On July 22, 2012, Cynthia Udoka Osokogu, a postgraduate student of Nasarawa State University, was murdered in a Lagos hotel. The deed was done by her Facebook friends.
Her assailants – Okwumo Nwabufo and Olisaeloka Ezike – who pretended that they had a business deal for her, lured her to the hotel, where she was soon after arriving drugged, robbed and strangled. An extensive manhunt and detailed investigations that involved tracking the killers with the deceased’s Blackberry phones led to their arrest. They were arraigned and sentenced to death by hanging in 2017.
In 2012, Nigerian security operatives apprehended Kabiru Umar (aka Kabiru Sokoto), the alleged mastermind of the 2011 Christmas Day bombing at Madalla, near Abuja. He was also reportedly tracked through his cell phone signals.
The ability to curb criminal acts by properly identifying owners of subscriber identification module (SIM) cards was what the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) aimed to achieve by continually demanding proper SIM registration in every state of the country.
But these days, it is obvious that millions of lines are not registered. It is not unusual to receive calls and have the caller’s name appear as just initials or some strange names that would certainly lead to a dead end should the number be used to commit a crime and there arises the need to match or verify the user.
In the face of mounting complaints about the use of mobile phones for committing crimes, especially with the deadly acts of terrorism by Boko Haram terrorists in the North East and bandits in other parts of the country climbing to a peak, telecommunication companies were given a timeline to deactivate SIMs that were not properly registered. Most of the affected SIMs ordered deactivated by the regulatory body then were either unregistered, pre-registered or registered but had one defect or the other that included poor fingerprints, poor facial information and other biometric hiccups.
In 2007, NCC started the SIM registration and finalised it four years later with the enactment of the SIM Registration Regulations. The key objectives of the exercise was to create a central database of telecoms services users in Nigeria, assist security agencies to fight the growing level of insurgency and criminality.
With wide complaints of some subscribers still hiding under the pretext of anonymity to defraud and carry out illegitimate activities, the NCC, in 2011, gave an ultimatum to service providers to deactivate improperly registered SIM cards in their datebase.
It stressed that intelligence report revealed that unregistered SIM cards across the various networks were helping to fuel as well as facilitate the activities of robbers, kidnappers, fraudsters, terrorists and other criminal elements.
A total of N6.1 billion was approved by the National Assembly for the exercise, which initially had a six-month deadline from the date of commencement.
Each subscriber was mandated to provide a national identity card, international passport, drivers’ licence or authentication letter with passport photographs signed by a traditional or community leader in the case of rural dwellers.
Biometric information and digital photographs were also part of subscriber information required in order to ensure proper data capturing and building of reliable data.
The exercise was equally made free for all subscribers because of its importance to national security. At the end of the initial deadline, it was discovered that a lot of improperly registered, unregistered and pre-registered SIM cards were still in circulation, in spite of the elaborate and expensive exercise.
Four years later, after several extensions had elapsed, the big stick was wielded on one of the biggest telecommunications companies for failure to deactivate 5.2 million unregistered SIM cards from its network.
Further inundated by complaints bordering on unregistered and pre-registered SIMs, among others, NCC, in 2017, set up a 12-member committee to tackle the problem, vowing that the menace would no longer be tolerated.
However, even with all these measures, sanctions and other warnings, the commission has lamented that many agents still fraudulently violate SIM card registration rules.
Femi Matanmi, a businessman, said he was surprised the day a friend called him and the name that showed on his phone was ‘Water.’
“There have been instances when someone would call you, and the name that would appear would be funny names like Mama Alaso, Tomato seller, Block, Jimmy Teacher, and so on. It shows how unserious we are as a nation,” he said.
Joseph Mbam, a student in one of the tertiary institutions in Lagos, agreed. He lamented that, in spite of the deadlines and directives by the NCC, there were still agents of telecommunications companies hawking already registered SIMs on the streets of Lagos and other cities in the country.
The NLC noted that about 96 million subscribers were still not properly registered.
Sunday Dare, NCC’s executive commissioner for stakeholder management, disclosed that, of the 151.4 million subscribers registered, only 55.7 million were valid.
He stated that the objective of the mandatory subscriber registration was to assist in easy identification of mobile telephone users and for easy detection of crimes committed through mobile phones.
He explained that the agency was bent on sending owners of unregistered SIM cards back to registration centres for recapturing, adding that perpetrators of fraudulently registered SIM cards would be charged with felony. He further said that such offenders risk a 25-year jail term.
Dare said NCC had put various sanctions in place to deal with the menace of pre-registered SIMs, warning that the sanctions would extend to the heads of marketing of mobile network operators and even chief executives of licensees who benefit from such illegal SIM registration activities to meet their marketing targets,
“A total of 151,449,837 registration data of subscribers have been processed, with only 55,749,652 records valid, making 63.2 per cent of the total records invalid; based on invalid face capturing and fingerprints, thereby, underscoring the importance of proper SIM registration.
“The NCC will begin to plead national security and national interests against anybody found culpable of fraudulently-registering SIM cards in the telecommunications industry,” he said.
Stressing the agency’s resolve to find solutions to the recurrent dangers of the improperly registered SIMs, the executive vice chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, during a high-powered meeting with all service providers in Abuja, warned that it was no longer business as usual.
Danbatta listed several security challenges that have bedevilled the country as a result of improperly registered SIM cards, and lamented that even where SIM cards were registered, the captured data represents strange figures different from the user of such SIM cards.
He disclosed that kidnappers often used preregistered SIM cards to perpetrate their nefarious activities, assuring, however, that the commission was tracking such SIM cards.
He said the dangers were real, adding that everybody would lose at the end, hence the need to address the matter before it gets out of hand.
“We must safeguard life and property of Nigerians who travel by road, especially now and during the festive seasons and others who may be threatened or blackmailed via unregistered and improperly registered SIM cards,” he said.
According to reports over the years, unregistered SIM cards have been implicated in kidnappings and financial crimes.
Most security experts posit that the availability of improperly registered SIMs in any corner of Nigeria is a threat to the security of the country, as it would further aggravate an already dire security situation.
They lamented that aside from innocent persons suffering unduly in the hands of criminas, the activities of law enforcement agencies in trying to apprehend major criminals could be frustrated or jeopardised.
Ismail Daudu, a retired military officer and security expert, opined that Nigerians have lost and will continue to lose millions of naira and other property to unscrupulous elements who use the Internet and telephones to defraud them.
He urged the regulatory agencies across board to step up the fight against the practice of having telecoms agents sell already registered SIMs to the public. He advised that those who actually buy the SIM cards and those selling should be prosecuted and handed stiff sanctions.