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SIM REGISTRATION: No Extension, please

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Very few Ghanaians are unaware of the spirited campaign by the think-tank, IMANI, to get the National Communications Authority to extend the deadline for the registration of mobile SIM cards. If for nothing at all IMANI’s campaign has helped a great deal in publicising the exercise and for that reason, once again, I commend the group. But that’s where it ends.

Come Friday, I expect the NCA to ignore every threat of legal action and all of IMANI’s doomsday prophecies and go right ahead to de-activate all SIM cards that have not been registered.

The NCA’s primary objective for directing that all SIM cards should be registered was to reduce (if not eliminate) the use of mobile phones by unscrupulous people, hiding behind phone numbers, to commit various crimes – like threatening death, telling wicked blatant lies about others and engaging in fraud.

I have received calls from people who threatened to “deal with” me. The cowards used ‘withheld’ numbers so it was impossible to even know who they were. I have read widely circulated text messages telling vicious lies about the likes of Kwesi Pratt, John Kufuor, Nana Akuffo Addo and John Atta Mills. The moment you receive a message like that you just want to find out who the sender is but when you call, the number is ‘switched off’ and when you send a text in reply it never goes through until you receive a message that your text has expired.

It was worse in the few months before the elections in 2008. So, I was particularly delighted when the NCA announced that it was going to register all SIM cards in a measure to stop the criminal misuse of cell phones. I was surprised that the NCA piloted the programme for six good months and then later announced that it would give every Ghanaian mobile phone user 12 months to ensure that their SIM cards were registered.

We all know about the silly habit of Ghanaians waiting till the last minute to rush to get things done. So it was quite smart of the NCA to give the us 18 good months to take our sweet time to get with the programme. That meant that even if there was a tortoise in Nakpanduri, who happens to enjoy talking on mobile phones he could walk slowly to Accra within 18 months to get its SIM registered – if it so wished.

With just a few days to the end of the SIM registration exercise, the NCA says more than 90 percent of users have registered. There could be problems with about 30 percent of those who have registered because they might have used unacceptable forms of identification, such as the ID cards from their ‘susu’ unions. For these people, the NCA must definitely find a way to make sure that their registration is regularised. I don’t expect the NCA to just cut them off. At least, they tried. And the fact that they presented wrong forms of identification might not be entirely their fault. So they deserve special treatment – like the phased deactivation suggestion by IMANI.

But there should be no reprieve whatsoever for those who made no effort at all to register. Sadly, I get the impression that it is for these people that IMANI is campaigning.

First of all, IMANI claims that when these people get their numbers de-activated some of them will lose their livelihood and this could create dire economic consequences for the country. Clearly, IMANI is crying more than the bereaved – or those about to be bereaved. If you depend on your SIM card for your daily bread and you have your head properly screwed on, wouldn’t you rather rush to get it registered so that it doesn’t get deactivated?
Why should you wait until the last minute or not get it registered at all?

In any case, so far, I haven’t heard from or seen a single mobile phone user who is so scared by the prospect of his SIM getting deactivated, thereby depriving him of his daily bread. What this tells me is that those who actually depend on their SIM cards for their livelihood have done the responsible thing.

I also think that the number of people who depend on mobile phones for their livelihoods, appears to have been grossly exaggerated. How many of our poor fisher-folk use the phones to fish? Furthermore, SIM cards are not as expensive as they used to be some 10 years ago. I bought my first card for today’s equivalent of 60 GHC in 2001. Now, it costs just one cedi. Therefore if one gets deactivated, you can just walk into a shop, buy another one, have it registered right where you bought it and you’d be back in business. This could explain why some people are not so keen on registering the numbers they are using now.

Secondly, IMANI also cites the sad fact that ID cards are hard to come by as another reason why the SIM card registration should be extended. Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t also hold much water either because the NCA has said that if you love your SIM card (or number) so much, get someone with a proper ID to register the SIM in his or her name for you – until you get an ID of your own. I am sure that my tortoise friend in Nakpanduri can within 18 months make friends with someone who has a proper ID to help get its SIM card registered. I don’t think there is any Ghanaian who can stand in front of the nation and proclaim that he doesn’t know anyone who owns a passport, driver’s licence or voter’s ID. With or without an ID of your own, you can register. So what’s the fuss?

Thirdly, and most seriously, IMANI has thrown around the suggestion that deactivating the phone lines of people who don’t register could amount to a violation of fundamental rights; a breach of the constitution. Now, that’s taking the argument to ridiculous depths of legalistic nonsense. The legal argument they put up are a bit too convoluted for me comprehend and relay. But I think it has something to do with the fact that when the NCA orders the telecom providers to deactivate unregistered SIM cards, contracts will be breached. This is because at the time most of these SIM cards were sold, it wasn’t a requirement that the subscribers registered their cards. And so to punish subscribers retrospectively and force the telecom operators to breach the contract with the subscribers is unconstitutional. This makes sense to some extent but it doesn’t really address the issue fully.

Look at it from other perspectives like that of the NCA (as the regulator) and the millions of responsible mobile phone users who have spent time and effort to have their SIM cards registered.

To begin with, the NCA as regulator recognised an anomaly that it is wrong for SIM cards to be issued without any mechanism of tracing who was using them. To correct this, it issued a directive – which is within its mandate as regulator to do – that all telecom companies register all the SIM cards they have sold out. Not only did NCA give them more than sufficient time to do this, it also spent a lot of the taxpayers’ money to publicise this exercise in the mass media over a very long period, warning that those who fail to register will be disconnected.

Most Ghanaians heeded the warning and got their cards registered. Why should the irresponsible minority who have failed to register hold the responsible majority who have done the right thing to ransom?

Interestingly, those who think the NCA could be breaching the constitution if it deactivates the unregistered SIM cards have registered theirs. Speak to them and they tell you they are testing the law!

I pray the NCA sticks to its deadline and does what it has been warning us for the past 18 months that it would do and let’s see if any lawyer would have the gall to take this matter to any court to test the law. No sensible judge would fault the NCA for setting a regulatory deadline and sticking to it. In any case, why wait until the very last minute to complain if you knew from the very start that the NCA was on the wrong track?

The mobile phone and its prevalence in our society is a clear manifestation that we are in a fast-moving world. We cannot continue to take things ‘easy’ all the time and seek excuses in GMT – ‘Ghana Man Time’. We have to move on as a nation and moving on means setting deadlines and targets for ourselves and striving to meet them. And if we fail to meet them, it shouldn’t be because we went in search of excuses – tempting excuses like the ones IMANI is dangling before our eyes. I say the NCA should go right ahead and deactivate every SIM card that is not registered by Saturday. It would be a good jolt for the national psyche.

 

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