Insight

FG’s Order on NIN: Agony of subscribers at registration outlets

President Muhammadu Buhari recently issued a directive through the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy to the National Communications Commission (NCC), to bar all unlinked SIMs from outward calls. This was about two years after giving directive for the integration of National Identification Number (NIN) to all individual data and/or voice subscriber. ADEYINKA ADENIJI looks at the implications for the about 70 million subscribers whose lines have been barred and their struggle to recover their lines.

Being part of his regime’s socioeconomic and security development policies, President Muhammadu Buhari, through the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy and the National Communications Commission (NCC), in February 2020, issued a directive kickstarting the integration of National Identification Number (NIN), to all individual data and/or voice Subscribers Identification Module (SIMs) cards across telecommunications platforms in the country. A voluntary civic exercise with an indefinite enrolment window, pre-inception, at the end of which non-compliant subscribers would be restricted from outbound telephone services until compliance with the presidential order.

FG explains reasons behind linkage

The Federal Government through the NCC and the National Management Commission Identity (NIMC), also explained that the NIN-SIM integration exercises had become inevitable to address the worsened security situation and the need to place the Nigerian economy in the mainstream along the path of prosperity.

It is expected that a central database emanating from the NIN-SIM linking protocol would bear positively on national security by enabling the security agents to keep tabs on the activities of violent criminals constituting authorities unto themselves all over the country. Equally believed is the fact that simple adherence to the founding virtues of the agency empowered by the law to administer the policy, NIMC, which emphasises transparency, promptness, integrity, excellence and professionalism, would deliver the much needed credible database, with the potentials to enhance government planning and service delivery in Nigeria. Consequently, the Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), on April 4, 2022, acknowledged and expressed their readiness to comply with a presidential order received through the NCC, directing them to bar all unlinked SIMs from outward calls.

In what has been catalogued in some quarters as mechanical compliance with a premature and untidy presidential directive, telecom service providers barred about 73 million non-compliant telephone subscribers from all outbound calls in one swoop. It therefore may not be out of place to describe the later-to-be-blocked SIM holders as recalcitrant and defiant; as the 11th and the final deadline for the barring of unintegrated/unlinked SIM cards, executed on April 4, 2022, two years after the commencement of the enrolment exercise unbelievably left such huge several SIMs barred from outwards calls. Nonetheless, despite what appears as government’s nicety and clemency before wielding the final straw, which minister Ali Patanmi would have described as the official sensitivity to anticipated inconveniences to subscribers and negative impacts on the nation’s economy, nonetheless with tens of millions of subscribers statute-barred from outward calls: the manner of issuance and enforcement of the presidential directive was adjudged below the acceptable standard by a crosssection of the public.

Industry watchers express worry

Industry watchers, practitioners, subscribers, et al, most of who warned against its maximum application have all expressed reservations about a blanket ban of unlinked SIMs when the process could have been incentivised to make SIM linkage attractive to subscribers in a persuasive manner and be left as continuous exercise. Others argue that the deadlines were needless as people will continue daily to acquire new SIM cards and register them with the need to link them up with their NINs. The blockage of the SIMs has no doubt impacted negatively on the profitability of telecommunication companies who have had patronage from their subscribers minimised due to the SIM-blocking order of the president. The operators alone declared a loss of almost a hundred billion naira within the first few days of the presidential order. And by a modest estimation, the economy may have lost close to a trillion naira to that directive in terms of aggregate companies’ sales income; factoring in other losses apart from the one suffered by the telecommunication companies in terms of airtime sales. The NIMC, with careful foresight, based on information at its disposal, as to the anticipated surge in several visitors, was presumed to have prepared commensurately in terms of traffic handling capacity of its portals, on which subscribers were expected to perfect enrolments and unbar their lines. A downtime in their server, during the first few days, indicates that the NCC / NIMC either engaged in a self-disillusioning over-rating of its handling capacity to handle the expected besiegement of the foreseen over 70 million visitors to their portals or underestimated the compliance tendencies of subscribers. They probably felt that Nigerians in their usual civil disobedience to rules and regulations might not turn up in their wounded millions for the exercise – irresponsible as it may sound. Expectedly, the population of restricted subscribers were thrown into a state of despair. The restrictions immediately brought negative impacts on them as well as the general economy.

