n Tuesday, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Nicholas Dausi shocked some Malawians when he announced in Parliament that government had suspended the registration of SIM cards and generic numbers until further notice.
He indicated that government wants mobile telecommunication service providers to go to remote areas to sensitise phone users to the importance of the compulsory registration exercise.
This suspension, according to the government spokesperson, follows public concerns with the exercise, especially suspicions that the registration exercise is a ploy by government to tap people’s phones which may impinge on their constitutional right to privacy.
Such sentiments were raised by Nkhata Bay Central legislator Ralph Mhone in Parliament.
That the suspension is confusing and frustrating would be an understatement.
In Dausi’s high-sounding diction, I am flabbergasted!
The retrogressive decision comes just when the registration process took off with mass excitement as characterised by snaking queues of enthusiastic law-abiding citizens in TNM and Airtel Malawi outlets across the country.
Prior to the beginning of the mandatory SIM card registration, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), in line with the Communications Act (2016), might have informed Dausi’s ministry about the initiative.
Having been duly satisfied with the proposal, the line minister might have given Macra a go-ahead.
Therefore, it is quite disheartening to have this premature suspension.
It is unfortunate that for the umpteenth time, government has flip-flopped and allowed politics to take centre-stage as next year’s general elections are around the corner.
Much as the country is grappling with low literacy levels, the suspension was and will not be the ultimate solution to this.
It will just further confuse the masses as a misinformation is already rampant that those who have already registered need to go back for de-registration.
Additionally, the suspension will provide fertile ground for further speculation that probably the exercise had some sinister motives.
Moving forward, despite the subtle indications that Macra rushed the process, there could have been no better time than now to make it happen.
Despite the need for multi-sectoral civic education and mass awareness campaigns to demystify the registration process, government has to follow global trends to ensure every SIM card is registered.
The desired civic education, as championed by Dausi and others, should run along with the actual registration.
Registration officers deployed by phone service providers will surely take time to explain to inquisitive subscribers the purpose of the whole exercise.
Some might recall a similar know-your-customer exercise by commercial banks in which they submitted similar information to what Macra is demanding. The recent mass registration initiative by the National Registration Bureau required Malawians to submit phone numbers and nobody raised a red flag.
Where the NRB exercise was marred by various glitches, government did not suspend it, but extended the period.
Maybe this is what we need currently. Let Macra extend the deadline beyond March 31 while government, through the Department of Civic Education, play their rightful role by sensitising the masses using every available opportunity, including presidential rallies.
To Macra, the country needs an assurance of how this sensitive data will be used and an undertaking that it will be used for the sole purpose it has been collected for, not to be released to other third parties.
This I believe is covered under E-Transaction Act though not comprehensively.
Optionally, allow President Peter Mutharika to launch the registration initiative as one way of accelerating and demystifying the process as he did at the start of NRB’s mass registration exercise.
Time has come for Malawi to stop being counted as one of the lagging countries in southern Africa with unregistered SIM cards.
This makes us a safe haven for criminal activity, including cybercrimes.
The country needs to move forward. This suspension impedes our development agenda. n