Why are African governments deactivating unregistered SIM cards?

To enable digital safety, Ghana and Kenya authorities have ordered the deactivation of unregistered SIM cards.

Why are African governments deactivating unregistered SIM cards?
An illustration of SIM cards and popular emojis.

After several deadline extensions, the Nigerian government in April 2022 blocked 73 million SIM cards— that is over a third of all active mobile lines in the country.

The government had in December 2020 instructed residents and mobile users to link their SIM cards to their National Identity Number (NIN) as part of efforts to curb the rising security issues in the country. In fact, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) claimed that the SIM-NIN linkage frustrated the efforts of terrorists in Nigeria's North East.

Aside from Nigeria, other African countries are deploying SIM registration as a strategy to curb several vices, including cyber crimes. More recently, Ghana's Ministry for Communications announced that to ensure digital security, all SIM cards which have not been fully registered and linked with the Ghana Card will be blocked from the end of October 2022.

A five-year jail term has also been prescribed for vendors that are selling pre-registered SIM cards. The ministry disclosed that a total of 19 million SIM Cards have been fully registered—representing 45% of the total SIM cards issued in Ghana.

In Kenya, the Communications Authority of Kenya blocked an undisclosed number of SIM cards in a move meant to curb illegal activities perpetrated by fraudsters with unregistered lines following its Saturday, October 15, 2022 deadline.

Although this precaution is relevant for cyber protection, the aforementioned numbers show popular unwillingness towards SIM registrations, experts attribute this to a lack of trust in government authorities considering the violation of human rights on the continent.  

"Even if people are not actually being surveilled by the government, the fact that people may fear they are being tracked has a chilling effect on innocent and ordinary behaviour, including what information people look up on the Internet, who they contact, and how they express themselves," Privacy International is a UK-based data protection charity, said in a statement. "Journalists and human rights defenders may feel it is unsafe to communicate with confidential sources."

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Only 43% of African countries have any data privacy laws. In countries that do have data privacy laws, critics and advocates have raised concerns about the lack of sufficient protections and safeguards.

According to Privacy International, 50 African countries have implemented Mandatory SIM card registration laws requiring that people provide personal information, including a valid ID or even their biometrics, before they can purchase or activate a prepaid SIM card for their mobile device.

African countries with mandatory SIM registration laws

Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Amidst the widespread adoption of this law on the continent, critics have challenged the strategy especially because it has not adequately curbed the challenges that it intends to tackle stating that the risks of SIM card registration, which outweigh any possible benefits.

In South Africa, the Right2Know Campaign took telecom operators—MTN, Cell C and Telkom—on the transparency in handling data provided during SIM registrations. Pre-paid SIM cards are preferred by many mobile phone users. According to GSMA, 73% of mobile subscriptions globally are pre-paid. In Africa, 94% of mobile subscriptions are pre-paid.