n this investigative report, Odimegwu Onwumere, a reporter based in Rivers State, takes a superficial glance at how Nigerians look at the Federal Government of Nigeria and the telecommunications regulator on the exercise of the SIM card registration that lasted for a period of 16 months. The exercise was introduced due to the growing flourish of crimes in the country where persons hide under anonymity of mobile phones and carry out nefarious crimes such as kidnapping and threat to life.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had made this decision irrevocable. 6Billion Naira was given to the agency by the Federal Government of Nigeria in making sure that the exercise was not a futility. It was a mandate. Every Nigerian was expected to register his/her Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card from May 2010, elapsing in six months time. When Nigerian subscribers could not register their SIMs within this period, another deadline of September 28 2011 was given, making the deadline twice.
Few people were out to register their SIM Cards at the beginning. Others were of the opinion that the idea would not work in Nigeria because of the way some projects before it were shabbily executed. But SIM Card registration in Nigeria later turned out to be a very big exercise, a festival of sort. Many of the authorised firms assigned to carry out the registration by the NCC, did not find it easy, as crowd of people trooped out en masse to register. Many Nigerians registered more than one, two and three SIM Cards. This was against what was experienced at the beginning the firms started to carry out a direct exercise, in what was termed “registering a few people to test run its efficiency.”
Just few weeks into the exercise, the SIM Card registration was attended with criticism. One was that NCC had no right to register individuals since the telephony companies were registered. Others however were of the opinion that SIM Card registration, though strange to Nigerians, was not strange to majority countries in the world. Experts told dissident that such countries as South Africa, Kenya and Botswana were among the legion of other countries that had initiated the exercise.
Apart from the point most Nigerians raised, which among, was that since the telephony companies were registered, they don’t have business with registering their SIM cards, one issue was the insensitive approach of the operators and the consumers. There was gap between the operators and regulators resulting to conflict in data gathering.
The problems started when the telephony companies decided to go contrary to the NCC directives and were registering old SIM Cards and new ones. NCC said that this was out of place because the registration exercise was intended for creating a database for the nation. The nation was supposed to benefit, because it wanted the registration to serve as a database for the national identity. The idea initially was that the telephony companies were to register new SIM Cards while the ones already in use were registered by the NCC, so that there would not be mix-up in the data.
The reason the operators decided to register the old and the new SIM Cards was hinged on competition. The operators behaved as if they did not want the regulators to know all the number of SIM Cards they operated. But many commentators were of the opinion that "Nigerian leaders are always good at giving references when they want to perpetrate fraud. There is no way you can justify the N6 billion that the lawmakers approved for this exercise."
There were also the sayings that the exercise was unnecessary because the government had failed to address the basic issues and common needs of the people before introducing the SIM Card registration many saw as an “un-researched, untested and sophisticated project.” They felt that the Government should have first dealt with such basic needs like electric power supply and restoration of land line telephony. They saw these as basic methods of gathering data or ID of every Nigerian instead of lavishing the taxpayers’ money on “frivolity called SIM Card Registration.”
Reason For The Registration:
It was the peak of kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria. The kidnappers used cell phones to communicate with their victim’s relatives for negotiation. They would tell the kidnapped relatives to drop the money in exchange of the victim at a designated place where the kidnappers would go and pick the money hence releasing the victim after. This was posing a dangerous threat to the security operatives in the country. So, with the registration of the SIM cards it was believed that it would help the security agents to easily track down any person who engaged in any ugly business with his/her mobile phone and was reported to the security agents.
Since Nigerians hadn’t any up-to-date identification, there was another notion that the SIM Card registration would help to address the customer identification challenges in the banking industry, especially when it comes to e-payment. This would aid the National Identity Number (NIN) if properly adopted. It would be part of measures required for opening of accounts and add to the payment of allowances to employees, pensioners, and social beneficiaries.
Under the Payments System Vision 2020, the idea was identified as the most viable means to promote the electronic payments as the major conduit for payment. This was part of its guiding principles to reduce the level of card fraud in the Nigerian Payments System. There was instruction from the regulatory body that banks should transfer all their cards from magnetic hoop technology to chip+PIN, otherwise known as EMV. It was believed that there were weaknesses in the former. Due to the cases of fraud in the banking industry, the Central Bank had cried out in years back the need the nation must help it to properly identify their customers in what it termed “at the most affordable means.”
