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Nigeria: Registration of SIM cards risks alienating those at the bottom of the pyramid

Debisi Araba
By Debisi Araba

A public policy and strategy specialist, he is currently the Managing Director at the AGRF. He was also the former Africa Region Director at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, a member of the CGIAR, and the former Technical Adviser on Environmental Policy to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Nigeria.

Posted on Tuesday, 16 March 2021 15:25

A woman walks past an advertising poster for MTN telecommunication company along a street in Lagos, Nigeria - 30 October 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

In December 2020, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) instructed mobile network service providers to deactivate, within a two-week period, SIM cards that were not linked to National Identity Numbers (NIN), an announcement that was met with uproar from citizens.

The deadline has been shifted at least twice, and it is now set for 6 April 2021.

An unachievable feat marred by infrastructural deficits

It took eight years to register about 42 million people on the NIN database. Nigeria has about 100 million mobile network subscribers, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) would need to register over 57 million subscribers within a four-month window to meet this target.

Granted that as many people have more than one SIM, the actual number of new registrations could be fewer. Nevertheless, many of the 57m unregistered active SIM card owners will be largely in underserved, rural and urban poor areas without the requisite access to the systems to enable registration.

These people are also the ones who will be most impacted negatively, by being disconnected from network services after the deadline set by NCC has lapsed.

NIMC says that they have instituted an online system that only allows pre-booked persons to attend their offices for registration on any particular day and they have encouraged pre-enrolment via their portal.

This move is definitely laudable; however, it does not take into consideration how many people have access to internet connectivity or internet-enabled devices.

This delivers an interesting Catch 22: the people who are able to take advantage of these online registration platforms are likely to be the people who are already registered or can be registered with ease and therefore do not need assistance or support in facilitating the process. If the costs and barriers associated with the identity registration process appear to outweigh the benefits of actually having a registered identity,  how will success be achieved?

The Federal Government recently approved the extension of the tenure of NIN enrolment agent licenses for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) by five years; a good step that incentivises MNOs to apply their considerable infrastructure to remove some of the existing bottlenecks and achieve the scale required in what is a very intensive process.

Irrespective of this, meeting the 6 April deadline remains highly unlikely due to constraints in requisite infrastructure resources like manpower, stable electricity and internet connectivity as well as the technology that registration centres need to register those without a NIN.

In fact, it is these same challenges that motivated the request of almost half a billion dollars in loans from the World Bank to facilitate the increase of registration centres necessary for NIN registrations.

And yet, the deadline imposed by the government will have us believe that it is trying to encourage citizen compliance for a process with challenges that are more related to a fundamental lack of harmonisation, scale, capacity and infrastructure than they are to citizen compliance.

Threats of SIM disconnection instead of comprehensively addressing the infrastructural gap is likely to compromise public trust in the system and could lead to general apathy when the necessary infrastructure is eventually in place.

NIN and the legacy of inequality

The existing inequality across the country will amplify the impact of this decision. When the initial two-week deadline was given, my 85 year-old aunt, who can barely walk and spends most of her days making phone calls to her children across the world, panicked and was willing to go into a NIN office for registration, despite the risk due to Covid-19 and her restricted mobility.

For her, the possibility of having her two phone lines blocked would not only mean isolation from her family but also reflected the lack of inclusionary approaches when thinking about strategies to enable compliance. 

Beyond the elderly, Nigeria, like much of Africa, has seen a boom in mobile phone penetration and has come to rely on it in everyday life. An example is the driver or the roadside vegetable stall operator in Lagos, whose wife and children live in a rural area in Nigeria, and rely on their remittances and regular phone calls for survival and maintaining social networks. For them, the impact of disconnection will be most severe.

Mobile phones are a business tool and income generator at the heart of Nigeria’s informal economy, with at least 71% of Nigerians using mobile phones as their primary form of communication

The economic impact of a mass SIM card disconnection is likely to cripple the informal economy and further regress much of the progress made in deepening financial inclusion in Nigeria. For many businesses operating outside the formal economy, mobile phones boost efficiency, productivity and income. Take hairdressers, for example, many of them are mobile and are able to provide home services to different customers whose sole means of contacting them is via their mobile phones. 

The same is true for plumbers, electricians, and tailors and many other professions within our informal economy. The assertion that millions of informal workers will be affected by this is far from an exaggeration and the ripple effects will amplify several socio-economic challenges which were already exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP) Covid-19 impact survey, 91% of people have seen their incomes reduced as a result of the pandemic.

Bottom line

Nigeria needs a proper foundational identification system and the NIN is it. However, this mandate put in place by the government – though well-intentioned – runs the risk of sabotaging itself.

The government must focus on doing the work – ramping up infrastructure and SIMplifying the registration process – and creating a clear road map that ensures an inclusive process that will not exclude the vulnerable people already on the periphery of society. Nigeria cannot afford to alienate those at the bottom of the pyramid, who contribute substantially to the country’s development potential.

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