Even Teribogo, the mutative character in Soyinka’s Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, knows that to survive in a country in convoluting decadence like Nigeria, one must adjust on-the-go to fit into the prevailing colours of the times and build up enough cash and connections to last beyond a lifetime. So, he is Papa Davina, Dennis Tibidje, and even the Guide; some kind of personality apotheosis in continuum. Teribogo is always on the move. No condition holds him down.
By very desperate thinking, I am of the opinion that this is the way telecommunications regulation should go. Able to mutate at any time to changing times in order to deal with ever emerging problems. Without using the hammer to squash a fly, one must say, very bluntly, that there are lots of problems in the telecommunications industry that need very urgent but creative attention.
One of such problems, which has become very perennial, is the unregistered SIM cards still awash all over the country which, in the hands of criminal elements, have become enabling tools needed to visit criminality on a hapless citizenry.
In the preceding weeks on this column, having travelled by road in parts of Delta and Edo states and being stuffed with troubling stories on how criminals negotiate with their mobile phones and putting conversation on speaker so that all could hear, we had raised a cry on the urgent need for the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, which superintends the telecommunications industry to make an intervention.
There have been tonnes of articles written on SIM Card registration and how a seeming void in the success of the exercise has fueled the operations of hoodlums and bandits and others resident in that ignoble class of earthly misfits.
Last week, the regulator hammered down a decision for all operators to stop issuing new SIM cards. Result: a moratorium on the sale of new SIM has been put in place until further notice.
Even before I saw the press statement by the regulator, I was tipped off by a source at MTN which told me they have had to suspend sales immediately as the organisation didn’t want to witness the trauma of a debilitating fine regime again.
The NCC statement signed by Director, Public Affairs, Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, stated in part: “In line with the Federal Government desire to consolidate the achievement of the SIM Card registration exercise of September, 2019, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy has directed the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, to embark on another audit of the Subscriber Registration Database again.
“The objective of the audit exercise is to verify and ensure compliance by Mobile Network Operators with the set quality standards and requirements of SIM Card Registration issued by the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the Commission. Accordingly, Mobile Network Operators are hereby directed to immediately suspend the sale, registration and activation of new SIM Cards until the audit exercise is concluded, and Government has conveyed the new direction.”
Adinde warned of strict sanctions where compliance is not strictly adhered. When a child has been scarred by fire even fireflies tend to make him jump. The regulator’s statement carries a dangerous punch which speed no sane operator would want to stop.
SIM Card registration came into effect in 2011 when the Regulations on Registration of Telephone Subscribers was put in place. In a country where even the first census figures in 1962 were mired in controversy, SIM registration was seen as some kind of miracle worker to rid the country of improper documentation in that sector. Good expectations. But only MTN bore the crushing weight of the deficiencies in the exercise in 2015 when the operator was fined a staggering N1.04tn for failing to disconnect 5.1million incompletely registered SIM cards but the fine was reduced to N330bn in 2016 after negotiations. No operator wants to go down that lane anymore and face such fine.
This is a smart and welcome move by the NCC. But something must be pointed out here at the risk of sounding like a broken record. It is not the place of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy to “direct” the regulator on how to regulate the industry.
Such action is not accommodated in the Nigerian Communications Act, 2003. It is a dangerous meddlesomeness capable of exposing the regulator to ridicule, both locally and intentionally.
Perhaps out of misguided exuberance, the Minister is weakening the independent pillars that form the support structure of the telecommunications industry. Willy-nilly, his actions can discourage investors from coming into the Nigerian market as no investor wants to put money in a market that is subjected to government’s direct interference.
Having observed that there are issues in the telecommunications industry, some of them regulatory and others operational, one would be at liberty to suggest that the primary stakeholders of the industry should parley to search for solutions. This writer is not disposed to a situation of the almighty regulator holding the yam and the knife and dishing out favours and punishment at will.
The situation in the industry calls for an emergency response and not fines. To this, I recommend the lithe touch, agile or smart regulation or as some people would say, fourth generation regulation; but there is fifth generation now, making fourth generation (4G) to be very ancient. However, the point at issue is for the regulator to draw on its rich repertoire of expertise, nurtured by a history of trainings and industry travels and experiences to proffer solutions instead of looking for the easy way out.
Buck passing and blame game are the most popular games in a country where even the highest seats of power live in denial of their own existence, thus forcing impotence on the people in the face of pervasive tragedy and disaster.
I may be too pessimistic to say the industry cannot survive another round of fines but needs every support and encouragement to weather the impact of COVID-19 which has hit humanity without mercy.
These are not the best of times, not even for the regulator. This is why I am suggesting it draws a lesson from the wiliness of Teribogo to know that a constantly moving industry, brewing vermin on the side, needs fluid adaptation and regulation to arrest the scourge and ugliness of technology in order to give peace to a despairing people.