The skyrocketing level of fraud in the banking industry and other heinous practices done with mobile phone in Nigeria prompted the NCC to advise mobile phone subscribers to ensure they registered their SIM cards. “The SIM registration exercise is an avenue to reduce crime rate in our society and also give the subscribers proper identification,’’ NCC Head of Media, Reuben Muoka, gave the advise. “Those that failed to register their lines would be blocked by the commission.”
September 28 2011 Deadline:
The SIM Card registration was a noble idea, but many Nigerians found it very hard to accept. This brought about the tepid attitude they showed during the exercise, without understanding that it was lucidly in the best interest of the country. The September 28 2011 Deadline was twice the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had to adjust the deadline for completion of the registration exercise. Initially, NCC had given six months ultimatum to end the registration starting from May 2010.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) sensitization of the general public not to shove this exercise was rife. All the portals of the media had the advert. But just as most of the people were confused as to why they should register their SIM Cards, so the NCC was confused about which SIM Card was registered or not.
Against the backdrop NCC said was the reason for the exercise many Nigerians said that it’s another method to perpetrate corruption by the NCC. They saw it as an “imposition on the Nigeria public.” Some argued that even in Europe, one gets a prepaid SIM card of his or her choice in any supermarket or from the street salespersons. "Pay as you go" was what they said it’s called. “Options are given to the consumers, without compromising security,” they added.
Instead of making people to queue in line to register their SIM Card, there was advise that the NCC was supposed to introduce a website where all subscribers were supposed to register and at the same time maintain the method of queuing in line. But the reason the NCC said it introduced the “register by queuing” was to capture the person’s photograph. If people were asked to register via website, some people could upload any picture that was not their own. Yet, the need of curbing crime through the registered database would be defeated. Even, people would give fake address and fake names, fake date of birth, fake state of origin, etc. as the information required from a subscriber. But even though anybody gave fake address, date of birth, state of origin and name, the person cannot give fake picture. A Nigerian who said that he registered his line on the third day the exercise begun (May 3, 2010) still regrets till date that he get SMS alerts “asking me to register my SIM, which means that they have not submitted my data of information on line and have not blocked it as NCC had promised it would do.” On another note, why the blocking of line has not taken any effect could be the declaration by Mouka that "no operator has right to block any line… such remains the exclusive right of the regulator.”
Muoka told Nigerians complaining that their lines had already been blocked by their operators to make official their reports to the NCC. "Subscribers should insist on their rights, we have heard cases of such but I can tell you that no such report has come to NCC. The consequence of anybody collecting money (to register any subscriber) is grievous and all the agents know this", he said, adding that "we don't expect anybody giving anybody or agent any money". He also said that NCC had directed all service operators to desist forth sending SMS to subscribers telling them whether their SIM had been fully registered or not. "NCC is aware of the challenges, which is why it fully mobilised accredited agents for the exercise with sizeable number asked to capture subscribers in remote villages", he added.
Nigerians didn’t have registering their lines on a platter of gold. It took some people a week or more before they finally carried out their SIM registration. Those that did were so happy. This was because of the too many people that came out to register their SIM Cards to beat the 28th September deadline having missed the first deadline which started, counting from May 2010.
On what becomes the fate of those unable to register at the deadline, the directive from Muoka was that “everybody should strive to register in their own interest.” He ruled out the possibility of extension after the 28th September 2011 earmark.
People accused the NCC of conniving with the Nigerian leaders whom they said were good at giving references when a loophole was being sort to perpetrate fraud. “SIM Card registration is simply a ploy to loot our resources,” one heard at the centres of the registration. They said that the various service providers were given this responsibility as was the case in over 90% of nations around the world. “It was simply the role of the NCC to monitor the exercise but they rather thought it was better to connive with those who against good advise moved to approve N6 billion for this exercise…Nigerians will be waiting to see how the N6 billion was utilised.”
There were also questions thus: “The usual scam by our government. What happens to all the information gathered by the service provider with their self-styled SIM registration? All European countries have “pay as you go” SIMs that are not registered. USA also has this option, so why is Nigeria wasting cash on this? A national identity card would be best, but that did not work either!”
