Lagos, Nigeria On Monday, millions of Nigerians woke up to find they were barred from making phone calls. It is reported that the number of offline lines reaches 75 million, which is more than a third of the total 198 million lines nationwide.
But this move was a long time coming.
In December 2020, Abuja issued a directive to all SIM card holders to associate their lines with a unique national identification number, citing the need to address the prevailing insecurity in the country.
This deadline has been pushed back several times, but last week’s attack on a train by armed groups was a wake-up call. When reports began appearing online that attackers began calling the families of kidnapped passengers for ransom, the government moved to action, fulfilling its nearly two-year promise to cut out non-compliant citizens.
On social networks, many – especially southerners – are discussing the relationship between associating a SIM card with a national identity number and the actions of these groups, known locally as bandits, whose focus is on areas of northwestern and central Nigeria.
In 2015, the Nigerian government fined MTN, one of the continent’s largest telecommunications companies, $5.2 billion for defaulting on unverified customers. The National Communications Commission (NCC) had previously directed the telecom giant to deactivate between 10 and 18.6 million lines. But the government acted after a high-profile kidnapping of a former Nigerian finance minister. Police say the kidnappers used MTN lines to contact his family.
Across the continent, there is a drawn out series of governments embarking on a campaign of mass separation citing, among other things, local security. In March, Zambia announced that it had deactivated two million SIM cards to reduce the amount of mobile phone scams.
Kenyan media also reported that authorities in the East African country have set an April 15 deadline for deactivating unregistered SIM cards – the third such deadline in the past 10 years. In 2013, more than two million SIM cards were suspended after an attack by the armed group Al-Shabab.
Last year, Tanzania said it blocked 18,000 SIM cards involved in criminal activities. Also in an effort to curb mobile scams, Ghana has issued a directive to every SIM card carrier to re-register their SIM cards with a Ghana Card, National Resident Card, or lose it.
In remote Hong Kong, a proposal from last year to impose new restrictions on phone line registrations was approved in March.
What are the issues?
With a mobile penetration rate in Africa of 44 percent, SIM cards are one of the most ubiquitous technologies.
At least 50 out of 54 countries in Africa have mandatory SIM registration laws, but most of them have barely been enforced – until now. Registration usually includes providing personal data and capturing citizens’ biometrics.
The rationale is that this recording will help create a vast database to help track criminal activity. Officials say SIM cards, accessible even on the streets for sometimes a dollar, are frequently bought and disposed of by suspected criminals, without any — or insufficient — details of their personal identity to track and monitor.
“Since 9/11, in many countries, if you want to get a SIM, you have to show some [form of] Identification,” Rebecca Enunchong, a Cameroonian tech entrepreneur and founder of AppsTech told Al Jazeera. “It is normal for the government to require those who use cell phone services to [to] Register with operators and telecom companies must know who is calling their services.”
On the surface, this appears as a quick and cheap solution for many governments on a continent where most countries do not have a standardized national operational database.
But multi-SIM ownership is prevalent across Africa for many reasons including differing data prices, connection speeds, and signal strength. In 2018, four African countries were among the top 10 in the world, with dual or multi-SIM mobile phones. Kenya once even had plans to set a property limit of 10 SIM cards per person. Telecom operators often design registrations in order to sell more prepaid SIM cards.
The result, experts say, is that data from SIM card registrations is not as accurate or tidy as it should be.
Identity systems [in Africa] The technology doesn’t really support it, there’s no links, so there’s no validation.” “If the carriers themselves don’t enforce it, it’s very difficult for the government to take advantage of the data.”
How did we get here?
At the basis of it all is a collective unwillingness to register SIM cards due to the apparent lack of confidence of residents in handing over their details to the government.
Unsurprisingly, there are concerns about data privacy and the invaluable ability for a government to use data collected for one purpose for another, given the historical intolerance of the opposition in some of these countries.
There is also a legal vacuum around the government’s handling of data.
A 2021 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA) claimed that only half of African countries have adopted laws to protect personal data.
Experts say frequent registrations have weakened people’s will.
Over the years, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and economic powerhouse, has put in place multiple mandatory ID registration schemes, including Bank Verification Number (BVN) and National Identity Number (NIN), along with more prevalent identity cards such as voter cards and international passports. and others.
However, the government insists that the way forward is to link every SIM card to a NIN, a policy that many Nigerians say will be as cumbersome and bureaucratic as its predecessors – and may end up doing just about anything, too.
“This is a trend of laziness in politics,” Gibja Sesan, head of the Lagos-based non-profit digital rights advocacy initiative Paradigm, told Al Jazeera. The problem is not that there is no central database; It’s about impunity. If I knew that if I committed a crime and knew that I would be punished for it, I would probably think about it twice.”
In Kenya, citizens also complain about multiple duplication of registrations. The new registration ensures that they provide a phone number, a copy of a passport or visa, a biodata page, exit stamps and a scanned ID – items they claim to have sent during the last exercise in 2018.
However, the biggest fear is government surveillance under the guise of national security, which leads to widespread reluctance to willingly provide personal data that could be used to monitor their daily activities.
Ken Ashigbe, CEO of Ghana’s Chamber of Telecommunications, noted that “the issue of data privacy goes beyond Africa.” “The worry about Big Brother sitting somewhere and using your data to spy on you will always be there, [and] When you bring it up in the examples of Africa where all our governments seem to have complete power, there are certainly dangers.”
The risks also extend to small and medium businesses (SMEs) in the digital age where SIM cards and the world of online possibilities empower many in the absence of social welfare programmes.
Already, SMEs account for 84 percent of employment and constitute 96 percent of business in Nigeria. Sesan warned that isolating millions of people from seamless communication could negatively affect the economy.
“What we are going to lose is roughly a third or about 35 percent of the connected lines that we have.” [and] There will be significant economic consequences [but] “There will be no gain in terms of security,” he said.