Re: NCC should get tough on unregistered SIMs

By Sunday Akin Dare

The PUNCH Newspaper editorial opinion of November 13, 2017 was a passionate and interesting one. A careful reading of the editorial shows that it sought to make two points: First, that Nigeria is awash with “anonymous” “unregistered” and “pre-registered” SIM cards; and second, that the situation arose because the Nigerian Telecommunications Commission (sic) and some named security chiefs were both weak and compromised.

For proof of the NCC’s weakness, the editorial cited the fact that the commission chose to constitute a task force to look into the issue, rather than just impose sanctions on the operators. Curiously, the same editorial acknowledged that the NCC had imposed sanctions of almost N38m on these same operators less than one month ago! To be fair, issues concerning subscriber registration are critical to national security and should be taken seriously by all concerned stakeholders.

The PUNCH was therefore perfectly in order to call attention to what it considered to be avoidable lapses in the subscriber registration process. The problem however, is that the editorial relied on a weak appreciation of the issues discussed at the meeting it critiqued, leading to some rather unfair and damning conclusions.

For the records (and so that members of the public are not misled), it is important to provide a brief problem summary or background to the meeting. About seven years ago, the NCC mandated operators to only issue SIMs as one-way active, meaning that new SIMs cannot make/receive calls until after registration. As such, and contrary to the assertions made in the editorial, it is technically impossible to purchase any fully-activated “anonymous” or unregistered SIM in the open market in Nigeria.

The problem, however, is that unscrupulous persons were simply registering SIMs and selling them in the open market, giving rise to the term “pre-registered SIMs”.  It should be easy to trace these persons by simply calling up the registration details – except that the means of identification presented for such registrations are often forged or replicated, and they cannot be authenticated in real-time (or at all) as is the case with other countries with credible national citizens databases. Also, there is no law in Nigeria forbidding a person from registering more than one SIM in his/her name, and there is currently no law forbidding the legitimate transfer of registered SIMs.

Unscrupulous elements leverage these gaps, as well as the weaknesses in operators’ registration systems to register and offer SIMs for sale. Until the National Assembly addresses these gaps through legislation, and until the national citizens’ database becomes functional, the telecoms industry would continue to have to develop ingenious work-arounds, such as the directive to only register SIMs in “controlled environments”, to reverse registered SIMs not used within 48 hours, etc. It was in furtherance of this that the NCC called the meeting in question.

In its very first paragraph, the editorial upbraided the NCC for setting up a task force of industry, regulatory and security experts to deal with a clearly multi-faceted issue. But as any fair-minded person would appreciate, the complications of this situation require a comprehensive examination of the various facets of the problem, a review of the existing framework, as well as a comprehensive analysis of the human, systemic or other gaps involved.

Characterising this as a “troubling” “near-conciliatory attitude towards the service providers”, the editorial considers the NCC’s action variously as a demonstration of “why institutions don’t work well in Nigeria”, an admission of “weak enforcement”, and an indictment on “the complacency of the country’s security agencies”.

These conclusions demonstrate a rather superficial understanding of regulation and regulatory best practice. The fact that a regulator chooses to take a consultative approach to fulfilling its regulatory mandate is by no means an admission of weakness. Only an irresponsible regulator would simply impose “swift” sanctions without first seeking to understand the full dimensions of the problem it needs to solve. Sanctions are no silver bullets, and they cannot be the first option. Like applying iodine to peptic ulcer, you may inflict maximum pain, but you will not solve the underlying problem.

The Nigerian telecoms is the industry that has attained its globally acclaimed status as one of the fastest growing industries in the world on the sheer strength of consultative rule-making and aggressive enforcement where necessary. The NCC has been acknowledged and variously awarded throughout the world as a model regulator for this approach.

Ironically, it would appear that the Commission is now a victim of its own successes, leading to the rather simplistic conclusion that the so-called “epidemic of lawlessness” in the country can somehow be eliminated by the mere registration of all SIM cards! Crime (even those facilitated by mobile connections) has many dimensions, and as such requires more sophisticated handling than basic subscriber registration.

Regarding the alleged complicity of law enforcement and security agencies, one can only remonstrate that these agencies deserve more respect than demonstrated in the editorial. If for nothing else, the humongous sacrifices they have made in decisively tackling the insurgency in the North-East and growing levels of criminality around the country. The security agencies have also furnished the NCC with timely information that has led to joint successful raids and arrests across the country. This process is a continuum until we achieve near elimination of this menace.

Another point of interest is the basic premise of the editorial, that: “So many more unregistered and pre-registered SIM cards have been allowed to permeate the system” than the 5.2milllion for which the NCC sanctioned MTN the initial sum of $5.2 billion in 2015.

This is flatly untrue and cannot stand. Sadly, this allegation was made without any evidence whatsoever, and appears to be based on a superficial appreciation of the complexities of the situation discussed at the meeting the editorial criticised.

Hopefully, the above explanations put the matter in better perspective. One critical issue that the editorial failed to mention was the fact that the task force was given very clear and unequivocal timelines and Terms of Reference for its work.

These are to ensure that MNOs provide a robust and active  backend system for SIM registration  data validation; to stipulate IDs that are mandatory and process requirements for guarantors; to trace and identify the sources of pre-registered and fully activated SIM cards and advice management on proper measures to strengthen the integrity of the SIM card registration process; to review all pre 2015 Directions, Resolutions and other policy measures aimed at curbing the incidence of sale of pre-registered and fully activated SIM cards in the market so as to strengthen useful ones and eliminate those that have outlived their usefulness; to develop proactive and preventive measures based in technology or otherwise that will curtail the menace; to develop immediate methods to scrutinise the current database of all operators and ensure the removal of all data that are not in consonance with the SIM registration database; to study the registration process of all operators and look at the workability of a uniform registration process across the industry based on a more acceptable software that appropriately implements the specifications of the SIM Registration Regulations (Removal of Dirty Data); to recommend any other issue(s) that the Task Force may deem necessary to look into for the resolution of incidence of preregistered and fully activated SIM cards, and to subject all recommendations and solutions on the above issues to a timeline and a plan of action. Hardly a tea party!

In conclusion, the problem of gaps and abuses in the SIM registration process is one that demands the collective action of all stakeholders.

Dare is the Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management, NCC, Abuja.

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