Let me start by stating the obvious fact: the on-going compulsory or mandatory registration of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards that Information and Communications Minister, Dora Akunyili, is forcing on Nigerians is alien to open, civil and democratic societies the world over.
This latest onslaught on the civil liberties of Nigerian citizens and foreign citizens’ residing in Nigeria is additional to yet another planned scheme of collection and storage of biometric data of Nigerian citizens by the Nigerian Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) amongst the numerous government agencies that routinely collect and store citizens’ data and information.
However, these latest initiatives mentioned above can be said to be the beginning of fast-tracking the transformation of Nigeria into a police state – the subject of this piece. Put simply, the mandatory registration of SIM Cards and the collection of biometric data of citizens by the MIMC, NIS and other government and private agencies already in progress in Nigeria are yet another major set back to Nigeria ‘s match to a civil, open and democratic society.
The reason for this assertion is not far-fetched. Civil liberties of Nigerians are more often than not daily breached or abused to say the least. Registration of SIM Cards and multiplicity of collection of biometric data and personal information of Nigerians will make such breaches much easier; especially when in the wrong hands.
Again, even the developed countries of the west that Nigeria is trying to imitate are still hesitant in compelling their citizens to submit to a national biometric identity card scheme that Nigeria is wasting its scarce resources is implementing. For example, even the government of United Kingdom (UK) has abandoned its planned introduction of a national identity card scheme for its citizens. This is because its citizens do not want it for reason of protection of individual privacy amongst other serious concerns expressed by majority of British citizens; especially the fear of the likelihood of abuse or misuse of the data and information so collected. Moreover, compulsory collection of personal data from citizens is only practiced in those countries with undemocratic, dictatorial and absolute rulers. Thus, it is only in undemocratic societies that one is likely to find citizens being compelled to register SIM cards without any option. In those societies, freedoms of speech, assembly, and association etc are absolutely curtailed by their absolute or maximum rulers. For example, North Korea , China and a number of Middle East Arab countries still curtail fundamental freedoms; human rights and rights to individual privacy of their citizens.
Sadly, Nigeria is on the fast lane of sleep-walking into the same direction! And unless something is done urgently to halt this trend, Nigerians will not be different from the citizens of nations known to be police states. Hence, Nigerians should rise in unison and reject the mandatory registration of their SIM Cards under any arrangement. Nigerians deserve the right to voluntarily opt to register their SIM Cards. In other words, it should be optional and voluntary. Also, the voluntary registration exercise should be fully funded by the private GSM operators and not by public fund as the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) planned already. Furthermore, the reasons advanced for it, the manner of doing it and the advantages to be reaped from it are not that convincing. Similarly, they are not achievable within the existing Nigerian political economy. For example, I doubt if registration of SIM Cards can stop the rising spate of kidnappings of people in Nigeria . I also doubt if deployment of sophisticated telecoms technologies or the use of devices such as GPRS, GPS and even the use of unmanned drones for tracking can deter criminal minded Nigerians from perpetrating their criminal acts.
Take for instance, in addition to perfecting sophisticated trans-continental internet frauds or scams (also known as 419), criminally minded Nigerians have also perfected the skills of breaking into Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) recently deployed by Nigerian banks. Thus far, huge sums of money have been lost through ATM scams and frauds nationwide of recent. Hence ATM fraud is another very good example of how the ‘Nigerian factor’ can be used to compromise any system put in place for the common good in Nigeria . That is to say, as long as there is room for Nigerian human involvement in the scheme of things, no matter what sophisticated technologies deployed, criminals will compromise the scheme.
Nevertheless, a system of electronically blocking reported stolen and/or missing GSM Handsets as suggested by Bashir Gwandu of the NCC is okay. It is done in many countries where SIM Card registration is voluntary and optional. Moreover, in such countries, they have also put in place enforceable Data Protection Laws to protect against unauthorized/improper use and or abuse of information and data collected by companies or government agencies from citizens. Ironically, the government and legislators have refused to pass the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) into law and yet they are keen on forcing citizens to part away with their freedom of personal privacy! It is high time the right things are done for the common good in Nigeria .
In conclusion therefore, Nigerians should say no to mandatory SIM Card registration and the use of public funds for such purpose. Nigerians should ask for the passage of FOI Bill and enactment of Data Protection Act to protect the data and information being collected from citizens by agencies of government and private corporate bodies for commercial purposes. For example, banks, airlines and hotels in Nigeria are already discretely registering customers’ SIM cards and other personal data as part of their routine business operations and yet there is no any statutory safeguard against abuse and/or misuse of such data and information collected!