AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers have condemned Federal Government’s non-compliance with a court’s order extending the period of NIN-SIM linkage by two months. The lawyers described government’s action as an outright violation of the rule of law.
The failure of the Federal Government to comply with a court’s order extending the period within which Nigerians should link their National Identity Numbers (NIN) with their Subscribers Identification Module (SIM) cards, has drawn the ire of some senior lawyers.
The lawyers’ reaction is coming as the new deadline announced by government for Nigerians to carry out the exercise expires in the next 72 hours.
This implies that individuals who are yet to link their NIN with their SIMs by May 6, 2021, would have their SIM cards blocked by the service providers.
The Federal Government had on April 2, 2021, announced the extention of the exercise by one month. It was earlier scheduled to expire by April 6, 2021. The announcement was made eleven days after a Federal High Court in Lagos gave an order extending the exercise by two months.
The new government’s deadline date was revealed in a joint statement signed by both the Director of Public Affairs at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, and Head of Corporate Communications, National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), Kayode Adegoke.
The statement indicated that the deadline was arrived at after a meeting of the Ministerial Task Force on NIN-SIM data linkage which had the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, and other industry stakeholders in attendance. The extension was said to have been endorsed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The statement reads: “The meeting took place on Thursday, April 1, 2021, and approval was given to extend the period of the NIN-SIM linkage to the 6th of May, 2021. The request for the extension was presented to President Muhammadu Buhari and he endorsed it.
“There are many people who have enrolled and are in the process of being assigned NINs. With each individual having an average of three to four SIMs, the total number of SIMs tied to NINs would close to the total number of registered SIMs in the country. “The current number of monthly enrolments had increased significantly to about 2.6 million registrations.
There has also been a remarkable increase in the number of enrolment centres across the country with about 3,800 centres available for enrolments”. Towards the end of last year, precisely on December 15, 2020, the Federal Government had declared that after December 30, 2020, all SIMs that were not registered with valid NINs on the network of telecommunications companies would be blocked.
Amidst widespread criticisms, the exercise was later extended by three weeks from December 30, 2020 to January 19, 2021. The period was for subscribers with NIN to link them up with their SIM cards. However, subscribers without NIN were given December 30, 2020, to February 9, 2021 dates to do the needful.
The Federal Government was later forced to further extend the exercise to April 6, 2021, owing to large crowd being witnessed at registration centres coupled with the various hiccups facing those who want to register for their NINs. Court’s ruling Justice Maureen Onyetenu of a Federal High Court in Lagos had on March 23, 2021, gave an order extending the deadline for Nigerians to link their NIN with their SIM cards by two months.
The judge gave the order while delivering ruling in a suit filed by a former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani, to challenge the propriety of the earlier 2-week ultimatum (Dec. 16, 2020 to Dec. 30, 2020) given by the Federal Government. The Federal Government, Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Patami, were joined as first to fourth respondents in the suit which was filed by Ubani in December 2020.
In the suit, Ubani contended that the initial two weeks ultimatum (now extended to April 6, 2021) given to telecommunication operators to block SIM cards of Nigerians who have not registered their SIM cards with NIN if allowed, will infringe on his constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression, right to own moveable property and right to life. He therefore prayed the court for an order halting the said ultimatum and extending the deadline.
Other prayers made by Ubani includes: “A declaration that the ultimatum given to telecommunication operators by the 1st, 3rd and 4th respondents to block all Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM) cards that are not registered with NIN, is grossly inadequate and will not only work severe hardship, but will likely infringe on his fundamental rights (and millions of other Nigerians) to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Section 39(1)(2) of the Constitution.
He added that the action also violates Section 44(1) of the Constitution which prohibits the compulsory acquisition of right or interest over moveable property.
“A declaration that in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cases in Nigeria presently, the deadline given by the 1st, 3rd and 4th respondents to the applicant and over 200 million Nigerians to register their SIM cards with NIN, will lead to a rush, thereby resulting to clustering of the applicant and other Nigerian citizens in a NIN registration centre, subjecting him to the possibility of easily contracting the COVID- 19 virus, and such will amount to a violation of his fundamental right to life as protected by Section 33(1) of the Constitution.
