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FG’s SIM Deactivation Order and Matters Arising

FG’s SIM Deactivation Order and Matters Arising

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The ongoing enforcement to deactivate SIMs not yet linked to NIN, as directed by the federal government on April 4, is creating untold hardship on telecoms subscribers, who hitherto submitted their NINs for linkage, but were not linked, writes Emma Okonji

Last week, telecoms subscribers woke up to experience difficulties in making outgoing calls from their mobile phones through their Subscriber Identification Modules  (SIMs) , which was a result of the directive given to telecoms operators to bar all  SIMs that were not linked to the National Identification Number (NIN).

Over 37 million subscribers were affected by the directive. They can only receive calls but cannot initiate calls from their barred SIMs. 

According to statistics obtained by THISDAY from the website of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator, Nigeria had a total of 198,127,431 active subscriber lines across the networks as of February this year, but the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ibrahim Pantami, who gave the order to deactivate all unlinked SIM cards, said before the order was given on April 4, 2022, a total of 125 million subscribers have had their NINs submitted for immediate linkage, verification, and authentication. 

Given the total number of 198 million active lines across networks and the 125 million subscribers that have submitted their NINs, it shows that over 73 million active lines have not been submitted for linkage, and they must have been affected by the federal government’s order.

However, given the understanding that a single subscriber has more than two lines registered to his/her name, THISDAY deduced that on average, about 37 million subscribers must have been affected by the order and can no longer make calls.

Some of the subscribers who spoke to THISDAY, however, said they complied with the federal government’s order to register, obtain NIN and link NIN to SIM, but that they were surprised that their SIMs were not linked, even after submitting their NIN.

Many of them blamed either the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) or the telecoms operators for failing to link their NINs to their SIMs, despite the 16 months window given by the federal government to complete the task.

Some subscribers who also blamed the entire registration process and the SIM-NIN linkage process, wondered why insecurity persists and why kidnappers still make a call to the family of their victims to negotiate for ransom. They argued that if all SIM cards on operators’ networks were duly registered and linked, it would be easy to trace and track kidnappers who still make use of mobile phones with SIMs to negotiate ransom from families of their victims. 

FG’s Order to Bar Unlinked SIM Cards 

The federal government last week, gave orders to telecoms operators to bar all outgoing calls from every SIM that is not linked to NIN of the SIM carrier.

Last week’s order to bar all unlinked SIM came 16 months after the federal government gave the first order to deactivate all SIM cards that were not registered and linked to NIN.

The government had in December 2020, directed the NCC to order telecoms operators to deactivate any SIM that was not duly registered and linked to subscribers’ NIN, after the initial December 31, 2020 deadline, given for NIN-SIM linkage.

Based on the inability of subscribers to meet up with the December 31, 2020 deadline, the federal government had to postpone the deadline and had since then, postponed it 10 times to date.

The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, who gave the recent order last week to bar outgoing calls from every unliked SIM, also ordered the NCC, the telecoms industry regulator, to direct all telecoms operators to begin deactivation of all unlinked SIM cards with immediate effect, insisting that all telecoms subscribers must comply with the NIN-SIM linkage policy of the federal government.

A statement issued by the federal government and jointly signed by the Director, Public Affairs at NCC, Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, and the Head, Corporate Communications, at NIMC, Mr. Kayode Adegoke, said: “President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the implementation of the Policy with effect from the 4th of April, 2022. Consequently, the federal government has directed all telcos to strictly enforce the policy on all SIMs issued (existing and new) in Nigeria. Outgoing calls will subsequently be barred for telephone lines that have not complied with the NIN-SIM linkage policy from the 4th  of April, 2022. Subscribers of such lines are hereby advised to link their SIMs to their NINs before the telcos can lift the restriction on their lines. Affected individuals are hereby advised to register for their NINs at designated centres and thereafter link the NINs to their SIMs through the channels provided by NIMC and the telcos, including the NIMC mobile app.”

Pantami however said enrolment for NIN would be a continuous exercise and that NIN would henceforth be a precondition for service in telcos, banks, Nigerian Immigration Service, and several other government services. He also encouraged Nigerians and legal residents to visit NIN registration centres for the enrollment and issuance of valid NINs.

Aftermath of FG’s Order

Following the directive given by the federal government to bar all unlinked SIM cards, telecoms operators did not delay a bit in carrying out the directive, which is currently causing pains, frustration, and untold hardship to over 37 million telecoms subscribers that suddenly became incommunicado because their lines have been barred from making outgoing calls and from sending and receiving Short Message Service (SMS), also known as text messages. 

