Outcry as agents, technical glitches hinder SIM-NIN linkage

Over 40 million lines have been disconnected since the expiration of the February 28 deadline set by the Nigerian Communications Commission for the linkage of NINs to SIMs. However, long queues at the enrolment centres, telco agents not gathering all the information needed from subcribers and server downtime have been the hurdles Nigerians are grappling with during the exercise, JUSTICE OKAMGBA reports

In December 2020, the Nigerian government introduced the Subscriber Identity Module-National Identification Numbers linkage policy, mandating all telephone users in Nigeria to link their SIM cards with their NINs.

Two key Federal Government agencies are spearheading the process: the Nigerian Communications Commission, the telecom industry regulator, and the National Identity Management Commission, the identity management agency.

Three years later, the NCC directed all telecommunications operators in Nigeria to implement full network barring on all phone lines for which subscribers had not submitted their NINs by February 28, 2024.

The disconnection process was rolled out in phases. After the February 28 deadline, the telcos barred about 40 million telephone lines.

The second phase of disconnection occurred after the March 29th deadline, and the final phase is scheduled for July 31st, 2024

NIMC’s enrollment figures as of December 31, 2023, stood at over 104.16 million. A breakdown of the figure showed that 59.12 million male and 45.04 million female Nigerians have NINs.

About 530,345 Nigerians in the Diaspora have gotten NINs.

Amid the push for SIMs-NIN linkage, Nigerians have been battling with long queues, overwhelmed telecom agents, and technical glitches plaguing the process.

A professional welder, Ezinwa Odikemere, told The PUNCH that the problem was not how to link SIM to NIN, but getting the NIN itself was tiring.

According to Odikemere, NIN front desk officers always said the network was down.

“The only reason I have my NIN today is because I needed to do the needful when I got to the enrolment centre. Before I finally got it done, I was there three times. Each time I got there, I found a huge crowd. Because of my work, I couldn’t just wait for it.

“The last time I went there, I needed to confide in one of the front desk officers, who requested a few thousand naira to get it done. I needed to do that. So, what about those who do not have the financial muscle to do it?” he explained.

Recently, our correspondent observed a large crowd in the Mushin Local Government Area of Lagos. The enrolment centre in Mushin had only one computer and two female front desk officers in a small office.

The PUNCH gathered that the process of NIN enrolment was slow. At the time of the visit, there were no reported issues of network downtime based on conversations with the officers.

It was also gathered that telecom agents who operate from under the umbrella or a booth often fail to capture all the information needed for verification and upload data to the National Identity Management Commission server.

In many cases, the operator’s consumer centre stands as the primary location for consumers to complete their registration fully, with the data provided there being verifiable.

The President of NATCOMS, Adeolu Ogunbanjo, told The PUNCH last week that telecom agents were bypassing crucial information during the registration process, resulting in incomplete registrations for subscribers.

“For example, during interactions with telecom representatives, some agents fail to collect all required information from subscribers. If a subscriber cannot provide certain details, agents often leave the registration incomplete. Consequently, these incomplete registrations are deemed unverifiable,” he said.

Further, Ogunbanjo noted that NIMC also shared responsibility for that process.

He said the challenges arise when telecom companies are unable to upload collected data due to network issues.

He said those network difficulties, beyond the control of subscribers, hinder the timely completion of the registration process.

“NIMC’s inadequate network infrastructure exacerbates the problem. While they intend to accept data uploads, technical issues prevent them from doing so effectively.

“We urge the NCC to address NIMC’s shortcomings, improve their services, and acknowledge that meeting the deadline will be challenging given the current issues,” the president added.

 An X (formerly Twitter) user identified as Henry stated, “Because of the difference in biodata, my MTN line couldn’t be linked, and that was the reason I got my line barred. I don’t understand why your agent here would use a phone number and address from a different country for what is more like a social security number for Nigerian citizens.”

After the February 28 disconnection, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project issued a warning to take legal action against the NCC if it does not revoke the directive instructing network providers to block the phone lines of individuals who have not linked their SIM cards to their NINs.

SERAP said the NCC had failed to conduct an impact assessment of those extreme measures to avoid their arbitrary or excessive effects.

According to SERAP, these extreme measures go against the regulatory objectives of the Nigerian Communications Act and violate Nigerians’ fundamental human rights.

The SIM-NIN linkage initiative is a crucial step towards improving the integrity of subscriber data and enhancing security measures within the telecommunications industry.

