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Insecurity: Weighing implications of telcos’ shutdown

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), last week, ordered network operators in the country to shut down all their sites in Zamfara State, in what came as a last resort in tackling the rising insecurity in the state. While stakeholders have expressed divergent views on the issue, the implications of this unprecedented action could be far-reaching. SAMSON AKINTARO reports

The telecommunications regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), on Friday, September 3, 2021, ordered telecommunications operators to shut down their base stations in Zamfara State for two weeks. But not only that, the operators were also told to shut down any facility from neighbouring states that may extend service to Zamfara. While the operators have since complied, some stakeholders believe this drastic measure is necessary to arrest the unending insecurity in a state that has become the hotbed of banditry and kidnapping. According to them, this will destabilise the bandits and break their communication chain.

However, for some, the resort to network shutdown calls to question the need for the much-touted compulsory NIN-SIM linkage exercise, over which the telecom operators were barred from selling new SIM cards for four months and many Nigerians subjected to the harrowing experience of registering for the NIN amidst COVID-19 fear. While they observed that action would compound the woes of lawabiding residents of the state, they are also doubtful that the government’s measure in this regard could yield any positive result. NCC’s directive In a letter dated September 3, 2021 and addressed to the chief executive officers of the telecoms companies, NCC had directed all telecom operators in the country to shut down their sites in Zamfara. The decision, as stated in the letter, was “to enable relevant security agencies to carry out required activities towards addressing the security challenges in the state.”

The letter titled: “Re: Shutdown of All Telecom Sites in Zamfara State” was signed by the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta. “The pervading security situation in Zamfara State has necessitated an immediate shut down of all telecom services in the state from today, September 3, 2021,” the letter read in part. In line with this requirement, NCC directed the operators “to shut down all sites in Zamfara State and any site(s) in neighbouring states that could provide telecommunications service in Zamfara State.

The site shutdown is for two (2) weeks (September 03-17, 2021) in the first instance. Your urgent action in this regard is required,” the letter read. While the directive was specific about Zamfara State, the reference to any other facilities in any site(s) in neighbouring states that could provide telecommunications service in Zamfara State, means that other states sharing boundaries with the state would be affected by the shutdown. Zamfara govt’s role Before the telecoms shutdown measure, the Governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle, had announced the closure of all weekly markets in the state as part of practical measures to address the worsening security situation in the enclave. That, however, did not achieve the expected results, leading to more measures.

The governor, in a letter requesting the shutdown of telecoms service dated August 31, 2021, and titled: ‘Temporary Shutdown of GSM Networks’ had stated: “Following the escalation, the Zamfara State Security Council resolved that extra measures for public safety and strengthening the battle against banditry in the state should be taken. “Accordingly, a task force was set up to ensure the new measures are enforced. The council noted that one of the biggest hurdles to combating banditry is the issue of informers who use mobile networks to communicate with bandits about the movements of troops. “The bandits also take advantage of the availability of the networks to coordinate their attacks,” the governor said.

Implications According to the latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Zamfara State with a landmass of 15,352 square miles and a population of 4,353,533, has about 2,177,431 active voice telecoms subscribers and 1,592,746 active Internet subscribers. This means that over two million Nigerians have been cut off from telecommunications services, thus thrown into total darkness as a result of insecurity. According to industry stakeholders, this is also bound to shut down all economic activities in the state.

Corporate organisations and banks, as well as other internetenabled businesses will not be functioning in the state over the next two weeks. Telecoms stakeholders are more worried that shutting down service could be seen as a solution when the government had insisted that linking the NIN with SIM is an antidote to insecurity in the country. Industry sources, who spoke with our correspondents, lamented that the four-month suspension of new SIM registration has become a waste since the government could not use the SIM-NIN database to track bandits.

“If we say all Nigerians must link their SIM with NIN and over 60 million Nigerians were said to have done that as of July, why do we need to shut down telecom service because of insecurity? “This means that the whole exercise was just a waste of time,” one of the sources said. Another source added that the fact that telecoms service could be shut down in a whole state means that if the security situation in the country worsens across all states, networks would be shut down nationwide. According to the source, “when the minister of communications and digital economy insisted that all telecom subscribers must link their SIMs with the NIN, he said this would address the security situation.

“The question is why are they unable to track the calls by bandits and their informants in Zamfara State?” Security experts’ position Interestingly, security experts in the country are also having divergent views on the propriety of shutting down telecoms service in Zamfara. While some described it as a right step in the right direction, others disagreed with the government. Security management and intelligence specialist, Kabiru Adamu, noted that as much as he understood what the government was trying to achieve, it might not yield the desired result after all. Adamu stated: “We have seen other places where this was tried and it failed. One of the reasons is that some of these locations are border communities; thus it is easy to use lines that are from neighbouring countries.

“I doubt if the government has reached out to its counterparts in these countries to also ban the usage of their lines in the state and adjourning communities.” The security management and intelligence professional also stated that “there are satellite phones; these bandits have money. They can resort to using one. “Also, there are digital radios that can go as far as 100km and even more.

There are options for them to deploy to enable them to still communicate. The efficacy of this policy is in doubt.” According to him, in terms of the economic damage, this measure will have a great impact on businesses in the area. “Many businesses today run through telecommunications. We should not forget that it is not just voice communication; there are lots of platforms. It would affect the business ecosystem of the state,” Adamu submitted. According to the Managing Director of Agent-X Security Limited, Timothy Avele, the shutdown will further bring untold hardship to the people. He noted that there are better ways to block information leakages with technology.

“This is a bad decision. I do not see any benefit in such action; rather it would worsen the already bad situation on the ground. “If the Federal Government’s fear is that bandits have people who tip them off, then it simply means absolute failure of intelligence and counter- intelligence. There are better and simple ways to block such information leakages with technology.

“This is a simple problem that companies in Nigeria could solve within two weeks with less than N10 million,” he declared. In his comment on the development in Zamfara State, Commodore Abimbola Ayuba (rtd.) was quoted to have stated that more attention should be focused on information leakages, saying that the bandits have sophisticated equipment. Commodore Ayuba said: “There is a lot of infiltration into the fabrics of our governance system to the extent that information leakage has become common. This needs more attention; we should tackle this first.” He observed that some consumers depend on telecommunication services for their livelihoods, and this might cause them hardship. Ayuba added: “Also, these bandits don’t rely on this platform, they have sophisticated equipment.”

However, Mr Mike Ejiofor, a former Director of the Department of State Services (DSS) in Nigeria has described the Federal Government’s move in Zamfara as a welcome development. “If there is no conducive environment, the bandits could not do their business, and they must be stopped from moving and communicating with themselves and even victims,” Ejiofor said. He added that the action of the government would create a problem for them (bandits). “We should go beyond rhetoric in tackling insecurity in this country. To me, this move is intelligence-driven,” he said.

Last line Considering the huge economic implications of telecoms shutdown in Zamfara and its neghbouring states, it is hoped that government would arrest the worsening security situation in two weeks as planned and allow the telecom operators restore normal service.

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