Despite the danger the illegal sale of pre-registered Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards portends to the nation's security, the practice has continued. The Guardian found that virtually all the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are involved in the illegality.
Agents clad in the aprons of the service providers have been spotted in the Lagos areas of Island, Ikeja, Airport Road, Ikotun, Ojuelegba, Yaba and Oshodi, and in Mararaba Nyanyan, Berger and Wuse in Abuja.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) views the sale or use of pre-registered SIM cards as an offence attracting a fine or jail term or both. An indicted telecom company risks a N200,000 fine for every pre-registered card.
MTN was fined about $5.2 billion in October 2015, after it was discovered that some 5.2 million lines on its network were not properly registered. Other operators including Globacom, Airtel and Etisalat (now 9Mobile) were also fined about N100 million four years back.
Investigations showed that competition among the operators is a major factor fuelling the menace. But also, some Nigerians, ignorant of the dangers they are courting, prefer to simply buy pre-registered cards, rather than spend a few minutes inputting their details into a computer.
According to an Abuja-based security expert, Chukwuma Alozie, the purchase of such cards would appeal to criminal elements. He urged relevant authorities to monitor the service providers closely. He regretted that ignorance and the high rate of joblessness in the country were causing many unsuspecting youths to be lured into attaching their biometric details to multiple SIM cards.
"Hardly do they know that very soon they would be held for high crimes committed by those who bought the cards. They are not even aware that when many criminals use these cards, it confers the status of 'hardened criminal' on the unsuspecting registrants. They risk spending their lives in jail or dying at the gallows for crimes they did not commit," said Alozie.
At a recent workshop in Gombe, organised by the NCC for law enforcement agencies on telecommunications matters, Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris described the sale and use of pre-registered SIM cards as a grave threat to security and governance.
According to him, "Criminal activities, including the use of pre-registered SIM cards, should be of concern to all of us. As a law enforcement officer, it is my belief that in addressing these challenges, we must re-strategise on our noble programme of community policing across communities and give our communities greater stake in securing national assets."
The June subscriber statistics from the NCC showed that the operators have connected 243.9 million telephone lines with 162.8 million active. On this, MTN controls 40.9 per cent, amounting to 66.5 million customers; Globacom has 40.1 million subscribers and enjoys 24.7 per cent market share. Airtel with 39.9 million subscribers earns 24.6 per cent market control, while 9Mobile with 9.7 per cent market share services 9.7 million customers. The country has a teledencity of 116 per cent.
The problem is a recurring embarrassment to the industry, said Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, president of the National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers of Nigeria (NATCOMS), urging the NCC to take drastic action.
He said some operators, who give permission to agents to start registering their (operators') SIMs are to blame. "Because these agents want to register more and make some money, they just register anyhow, put a face on the profile and that is it," he said.
According to him, the sharp practice is fuelled by competition among the operators. "They are the ones that should ensure due diligence is done. Perhaps, they should stop registration or start registering one person or two and keep a tab on them in the rural areas. But in the cities, they have enough customer care centres. Rather than them giving authority to some small boys, who would put them into trouble, they can get educated agents and ensure they supervise them regularly."
The NATCOMS president also stressed the need for the enforcement arm of the NCC to step up its work.
The chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, in an email response to The Guardian enquiry on the matter, said: "We need to continue to ensure compliance and sanctions on established willful infractions."
Responding to The Guardian inquiry on what his office is doing to curb the menace, the Minister of Communications Adebayo Shittu said handling the problem was the responsibility of the NCC, "while the ministry handles the formulation of broad policy issues."
The executive vice chairman, NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, on his part, maintained that selling pre-registered SIM cards is an act of illegality that undermines national security.
Danbatta, who did not rule out sanctions for any operator found culpable, urged Nigerians that rather than patronise criminals who peddle pre-registered cards, "the public should report them to law enforcement agencies, as part of their responsibility, not only as subscribers but also as good citizens."
Describing the menace as grievous, he noted: "Our Compliances Monitoring and Enforcement Department is currently going round the country with a view to fishing out the perpetrators."
Late last year, farmers in northern Nigeria urged wireless operators to block SIM cards that had not been formally registered, saying they aided the operations of Boko Haram.
An online news platform had quoted the head of the region's association of small-holder farmers, Mohammed Sani, saying: "We will stage a protest against MTN and take necessary legal action, if it fails to comply with this directive."
But MTN Nigeria's General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Omasan Ogisi, in an email, said the telecommunications firm condemns any illegality including the sale and distribution of pre-registered SIM cards.
For her, the firm always takes punitive actions against agents found engaging in the illicit activity. The measures include blacklisting and withdrawal of SIM registration devices used for such an illegality.
"SIM registration kits/devices have been tagged to specific agents. And as such, we are able to tell which kit and agent is responsible for registering a SIM card and hand over such to law enforcement authorities for prosecution," she said.
According to her, MTN has established partnerships with law enforcement authorities in places where such activities are prevalent. "By virtue of such partnerships, we are able to point them in the direction of such locations, so that they can apprehend the culprits and let the law take its natural course," she said.
For her, the firm engages in periodic/continuous public awareness campaigns, highlighting the need for subscribers to desist from purchasing such SIM cards and ensures that they personally register the SIM cards they intend to use.
Also, 9Mobile's acting director, Regulatory and Corporate Affairs, Seyi Osunsedo, said the firm strictly enforces rules that limit the ability of its trade agents to pre-register SIM cards.
She said: "We have since implemented the NCC's rule mandating telcos to block any registered SIM card, which is not used within 48 hours after registration. This helps ensure that even if a line is pre-registered, the agent is unable to keep it on sale for more than 48 hours.
"In addition, our registration systems are designed to ensure that only validly registered lines are activated and if a line is not validly registered; such is unlikely to be activated even if purchased."
Noting that pre-registered lines are typically listed using false details, she said: "9mobile continuously explores ways to further strengthen existing checks, to help prevent the pre-registration of lines. 9mobile also conducts spot checks, which have led to the arrest and prosecution of individuals found to be selling pre-registered 9mobile lines.
"9mobile also continuously educates its subscribers on the risks associated with purchasing pre-registered lines and the need to ensure that their lines are registered in their names and with their details."
Airtel and Globacom were yet to respond as at press time.