Another user, Glory Agu, said, “I’ve been receiving a message from you asking me to link my NIN, but each time I try to do it, you don’t link my NIN. I’ve tried it so many times, yet you don’t make it work.”

A subscriber whose line was disconnected, Usoma Owane, told The PUNCH that he was not aware of the deadline until he started asking questions when his phone line was barred.

“I wasn’t paying attention to the noise because of my situation. But one would be asking what they have accomplished with the linked ones because of insecurity. Why can’t they gather intelligence on terrorism and banditry? Do they not utilise SIM cards and mobile networks? Policies without proper follow-up are a waste of time and money and completely ineffective,” Owane stated.

Early in the year, the former Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami,  expressed disappointment over security agencies’ failure to use the NIN-SIM to combat crime, especially kidnappings and phone-related offences.

He wrote on his official X account, “NIN-SIM policy has been working. However, the relevant institutions fighting criminality are to be requested to ensure they utilise it effectively when a crime is committed.

“Lack of utilising it is the main problem, not the policy.”

He championed the NIN registration policy under Buhari’s administration.

He vowed that linking citizens’ NINs to their SIMs would be a crucial tool in combating banditry, kidnapping, and phone-related crimes.

Earlier, an executive of the Nigerian Bar Association, who preferred to be anonymous, said the decision by the NCC was harsh, considering the number of issues hampering the process.

The lawyer emphasised the need to alleviate the inconvenience faced by Nigerians, such as long queues at registration centres, which deterred many from completing the process.

According to the lawyer, the SIM-NIN linkage could have been more convenient and effective, and the deadlines had a limited time frame.

“When people go to different centres to do the linkage, they see the long queues and decide to go back to their houses. The next day, they are there again, and it’s still the same issue. Why won’t they get tired?”

He expressed concerns that the initiative, aimed at enhancing security through the linkage of phone numbers to individuals’ national identities, had yet to demonstrate its efficacy in combating rising cases of scams and insecurity.

The source stated, “Daily, Nigerians are being scammed of their hard-earned money, and these people can’t trace them or even know their location. So, what is the benefit? For people who have done it, they just did it for compliance.

“My house help came from the North, and her line is barred because she didn’t link it to NIN. This is someone who came from the North. So, there is a possibility that people who are supposed to get the message are not getting it.

The Nigerian Association of Small and Medium Enterprises South-West Region Vice President, Solomon Aderoju, told The PUNCH that disconnecting lines may affect businesses that depend on connectivity.

“For individuals like me, who conduct online training, a malfunctioning WiFi connection, means being unable to connect with participants. So, having a reliable WiFi connection is crucial.

“Online meetings offer cost savings. For instance, in the next 30 minutes, I have another online meeting scheduled, and without a stable internet connection, it simply won’t be feasible,” he stated.

He advised the NCC and telcos to allocate more time to enable Nigerians to link their SIMs to the NIN.

“We like to rush here, especially at the eleventh hour, even though the intentions may be good. There has to be more time allocated to it, if not many people will be disconnected,” Aderoju said.

When The PUNCH reached out to NIMC for comments on technical glitches, the Head of Corporate Communications, Kayode Adegoke, clarified that the commission’s server had consistently remained operational, debunking reports suggesting otherwise.

He emphasised that the NIMC’s services were fully functional and accessible to all users.

“Our server has never been down. You can go to the various NIN centres and confirm,” he claimed.

Adegoke further explained the process for subscribers to link their NIN to their SIM cards.

“These individuals only need to submit their NIN and complete the verification process through their respective telecom providers.

On March 17, the NIMC and the NCC issued a joint statement unveiling a strategic partnership aimed at simplifying the NIN-SIM linkage procedures for telecommunications subscribers nationwide.

Both agencies reaffirmed their dedication to enhancing the processes and improving efficiency regarding the NIN and SIM card linkage initiative.

They acknowledge the importance of the initiative in bolstering security measures and enhancing service delivery across the country.

“NIMC will continue to extend its support to NCC by providing assistance in verifying National Identification Numbers associated with SIM registrations. Leveraging NIMC’s robust database and authentication infrastructure, telecommunication operators will validate submitted NINs while ensuring the accuracy and integrity of subscriber data.

“NIMC and NCC will collaborate on aligning policies and regulatory frameworks to facilitate the seamless integration of NIN-SIM linkage processes within the telecommunications ecosystem. This includes harmonising data protection and privacy regulations to safeguard the confidentiality and security of subscriber information,” they stated.