As usual we excel in reacting to events. Following the Westgate attack, the government law enforcement agencies are everywhere running up and down talking tough and breathing fire on remote culprits that could have played a part, mostly small, in aiding the attackers that managed to hold the country at ransom for over 3 days that resulted in 72 lives being lost. Government’s reactions that are popular today are the NyumbaKumi initiative and the warning they have given the telecos. We’ll talk about NyumbaKumi later but today we want to discuss the SIM card registration issues that has led telecos CEOs to the CID chambers since yesterday.
By 31st December last year all the telecos were required to switch off all unregistered SIM cards. Although it was reported in the media that all the telecos met the deadline of the switch off, a number of unregistered lines were still in use. Personally I was able to use a line that a Nigerian friend of mine bought in late December, loaded 8GB of data, used a meager 1.5GB, and threw the line on his way back to Nigeria. Since I had the PIN, I managed to renew the line two weeks later and utilized the remaining 6.5GB over the next three months. The line never went off.
Today the media is reporting that close to 650,000 unregistered lines are in use across all the networks. I don’t know how the telecos bosses are defending themselves in the ongoing grilling but if it is true that they have this huge number of unregistered lines in their networks then they are guilty as charged. The telecos should be in the forefront in implementing systems that work failure to which they should be penalized accordingly.
The laws governing SIM card registration and use requires that when a crime is committed by use of unregistered lines, then the telecos are fined Kshs. 350,000 for every unregistered SIM cards in their systems. Information is out there that the Westgate attackers organized the attack by communicating through unregistered SIM cards. For this, the Cabinet Secretary in charge of ICT docket Fred Matiang’i has said that the CEOs of the telecos will be held criminally liable for letting their agents to break the law. The telecos are also accused of providing services to customers who have not provided their personal details to the telecos.
On one hand the telecos are truly culpable. The only reason the telecos would allow anyone to use their services against the law is the profits they scoop from such persons. But the telecos must have played their game (game theory) by calculating the probability of being caught weighed against the repercussions of “when caught”, if at all. Kenya’s political and economic systems have given us the saying “This is Kenya” where individuals and institutions can always break the law knowing very well that we can’t get caught but if caught bribery is an option. This system makes the probability of being caught very very low such that one can argue, logically so, that is is very safe to break the law. Thus on the other hand we have a system to blame. Truth is if the Westgate attack never happened, the government would not have issues threats to the telecos right now. There could be no NyumbaKumi initiative at all.
This brings me to the second point, aren’t there any systems in place that could have aided CCK in knowing that over 650,000 people are using unregistered SIM cards? I don’t think that such a system is a nightmare to put in place. I only envision a server adequate enough to handle real time SIM card information synchronized by the servers of the four telecos. That server should be able to register information of every online SIM card and sorted alphabetically. If a SIM Card is online and is duly registered, then the fields containing names, addresses, and ID numbers are clearly and visually recognized by any human who would access the server. The server should be able to place phone numbers without personal details on top of the list and give summary statistics on the totals so that at any given time a CCK personnel can raise an alarm that there are unregistered SIM cards accessing teleco’s A’s or B’s network and raise alarm accordingly.
So, as much as the telecos have failed and are indeed culpable, CCK could have been proactive and put in place a simple system that can monitor in real time the SIM Cards that are online so that a situation where the telecos allow over half a million unregistered SIM Cards is avoided. They ought to have known in advance that the telecos are profit driven and won’t crack the whip on potential customers who want to avoid registering their lines.
Given that both the government and the telecos share blame, punishing the CEOs with arrests is not appropriate. There were rumors yesterday that the CEO of Yu was arrested while the CEO of Orange recorded statement with CID. At the same time Bob Collymore, the CEO of Safaricom was scheduled to record statement with CID early this morning. It is OK, for them to give the information about what happened, but arresting the CEOs would be taking it too far. There was a lapse in the system, and the whole Westgate Attack can not be blamed wholly on the mobile network operators.The Government should start by arresting the people who allowed the terrorists to enter the country without looking at their backgrounds. They should start by arresting the police officers who could have taken bribes and let the vehicles the terrorists used to transport weapons to Westgate pass unchecked.
Then the fact that NIS new of the possible attacks before it happened means that even if the numbers were registered, that would have not helped much. If you add to the rumors that the terrorists were using fake phones that are supposed to be illegal in the country, then the arrests should extend to KRA and KEBS officials who have allowed the fake phones enter the country. And if you are going to arrest the telecos CEOs, then start by arresting the President; he is the commander in Chief and should have acted on the intelligent report which indicated that attack might happen. How about arresting the CEO of the Police Force as well?
So instead of arresting the CEOs the telecos should just be fined the over Shs. 225 billion for allowing over 650,000 unregistered SIM cards in online. The impact of such a fine will be big enough to teach the telecos the bitter lesson that when the game they played back fires, they are bound to incur heavy penalties that can send them out of business.