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Nigeria’s SIM Card Deactivation: ‘Helpful But Not Enough To Deter Terrorists’

The terror groups still seem not to have any difficulty communicating with one another and the families of people kidnapped. In many communities, attacks have continued unchecked.

When Nigeria’s federal authorities announced the partial deactivation of SIM cards that had not been linked to National Identification Numbers (NINs) last month, the explanation they gave was that the step was necessary to strengthen the security of lives and property. But several weeks later, it is still unclear how effective the measure has been in attaining this goal.

After various deadline extensions, in early April, about 73 million SIM cards — over a third of all active lines in Nigeria — were reportedly barred from making outgoing calls until they had become validated under the National Identity Management System. Linking phone numbers to the national identity database had first been made a requirement in 2020 based on “feedback received from the security agencies”.

Even though it was launched in Oct. 2011, only over 78 million unique NINs have so far been issued by the relevant federal agency — in other words, less than 40 per cent of the population. This makes it difficult to achieve the objective of harmonising the country’s database and making enhanced security checks possible.

A few weeks after the telephone lines were disconnected, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) claimed that the development had started to frustrate terrorists and bandits. Since they are assumed to be registered by the owners, it is expected that the active phone numbers will be traceable, making it possible to bring criminals to book through calls made. Victims have said in the past that the police often did nothing whenever they were provided with the phone numbers of kidnappers.

Though there are signs the impact of the new policy’s implementation has been felt by terror gangs, especially in northwestern Nigeria, it appears the groups have adapted.

Abubakar Maga, a resident of Danko-Wasagu in Kebbi, told HumAngle they have noticed that the terrorists switch off their phones and instead use the victims’ phones to contact their families after each abduction. “So even if their SIM cards have been barred we would not know.”

Nothing has changed, he concluded, since the line of communication between the abductors and the loved ones of those they kidnap is still maintained.

He added that even when locals were completely cut off from telecommunications services in parts of the state last year, kidnapping became even more rampant in his area and it did not stop residents from exchanging messages with the terrorists.

“They had different lines and they were communicating with people. Even then when people thought no one could communicate with them we still did,” Abubakar said. “They were even happy because they carried out their operations better. Some say they climbed big hills and trees to get connection and communicate with others.”

Timothy Alu, another resident, confirmed the armed groups were encouraged to carry out more attacks and faced less hindrance.

“People suffered a lot and kidnapping was rampant. We thought since there was no network it would be difficult for them to reach out, but they did. You will be sitting down and you will hear your phone ring and then they will negotiate with you.”

Sometimes, the abductors would deliberately switch off their lines just to frustrate their victims who they knew were desperate to reach them, he added.

While the terrorists seemed to have less difficulty making phone calls, families of people abducted on the other hand had to travel to places with better reception such as Zuru so they would not miss out on updates about their loved ones.

“The kidnappers would tell them to keep their phones close by and make sure they had a network when they called them. They told them that they had to climb a tree so they should make sure they were available to talk,” said Hamisu Mamman.

Attacks in the Northwest have not ceased though analysis of press reports showed that the numbers of people killed and abducted due to armed violence dropped significantly in April compared to the previous month.

In Danko-Wasagu, more people are getting displaced due to continued terror invasions.

“Yesterday in the morning, after we had sahur, the terror group invaded our village and started killing people and taking our cows. That is why we fled. The people you are seeing here are not even much. Many went to Kango. Also, some have gotten houses to stay inside,” Usman Kyabu, 47, one of the IDPs now staying in Maga, Kebbi, told us last month. Only one village separates his community, Kyabu, from Zamfara, which is the epicentre of the crisis.

Seven of his townspeople were killed the previous day on April 27, with the terrorists promising to return shortly afterwards for another operation.

“If a person is armed with a knife, gun, or cutlass, they will kill them. Or sometimes if they steal your cow and you follow them to get it back they would kill you,” said Usman. “They prefer for you to just stay put after they rob you. We always call for help but nothing happens and these terrorists come in the afternoon, not at night.”

Another shortcoming in the NIN policy’s implementation is the lack of consistency. Several Nigerians have complained that, oddly, their NIN-linked SIM cards were blocked while some of their unlinked cards were untouched.

“If people think not all lines that are unregistered were blocked, especially the ones owned by kidnappers, I would believe it,” said Abubakar. “Maybe they have people that give them special lines.”

The NCC itself admitted some of these challenges last month. Progress has been recorded, said the Head of Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement, Alkasim Umar. But the armed gangs have also found a way to beat the system.

“If they kidnap you, I mean the bandits; they use your number to call. They will never use their phone lines, it is the kidnapped person’s phone number they use to call and switch it off immediately. They can keep you at a different place and make calls somewhere else. If a phone is off, there is no way one can trace it. It’s a big challenge,” he said.

He added that it is feared that completely blocking off the kidnappers from telecommunications services may lead to more bloodshed.

HumAngle further learnt that state authorities have at one time or the other faced challenges accessing terror gang leaders whom they had been in peace talks with. This, some think, may have been due to the mass disconnection of phone lines.

Meanwhile, if a proposed amendment to Nigeria’s laws that will see the payment of ransom to kidnappers criminalised sails through, the government may have no problem totally disconnecting the families of those abducted from the kidnappers to prevent negotiations.

Hamisu believes deactivating unlinked and unregistered SIM cards is not enough.

“Sometimes it helps, we will not say that it does not help at all,” he conceded. “But that is not enough. The bandits need to be dealt with because, once networks are closed, they seem to find a way to make things work for themselves.

“The government needs to do more than just barring. Who are those registering for them?”

Additional reporting by Abdullahi Abubakar

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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