Nigeria: NIN-SIM Registration - Sacrificing the Health of Hapless Nigerians

19 January 2021
opinion

In the past one month, many Nigerians have been subjected to the harrowing experience of being made to compulsorily wait in crowded, endless queues, to capture data to register and obtain the elusive National Identification Number (NIN). The challenges for both the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and the majority of Nigerians yet to be captured in this exercise, are humongous. The recent deadlines imposed by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, to link all phone lines with NIN has thrown most into panic, as they scamper to meet the January 19 and February 9 deadlines, and has put Nigerians at risk contracting the dreaded Covid-19. In the face of these challenges, Ikeazor Akaraiwe, Jide Ojo and Emmanuel Onwubiko suggest ways out of the conundrum.

National Identification Number and the Challenging Issues Involved

On 15th December 2020, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) issued a directive titled "Implementation of New SIM Registration Rules" to all mobile network operators, to deactivate all SIM cards which have not been linked with a valid national identity card in 14 days with effect from December 16, 2020. The consequences of non-compliance with this directive include the blocking of any SIM without National Identification Number (NIN) from the networks, and the possibility of withdrawal of operating licenses of Network Operators.

The Directive

At a meeting of key stakeholders in the communications industry including the Chief Executive Officers ("CEOs") and Management of the Nigerian Communications Commission ("NCC"), the National Information Technology Development Agency ("NITDA"), the National Identity Management Commission ("NIMC") etc., the following decisions were taken for immediate implementation by all Network Operators:

1.Affirmation of the earlier directive to totally suspend registration of NEW SIMs by all operators.

2.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 (December 16, 2020 - December 30, 2020).

1.After the deadline, ALL SIMs without NINs are to be blocked from the networks.

2.A Ministerial Task Force comprising the Minister and all the CEOs (among others) as members is to monitor compliance by all networks.

3.Violations of this directive will be met by stiff sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating licence.

This caused no small stir among millions of Nigerians who bemoaned the insensitivity, as well as impracticability of a directive with such a short implementation period. In light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, others expressed concern over the dangerous health implications of massive public gatherings, such as would occur with teeming numbers struggling to either get registered with the NIN, or to link their SIMS with their NIN, aforesaid.

Mandatory SIM Registration

Mandatory SIM registration is a policy requiring users to provide personal information such as their names, national identification numbers, addresses and proof of identity credentials to register for or activate a prepaid SIM card. As a standard practice, existing users who fail to register their SIM cards within a government-mandated period face network disconnection, resulting in loss of access to mobile services. In some circumstances, governments require Mobile Network Operators ("MNOs") to capture a photograph, fingerprints, and other biometric attributes of users to complete SIM registration.

As of March 2020, over 150 countries in the world including Algeria, Angola, Brazil, Cameroon, Chad, China, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, Togo, etc., had mandatory SIM card registration laws. Some countries took the extra steps of enacting mandatory biometric SIM registration laws. These countries include Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Zambia, etc. It is noteworthy that countries including Andorra, Bahamas, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cabo Verde, Canada, Colombia, Comoros, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Kiribati, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Micronesia, Moldova, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States of America, do not have mandatory SIM card registration laws.

In November 2015, Zimbabwe's largest mobile service provider disconnected at least one million SIM cards, because they were unregistered. The Nigerian government has decided to take the same steps, in respect of mobile phone users unable to sync their NIN with their mobile numbers within the two-week deadline given. This will certainly be detrimental to interpersonal relationships, businesses and the general wellbeing of many in the populace.

Problems Associated With the Implementation of the New SIM Registration Rules

Nigeria is a country with a population of over 206 million inhabitants, having over 200 million active mobile phone lines. Only 41.5 million persons, less than a quarter, have registered for identity cards.

SIM registration in Nigeria began in April 2010, after the NCC ordered mobile network subscribers to provide personal information and submit biometric scans as a precondition for registration of SIM cards. Although it has continued over the years, this sudden regulation, according to NCC, is until the completion of an assessment of users to comply with proper data regulations.

In August 2020, the government mentioned that the focus of the NIMC had shifted from the production of plastic national identity cards to digital cards. Here, the identity of registered persons will be attached to their database, and can be accessed wherever they are. As relieving as this sounds, the problems associated with it abound, as it still does not take away the tormenting process of registration when people go to NIMC centres to have their information manually imputed into a computer.