The worrisome part is that some of the subscribers whose lines were barred, had hitherto registered for NIN and submitted the NIN to their network operators for verification and linkage, yet their lines were barred because the SIM was not linked by the network operators, unknown to the subscribers.

THISDAY received several complaints from subscribers whose lines were barred, even after submitting their NINs. One of the subscribers, who gave his name as Michael Ozioko, told THISDAY that he currently has three mobile lines, MTN, 9mobile, and Airtel and that he sent his NIN to each of the three network operators and received notification from all the operators that his NIN was received, but was under verification. He said he was surprised that only MTN barred his line, and was wondering why MTN should bar his line, even after receiving notification from it, acknowledging receipt of his NIN, long ago.

Another subscriber who identified herself as Stella Rotimi said she currently has two lines, MTN and Airtel, and that she submitted her NIN to both network operators using their various codes, and got notification from both operators that her NIN was received. She, however, said Airtel barred her line, even after she had submitted her NIN to the network long ago. 

Another telecoms subscriber who lamented about the situation said he tried to resend his NIN to his network operator after his Globacom line was barred, but discovered he could not complete the process, because he could not send a text message or receive a text message after his Globacom line was barred from making outgoing calls.

Responding to the myriad of questions from telecoms subscribers, emanating from barred SIM, the Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, told THISDAY that it was possible that the networks could not verify multiple SIMs belonging to a single subscriber, and as such failed to verify the NIN for linkage during the process. Adebayo however advised affected subscribers to resend their NIN to their network operators. 

According to Adebayo, “There is nowhere globally, that multiple SIMs are linked to a single NIN, without possible hitches. It is possible that the network could not verify some persons’ NIN and therefore could not link the NIN to their SIMs. Those affected should resubmit their NIN for verification and linkage. For those who can not resend their NIN because their SIMs have been barred from sending text messages, such subscribers will need to physically visit /her network operator, for fresh biometric and facial capture that will enable the operator to carry out fresh verification and NIN-SIM linkage,” Adebayo said. 

Some subscribers blamed operators’ networks and the NIMC server for their challenges in NIN-SIM linkage said telecoms operators may have weak network connectivity capacity, hence kidnappers still use unregistered SIM cards to negotiate ransom from the family of their victims, without any trace by security agents. They insisted that if all SIM cards were duly registered, kidnappers who use mobile phones with registered SIM cards would have been traced and apprehended with ease.

Adebayo however told THISDAY that there were no unregistered SIMs across operators’ networks. Adebayo, clarified while responding to questions raised by Nigerians who are worried that kidnappers who recently invaded the Abuja-Kaduna railway train and kidnapped several persons, still use the mobile phone with registered SIM cards to negotiate ransom from the families of their victims.

Adebayo told THISDAY that telecoms operators have the data of all registered SIM cards and that the owners could be traced alongside the geolocation of the mobile phone.

He, however, explained that it could be difficult to trace the kidnappers of the Abuja-Kaduna railway train attack who still use mobile phones with registered SIM cards to contact the families of their victims for ransom because the kidnappers now use the mobile phones of their victims to make the calls. 

“Telecoms operators can trace the geolocation of the phone, from where calls are made with the particular phone, and provide the information to security agents for prompt action,” Adebayo said.

“I need to make it clear to Nigerians that there are no known unregistered SIM cards that are still on the network of any telecoms service provider because all networks have been cleaned up and all unregistered and improperly registered SIM cards have been deactivated from the networks, during the registration and linkage of the NIN with the SIM, which ended on March 31, 2022. This was according to the orders given to telecoms operators, by the industry regulator, the NCC. So based on this, no SIM card is registered with the network of any telecoms service provider that cannot to traced to the user and owner,” Adebayo said.

Telcos’ Position 

Following the directive to ban all unlinked SIMs, Adebayo said: “We, The Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) can confirm that our members have received formal directives from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to bar out-going calls on subscriber lines that are not in compliance with the NIN-SIM linkage Policy requires that all Subscriber Identification Modules (SIMs) must be linked with a National Identification Number (NIN).”

He said the directive followed multiple extensions of the deadline, which have been granted by the federal government to allow subscribers to complete the NIN-SIM linkage. 

He explained that ALTON members remained committed and would comply with the instructions of the federal government to bar all unlinked SIMs. He, therefore, called on telecommunication subscribers who have not obtained and/or linked a NIN to their SIMs, to do so at any of the designated centres. 

“We remain committed to supporting the federal government of Nigeria and upholding the rights of citizens to communicate, to share information freely and responsibly, and to enjoy privacy and security regarding their data and their use of digital communications,” Adebayo said. 

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