Nigeria’s SIM Card Registration: Global Trend With Broader Implications

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In Nigeria, there’s been considerable debate and discomfort surrounding the process of Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card registration and its integration with National Identity Numbers (NINs). 

However, it’s essential to recognise that Nigeria is not alone in this endeavour. Despite being perceived as a latecomer to this exercise, many countries worldwide have embraced similar measures to enhance security and accountability in telecommunication services.

While acknowledging the bottlenecks and complexities associated with the SIM card registration process, it is crucial to understand that this exercise serves the greater good of the population. Although some individuals may express frustration due to having their SIM cards barred, it’s imperative to grasp the rationale behind this exercise.

The Nigerian government has articulated several reasons for implementing SIM card registration, primarily to address security challenges and combat criminal activities within society. Financial crimes, such as SIM swap fraud and security threats, such as kidnappings and threats made via telecommunication, underscore the necessity of this exercise. SIM registration helps in verifying users’ identities and protects both users’ identities and mobile lines from SIM-related crimes.

Furthermore, SIM registration strengthens the capacity of law enforcement agencies to combat criminal use of mobile phones, thereby enhancing security measures. Additionally, it facilitates identity verification processes, enabling more secure transactions and interactions using mobile devices, which ultimately boosts confidence and participation in the digital economy.

In December 2023, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) mandated mobile network operators (MNOs) to disconnect and bar subscribers whose SIM cards were not linked to their NINs by February 28, 2024. Over 42 million subscribers were disconnected by this deadline. This linkage was introduced to minimise criminal activities and other vices perpetrated via telecommunications networks, as Nigeria holds an unenviable position in the global cybercrime index.

The journey towards linking SIM cards to NINs involved multiple deadline extensions and integration efforts starting from December 2020 until its closure on April 4, 2022. MNOs were directed to suspend services to SIMs not associated with NINs. This move aimed to ensure robust verification requirements and cleanup of the SIM registration database to address national security implications.

Nigeria’s efforts to ensure proper identification of subscribers and users of telecommunication services align with practices in other countries worldwide. Major economies like the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Japan, China and others have stringent documentation requirements, including biometric identification, before connecting individuals to their networks.

Moreover, several African countries have implemented mandatory SIM registration laws similar to Nigeria’s. They 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.

Despite widespread adoption, critics have raised concerns about the effectiveness of this strategy in addressing the challenges it intends to tackle, arguing that the risks of SIM card registration may outweigh the benefits.

Although Nigeria faces challenges in implementing SIM card registration and integration with NINs, it is part of a broader global trend aimed at enhancing security and accountability in telecommunication services. Despite criticisms, the government’s efforts to regulate and secure the telecommunications sector are crucial for safeguarding national security and fostering digital economic growth.

In South Africa, the Right2Know Campaign has taken telecom operators—MTN, Cell C, and Telkom—to court over transparency concerns regarding the handling of data provided during SIM registrations. Pre-paid SIM cards remain popular among many mobile phone users. Despite this, mobile network operators (MNOs) across various African countries have implemented the Know Your Customer (KYC) module. However, the Nigerian government has gone a step further by mandating that all subscribers link their SIM cards to their National Identification Number (NIN).

While some Nigerians express concerns regarding this mandate, this writer holds a different opinion. The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has been overseeing SIM registration since 2011. However, some subscribers initially perceived it as insignificant until the NCC took stringent measures, barring nearly 42 million unconnected subscribers until they verified their NINs. This action demonstrated the regulator’s seriousness and, today, the non-compliant subscribers remain disconnected from their respective networks, with a deadline set between March 29 and April 15, 2024, to link their SIM cards to their NINs.

During the process of verifying the barred subscribers, the NCC discovered instances where single individuals possessed up to 10,000 SIM cards registered in their name. Additionally, there were cases of individuals having multiple NINs, complicating the verification process further. Consequently, the NCC had no option but to bar these SIM cards based on such discrepancies.

While affected subscribers criticise both the regulator and MNOs, the blame ultimately lies with the subscribers who underestimated the consequences until they were disconnected. Although the NCC believes it has acted within existing laws and regulations, operators are concerned about the number of subscribers lost and the subsequent revenue losses. Some operators argue for an extension of the SIM and NIN linkage timeline, believing it should be a continuous process to allow affected subscribers sufficient time to comply.

In addition to grappling with the challenges of the weeding exercise, operators have faced threats from disgruntled subscribers affected by the disconnection. These threats have not only posed safety concerns but also highlight the frustrations felt by subscribers, who blame everyone but themselves for the disconnected SIM cards.

However, another critical aspect of the crisis revolves around the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), responsible for issuing NINs. Despite substantial funding from the government and some MNOs to facilitate the NIN registration process, the NIMC’s performance has been lackluster. Complaints about the cumbersome and inefficient registration process persist, exacerbated by alleged under-the-table transactions and millions of registrations missing from the database.

Furthermore, despite reported investments by MNOs to enhance NIN registration, little improvement has been observed. Consequently, MNOs advocate for an extension of the SIM-NIN linkage deadline to accommodate their subscribers. The disconnection and barring of subscribers have been phased by the NCC, with subsequent phases targeting subscribers with multiple unverified SIM cards linked to a single NIN.

Acknowledging the revenue losses incurred by operators, there is a push for an extension of the deadlines for further disconnections. However, the NCC insists that operators must provide empirical evidence justifying such an extension, including data on losses incurred and their impact on operations.

While the NCC acknowledges the challenges faced by subscribers in linking their SIM cards to their NINs, it emphasises the role of MNOs in advocacy and education. MNOs need to engage in robust advocacy campaigns, similar to those conducted by banks for linking accounts to bank verification numbers (BVNs), to guide affected subscribers through the process online.

While the SIM-NIN linkage mandate in Nigeria has faced criticism and challenges, it remains a crucial step in enhancing security and accountability in the telecom sector. However, improvements in the NIN registration process and increased support from MNOs are necessary to ensure a smoother transition for affected subscribers. The extension of deadlines and continuous engagement with stakeholders will be essential in addressing the concerns and frustrations of both subscribers and operators alike.

Sonny Aragba-Akpore
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