January 27, 2021

For communications, another superfluous directive

For communications, another superfluous directive

How very ludicrous! Referring to the happenings in the telecommunications industry on Monday morning, a friend drew my attention to Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, a play written by Prof. Ola Rotimi of blessed memory. It is not just that the husband is mad but that he had been mad before and is witnessing serious recidivism.

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He didn’t know how much that would hurt me, speaking so spitefully about an industry on which I had built my career and from which my journalism practice has also profited. But I accept the truth, that looking closely at the sector now, things are moving with so much speed towards chaos except the regulator applies stronger speed to rein the sector back to sanity.

My friend, like the rest of them who are nearly driving me mad with calls, are miffed by a recent directive by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) that phone users will have to sink their numbers with their National Identification Numbers (NINs) for the phone numbers to be fully and properly registered for use. This is in addition to an earlier directive for the operators to stop the sales and registration of new SIM Cards. It was totally unexpected and so well out of logic.

In the statement, the telecoms regulator directed the operators to take immediate steps as follows: “Operators to require ALL their subscribers to provide valid National Identification Number (NIN) to update SIM registration records; The submission of NIN by subscribers to take place within two weeks (from today December 16, 2020 and end by 30 December, 2020); After the deadline, ALL SIMs without NINs are to be blocked from the networks.”
The regulator warned that “Violations of this directive will be met with stiff sanction, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating license.”

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The statement titled: Implementation of new SIM Registration Rules was signed by the Public Affairs Director, Dr Ikechukwu Adinde. From the foregoing, it is safe to deduce that there have been other rules governing SIM registration which obviously have not achieved a closure for the exercise. So, these are merely additions to those residual rules.

In fairness, the SIM Card Registration exercised started in 2011 between the regulator and the operators which exercise doesn’t seem to have met with any projected expectations. It was expected that when completed, it would help solve security challenges in the country and form some kind of bulk registration packages that will be handed over to the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) who would be the curator of all personal data collected.

So, why are people so angry, to the extent that even the lower House of the National Assembly, a body in notorious somnambulism would even notice, and have asked the regulator to give the exercise a ten-week window?
Let’s begin this way. Whether two weeks as directed by the regulator or ten weeks as per the appeal of the National Assembly, the directive except modified, is dead on arrival and it smacks painfully of the overwhelming ignorance of those behind the decision.

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Such ignorance is not based at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) which has very robust human capital capacity until recent developments. What irks some people and really roils their anger beyond control is that some of these decisions come as directives issued by the Minster of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami in an industry where he has no demonstrated competence. Using the NCC to dish out very troubling materials doesn’t really wash.

The Nigerian Communications Act 2003 which set up the NCC advocates the independence of the regulatory agency and has no place for a bungling and meddlesome Minister. From Sections 23 to 25, the Act spells out the responsibilities of the Minister which weigh more on policy issues and particularly charges the Minister under 25 (2) to ensure the independence of the regulator at all times. Is the situation therefore more like the goat proverbially consuming the yam under its protection?

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What a year it has been for the ordinary Nigerian? A disease came from nowhere to make life difficult for humanity globally with the country even doing better as it has not recorded the number of deaths foretold; there are job losses; the economy is back where it came from – recession, the second under this administration; inflation is almost 15 per cent, one of the worst on the continent and putting to lie our false claim to the biggest economy in this part of the world; the Naira is on a free fall; and added to this putrefying nightmare was the #EndSARS protest which was some kind of judgmental end time measuring scale for a government living in pipedream about how well its activities have come to bless the nation. It has never been this bad for a Nigerian to live in his country; and Pantami obviously came to increase the yoke on the people by creating a very devious directive to punish them.

There is backlash for the NCC. Cumulative corporate image earned over several years is up in a puff as the people rage over the inability of the regulator to protect them, mass crowds are gathering at registration centres in this age of COVID-19, meaning that one government directive could yet be responsible for mass deaths across our nation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has written to President Muhammadu Buahri to put an end to a misjudged directive, while a former Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr Monday Ubani, has asked a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, to stop the Nigerian government and the NCC from blocking SIM cards that may not be linked to their NINs within the two week period. Painfully, the NCC is mired in some sorry situation as it seems unable to hold on to its regulatory responsibilities.

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I am yet to see anybody who is against the government building a proper database for the country but people are against the immediacy and a seamy bellicosity of an idea that should have been handled in a much better way.
There are indications however that government is looking for a safer route out of the confusion it has created. A statement released Monday evening says that after a meeting of The National Task Force on National Identification Number and SIM Registration which was chaired by the Minister, an extension has been granted to component parts of the exercise to mid-January and early February 2021, respectively.

This is quite surprising if not distressing as the government again missed a begging opportunity to frontally deal with the situation. Here is the puzzle before us: by October 2020, according to the NCC, MTN had 83, 331, 682m subscribers (40.14%) of the market, Airtel – 56, 214, 072m (27.08%), Globacom – 55, 079, 362m (26.53%), and 9mobile – 12, 953, 121m (6.24%). All these numbers, over 207m, will have to be matched with their NINs.
Quite a little miracle needed here. But the operators who, one fellow described as the fall guys in the entire value chain, seem to be working hard to tackle a situation that looks overwhelming, giving out short codes and taking other sundry actions to protect the subscribers. As one of them told this writer last week, “We don’t want the government to tie their inability to deal with the security challenges in the country on our networks. We won’t give them the reason to,” he vowed.

Okoh Aihe writes from Abuja

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