NIN-SIM integration agents fleecing the people

Over 15,000 accredited registration outlets made brisk business, cashing in on subscribers’ desperation as they throng the centres for belated enrolment that may not have been entirely their fault. Varied sums charged as NIN registration fees from centre to centre suggest that the charges may be unofficial, but desperate Nigerians cared less. All they want is for the restrictions to be lifted and their phone lines restored. Yet, as Nigerians groan under the fleecing pressure of unscrupulous enrolment agents, their problems are not lessened, rather it becomes compounded. Whereas, linking their SIMs to their NIN is the least of the tasks for an average phone user, particularly the dominant youthful population, who in the face of a massive dearth of jobs in the land have lived on e-commerce activities by leveraging on social media platforms, for which they rely on the narrowband internet services provided on the SIM cards. But the need for a NIN, the perfection of which lies solely in the court of the coordinating NIMC, without the requisite capacity to meet up in its constitutional responsibility has compounded their problems. The commission announced the assignment of over 15,000 outlets to serve as catchment areas for NIN seekers, in addition to telecommunication operator outlets, coopted nationwide to ease up the dilemmas faced by intending registrants. But preposterously, those saddled with the responsibility of easing the stress – the accredited enrolment centres – are cashing in on NIMC’s planning failure to defraud members of the public. Regardless of the various declaration by the NIMC at every opportunity, that the NIN enrolment is free and that each line of modification is N500 except for the date of birth, which according to the commission is fixed at N15,000 (and in the absence of any rationale behind the bogus amount), these centres are constituting the greatest impediments to the success of the all-important policy of the President Buhari regime. However, the NIMC has grabbed every opportunity to drum it high anywhere anytime, that “Enrolment is free” and that the commission instantly verifies and authenticates the NIN. Typical of the commission, in its response to a WhatsApp enquiry by New Telegraph during the week, Kayode Adegoke,

Head, Corporate Communications, NIMC, reiterated that the commission’s standing rules, which state that both NIN and validation or verification, (however the enrolment centres present it) is free. He also gave procedures for reporting extortion by the criminal agents. According to him: “Extortion to be reported to ACTU lines 08157691214; 09134959433; or actu@nimc.gov.ng, clarifying that “all modification is 500 Naira per field, except DOB which attracts N15,000. Enrollment is is FREE!!!”, he stressed. But, NIMC’s appointed defrauding agents seem unperturbed by the possibility of sanction by NIMC – just in case they are reported and have sustained the gouging of the common man nationwide, unchecked and with impunity.

Olalere Adeyemi, one of the affected subscribers who live in Imo State narrated his predicament to New Telegraph. Having enrolled in December 2021, the Osun State indigene in his 50s had to start the process all over again when he returned to Lagos in April after his lines were blocked from outbound calls. In his words; “I have spent over thirty thousand Naira on this NIN-SIM thing, I registered for NIN with two thousand Naira when I came to Lagos on December 12 last year, they told me to check back in one week for my NIN and gave me a tracking ID.

But unfortunately, I returned to the East before the collection date they gave me and handed the tracking ID to my brother to help pick it up from them, but they declined him. “When my lines were barred in April, I quickly left my work and returned to Lagos with confidence I would just pick up the NIN, perform the required linkages and have my line unbarred.

“But alas! There was no NIN for me. The people made a mistake in my name. I had to pay another 2000 for express modification because I don’t have the time to wait for another week, even when it wasn’t my mistake. “After a week in Lagos, I received a call that it was ready. I tried to link up my SIM, following all the channels provided to no avail. “After several attempts across the channels with no success, including the NIMC APP, I returned to the centre, but again left the place in anger. The lady asked me to bring another N2,000. She said it’s for validation, that the NIMC had not validated my registration. “Meanwhile, as I was trying to link my SIM, I stumbled upon the NIMC portal where they said verification is free. So I became confused between ‘verification’ and ‘validation’. I think the latter was devised by these NIMC agents to defraud the public.

“At that point, I was left with about N8,000 and I didn’t want to risk my transport fare back. I left for Imo State to source the money and validate the thing through any of the outlets there. “The Imo people were charging higher. I ended up paying N4,000. After paying, I began to link on my phone using the SMS system. “To my amazement, I got a congratulatory message that my linking is successful and that I would receive a message in due course. I have since waited for the message for almost a month now and still waiting because my two lines remain restricted.” Adeyemi’s story is one out of millions of frustrated subscribers.

It also highlights in a line, the various avenues through which enrolment centres illegally extort the already frustrated blocked SIM owners. First, it underscores a contrary position from the proclamation of NIMC, that enrolment is free; just like police authorities who boldly advertise bail for free in their various formations, Nigerians complain of rising bail prices for the different categories of offences and the non-offences alike. Adeyemi’s story also reveals that there is nothing instantaneous in all the processes from the NIN enrolment through verification or authentication to the SIM linkages as stated on the NIMC website. Another thing to be noted in the scenario is the massive nationwide scale of corruption among these outlets, where subscribers are arm-twisted at every recourse, including those intentionally constituted by them (the centres) and others occasions by ill-preparedness of the commission.

