On Tuesday, December 15, 2020, the President Buhari-led federal government, through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), announced that mobile phone subscribers who are yet to link their phone numbers or SIMS to their National Identification Numbers (NIN) would have their lines blocked.

In a press statement signed by Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, who is the Director, Public Affairs of the NCC, the commission said:

  1. Telcos or network providers are required to get all their subscribers to provide valid NIN in order to update SIM registration records.
  2. The submission of NIN by subscribers will take place within two weeks (from December 16 to December 30, 2020).
  3. After the deadline, all SIMs without NINs will be blocked from the networks.
  4. A ministerial task force, comprising the minister and all the CEOs (among others) will monitor compliance by all networks.
  5. Violations of this directive will be met with stiff sanctions, including the possibility of withdrawal of operating license of the telcos.

In other words, the federal government is saying if you don't have a NIN, and if that NIN isn’t linked to your phone number between now and the end of the year, your phone line would be unable to make/receive calls or be used for internet purposes.

Isa Pantami is Minister of Communications and Digital Economy [Twitter/@FMoCDENigeria]
Isa Pantami is Minister of Communications and Digital Economy [Twitter/@FMoCDENigeria]

This directive is coming as Nigerians battle the coronavirus pandemic like the rest of the world.

A mad dash to National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) offices by Nigerians in a bid to beat the government’s two-week deadline, could see Nigeria’s COVID-19 infections climb even higher, amid warnings of a second wave of the pandemic.

Exactly what a thinking government should be trying to avoid.

Why is the government doing this now?

The Senior Special Assistant on New Media to President Muhammadu Buhari, Bashir Ahmad, says this is being done for security purposes.

Government believes that harmonising all phone numbers through the NIN will help curb rising cases of terrorism and banditry because most of the bad guys would have no option but to link their phone lines to the NIN or lose their numbers.

“This will definitely help to curtail and checkmate the lingering security challenges in some parts of the country,” says Ahmad.

Bashir Ahmad is President Buhari's New Media aide (OlisaTV)
Bashir Ahmad is President Buhari's New Media aide (OlisaTV)

Even though NIN registration has been continuous and has been on for years, most Nigerians say there hasn't been enough awareness and a mass sensitisation drive concerning how the process works.

There have also been complaints that getting a NIN at the registration centers has been typically tortuous, frustrating and lethargic.

Imposing a deadline at Christmas

Imposing a two-week deadline for a process that is typically slow and tortuous at best, doesn't make plenty of sense either, especially because this is also holiday season in Nigeria.

Who wants to be running helter-skelter to register a phone number when you should be making merry with your family or traveling to make family thanksgiving?

The federal government has also been on a data harvesting spree for years, with not enough harmonisation of these plethora of data from agencies and organisations, into a single, reliable data base.

Since 1999, Nigerians have submitted biometric data information to the FRSC (Federal Road Safety Commission), mobile phone companies, the immigration service, the passport office, the electoral commission, to banks through the Bank Verification Number (BVN) and on and on it has gone.

That an NIN is still needed to harmonise biometric data for security purposes in Africa’s largest economy, speaks to the failure of government and the haphazard nature of government operations, analysts have submitted.

'Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative (Ynaija)
'Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative (Ynaija)
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“This is a dumb move. It will be challenged,” says Gbenga Sesan, who is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative. "In July 2020, Nigeria had 198.9 million active lines. Guesstimate: 66.3million unique subscribers.

“By October 2020, 42 million Nigerians had been issued NINs. Even if NIMC increased enrollment from 500,000 to 2.5 million per month, current numbers will be 47 million NINs.

"Two weeks deadline? Make it make sense.”

Sesan also tweeted that: “This nonsense of a minister directing supposedly independent institutions like @NgComCommission @nimc_ng and others to do the impossible is not going to help Nigeria. Conservatively, 19.3 million Nigerians could be cut off from mobile phone services by year end with this move.

“Those 19.3 million subscribers mean revenue loss for mobile telecommunications companies and they won't be cut off because they disobeyed the law, they'll simply be unable to get their NIN because the same government that announced a 2-week deadline doesn't have capacity for it.

“We've been here before but never learn. Nigeria made NIN compulsory for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) earlier this year but after students/parents wasted time and money, the policy was reversed. You announce deadlines to create panic and then move deadlines.

President Muhammadu Buhari . [Presidency]
President Muhammadu Buhari . [Presidency]

“Nigeria has no Data Privacy/Protection laws. From INEC to NCC, citizens' sensitive data have been lost without opportunity to seek redress but we continue to demand biometric information.

“In the middle of a pandemic, during the holidays, you want 20 million people rushing to get NIN!”

How do you get your NIN right now?

The NIMC says you can get your 11-digit NIN electronically, without leaving your office or home by dialling *346# on your smartphone.

This service, the agency says, is available on MTN, 9Mobile, Glo and Airtel.

Some smartphone users who have just tried the code say you will be debited N20 and that it takes you to a webpage that isn’t working or that it confirms that you have the NIN even when you have never registered for one.

In any case, just keep trying as the December 30 deadline approaches. You just never know with these things...

Or head to the nearest NIMC office while at it, before your precious phone number gets blocked.