The Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Dr Eugene Juwah, has been addressing the controversy the SIM card registration exercise is generating. In this interview with CHRISTIAN OCHIAMA, he insists that the N6.1 billion for 80 million subscribers is a good bargain for the country.
Why is SIM card registration generating so much controversy?
Your guess is as good as mine. I just feel that there are groups of people who are not quite disposed to having their mobile subscriber number recorded or put in a data base. That is the only reason I can find. It is done everywhere in the world and the money for it, though N6.1billion looks a lot, but it is far smaller than all the registration exercises we have made in Nigeria.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registered voters and National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) is about to register.
As journalists, find out how much they are spending. Look at the cost, N6.1 billion to register about 80 million subscribers, it's quite small. The contractors we engaged to help with the registration are complaining.
Was the controversy as a result of mismanagement of information?
Probably, we didn't do enough job of explaining, and by the time we started explaining to the public about what had happened, it had become too late. There is also that element of public bias when they hear billion.
For example, if you compare the prices between Nigeria and India which is also carrying out a Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card registration exercise as we are doing in Nigeria, in conjunction with a special body appointed by government, you will find out that for the registration of a subscriber in India, it is $2 which is about N320 or N340.
Here in Nigeria, the highest registration fee we have paid is about N120 per subscriber which is less than half of what India is using for that purpose. India is known as a very low cost country. So it wasn't money that people think that we were dashing out that is the problem. Even at that, the process that NCC put in place to manage this money is completely due process.
How much has so far been expended on this registration exercise?
The important thing is that we pay as you register. If your zone says it is N120 and we verify it especially to ensure that it is not double registration, we pay you N120. Our own registration contractors have finished. We haven't finished verifying all the data they have given to us. But for the data we have verified so far, we have paid out N1.7 billion. This also includes the cost of building the backend.
We were told that SIM card registration will form part of a national data base. NIMC is preparing to commence its registration, will your subscribers also go through the rigour of another registration exercise with NIMC?
NIMC is doing a total identity registration. We are doing SIM card registration which is directed towards mobile phone. NIMC is doing a registration that everybody can use.
When NIMC succeeds with its registration, INEC may not need to have registration each time there is an election. But part of what we have registered will be used by NIMC to complete its own data base.
In what way?
For example, we are not taking people's faces; we are not too much interested in where you come from, what your tribe is, what the colour of your eyes is. May be NIMC is interested in all these things. What we are interested in are your mobile number, your finger print, your photograph. These are the key things we are interested in.
So, the information that NIMC will be asking will be far more than what we are asking for. What we have registered will just be a subset of what NIMC needs.
There is the allegation that your organisation does not have the capacity to detect multiple registrations, true?
How are double or multiple registrations detected? These are some of the fallacies that appear in newspapers. You can never stop double registration when people are registering. In Nigeria there is no technology like that; which means that immediately you register, it will appear in a data base somewhere.
We are not United States of America; we are Nigeria. Normally, there will be double registration, but we are trying to minimise that by publicising, advertising in the media that if you have registered once - whether with the operators or with the NCC, you don't need to register again.
At times people want to register may be because they don't believe the advertisement or may be also some of the operators attach lottery to it - if you register, you can win a car. If I didn't win now, let me register again, may be I will win. So the issue of double registration will always be there, but it was taken care of in the design of the SIM card registration.
We will put software at the backend - when all the data have come - that can look at all the finger prints that were registered and when it sees fingerprint that was double registered, it will eliminate it. That is the only way it can be done now and that is why we are doing clean, harmonisation and verification.
At what point did the legislators decide to probe the exercise and why?
We are a government agency; once they summon us we go. The probe is going on now; people will see what comes out of it. We are not afraid of anything because we haven't done anything wrong. And we have been saying it from day one. At times people who have issues with NCC will go and publish what they like. I am telling you the truth; I can tell you that there is nothing wrong with SIM card registration.
Nobody has gained one kobo out of it, I can tell you that. The money is well managed. The process is well managed. It is a difficult process. People are talking of delay; they thought it would take the operators a few weeks to upload what they have registered to us, because they have registered a lot.
They were supposed to have sent everything to us as by September last year. But I can tell you, the last data they sent to us came by end of February this year. If we don't have all the data, we can't start the harmonisation. So, there are difficult logistical problems. Registration in itself is difficult especially when you want to do it value for money. Why INEC's is expensive is that government bought machines. If we had decided to buy machines for all our SIM card registration contractors, we won't be talking about N6.1 billion.
What we did was to tell them to go and hire their machines anywhere they can find them. And that is because we believe that it is more cost-effective that way. All the other government agencies bought machines and to buy machines costs a lot. Nobody is saying that they wasted money; it depends on the process you decide to use.
You have paid N1.7 billion; what happens to the balance?
The registration is still ongoing. You never close your book until you finish. We are spending; we are taking account of what we are spending. When the registration finishes, there are government laws that decide how balances are treated and we will obey such laws.
When can Nigerians expect this exercise to end?
We should have been nearly there by now, but a probe came and it has to be delayed. We are not doing anything now; we are not paying the contractors because there is a probe.
