Why Nigeria and other African countries are blocking cellphones

  • This week, Nigeria blocked millions of its citizens – who haven’t linked their lines to their ID numbers – from making phone calls.
  • Other government also want citizens to register their phones.
  • But there’s a distrust by residents to hand over their details to the government.

This Monday, millions of Nigerians woke up to find that they
had been barred from making phone calls. The number of disconnected lines is
reported to be as many as 75 million, more than a third of the total 198
million lines nationwide.

But the move has been a long time coming.

In December 2020, Abuja issued a directive for all SIM card
carriers to link their lines to a unique National Identity Number, citing a
need to tackle the plaguing insecurity in the country.

That deadline was postponed numerous times but last week’s
attack on a train by armed groups was a wake-up call. When reports started
surfacing online that the attackers had started calling families of abducted
passengers for ransom, the government swung into action, fulfilling its almost two-year-old
promise to cut off non-compliant citizens.

On social networks, many – especially southerners – are
debating the connection between SIM card linkage with the national identity
number and the actions of these groups, known locally as bandits, whose axes of
focus are swaths of the northwest and central Nigeria.

In 2015, the Nigerian government fined MTN,
one of the continent’s biggest telecom players, US$5.2bn for defaulting in
cutting off unverified customers.

The National Communications Commission (NCC) had previously
instructed the telecom giant to deactivate between 10 and 18.6 million
lines. But government swung into action after the high-profile kidnap of a
former Nigerian finance minister; police say the kidnappers used MTN lines to
contact his family members.

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Across the continent, there is a lengthening line of
governments embarking on a mass disconnection drive citing, among other things,
domestic security. In March, Zambia announced it had deactivated two million
SIMs cards to stem the volume of fraud carried out using mobile lines.

Kenyan media have also reported an April 15 deadline by
authorities in the East African country for the deactivation of unregistered
SIM cards – the third such deadline in the past 10 years. In 2013, it switched
off more than two million SIM cards after an attck by the armed group

Last year, Tanzania said it had blocked 18,000 SIM cards
involved in criminal activities. In a bid to also curtail mobile scams, Ghana
issued a directive for every SIM card carrier to re-register their SIMs with
the Ghana Card, the national residency card, or lose them.

In faraway Hong Kong, a proposal from last year to
impose new restrictions on phone line registrations was approved this March.

What are the issues?

With Africa having a 44% mobile penetration rate, SIM cards
are one of the most ubiquitous technologies around.

At least 50 of Africa’s 54 countries have mandatory SIM
registration laws in place, but most have barely been enforced – until now.
Registration usually involves the submission of personal data and the capture
of citizen biometrics.

The rationale is that this registration will help create a
vast database to help track criminal activity. Officials say SIMs, accessible
even on the streets for sometimes as low as US$1 (~R14), are frequently bought
and discarded by suspected criminals, without any – or not enough – details of
their personal identity to trace and monitor them.

“Since 9/11, in many countries, if you want to get a
SIM card, you have to show some [form of] identification,” Rebecca
Enonchong, Cameroonian tech entrepreneur and founder of AppsTech told Al
Jazeera. “It is rather normal that the government should require those who
are using cell services [to] register with the operators and the
telecommunication companies should know who is connected to their

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On the surface, this sounds like a quick and cheap solution
for many governments in a continent where most countries have no unified
operational national database.

But multiple SIM ownership is prevalent across Africa for
many reasons including varying data prices, connectivity speeds and signal
strength. In 2018, four African countries were among the top 10 globally, with
dual or multi-SIM mobile phones. Kenya even once had plans to institute an
ownership cap of 10 SIM cards per person. Telecom operators also often tailor
registration processes in order to sell more prepaid SIM cards.

Experts say the outcome is that the data gleaned from SIM
registrations are not as accurate or neat as they ought to be.

“The ID systems [in Africa] are not really backed by
technology, there are no linkages, so there is no verification process,”
Enonchong said. “If the telecommunication companies themselves don’t
enforce that, it is really very hard for the government to make use of the

How did we get here?

At the root of it all is a mass unwillingness to register
SIM cards due to a seeming lack of distrust by residents to hand over their
details to the government.

Unsurprisingly, there are concerns about data privacy and
the inestimable capacity of government to use data collected for one purpose
for another, given the historical intolerance for dissent in some of these

There is also a legal void around government handling of

A 2021 report by Collaboration on International ICT Policy
for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), claimed that only half of African
countries have adopted laws to protect personal data.

Repeated registration exercises have also weakened the will
of the people, experts say.

Over the years, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and
its economic powerhouse, has instituted multiple mandatory identity
registration schemes, including Bank Verification Number (BVN) and National
Identity Number (NIN), alongside more widespread IDs like voters’ cards,
international passports and others.

Yet, the government is insisting that the way forward is for
every SIM card to be linked with an NIN, a policy that many Nigerians say will
be just as cumbersome and bureaucratic as its predecessors – and possibly end
up achieving nothing too.

“This is a trend of policy laziness,” Gbenga
Sesan, head of Lagos-based digital rights advocacy nonprofit Paradigm Initiative,
told Al Jazeera. “The problem does not lie with the lack of a central
database; it is about impunity. If I know that if I commit a crime and I know I
would be punished for it, then I will likely think about it twice.”

In Kenya, citizens are also complaining about the redundancy
of multiple registrations. The new registration warrants the submission of the
phone number, copy of passport or visa and biodata page, exit stamps and
scanned ID – items they claim to have submitted during the last exercise in 2018.

The bigger fear, however, is of government surveillance
under the guise of national security, leading to a widespread reluctance to
willingly submit personal data which can be used to monitor their everyday

“The issue of data privacy transcends Africa,” Ken
Ashigbey, the CEO of Ghana Telecommunications Chamber, noted. “The concern
about Big Brother sitting somewhere and using your data to spy on you is always
going to be there, [and] when you bring it into the examples of Africa where
our governments all seem to have total power, definitely there are risks,”
he said.

The risks also extend to small and medium-scale enterprises
(SMEs) in a digital era where SIMs and the world of possibilities on the
internet are helping empower many in the absence of social welfare schemes.

Already, SMEs account for 84% of employment and make up 96%
of businesses in Nigeria. Shutting millions of people out of seamless
communication could adversely affect the economy, Sesan warned.

“What we are going to lose is roughly one-third or
about 35% of connected lines that we have [and] there will be major economic
consequences [but] there will be no gain in terms of security,” he said.

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