Why Nigeria and other African countries are blocking cellphones | Fin24 — News24

This week, Nige­ria blocked mil­lions of its cit­i­zens — who haven’t linked their lines to their ID num­bers — from mak­ing phone calls.Other gov­ern­ment also want cit­i­zens to reg­is­ter their phones.But there’s a dis­trust by res­i­dents to hand over their details to the government.This Mon­day, mil­lions of Nige­ri­ans woke up to find that they
had been barred from mak­ing phone calls. The num­ber of dis­con­nect­ed lines is
report­ed to be as many as 75 mil­lion, more than a third of the total 198
mil­lion lines nationwide.But the move has been a long time coming.In Decem­ber 2020, Abu­ja issued a direc­tive for all SIM card
car­ri­ers to link their lines to a unique Nation­al Iden­ti­ty Num­ber, cit­ing a
need to tack­le the plagu­ing inse­cu­ri­ty in the country.That dead­line was post­poned numer­ous times but last week’s
attack on a train by armed groups was a wake-up call. When reports started
sur­fac­ing online that the attack­ers had start­ed call­ing fam­i­lies of abducted
pas­sen­gers for ran­som, the gov­ern­ment swung into action, ful­fill­ing its almost two-year-old
promise to cut off non-com­pli­ant citizens.On social net­works, many – espe­cial­ly south­ern­ers – are
debat­ing the con­nec­tion between SIM card link­age with the nation­al identity
num­ber and the actions of these groups, known local­ly as ban­dits, whose axes of
focus are swaths of the north­west and cen­tral Nigeria.In 2015, the Niger­ian gov­ern­ment fined MTN,
one of the continent’s biggest tele­com play­ers, US$5.2bn for default­ing in
cut­ting off unver­i­fied customers.The Nation­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (NCC) had previously
instruct­ed the tele­com giant to deac­ti­vate between 10 and 18.6 million
lines. But gov­ern­ment swung into action after the high-pro­file kid­nap of a
for­mer Niger­ian finance min­is­ter; police say the kid­nap­pers used MTN lines to
con­tact his fam­i­ly members.ALSO READ | MTN must ver­i­fy users in Nige­ria by
year end or face blocked SIM card­sAcross the con­ti­nent, there is a length­en­ing line of
gov­ern­ments embark­ing on a mass dis­con­nec­tion dri­ve cit­ing, among oth­er things,
domes­tic secu­ri­ty. In March, Zam­bia announced it had deac­ti­vat­ed two million
SIMs cards to stem the vol­ume of fraud car­ried out using mobile lines.Kenyan media have also report­ed an April 15 dead­line 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, it switched
off more than two mil­lion SIM cards after an attck by the armed group
al-Shabab.Last year, Tan­za­nia said it had blocked 18,000 SIM cards
involved in crim­i­nal activ­i­ties. In a bid to also cur­tail mobile scams, Ghana
issued a direc­tive for every SIM card car­ri­er to re-reg­is­ter their SIMs with
the Ghana Card, the nation­al res­i­den­cy card, or lose them.In far­away Hong Kong, a pro­pos­al from last year to
impose new restric­tions on phone line reg­is­tra­tions was approved this March.What are the issues?With Africa hav­ing a 44% mobile pen­e­tra­tion rate, SIM cards
are one of the most ubiq­ui­tous tech­nolo­gies around.At least 50 of Africa’s 54 coun­tries have manda­to­ry SIM
reg­is­tra­tion laws in place, but most have bare­ly been enforced – until now.