What are they looking for?
They are trying to look at the process to make sure that the money was well spent. From the questions they asked me, I think that is what they are looking for, because there are so many rumours flying around o! - that we have shared this N6.1billion; nobody can share N6.1billion and government will keep quiet. I can't share it and still remain on this seat. It is not possible.
You people don't know how government works. Government is not as easy as people think. If you take the money now, 10 years after, they will find out and come after you. I came from private sector and I know that I have a name to protect. We are careful here because of the controversy the project has generated. Even when everything is correct, you have to double check it.
Our contractors are threatening to take me to court - that I am not paying them, and that is because I have to verify the data they are giving me. It is when I am satisfied that there is no 'magomago' in it, then, I can pay them. This is what is in the contract.
How long is this suspension going to last, and is the process going to start off again soon?
Well, if you ask me, I will tell you that there is nothing wrong with the SIM card registration. And very soon, we will ask for permission from the House to start before they conclude their probe. This is important so that we can finish the project soon. We are already looking at the end of the registration.
There have been delays; it is a new project. Worse, there is no centralised data base in Nigeria to aid the flow. If we finish it, it will be the first centralised identity data base in the country. If it is that easy, why hasn't it been done before? It is a job we are taking very seriously. Nobody can say we don't have the capacity. Most of these things are done by contractors; we supervise them.
We have good capacity to supervise them. I can tell you that companies like HP that everybody knows can make a mistake in supplying equipment. Down the road they will say, 'ah! this thing is not working because it is a mistake. We have new equipment that we are bringing in that will do the job better'. All these are part of the delay.
Do you feel that this probe has called your integrity to question?
The National Assembly has the right to probe us anytime they want.
There is the allegation that NCC is not regulating the network providers the way it should and that is why there is poor quality service and network failure; how do you react?
NCC is not a service provider; we are regulators. We make laws which the service providers must operate by. When the networks were introduced into the Nigerian market, nobody cared about these laws and service quality. That was because Nigeria was hungry for telecommunication service. It used to take one year with NITEL, now it is just two minutes.
Everybody was excited. But as the market started growing. For five years, Nigeria was the fastest growing market in the world, not just in Africa. These things have their consequences. There was a huge demand and the operators didn't plan well, because they didn't know that there was this volume of market. So the infrastructure they had was smaller than the demand.
Now there was a regulation for quality before I came. The regulation, that is, the threshold, the quality level they must meet was low and they were meeting it. Even as they were meeting it, the quality of service was bad. By the law they were given, they were correct in what they were doing and you can't do anything to them.
You can't punish them because they were meeting the threshold levels they were given. Now, what we did was to raise the threshold and make a new law. The process of doing it takes time. I can tell you that it is only in January this year that we were able to make a law, get it approved, that is, gazetted.
Before now, we didn't have an instrument to force them, to take them to court or to fine them. So, all that time, it was essentially persuasion and threat. Of course, it would have been difficult to carry it out. From January, immediately this gazette came, we now have an instrument to control them and that is why you saw our action.
With your actions, you asked them to pay some money and they have not paid
They will pay. I am assuring that they will pay.
If they fail to pay, what will be your next step?
We are regulators. Let's wait until they don't pay. A regulator does not issue an order and forget it; then you are not a regulator. You must be familiar with our activities in the last two years - we give directives, if they don't do it, we take action. We have locked up business premises. But I can tell you that they will pay.
We are looking at next week. The mistake a lot of people make is to think that NCC is there to close down operators' businesses. That is not our function; our function is to make laws for them and see that they obey the laws and also that consumers get value for their money.
So, we are between the operator and the consumers, to see that each of them is satisfied. We sanction them; we dialogue on the reason for the sanction and about their concerns. And I think that we have concluded our dialogue and we are looking forward to their paying by next week. That's all I can tell you now.
Where does NCC come in between lottery and promotion?
You know that there is Lottery Commission, like NCC. It is the one to decide what is lottery or not. So, whatever that they decide is lottery is so. Whatever that is not lottery is promotion. It's for them to decide. Where NCC can come in is when it deteriorates the quality of service for that particular network.
Once we are sure that the promotion is affecting the quality of service, we will advice the service provider to stop. If it doesn't stop, then - we have regulation on quality of service - we sanction that service provider. I don't want to mention the networks, but they were doing well until they started promotions and we warned them. They are among the people sanctioned now.
They won't like it because, all along, they have been meeting our minimum standards. Because of promotions, the month we wanted to impose sanctions, they didn't meet it, so we sanctioned them. The style we have adopted is: let the networks decide to do promotion or not, but if they are not meeting our standards, they are liable to sanctions.
What is the broadband status now?
The issue of enabling environment for broadband is also a major issue. It is an issue like the start of Global System for Mobile (GSM) telecommunication in Nigeria. It is an issue that, if it is done well, will be as big as GSM itself. It is not something you conceive today and implement it today.
There are many approvals that must go through. NCC is bent on doing it. Some of the approvals we need for it are in the ministry; some of them will go to the federal executive council. It is only when we get these approvals that we will be able to start. I can tell you that we are pursuing these approvals.