Saturday, 17 July 2010

Ill Advised: NCC’s N6.4bn SIM cards Registration Budget

Joachim Ibeziako Ezeji

In 2007 I had travelled abroad for six months, and unlike my previous trips, I returned to discover that my GSM number was no longer mine, it has been re-allocated by MTN. This was despite the fact that I had bought that line (08035767048) at an exorbitant price of N14, 000 (US$100) in 2004. When I visited the MTN office on Wetheral Road, Owerri to find out why it has to do that, what I got was an arrogant response that I’m not supposed to travel out for long without making provision for roaming my phone. On further enquiry on how to roam, MTN told me that it would cost me a minimum of N50, 000 (US$320) to initially set up roaming. To me that was outright extortion and unacceptable.

Based on suggestions by worried friends and acquaintances that inundated me with queries on what was wrong with my line, I came to find out that MTN had already resold my number to another customer, an Alhaji, who lives in Kano. To confirm this development, I put a call through on the number, and low and behold, it was true, as a friendly voice from a Hausa/Fulani man picked the call. He identified himself as an Alhaji, confessing that he had already received thousands of calls on my behalf. He also said that he has been having sleepless night as a result. I was not surprise that was the case, because that line was me in totality. It was a primary communication medium for all my businesses both local and international. Alhaji accepted to return the number to me provided we worked out the conditions. But that was not to be, as I soon jetted out again, out of the country within a few days.

I am therefore keen to find out how the proposal by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to spend N6.4 billion on the registration of SIM cards in its 2010 Budget would fit into such excesses by service providers like MTN. Would it mean that henceforth, even if I travels and stay away for 12 months that my line won’t be revoked and resold?

In as much as I absolutely find nothing wrong with acquiring data of network customers in Nigeria, I find a lot wrong and faulty by NCC doing it, and the way it has chosen to do it. To me this amounts to a colossal conspiracy to loot public funds. It is absolutely bizarre. It baffles me that even the National Assembly could allow this seemingly day light fraud to stand. I will argue it from just 5 points.

First, a SIM card registration similar to the current exercise would have been plausible had it been that we truly have a viable and working national ID card data base. What we currently have is an outright caricature of how it exists in other countries. The national ID card scheme in Nigeria failed and is incapable of providing a backbone or shield for the current SIM card registration exercise. Without a viable National ID card scheme, how sure are we, that the information being provided by those queuing to register their SIM is actually correct.

Second, what technology is being used for the registration? Is it a networked computer system that shares data nationally or merely a one stop entry system computer that is akin to manual entry? Is the data capturing merely being written down on note books? Against these backgrounds, what is the guaranty that data being provided is secured to safeguard it from theft and use against innocent victims i.e. what mechanisms exist to guide against identity theft?

Third, to what extent was the level of stakeholders’ sensitization, mobilization and participation carried out prior to the current registration? Stakeholders’ in this regards include network customers, service providers such as MTN, the government and also the small scale retailers and hawkers of the cards etc. The failure of this component in the whole arrangement is certainly its nunc dimities. In a country with highly sophisticated informal sector such as ours’, the sensitization and engagement of stakeholders is the only plausible pathway capable of enlisting workable suggestions for this scheme. But when one man sitting somewhere with crude ideas of how to make quick money is allowed to have his way, this is exactly the kind of schemes that are pushed down to us. They will tell you that network users would not need to pay money to register their details, but that is just one side of the story. Another side of the story is that there is a colossal N6.4 billion that is to be looted in disguise. How sustainable is the scheme? How much data will that amount of money register before it runs out? Who will fund follow up exercises? The whole set-up is simply ridiculous and riddled with puzzles upon puzzles. Moreover, experience has shown that when things are merely conceived from above and pushed down just like that, then look around very well, you would find out there; a clique out to “Chop Money”. Once that N6.4 billion is squandered, nothing again would be heard about the scheme. It would be dead as the National ID card.

Fourth, is registration of SIM cards the job of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)? The outright answer is a big – No. The proposal is out rightly a curious exercise because the NCC being a regulator ought not to have any business with registration of SIM cards. Such exercise should be the responsibility of the service providers. This is the case everywhere where users’ details are ever taken. Moreover there is nothing innovative about the idea other than the haste to loot the N6.4 billion by those promoting it. There are more cost effective innovative ways to achieve a similar result. For example, service providers could be directed to sale telephones on contract bases as is done in Europe and America. What this means is that new phones would henceforth mostly be given out on contract bases. With such contracts the data of subscribers is easily gathered.

Finally, enforcement; I am interested to know who is going to enforce this scheme. What if I refuse to register my details, who is going to force me to comply? There is currently no law backing this scheme, so customers who opt not to register their details are certainly not breaking the law. Would the police be used to implement this illegal scheme or is it the courts, who?

I have also heard people applaud the scheme as being capable of arresting or deterring kidnapping. But that is the most watery arguments in its support so far. Kidnappers often make calls only with the lines of their victims, not theirs. The persistence of kidnapping in Nigeria and the resort to this scheme as a panacea exposes the lack of capacity to think out genuine solutions. I will juxtapose my argument with the event of the kidnap of the British boy – Sahil Saeed who was snatched from his residence in Jhelum, a city in northeast Pakistan, in March 2010.
The kidnappers had put a ransom of £100,000 in cash on the head of the 5 years old boy. A series of telephone calls between the kidnappers and the boy’s father Raja Saeed provided the clue to smash the syndicate which also had international dimensions.

Follow up investigations made via tracking the GSM networked lines of the kidnappers saw to their eventual arrests. Two Pakistani men and a Romanian woman were arrested in a flat 6 miles South of Barcelona and another two other suspects were arrested at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The Kidnappers were arrested and detained just hours after Sahil was freed by his captors immediately after the ransom was paid. Payment of the ransom had been a collective agreement by the security forces that relied on the effectiveness of a closely co-ordinated surveillance operation involving officers from Britain, France and Spain. The Surveillance was built on phone calls, most of which were made from Barcelona.

The original ransom demand came from an Urdu speaker who gave the family a three-day deadline to pay the cash in Manchester, before changing the drop-off destination to Paris. A total of 15 instruction calls were made, four of which came from Barcelona, police said. Mobile phones on which some of the calls were made were found in the raided flat, they added.
In a statement, Spanish police added: 'To comply with the deadline, the boy's father travelled to Manchester. 'Once there he received new instructions ordering him to travel to Paris with the money. It was in this city that the place for the handover was finally determined. 'Several people went to that place, in a public street, and police observed the criminals split the money and put it into a small bag and a small suitcase with wheels.

'The boy's whereabouts was unknown so the people who had gone to pick up the money, a man and a woman, were tailed. 'The French police followed them in a car to the border where Spanish police took over. 'After travelling around Barcelona they headed to Constanti, parked up and took several packages and the suitcase in which they had placed most of the ransom money out of the car, helped by a third person, before heading into a nearby flat.

'A watch was placed on the property until police were certain the boy had been released in Pakistan and the operation to arrest the suspects was then launched.' Police refused to give a timeline for the rescue, but Sahil was later found wandering in a field in the village of Dinga in Punjab.

The success of the operation was not based on any SIM card registration; Please, Nigeria, wake up!

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