Row deepened on Thursday over the directive of the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Dr Ibrahim Pantami to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to order telecom operators to deactivate all the subscriber identity module (SIM) cards that are not linked to the National Identity Number (NIN) issued by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC).
Two civil society organisations, Paradigm Initiative and Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative, asked the Federal High Court in Lagos to stop the Federal Government from blocking SIM cards not linked with NINs by network operators.
They prayed the court to issue a perpetual injunction restraining Dr Pantami and four network operators from implementing the directive on NIN.
The order, they added, should last until “all Nigerians have been conveniently afforded the opportunity to register for and obtain valid NINs and update their SIM registration accordingly.”
Apart from the minister, the other respondents in the suit are MTN, Glo, Airtel and 9mobile.
In the suit filed on Thursday and marked FHC/LS/CS/1823/2020, the applicants asked the court to declare that the proposed blocking of SIM cards that are not registered with NINs will likely interfere with the right to freedom of expression of their members.
They contended that owning and using a telephone line or SIM card is an exercise of right to freedom of expression.
According to them, the proposed blocking will interfere with the right to freedom of expression of their members.
The applicants therefore prayed the court to declare that the proposed blocking of telephone lines not registered with the NINs is unlawful and unconstitutional “as the directive stipulating the proposed blocking is not a law and that only a law can be applied to limit fundamental human rights in due observance with the provisions of the constitution.”
Speaking on the suit, lawyers to the applicants, Solomon Okedara, Olumide Babalola and Irene Chkuwukelu said the implementation of the directive would have a devastating effect on freedom of expression of millions of Nigerians.
They noted that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) published that there are about 198, 961, 361 active lines while there are only about 36, 894, ,074 NINs since inception.
This, they reasoned, would create far-reaching violation of right to freedom of expression of over 100 million people.
In specific terms, the applicants have asked the court for the following:
“A DECLARATION that owning and operating a Telephone line or SIM Card is an exercise of right to freedom of expression as provided for and guaranteed in Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)
“A declaration that the proposed blocking of SIM Cards or Telephone lines that are not registered with National Identification Numbers (NINs) by the network operators will likely interfere with the Applicant’s members’ right to freedom of expression guaranteed under section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
“A declaration that the directive on the propose blocking of SIM cards on the directive of or by the Respondents on the ground of the non-registration of SIM Cards with National Identification Numbers (NINs) with the network operators is unlawful and unconstitutional as same is not stipulated by a law and not being a restriction that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society as required by Section 45 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended)
“A perpetual injunction restraining the respondents from carrying out or giving effect to the directive on blocking of SIMs not registered with National Identification Numbers (NINs) by network operators until all Nigerians have been conveniently afforded the opportunity to register for and obtain valid NINs and update their SIM registration accordingly.
“An order awarding a cost of one million naira only (N1,000,000) to the applicant as the cost of this suit.”
But NIMC has said subscribers that there was no need for panic regarding the two weeks deadline for deactivation of SIM cards that are not linked with users’ NIN.
The Commission explained that adequate arrangements have been made to capture the data of 200 million Nigerians within the next five years.
It added that the steps taken so far to ensure that all subscribers have NIN in their SIM cards are meant to address the security challenges facing the country.
The commission also said the telecommunication operators would be involved in the exercise.
The spokesman of NIMC, Mr. Kayode Adegoke told The Nation that government has approved licensing of over 200 institutions to carry out enrolment “of Nigerians and legal residents into the National Identity Database (NIDB) on behalf of NIMC.”
Adegoke said the initiative was aimed at addressing the bottlenecks associated with the capturing of citizens data by NIMC. He added that the method would increase the enrolment centres from the current 1000 to 10000 across the country.
He said the NIMC is desirous of scaling up its assignment to regulatory functions after the completion of the exercise.
Adegoke however explained in a statement that the licensed agents were approved after successfully fulfilling all the conditions in the advertised Expression of Interest (EOI) which was done in 2019 as a first step towards the take off the National Digital Identity Ecosystem project.
He said the breakdown of the successful licensees shows that 16 state governments were licensed, including Abia, Akwa Ibom, Gombe, Lagos, Kaduna, Katsina, Kano, Oyo, Ogun, Sokoto and Zamfara states.
The public sector institutions licensed are the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), National Pension Commission, Central Bank of Nigeria (through the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement Systems Plc), National Population Commission, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Joint Tax Board and Nigeria Postal Services, he added.