The issue on the front burner today is that of the registration of Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards. Let’s recall that while the telecom regulator the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, was tinkering with this idea about two years ago, the security agencies reportedly told the Commission that the nation can no longer wait.
This prompted the convening of the consultative forum in early 2008 where the Security and Intelligence agencies and major telephone operators reached a consensus with NCC for immediate registration of all existing and prospective SIM cards.
It is a fact that international terrorism, fraud, robbery and other crimes often involve extensive communications through text messages or voice calls.
The Madrid bomb was detonated using a SIM card. Back home in Nigeria, we are also witnessing increasing incidents of threats and frauds launched daily on our citizens using mobile phone platforms. The remarkable upsurge in violent crimes in Nigeria like kidnapping – with criminals demanding ransom mainly through mobile telephone calls have contributed to the reason why the Federal Government added its voice in calling for the registration of SIM cards.
It is therefore disheartening to read that the some members of the House of Representatives have sworn that they would not allow the Commission register SIM cards. The House had passed the NCC budget without SIM card registration sometime in July 2010, but the Senate lived up to its billing and passed the budget to allow the much expected registration to begin.
Yet, the latest tragicomedy arose after the relevant committees of both houses met and approved the budget with SIM card registration. While the Senate approved, the Reps still prevaricated.
It is hoped this latest episode does not give credence to rumours making the rounds in the industry that some GSM operators have been lobbying the lawmakers to reject NCC registration to allow them the long three years and more which they have proposed to accomplish the project.
For many reasons – policy makers, law makers, regulators, operators, security agents, stakeholders in the industry and informed segment of the general public are unanimous in their support for SIM card registration in the country with NCC driving the process. As a matter of fact, the attitude of the GSM operators over the SIM card registration initiative has been duplicitous and prevaricating.
Notwithstanding that every mobile phone operator and stakeholder had participated and agreed to all the modalities for the exercise established jointly with the NCC in various public forum on the SIM card registration initiative, the GSM operators have continued to use the media to pose diversionary questions about modalities to be adopted for the exercise. Network operators had been reported as saying that they would prefer to register their over seventy million subscribers themselves, rather than have the exercise conducted by external consultants as proposed by NCC.
According to some media reports, the leading networks have said the time frame proposed is unrealistic. They argued that in South Africa for instance, the operators were given between 18 and 24 months. This doom and gloom viewpoint was masterfully injected into the National Assembly.
The lawmakers forgot quickly that as far back as 2002, ECONET and MTN, both mobile companies, were registering SIM cards, but abandoned it at a point, citing low patronage from subscribers as excuse. During the public debate in the House on the budget of the NCC, the House had treated dismissively an important disclosure by Mr. Dave Salako - the chairman of House Committee on Communications, who informed members that the telecoms operators had expressed their inability to finance the SIM card registration exercise.
As a result, a compromise position was worked out whereby the telecom operators agreed with NCC to register fresh subscribers while the commission would register old and existing subscribers. We are told that this decision which arose after a public hearing conducted by the House Committee was submitted to the House on Plenary, and was not opposed then, ostensibly because the lobbyists have not arrived at the national Assembly at that time.
Our law makers should note that even if the mobile phone operators are mandated to take on the entire burden of carrying out the SIM card registration exercise, they will ultimately pass on the cost to the subscribers in form high tariff and charges – granted there is no free lunch anywhere in the world.
Asking the GSM operators to carry out the registration exercise perhaps tantamounts to Nigerian government abdicating its vital institutional role of being the sole custodian of security sensitive database and managing citizen identity information. That will be a very humiliating and damaging turn of event for the country as anybody could be blackmailed by private companies.
Another point to note is that the lawmakers who said that the amount budgeted for the project by NCC is too high, must have been playing on our collective intelligence because they are not unaware of the amount which was approved for INEC, which is targeting about same population size of 70 million and capturing the same basic personal information — visual and biometric as the SIM cards registration project. A media analysis even indicated that the amount approved for INEC is ten times above what the telecom regulator is asking for. But is anybody listening?
Lawmakers must not forget too quickly that the practical reason for desiring to create a database of SIM card subscribers is to provide a unified and seamless access of SIM data to such stakeholders as national security and law enforcement agencies — including the NPF, SSS, NSA, NIA, FRSC, NIS and NPS. Now if we allow each telecom operator to create a separate database for subscribers on its network, access to data by the security agencies will become impractical and far from seamless.
Should Nigerian law makers take the bait thrown up by the lobbyists, the SIM card registration exercise may never see the light of day.
The National Assembly thus should join hands with the NCC and put Nigeria above all other interests. The SIM card registration project may actually turn out to be the shortest linear path, as well as the most affordable approach to the creation of a National Identity Database, especially if we consider the level of involvement of National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) in structuring the currently debated SIM cards registration drive.
Dr. Idika Ochaa, a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and, Computer Registration Council of Nigeria, is a telecom expert based in Abuja.
By Idika Ochaa