Nigerians are in a peculiar mode right now. Too many of us are poised for the first hint of trouble. No one wants to give an inch. “One day, one trouble” would aptly describe how a lot of Nigerians now view government policies.
It was therefore not surprising when news broke last week that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) wanted to mandate Nigerians to submit the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) of their phones to the commission from July, people went berserk on the digital streets. The response was immediate, the backlash was furious and the rebuttal, thankfully, was equally prompt.
The NCC in a statement noted that the news reports “emanated from a section of the Revised National Identity Policy for SIM Card Registration recently launched by President Muhammadu Buhari and which has been uploaded on the Commission’s website.”
This statement is in itself cause for worry. Was the language used in the said documents so obtuse that several media platforms went to press based on poor understanding of the text? Or is there perhaps more to the issue?
The commission then revealed that “it is in the process of deploying a Device Management System (DMS). The DMS will essentially protect subscribers against phone theft and will identify and enable the elimination of fake devices from the networks.”
“The system will capture IMEI automatically without any requirement for subscribers to submit same,” it added.
Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, Director, Public Affairs, NCC, who signed the statement, advised Nigerians to disregard the publications which created the erroneous impression that telephone subscribers would be required to register their IMEI with their service providers.
Why is IMEI important? The IMEI number is the mobile phone’s fingerprint. It is a 15-digit number unique to each phone. With the IMEI number, a phone can be tracked and located irrespective of the cellular number in it.
Good came from the controversy. The commission revealed that it is set to established a DMS. So, Nigerians can look forward to a safer phone ownership regime. This is good news.
In the meantime, any cursory observer would agree that there are lessons to glean from this episode.
Foremost, Nigerians are tired of registrations of any and every sorts. This much is obvious. The hassle around the SIM registration, NIN and BVN sapped Nigerians.
The vehemence with which people kicked against the very idea of submitting anything to any operator showed the depth of frustration with registrations of any sort. The feeling in many quarters was that the IMEI submission was another wild goose chase, a beating after the winds and a vexation of the spirit.
Another thing this incidence brought to the fore is the glaring lack of trust. The news reported that the NCC wants Nigerians to submit IMEI but telecom consumers quickly perceived it as a project for one of the boys. There were already talks online about how the usual billions of Naira would be earmarked to achieve the project along with unnecessary suffering for the poor citizens. Some swore that these grandiose projects are usually draped to appear altruistic and, in this case, made to look like contributing to efforts to improve safety. One thing, many argued online that there would be a way to make revenue for the government from the process.
An important lesson is that Nigerians need reassurance. The economic challenges and security concerns are real. Getting Nigerians to register anything now should not be a priority. Some argued that if you have mobile apps installed on your smartphone then your IMEI is already essentially in the public domain. Nigerians need to be educated.
The truth is that the Nigerian phone market is largely unregulated and awash with duplicate IMEIs. Besides, the IMEI can be masked, so how effective was the policy supposed to be?
As it is, the NCC urgently has to step up its game. It should look to improving collaboration with the operators to boost its operations.
In Nigeria today, the phone is about the only thing that is working for the majority of the people. No one wants to lose it for any reason, especially for something as mundane as the fear of having personal data out on the streets. The lessons must be taken. Importantly, it is time to let the everyday Nigerian live.
Elvis Eromosele, a Corporate Communication professional and public affairs analyst lives in Lagos.