Instead of looking at the N6 billion as purportedly fraud, there were discordant voices saying that during the public debate in the National Assembly on the budget of the NCC on SIM Card registration, a senator – the chairman of House Committee on communications – had informed members that the telecoms operators had expressed their inability to finance the SIM Card registration exercise hence, a compromise position was worked out whereby the telecom operators agreed with NCC to register fresh subscribers while the commission would register old and existing subscribers.
Probing The N6 billion:
In December 2011, the House of Representatives indicated its interest in carrying a research into the implementation of the N6.1 billion SIM card registration project by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The headache of the House was that there was need to know how the funds were utilised. The House wanted to know the exercise was in tandem with the objectives because of the allegation that the NCC had failed to provide answers to some of the issues the lawmakers had raised about the project.
Speaking, Chairman House Committee on Communications, Hon. Oyetunde Ojo, said: "There have been a lot of things on that SIM card registration which we will have to look deeply into. A lot of money was spent on it and at this point in time, we have to know exactly what is on ground. We have been asking the NCC questions on the issue but we are yet to get the answers. Because before you go into number portability, you must be able to first of all identify which subscribers were registered and which were not. The deadline was September 30, 2011, but it appears that up till now they've not been able to conclude the exercise."
However, the House said that it was in support of the registration in what it called “its usefulness in terms of tracking suspicious phone calls for security purposes” but this would not deter it from knowing how the “huge funds invested’ in it were expended by NCC. Events were unfolding that the proposal by the NCC to journey on another project relating to number, handy, was rash and cannot be effective. It said that this could hold water “unless the identities of phone subscribers in the country were fully captured in a secured database.”
More troubles may be coming the way of NCC as one of the National Assembly members was advocating for the amendment of the agency’s Act to assist the agency to address the existing loopholes on issues of “infrastructure, intervention and enforcement by regulatory agencies, multiple taxation, offences and sanctions as well as the responsibilities and rights of the service providers.”
Arrest Of Preregistered SIM Card Sellers:
The NCC had sounded its trumpet loud and clear that anybody found wanton using the SIM Card Registration exercise to enrich himself or herself would be arrested. This was the fate of five persons on Wednesday 7, September, 2011, arrested by security operatives for allegedly selling preregistered Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards.
The arrested persons by a joint patrol of the Nigerian Communications Commission and the Nigerian Police engaged in selling preregistered SIM cards to customers who did not want to go through the stress of the exercise. This arrest was effected in the Federal Capital Territory, at the GSM Village. The persons arrested claimed they bought each of the SIM cards for N500 and sold each for N1000. In his reaction, Muoka told newsmen that those arrested in the exercise would face the fury of the law.
“The individuals arrested were involved in the sale of preregistered SIM cards contrary to the regulation on SIM card registration which outlawed the sale of new SIM cards that have been preregistered. The implication is that armed robbers and kidnappers can buy these cards and use them because their identities are not there. We used undercover agents who had already bought SIM cards from those involved. When the SIM card registration exercise began, we did not know that people will register hundreds of SIM cards and begin to sell them. When we discovered that about a month ago, we warned people against it in our jingles,” he said.
Global Assessment Of Nigerians In Using Phone:
Nigeria’s rate of using phone has increased astronomically. Nigerians are first in Africa and fifth largest users of Opera Mini browsers in the world. “With this latest ranking, Nigeria has surpassed more tech-savvy countries such as the United States and China,” some commentators were saying.
In a report by StatCounter, it was said that internet browsing from mobile phones in Nigeria had grown by over 25% between October 2010 and October 2011. Nigeria was said to have an estimated 93 million mobile phone users among her estimated 150 million populations. Nigeria was first listed among the world's top ten users of Opera in March 2009.
This was happening barely a decade, in the year 2001, the Nigerian Communication Sector introduced the Global Satellite Mobile network (popularly known as GSM). Networks such as MTN, Glo, Airtel were the major providers that dominated the telephony industry in Nigeria. Upon the poor network coverage they give Nigerians and the exorbitant rate their vouchers cost, Nigerians are not discouraged. The attitude of Nigerians toward the purchase of the GSM habitually could be said was one of the major reasons Muoka said during the SIM Card registration that the interesting aspect of the outreach programmes in all parts of the country were the similarities in the types of experiences subscribers had especially as it relates to receiving text messages after registration, double registration, location of registration centres and extortion of money from subscribers.