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Rising insecurity shuts millions of Nigerians from telecom services

Millions of residents in states like Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Niger, Kaduna, and Kebbi continue to be shut out of mobile and internet connectivity due to increasing insecurity in the region.

Sokoto is the latest state to order the shutdown of telecom services in 14 out of 23 local governments as part of efforts to check banditry. The development in Sokoto followed that of neighbouring Zamfara, where all parts of the state are disconnected; and Katsina where 13 local governments are affected.

The network ban in Sokoto is effective in Dange Shuni, Tambuwal, Sabon Birni, Raba, Tureta, Goronyo, Tangaza, and Isa local government areas among others. The implication of the ban is that more than half of the people in the state do not have access to telecom services.

Sokoto has 3.2 million active voice subscribers and 2.3 million active internet subscribers as of the first quarter of 2021; data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) have shown. The state also houses more than 240 base stations.

For Zamfara, the order to shut down telecoms services was issued on August 3, and was supposed to last for two weeks. The government has now extended the telecom shutdown indefinitely.

“We must elongate the ban because our hope is for peace to return and for our people to be safe,” Bello Matawalle, governor of Zamfara State, told BBC Hausa on Sunday.

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Zamfara has 2.1 million active voice subscribers and 1.5 million active internet users. There are 248 base stations shut down as a result of the ban. The order also affected some border communities in states such as Niger, Kaduna, Kebbi.

Nigeria’s telecom shutdown

On September 9, Katsina shut down 13 out of 34 local governments including Funtua, Malumfashi, Bakori, Dutsin Ma, Faskari, Sabuwa, Dandume, Safana, Batsari Kankara, Danmusa, Jibia, and Kurfi. The state has a total of 5.09 million active voice subscribers and 3.8 million internet users.

Zamfara has been hardest hit by insecurity. Back in 2017, a National Corruption Survey by the NBS showed that crime and insecurity were the most important issue affecting the state. Zamfara has since evolved to become one of the epicentres of banditry activities. The abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Jangebe in February was one of the most brazen attacks this year. The schoolgirls were later freed after a ransom was reportedly paid, an allegation denied by authorities.

In March, President Muhammadu Buhari declared Zamfara a ‘no fly’ zone. In the days leading up to the shutdown there were several reports of school children kidnappings, over 500 people killed by bandits, among others.

Prior to the shutdowns in these states, COVID and other macroeconomic conditions had ensured that about 60 percent of the population do not have access to broadband connections. Broadband penetration is currently below 40 percent. The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) said there were still some 114 communities with access gaps, representing about 30 million Nigerians without basic telephony service as of December 2020.

The rising insecurity puts the telecoms industry at great peril as it is happening at a time when the country’s economy is at its weakest. Multiple currency devaluations driven by a depleted foreign reserve, uncertainty in oil prices, policy flip-flops have seen the naira at a record weakness against the dollar. Unemployment is at a record rate (33%) and still rising.

The Nigerian NBS said in 2020 that 40 percent or 83 million Nigerians live in poverty. Although the country’s poverty profile for 2021 has not yet been released, it is estimated that the number of poor people will increase to 90 million, or 45 percent of the population, in 2022.

Stakeholders in the industry say these, added to policy inconsistency, have played a direct role in the huge decline in the market. The telecoms industry lost a total of 11.08 million mobile subscribers between January and June 2021. The industry added 25.5 million subscribers in all of 2020.

This essentially means that in the first half of 2021 it has lost about 40 percent of what it gained from one year ago. Also, the number of internet subscriptions lost between November 2020 and July 2021 now amounts to 15.13 million.

“Income is defined with two variables; consumption + investment. There are two things you can do with the money you earn, to consume or to invest it. As more people are losing their jobs, it would definitely affect the unit of data they consume,” says Ajibola Olude, executive secretary/chief operating officer of Association for Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ATCON).

To mitigate losses, operators in the telecoms industry are increasing investment in new businesses with the goal to grow new revenue sources.

“It is no longer telecom; it is now an ICT industry,” says Olude, saying, “Most telecom companies are looking at new portfolios, not one straitjacket income from data and voice which is no longer enough.”

Operators like Globacom are going into video streaming and media content creation, Airtel is focusing more on increasing its share of mobile money business in Africa, MTN and 9Mobile are also pushing mobile money businesses as well as other verticals in Africa.

Experts say the internet shutdown in the north may not be ending soon as long as insecurity continues to ravage the region and the military insists that disrupting services gives them a fair chance to win the fight. The federal government reserves the right to security in the country.

Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State, while announcing the shutdown on Voice of America on Monday, said an agreement had already been reached with seven governors in the north-western region to continue the shutdown.

The states in the region include Jigawa (2.4m active mobile subscribers) Kaduna (8.6m), Kano (10.9m), Katsina (5m), Kebbi (2.7m), Sokoto (3.2m), and Zamfara (2.1m).

The seven states together contribute about 34.9 million active mobile subscribers. A telecom services shut down in the states would mean 34.9 million active subscribers disconnected and more revenue woes for operators in the industry.

But while the telecom lights are off in the affected northern states, experts say the government can only keep operators in the telecom industry interested in the market by addressing the current challenges. The telco investors are watching the fluctuations erode their profits on a daily basis. On the macroeconomic side, the government has to encourage businesses to thrive in order to create more jobs for people. Rising unemployment means that crime rates will increase, and crime provokes insecurity.

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