15,2024 deadlines for more disconnections.

“This extension will cushion huge revenue losses suffered after the February 28 disconnection exercise, where several SIM cards belonging to our valued customers were barred” according to an official of one of the MNOs.

Although the NCC is not averse to the extension being sought by the operators,”they must present empirical evidence to justify this extension.Data of losses incurred and how this has affected their operations should be presented to the Commission,”an NCC official volunteered to this writer.

NCC said it was aware of some of the hindrances encountered by subscribers who have not been able to link their SIM cards to their NIN, despite the efforts to do so, but encountered some network problems experienced on the NIMC platforms but the network providers have a role to play especially in terms of advocacy to educate embattled subscribers on the way forward.

The advocacy should also focus on the online registration and linkage like banks do for customers linking their accounts to their Bank Verification Numbers( BVNs).

MNOs have been austere in information dissemination to guide as possible on what to do so they know what to do and how to go about it.

In addition to these,the operators apathy to the plights of subscribers may have added to the frustration of subscribers.

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