Lagos, Nigeria – On Monday, millions of Nigerians woke up to find they had been banned from making phone calls. The number of disconnected lines would be 75 million, more than a third of the total of 198 million lines nationwide.
But the move was a long time coming.
In December 2020, Abuja issued a directive for all SIM cardholders to link their lines to a single national identity number, citing the need to address the insecurity plaguing the country.
This deadline has been postponed several times, but last week’s attack on a train by armed groups was a wake-up call. When reports began to surface online that the attackers had begun calling families of abducted passengers for ransom, the government sprang into action, fulfilling its nearly two-year promise to cut off non-compliant citizens. .
On social media, many – especially southerners – debate the link between the link between the SIM card and the national identity number and the actions of these groups, known locally as bandits, whose axes of concentration are parts of northwestern and central Nigeria.
In 2015, the Nigerian government fined MTN, one of the continent’s biggest telecommunications players, $5.2 billion for failing to cut off unverified customers. The National Communications Commission (NCC) had previously ordered the telecom giant to disable between 10 and 18.6 million lines. But the government swung into action after the high-profile kidnapping of a former Nigerian finance minister; police say the kidnappers used MTN lines to contact his family members.
Across the continent, there is a growing line of governments embarking on a massive disconnect campaign citing, among other things, homeland security. In March, Zambia announced that it had deactivated two million SIM cards to stem the volume of fraud carried out using mobile lines.
Kenyan media also reported an April 15 deadline set by authorities in the East African country for the deactivation of unregistered SIM cards – the third such deadline in the past 10 years. In 2013, he deactivated more than two million SIM cards after an attack by the armed group al-Shabab.
Last year, Tanzania said it blocked 18,000 SIM cards involved in criminal activities. In an effort to reduce mobile scams as well, Ghana has issued a directive for every SIM card holder to re-register their SIM cards with the Ghana Card, the national residence card, or lose them.
In faraway Hong Kong, a proposal from last year to impose new restrictions on phone line recordings was approved in March.
What are the problems ?
With Africa having a mobile phone penetration rate of 44%, SIM cards are one of the most widespread technologies.
At least 50 of Africa’s 54 countries have mandatory SIM card registration laws in place, but most have barely been enforced – so far. Registration usually involves the submission of personal data and the capture of citizens’ biometric data.
The reasoning is that this registration will help create a large database to help track criminal activity. Officials say SIM cards, accessible even on the street for sometimes as little as $1, are frequently bought and thrown away by suspected criminals, with none – or not enough – details of their personal identity to track and monitor them. .
“Since 9/11, in many countries, if you want to get a SIM card, you have to show some. [form of] identification,” Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian tech entrepreneur and founder of AppsTech told Al Jazeera. “It is rather normal for the government to require those who use cellular services [to] register with operators and telecommunications companies need to know who is connected to their services.
At first glance, this looks like a quick and cheap solution for many governments on a continent where most countries do not have a unified operational national database.
But multiple SIM card ownership is prevalent in Africa for many reasons, including varying data prices, connectivity 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 had even once planned to institute a limit of possession of 10 SIM cards per person. Telecom operators also often adapt registration processes in order to sell more prepaid SIM cards.
Experts say the result is that data gleaned from SIM records isn’t as accurate or crisp as it should be.
“Identification systems [in Africa] are not really backed by technology, there are no links, so there is no verification process,” Enonchong said. “If the telecom companies themselves don’t enforce it, it’s really, really hard for the government to use the data.”
How did we come here?
At the root of all this is a massive reluctance to register SIM cards due to an apparent lack of distrust among residents to hand over their details to the government.
Unsurprisingly, there are concerns about data privacy and the government’s invaluable ability to use data collected for one purpose for another, given the historic intolerance of dissent in some of these countries.
There is also a legal vacuum around the management of data by the government.
A 2021 report by Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), claimed that only half of African countries have passed laws to protect personal data.
Repeated registration exercises have also weakened the will of the people, experts say.
Over the years, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and economic powerhouse, has instituted several mandatory identity registration systems, including Bank Verification Number (BVN) and National Identity Number. (NIN), as well as more common identification documents such as voter cards, international passports and others.
Yet the government insists the way forward is for every SIM card to be linked to a NIN, a policy which many Nigerians say will be just as cumbersome and bureaucratic as its predecessors – and may end up not do nothing either.
“It’s a trend of political laziness,” Gbenga Sesan, head of Paradigm Initiative, a Lagos-based digital rights nonprofit, told Al Jazeera. “The problem is not the lack of a central database; it is a question of impunity. If I know that if I commit a crime and I know that I will be punished for it, then I will probably think twice about it.
In Kenya, citizens also complain about the redundancy of multiple registrations. New registration ensures submission of phone number, copy of passport or visa and biographical data page, exit stamps and scanned ID – items they claim to have submitted during the last exercise in 2018.
The biggest fear, however, is that of government surveillance under the guise of national security, leading to widespread reluctance to voluntarily submit personal data that can be used to monitor their day-to-day activities.
“The issue of data privacy transcends Africa,” noted Ken Ashigbey, CEO of the Ghana Telecommunications Chamber. “The worry that Big Brother is sitting somewhere and using your data to spy on you will always be there, [and] when you bring it into the examples of Africa where our governments all seem to have total power, there are certainly risks,” he said.
The risks also extend to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the digital age where SIM cards and the world of internet possibilities are helping to empower many people in the absence of social protection schemes.
Already, SMEs account for 84% of employment and account for 96% of businesses in Nigeria. Preventing millions of people from communicating without interruption could hurt the economy, Sesan warned.
“What we are going to lose is about a third or about 35% of the lines connected that we have [and] there will be major economic consequences [but] there will be no safety gains,” he said.