A digital rights group, Paradigm Initiative, is advocating against the mandatory registration policy that seeks to disconnect millions of mobile phone users if they failed to connect their line with the National Identity Number (NIN).
Nigeria’s Government through the Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) had issued a two-week ultimatum to all mobile phone users to register their lines with their identity by December 30 or risk being cut-off.
The NCC had said more controls over SIM-card ownership were needed to secure electronic transactions and curb crime as insecurity bites harder in the country. The Boko Haram insurgency has been said to have been reinforced by the volatile telecom services.
Retracing its steps following public backlash, however, the government announced on Monday evening that it was extending the deadline for the provision of NIN till January 19 and February 9, 2021, depending on whether subscribers already had the identification numbers.
The original directive was the outcome of a meeting of key stakeholders in the communications industry convened by Isa Ali Pantami, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, who argued it was for the best of all.
The development has drawn mixed reactions from many Nigerians who called the new directive superfluous at a time the country is struggling to afloat a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a population of 200 million, Nigeria has over 198 million active mobile lines, according to data from the country’s Bureau of Statistics.
But only 42 million people have registered for the identity cards as of October 2020.
Though the government had promised to increase manpower for the enrollment of NINs to reach the 2.5 million target per month, away from 500,000 people it currently registers each month.
“That is almost a two million shortfall the government wants to bridge in two weeks. How will this be accomplished when there is a second wave of Covid-19 and the holiday,” Paradigm Initiative said in a Twitter post on Monday.
The group said it was already seeking a court injunction that would block the government order of disconnecting all SIM cards not synchronised with the national identity number from going into effect because it violates fundamental rights to freedom of expression of Nigerian citizens as guaranteed by Section 39 of the Nigerian 1999 constitution.
“The proposed blocking of SIM cards not linked with the National Identity Number is unlawful and unconstitutional,” the group’s programme manager Adeboye Adegoke had said in a statement.
“Many young people and others, using their mobile phones for expression or to do business online, will be affected by the poorly thought-out policy. No reasonable Nigerian will support such a policy that is geared to make life unbearable for Nigerian citizens.”
“In June 2020, the Director-General of the NIMC, Aliyu Aziz said only 38 per cent of Nigerians have any form of identification. Over 100 million Nigerians have no identity. These include the poorest and the most vulnerable groups, such as the marginalised – women and girls, the less-educated people, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, people with disabilities and people living in rural and remote areas.”
Millions of people, the group said, will lose telecoms services with the ICT sector which contributes greatly to the country’s GDP being the worst hit.
Additionally, the group expressed concerns that Nigeria has no laws or regulations on privacy protection and therefore, personal data will not be protected from the state or telecoms access.
“The government and the telecom operators will be required to get personal information of users to synchronise SIM cards with an identity number with the absence of a data protection law.
“Telcos are being forced to start the opaque NIN verification process, but they should be aware that starting NIN in their database breaches section 37 of the Nigerian constitution,” it said in the post.
The communications officer at Paradigm Initiative, Valery Nijaba, said the policy had created panic in the polity since it was announced.
Pictures that surfaced on social media on Monday have shown how a mammoth crowd of Nigerians at Alausa office of the NIMC in Lagos and Port Harcourt in Rivers State, who were trying to register for their NINs breached Covid-19 protocols.
“This is a time when we need to discourage public gatherings, crowding, and the likes, but it appears that the government is not sensitive enough to see those nuances and has asked that 100 million Nigerians should go and register for the National Identification Number within two weeks. So, we are left with no choice but to seek the intervention of the court.
“Requiring over 100 million Nigerian citizens to register for NIN in two weeks is not only unrealistic but a fire brigade approach to governance that will not bring any value to the people.
“Whatever the government is trying to achieve by the strange directive is ignoble. When the same government tried to compel students writing UTME examinations to register for the NIN as a prerequisite to sitting for the tests last year, many students couldn’t register, with documented cases of government officials and law enforcement officials weaponising the desperation of the students to register for NIN to extort them and their parents.
“The government was forced to walk back on the policy at that instance. These are the type of effects the fire-brigade approach to policymaking leads to,” Nijaba said.
The group called for an immediate stoppage of the mandatory recruitment. It asked the government to use existing biometric registration to assign NINs and notify the citizens.
It posited that telecoms should have a process to remotely connect NIN to active numbers.
Finally, it advised the country to accelerate the legislative process for the draft Data Privacy and Protect bill.