Despite spending multibillion naira on NIMC, Pantami embraces failure, aids ransom payment

In 2021 and 2022, the federal government earmarked over N50 billion to the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) for the procurement of various equipment, including biometric capture equipment, backend and frontend systems, and verification equipment crucial for the registration of National Identification Number (NIN), among other necessities. Despite this substantial investment, coupled with the hardships many Nigerians endured to meet the registration deadline and link their NIN with SIM cards, the former Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, faces backlash due to the project’s ‘ineffectiveness and inefficiency’ in addressing insurgency and kidnapping cases.

In February 2020, the then Minister of Communication and Digital Economy Isa Pantami said the military and intelligence agencies could use big data to fight the war against terrorism in the country.

Pantami also noted that embracing technology to clamp down on insurgency is due largely to the recent development by terrorists, who exploit social media to spread propaganda, recruit followers, and coordinate attacks.

Since then, throughout Buhari’s administration, the minister made several attempts putting many Nigerians through hardship to register for the National Identification Number (NIN) and link it to their SIM card, which, according to him, would help the Nigerian government in the fight against insurgency and banditry. 

This was as the Federal Government earmarked over N60 billion for the said project, with high expectations and promises of transforming the country’s technological landscape and also helping fight against insecurity.

For instance, in the 2021 approved budget, N12.8 billion was earmarked for the National Identity Management Commission, NIMC, with N7 billion on capital expenditure on projects and equipment that would fastrack the NIN-SIM card linkage, including implementation of the National Counter Terrorism Strategy in NIMC.

Similarly, in 2022, over N52 billion out of the total N159.8 billion allocated for the Communication and Digital Economy Ministry was budgeted for the same National Identity Management Commission, out of which N46 billion was for capital projects. 

It is not clear how much was eventually disbursed, but there are several reports of approvals and disbursements.

While there were several public discontents regarding the policy and the multimillion naira funding, the ex-minister insisted on the implementation, emphasizing that it was part of the efforts to fight insecurity.

The ICIR reported that the Federal Government, in April 2022, directed telecommunications operators, including MTN, Globacom, Airtel, and 9mobile, to immediately bar outgoing calls from Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards not yet linked with the National Identification Number (NIN).

The development was at the heel of the directive mandating telecommunications subscribers to link their SIMs with their NINs in December 2020.

As of the time of the directive, over 125 million SIM cards had their NINs submitted for linkage, verification, and authentication, with at least 72.8 million subscribers at risk of disconnection from telecommunication services.

However, the surge in cases of kidnapping and ransom payments raised questions about the effectiveness of the NIN-SIM linkage in enhancing national security.

Many Nigerians believed that politicians and public figures exploited the policy to have the police pursue their interests.

In one of its tweets, the Nigerian Police Force spokesperson Muyiwa Adejobi publicly acknowledged that the police can track down anyone in the space of two hours. Interestingly, when the wife of the then president, Aisha Buhari, felt slighted by a post on X, security personnel swooped in, tracked and located the user who was a student and detained him.

Nigerians expected such dexterity to be applied in cases of kidnapping where the perpetrators are in constant digital communication with the victims’ families.

Meanwhile, for more than ten days since the abduction of several families in the federal capital territory, the police have not secured their safety.

This was despite the exchange of calls from the family and the kidnappers.

The situation escalated on January 13 when Nabeeha, a daughter of one of the families, was killed by her abductors for failing to meet the N60 million ransom payment deadline, sparking public outcry with many Nigerians, including ICT experts asking what is the use of the SIM-NIN linkage.

In a twist of event, while the issue was generating reactions, on Sunday, January 14, Pantami on X stated that he has raised a sum of N50 million through his friends to secure the release of the remaining Nabeeha’s siblings still in captivity.

This made Nigerians query the rationale of queuing for hours and days to get NIN and or link it with their sim.

In reaction Pantami stated that he was frustrated that the security agencies are not using the implemented policy to fight against insecurity, adding that he sacrificed his life to get the project done.

“NIN-SIM policy has been working. However, the relevant institutions fighting criminality are to be requested to ensure they utilize it effectively when a crime is committed. Lack of utilizing it is the main problem, not the policy. While in office, I know 3 instances where the policy was utilized, and it led to the success of their operations. 

“On the lack of utilisation, I am more worried than anyone, as my life was threatened by criminals for reintroducing it, including on BBC Hausa & and national dailies, I resisted and ensured its implementation. If it is not being utilized by the relevant institutions in charge of securing lives and property, then I am more frustrated than any person, as I sacrificed my life and ignored all the threats to my life. This is just a point out of 100 on the policy,” he added.

Experts weigh in, say NIN-Sim card linkage policy failed Nigerians

Speaking with The ICIR about the policy, Information Technology and Communications Olasunkanmi Junior, who works in the ICT space, said that with modern technology, there shouldn’t be anything Nigerian security operatives can’t achieve.

According to him, registering sim cards with NIN details should have helped address the identification problems in Nigeria.

“I don’t believe there’s anything impossible to achieve with the modern-day technologies. NIN-SIM linkage may not eliminate insurgency in Nigeria but it would have been a very good start, but I’m not certain it was properly utilised.

“It’s supposed to be a joint effort between the government, network providers, the police, and maybe some special task force group who should be operating together in terms of tracking kidnappers because surely the kidnappers are using a registered sim card which is already linked to NIN to place calls,” he said.

He further said that paying ransom would empower kidnappers and bandits to keep on with their terrorist activities.

    “I mean, raising ransom for kidnappers is a terrible thing because they are giving more power to the kidnappers; for how long do we want to keep doing that?

    “I believe there’s always a solution to everything, and solving a problem requires a start. Kidnapping is becoming a business in Nigeria, and it’s been lingering for years now, and there’s still no headway on solving this,” he added.

    Junior stressed that the ex-minister failed as he couldn’t depend on his technological strategy to fast-track the apprehension of the kidnappers through the NIN-SIM linkage.

    Also, Gobir Abdulazeez another ICT personnel, stressed that Pantami’s action contradicted what his project was meant to solve, adding that ‘he clearly shows that the policies he made about the NIN-SIM linkage are a waste of time if the kidnapper’s phone call can’t be tracked or traced.”

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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