A directive which compels citizens to get their NINs and sync with their mobile numbers, will probably occasion hardship to the citizenry. Getting a NIN in a country with this population is ordinarily a daunting task, particularly because the registration process requires the physical presence of the citizen at the NIMC Centres. Besides, the process is time-consuming. It follows that obtaining an NIN within a two-week timeframe is bound to be herculean, and most probably, impossible for every Nigerian mobile phone user.

And disruptively, citizens who lose their lines during this period will not be able to retrieve them until the ban on the suspension of registration of new SIM cards is lifted.

Covid-19

Another problem is the massive influx of people sure to flood the NIMC and SIM registration centres, increasing the risk of the spread of the Covid-19 virus. For a country battling its second wave of the deadly virus without any vaccine in sight, this is dangerous. Although, to facilitate the process and address the health risk, the MNOs have implemented some online alternatives such as the use of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) codes to link the NIN with mobile telephone numbers, it suffices to say that these alternatives may not be sufficient, due to the limited period for compliance and the limited scope of the electronic alternatives.

Furthermore, as a regulator, the NCC has chosen to put themselves up for public criticism, by threatening to block millions of mobile users from having access to the internet. Although they have agreed to this, network providers will suffer financial loss and the Commission will lose in tax returns.

Privacy Concerns

The mandatory SIM card registration has sparked privacy concerns amongst many citizens, and speculations abound that it may undermine the ability of citizens to communicate anonymously and associate with others, thus, infringing upon rights to privacy, freedom of association and freedom of expression. Another fear is that these rules, through the instrument of the Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations 2019, may make it easier for law enforcement authorities to track and monitor people, creating an avenue for threatening vulnerable or activist persons or groups, and facilitating generalised surveillance. Already the Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations 2019 empowers authorised agencies including the Office of the National Security Adviser and the State Security Services, to intercept any communication, where the interception relates to the use of a communications service provided by a licensee to persons in Nigeria, or to the use of a communications service provided by a licensee to a person outside Nigeria.

Foreigners, Visitors, Refugees and the Forcibly Displaced

Many refugees immigrate to Nigeria yearly. In 2019 only, Nigeria hosted over 51,700 Cameroonian refugees (of which over 14,800 arrived in 2019, an increase of 35% compared to 2018). Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory, in accordance with the legislation of the State and International Conventions. Refugees are entitled to rights which should be protected as basic human rights, which rights include non-refoulement, freedom of movement, right to moveable and immoveable property as foreign nationals. A significant barrier for forcibly displaced persons and all visitors to Nigeria, would be their inability to meet the proof of identity requirements to legally register a mobile SIM card, or to open a mobile money account in their own name. Would foreigners be required to produce the national identity documentation of their countries, or will their international passport be sufficient to get issued with a SIM Card in Nigeria? It does appear that the government has not averted its mind sufficiently, to the challenges that the ongoing linkage of national ID with the SIM card will have on people in this category.

Conclusion

In 2012, the European Commission directed that EU States provide evidence of actual or potential benefits from mandatory SIM card registration measures and, after examining the responses it received, concluded there was no benefit either to assisting criminal investigations, or to the common market to having a single EU approach.

Whilst improvement of the integrity and transparency of the SIM registration process, building a widespread digital identity database, and improvement of national security could be cited as possible reasons for Nigeria's mandatory registration rules, the Nigerian government has failed to provide these reasons, or indeed, any justifiable reason at all, for the mandatory registration of SIM cards within such a short time frame. The directive issued by the government would seem to reflect lack of proper coordination amongst governmental agencies, unnecessary duplication of efforts and wastage of limited resources.

It is a trite rule of legal jurisprudence, that a law or legal directive must be reasonable, just and universally acceptable by the inhabitants of that society. A law must also not occasion any form of mischief, or cause untold hardship on the populace.

The NCC's new directive when considered under this jurisprudential microscope, seems impracticable and unreasonable. It seems to be lacking in empathy and consideration; and seems to be the opposite of what good law should portray. It is thus, proposed on the one hand that the directive for linkage of SIM cards with the NIN be discarded upon the premises of potential infringement upon rights to privacy, freedom of association and freedom of expression. But, if it must be sustained, citizens must be given a minimum of six months to comply with constant reminders on social, electronic and print media platforms.

Ikeazor Akaraiwe is a former 1st Vice-President, Nigerian Bar Association

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