MTN must verify users in Nigeria by year end or face blocked SIM cards

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MTN's head office in Fairlands, Johannesburg.
MTN's head office in Fairlands, Johannesburg.
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  • The Nigerian Communications Commission has told all mobile network operators to audit the country’s national SIM registration database, or face possible sanctions and blocking of unregistered SIM cards.
  • The registration process includes capturing biometric and personal information, identity cards, and facial capturing.
  • MTN has 75 million subscribers in Nigeria.


MTN said on Thursday it has embarked on the laborious task of registering customers from its largest market, Nigeria, within two weeks, following a directive from the country's communications commission to suspend new SIM registrations by all network operators.

The company, which is Africa's largest mobile phone operator, has already faced a hefty fine in Nigeria over the registration of SIM cards.

CEO Ralph Mupita said a risk of sanctions would only arise if there had been failure to comply.

With 75 million users in Nigeria, MTN is required to conduct a systems-based SIM registration audit to reflect National Identity Numbers (NINs) by 30 December 2020. SIM cards without NINs will be blocked from the networks following the December deadline, the commission has warned.

'Difficult period'

But registration will not come without its challenges.

"The current SIM registration suspension and audit is being done in a difficult period where the nation has been dealing with security challenges and the Covid-19 pandemic," said Mupita.

Mupita, who succeeded Rob Shuter as CEO, said the NCC authorities on 7 December notified all mobile network operators of the intention to audit the national SIM registration database in the country. The registration process includes the capture of biometric and personal information, identity cards, and facial capturing of users.

MTN said it was committed to complying with the orders, with Mupita stressing that the directive applied to all network operators in Nigeria, not just MTN.

MTN shares on the JSE lost as much as 7% following the update to investors, trading at R61.44 before close of business.

In 2015, the NCC fined MTN $5 billion for failing to disconnect about 5.1 million unregistered lines in its network within the stipulated deadline. The fee was later reduced to $1 billion.

Nigeria has a population of nearly 200 million people, with about 208 million registered SIMs in the market as at October 2020.

Big task

To highlight the task at hand, Mazen Mroue, MTN Nigeria Chief Operating Officer, said there were about 40 to 60 million National Identity Numbers registered in the National Identity Management Commission database, and about 50% of those NIN registrations are MTN customers.

"As far as we are aware, very few of the 208 million or so SIMs in the market have NINs captured. So, it is quite a big task for the industry to get this done during the next two weeks," he said.

Approximately 3 million users on the MTN network require registration updates.

Ferdi Moolman, the CEO of MTN Nigeria, said the implications of the process would see no new subscribers added during the audit process. Competitors would face a similar impact.

"That suggests that market shares should remain relatively stable," he added.

The mobile operator is fighting off a claim that it paid the Taliban officials not to attack its operations in Afghanistan, in a litigation brought by families of almost 150 US service members and civilians killed in Afghanistan. They accuse the company of providing support to the Taliban by deactivating cell towers at the group's request. MTN has denied the claim.

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