ALTON rise in defense of enrolment agencies/centres

But as revealed by the Head of Operations, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbolahan Awonuga, not all enrolment agencies/centres engage in the evil of defrauding an already tormented populace. According to him, the evil act is perpetrated only by the independent centres selected by NIMC, and not the “Super Agents” – the telcos co-opted by the commission to ease the difficulty in the NIN/ SIM integration policy. In a chat with New Telegraph during the week, the ALTON Head of Operations agreed, contrary to the “Enrolment is free” advertisement on the NIMC portal, that the telecom operators only charge for enrolment, swiftly explaining the justification for their collection of and ending it with a rhetorical question. “You know we are also paying NIMC as “super-agents”… where are we going to defray the costs? “We are also paying NIMC as a super agent. We are telcos, our business is to sell airtime.” Concerning the controversies of verification/ validation, which according to him informs the delay in subscribers’ ability to perfect the SIM-NIN linkages, Gbolahan says theirs’ is to capture the data for NIMC who does the verification exercise and in turn instruct them (the telco operators) to unbar the SIMs. “We have no business with identity management, we are just being called to assist, to provide more avenues for people to register, because we have the database and that has helped them. “So, we have done our part, we’ve enrolled, but before we can unbar, they have to verify and the verification is at the end of the NIMC, …so we have no power…we have always done our part.” Awonuga’s explanation gives rise to another point of concern. The availability of existing databases. In Nigeria, various agencies maintain databases of members of the public for several reasons. The telcos are not the only organisations with reliable databases that could be adopted and harmonised with the NIMC on behalf of the government to make life easier for the citizenry.

Any Hidden Agenda

Other FG agencies including the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) through the issuance of the national driver’s licence; the Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS), for international passports; commercial Banks for Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) as part of their Know Your Customer (KYC) policy; insurance schemes; the various state and federal service commissions e.t.c., all warehouse citizens information, including unique biometrics data which the NIMC could have seamlessly. The unexplained reckless jettisoning of existing resources, for a stress-prone, fraudinvested and confidence-eroding novel NIN / SIM policy has, however, raised suspicion in certain quarters that the commission or the government nurtures other undisclosed intentions for the policy, other than as stated at the inception of the exercise – which is to tackle insecurity and improve the economy.

Those who harbour this trajectory of a hidden agenda, regardless, have found ready ventilation for the embers of their suspicion in the unabated havoc by criminals. And to outrightly fault their line of reasoning as regards the NIN/ SIM policy, is to deny the reality of the Nigerian state as a country, economic and security-wise For a SIM registration that started about 2 years ago, with about 125 million of them linked to their NINs, coupled with an available database of every telephone line user with cooperative telco operators, Nigerians expect to have witnessed significant improvement in the security of their lives and properties, because, to them, a sincere collaboration between the NIMC and the telecommunications companies is believed would conveniently reveal the identities of telephone users; whether a kidnapper negotiating ransom, or fraudsters perpetrating their financial and economic crimes.

But the reverse is the case. Many Nigerians however believe that the country needs more than mere policy pronouncements without the required sincerity to muster the needed will and capacity to execute them. While commending the government for the efforts at tackling its hydra-headed problem of insecurity with the instrumentality of information technology (IT), Mr Oyegun Thomas, a Lagos based entrepreneur says that the country is not bereft of appropriate legislation to tackle her numerous problems, but opined that she needs the right leaders who can look the problems and their promoters in the face. “It is good to link the SIMs. It helps unveil the faces behind the voices.

The government has made a good choice in embracing infotech to solve the problem of insecurity. “This kidnapping is too much. The killing is too much and must stop.” Another subscriber who has had his share of the NIN / SIM integration palava, Okolie Chima, an Onitsha based artisan said he had linked his two lines, but decries the ‘enrolment is free’ proclamation by the NIMC. “Enrollment is a way of making extra bucks for some people in the system. I paid N5,000 for NIN in 2020. I paid N6,000 for my wife at Abule Egba, Lagos State the same year, it has never been free.” Another victim of the authorised NIN registration agent is Halimat Omolade Oyelade.

She registered for the national identity card in Agungi, Eti Osa Local Government, Lagos State and got her NIN stated instantly without stress, but not without paying the sum of N5,000 as the enrolment fee. She however was to return to the centre after six months for validation of her NIN. The bank had rejected her national identity card as an instrument in the process of opening a deceased administrator’s account.

They could not find any information attached to her name from the NIMC database which they had contacted for authentication. She eventually paid another N5,000 for the ‘validation’ at the very centre where she was enrolled for the identification card. Numerous are the harrowing experiences of Nigerians in at the independent NIN registration centres. In Ogbomoso, Oyo State, the situation remains the same as the issue of verification/ validation has hampered subscribers from lifting the restrictions on outgoing calls from their telephone lines.

A retiree in her 70s, Chief Mrs Adebunmi Adebisi, says she paid for validation since April 6, 2022, but her telephone line remains barred still owing to non-verification. Adebisi, a former government teacher, who now sells groceries in her frontage shop likens the NIN-SIM policy to the inland border closure. A step purportedly taken by the government to protect local production and encourage investment in rice farming, which eventually turned out to avail no significant improvement in production, but rather, inexplicably saw the prices of locally produced goods equaling their foreign counterparts and loss of revenue in terms of customs duty earnings.

She thinks that the ongoing SIM-NIN integration has become of no effect, because, according to her, “no single kidnapper has been arrested” through telephone line tracking” To make any significant progress in the fight against insecurity, the government must be up and doing and be ready to sincerely confront its problems by going after identified sponsors no matter how highly placed. Government agencies must work within their founding ideals and every stage of the work must be properly monitored to fish out dishonest staff, agents and partners who may jeopardise lofty processes and policies.

 

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