Reg­is­tra­tion usu­al­ly involves the sub­mis­sion of per­son­al data and the capture
of cit­i­zen biometrics.The ratio­nale is that this reg­is­tra­tion will help cre­ate a
vast data­base to help track crim­i­nal activ­i­ty. Offi­cials say SIMs, accessible
even on the streets for some­times as low as US$1 (~R14), are fre­quent­ly bought
and dis­card­ed by sus­pect­ed crim­i­nals, with­out any – or not enough – details of
their per­son­al iden­ti­ty to trace 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, Cameroon­ian tech entre­pre­neur and founder of App­sTech told Al
Jazeera. “It is rather nor­mal that the gov­ern­ment should require those who
are using cell ser­vices [to] reg­is­ter with the oper­a­tors and the
telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies should know who is con­nect­ed to their
services.“YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE| OPINION | Yes, the reg­u­la­tor wants
mobile oper­a­tors like Voda­com and MTN to store your bio­met­ric­sOn the sur­face, this sounds like a quick and cheap solution
for many gov­ern­ments in a con­ti­nent where most coun­tries have no unified
oper­a­tional nation­al database.But mul­ti­ple SIM own­er­ship is preva­lent across Africa for
many rea­sons includ­ing vary­ing data prices, con­nec­tiv­i­ty speeds and signal
strength. In 2018, four African coun­tries were among the top 10 glob­al­ly, with
dual or mul­ti-SIM mobile phones. Kenya even once had plans to insti­tute an
own­er­ship cap of 10 SIM cards per per­son. Tele­com oper­a­tors also often tailor
reg­is­tra­tion process­es in order to sell more pre­paid SIM cards.Experts say the out­come is that the data gleaned from SIM
reg­is­tra­tions are not as accu­rate or neat as they ought to be.“The ID sys­tems [in Africa] are not real­ly backed by
tech­nol­o­gy, there are no link­ages, so there is no ver­i­fi­ca­tion process,”
Enon­chong said. “If the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies them­selves don’t
enforce that, it is real­ly very hard for the gov­ern­ment to make use of the
data.“How did we get here?At the root of it all is a mass unwill­ing­ness to register
SIM cards due to a seem­ing lack of dis­trust by res­i­dents to hand over their
details to the government.Unsurprisingly, there are con­cerns about data pri­va­cy and
the ines­timable capac­i­ty of gov­ern­ment to use data col­lect­ed for one purpose
for anoth­er, giv­en the his­tor­i­cal intol­er­ance for dis­sent in some of these
countries.There is also a legal void around gov­ern­ment han­dling of
data.A 2021 report by Col­lab­o­ra­tion on Inter­na­tion­al ICT Policy
for East and South­ern Africa (CIPESA), claimed that only half of African
coun­tries have adopt­ed 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
its eco­nom­ic pow­er­house, has insti­tut­ed mul­ti­ple manda­to­ry identity
reg­is­tra­tion schemes, includ­ing Bank Ver­i­fi­ca­tion Num­ber (BVN) and National
Iden­ti­ty Num­ber (NIN), along­side more wide­spread IDs like vot­ers’ cards,
inter­na­tion­al pass­ports and others.Yet, the gov­ern­ment is insist­ing that the way for­ward is for
every SIM card to be linked with an NIN, a pol­i­cy that many Nige­ri­ans say will
be just as cum­ber­some and bureau­crat­ic as its pre­de­ces­sors – and pos­si­bly end
up achiev­ing noth­ing too.“This is a trend of pol­i­cy lazi­ness,” Gbenga
Sesan, head of Lagos-based dig­i­tal rights advo­ca­cy non­prof­it Par­a­digm Initiative,
told Al Jazeera. “The prob­lem does not lie with the lack of a central
data­base; it is about impuni­ty. If I know that if I com­mit a crime and I know I
would be pun­ished for it, then I will like­ly think about it twice.“In Kenya, cit­i­zens are also com­plain­ing about the redundancy
of mul­ti­ple reg­is­tra­tions. The new reg­is­tra­tion war­rants the sub­mis­sion of the
phone num­ber, copy of pass­port or visa and bio­da­ta page, exit stamps and
scanned ID – items they claim to have sub­mit­ted dur­ing the last exer­cise in 2018.The big­ger fear, how­ev­er, is of gov­ern­ment surveillance
under the guise of nation­al secu­ri­ty, lead­ing to a wide­spread reluc­tance to
will­ing­ly sub­mit per­son­al data which can be used to mon­i­tor their everyday
activities.“The issue of data pri­va­cy tran­scends Africa,” Ken
Ashig­bey, the CEO of Ghana Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Cham­ber, not­ed. “The concern
about Big Broth­er sit­ting some­where and using your data to spy on you is always
going to be there, [and] when you bring it into the exam­ples of Africa where
our gov­ern­ments all seem to have total pow­er, def­i­nite­ly there are risks,”
he said.The risks also extend to small and medi­um-scale enterprises
(SMEs) in a dig­i­tal era where SIMs and the world of pos­si­bil­i­ties on the
inter­net are help­ing empow­er many in the absence of social wel­fare schemes.Already, SMEs account for 84% of employ­ment and make up 96%
of busi­ness­es in Nige­ria. Shut­ting mil­lions of peo­ple out of seamless
com­mu­ni­ca­tion could adverse­ly affect the econ­o­my, Sesan warned.“What we are going to lose is rough­ly one-third or
about 35% of con­nect­ed lines that we have [and] there will be major economic
con­se­quences [but] there will be no gain in terms of secu­ri­ty,” he said. Go to the Fin24 front page.Go to the Fin24 front page.