A biometric capturing of Subscriber Identity Module cards, mangled by ill-deployment of technology, has rendered 95.7 million of them invalid. This figure is staggering. The registration process, which began in 2011, recorded the data of 151,449,837 subscribers. The security concerns the situation stirs up should impel a decisive, swift and remedial action plan from the authorities. Those captured data were rendered null and void on account of improper fingerprints and face captures, the Nigerian Communication Commission, declared last week.
As insecurity reached stratospheric levels with anonymous or rogue telephone calls aiding Boko Haram operations in the North-East, kidnapping, armed robbery and other criminalities across the country, the Federal Government ordered all telecom operators to register their customers’ SIMs. Unfortunately, even before the latest awkward revelation, the registration scheme had never been faithfully implemented; just as enforcement of compliance has been lax. With the 95.7 million cards to be revalidated and rogue SIMs openly hawked and procured at markets and streets still spiralling, the actual number of these dangerous SIMs may not easily be known.
The non-compliance of MTN with the SIM card registration earned it a record $5.2 billion fine in 2015. It had earlier, in 2013, along with Glo, Airtel and Etisalat been similarly penalised; the $5.2 billion fine was reduced to $1.67 billion or about N330 billion later.
However, it is not enough for the NCC to declare the 95.7 million SIMs invalid, the Federal Government should set a deadline for their revalidation because of the inherent security dangers they portend. The Director, Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement in the NCC, Efosa Idehen, says, “Today, cases of fraudulently-registered SIM cards have been aiding and abetting robbery cases, kidnappings, financial frauds and all manners, of criminalities where the anonymity of the registered subscribers makes criminal investigation difficult for the law enforcement agencies.”
Sanitising the process rests squarely on the shoulders of telecoms operators and the regulator – the NCC. The authorities should show more seriousness in addressing the problem by being firm and decisive in dealing with cases of violation. A single life lost cannot be replaced. Yet, scores of people including the police and soldiers have been killed because of this official negligence.
Most worrying is the risk this brazen violation poses to our war on terror. The military have since 2015, admitted that fifth columnists exist in their ranks, who often leak operational strategies to Islamic jihadists. The late Alex Badeh, as Chief of Defence Staff, who affirmed this, stressed that these activities “… not only blunted the effectiveness of the fight, but also led to the needless deaths of numerous officers and men who unwittingly fell into ambushes prepared by the terrorists who had advanced warnings of the approach of such troops.” The Chief of Army Staff, Yusuf Buratai, has also raised a similar alarm. Such leaks are through the use of rogue SIMs in making telephone calls.
In the wake of the growing concerns about SIMs procurement abuses, the NCC Executive Vice-Chairman, Umar Danbatta, in October 2017, set up a 12-member taskforce to end the racketeering in “unregistered and pre-registered” SIMs. This did not pay off, evident in Danbatta’s observation recently at the 40th Kaduna International Trade Fair, that kidnappers use them to execute their nefarious acts. The irony that criminals are “always one step ahead” of the state, in reversing this seemingly toxic trend is emblematic of failure of governance.
In other countries, where life is considered sacrosanct, any threat to it is greeted with an immediate response. The Indonesian government demonstrated this in its decision to block 100.9 million prepaid SIMs cards as of March 2018. Owners of these cards had failed to register them with valid national identification cards as required. In Uganda too, there is an ongoing crackdown on SIM registration abusers. The Uganda Communication Commission has directed subscribers with double SIMs to come forward for data streamlining.
The Indonesia enforcement template is what Nigeria needs. With criminal gangs running riot in virtually all parts of the country, resulting in the mass murder of citizens, our security agencies, especially the office of the National Security Adviser, have critical roles to play in arresting this drift.
When the state surrenders its authority to non-state actors, or non-conformist corporate operators, it is an invitation to anarchy. It is wrong for the government to be tepid or bend backwards in enforcing its writ on security breaches. It is a perverse incentive to the violator. In the United States, no firm contravenes its law and escapes its full weight. For the British Petroleum Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the US slammed on it a $20.8 billion fine, the largest in the country’s history. The country also imposed on ZTE of China, a $1.2 billion fine, for violating its sanctions against Iran. These are actions indicative of a regulatory environment that brooks no compromises.
The SIM cards security breach by telecom operators is now a joke taken too far. Buhari and his security chiefs should get the message. For the NCC, therefore, getting the affected firms to regularise the invalid SIMs, offers it an opportunity to rediscover itself as a strong regulator of our telecoms space.