“An order halting the said ultimatum given by the 1st, 3rd and 4th respondents to telecommunication operators to block all SIM Cards that are not registered with NIN”.
In her ruling, Justice Onyetenu granted all the prayers by the plaintiff (Ubani) and ordered an extention of the NIN-SIM linkage period by two months. However, rather than complying with the court’s order, the Federal Government extended the deadline for the exercise by only one month. Commenting on the breach of the court’s order by the Federal Government, Mr. Ubani expressed his displeasure at the action.
The lawyer said government cannot claim ignorant of the order as same has been transmitted to the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, as well as other telecommunication stakeholders Ubani threatened to slam contempt proceedings on the Federal Government if it failed to retrace its steps.
He said: “The Federal Government’s action is an outright violation of the rule of law upon which every civilized democracy is rooted. The court rightly ruled in favour of the good citizens of Nigeria when it ordered a two months extension of the NIN-SIM linkage.
“The judgement of the court halting the planned disconnection has been graciously transmitted to the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, as well as other telecommunication stakeholders. However, it is so disheartening to hear the current planned line of action to disconnect unlinked SIMs by 6th of May, 2021.
This action is clearly in contempt of the court’s order mandating an extension for two months. “The Federal Government is showing a bad example to the great citizens of this nation by the constant disregard and utter disrespect for the judiciary.
This unfortunate trend ought not to be so in a democratic nation like Nigeria, where the judiciary as a separate arm of government exists independently to curb the excesses of other arms of government (the Executive in this instance).
“The Executive under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari has consistenly undermined the independent power of the judiciary. I still wonder why the Executive arm of Government claim to be modelling our democracy after the United States of America when they cannot strive to obey simple court orders.
“It is indeed a very pathethic situation but I have a very strong belief in our judiciary as it is the hope of the common man. The ongoing Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) strike action, although it is for a good cause, has also been a serious clog in the wheel of justice.
Nonetheless, once their demands are met and the strike called-off, I will proceed to court to institute contempt proceedings against the Federal Government, should the Federal Government persist in flouting the order of court”. Lawyers speak Like Ubani, some senior lawyers have equally expressed their displeasure at the failure of the Federal Government to abide by the court’s order on the deadline for NIN-SIM linkage.
The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend were unanimous in condemning the Federal Government’s action saying respect for court orders and judgements is neither optional nor discretionary. Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome, said the Federal Government is bound to obey the court’s order. He urged anyone at the receiving end of government’s breach of the court’s order to seek legal redress.
He said: “A court’s order overrides and superintends. There can’t be two Obas, Emirs or Ezes in one palace at the same time. Once the court pronounces, the Federal Government must shut up. It is two months and nothing short.
Any Nigerian denied linkage of their National Identity Number (NIN) after May 6, 2021, should go to court to enforce his right”. In his own views, a former President of the Committee for Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, opined that the Federal Government’s action portends grave danger for the rule of law.
“It portends very weak adherence to the rule of law by way of obedience to court orders. Respect for court orders and judgements is neither optional nor discretionary.
It is mandatory, a constitutional obligation and remains peremptory under a constitutional democracy. “Section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution imposes a duty on all persons and authorities to obey and enforce the decisions of the Federal High Court in any part of the federation.
The factor of rule of law compliance remains an unassailable threshold of any functional democracy. The judgement of the court as to the extended period of time must be enforced unless set aside by a superior court or by an order for stay of execution effectively obtained which is not the case here”, Ugwummadu said.
Mr. Wale Ogunade also expressed his displeasure at the action of the Federal Government. He said: “To me, I think the Federal Government is grandstanding.
This is because if anyone should promote law and order, it should be the government. It is unfortunate that the Federal Government has decided not to obey an order validly given by a court of competent jurisdiction. The court order was made to protect Nigerians, particularly at a time COVID-19 is ravaging the world.
“We have seen that registration centres for the National Identity Number (NIN) are breeding grounds for COVID-19 and government has failed to realize this.
I am quite sure many people are yet to get enrolled and even an extension of the deadline to July will not suffice. I expect that many Nigerians will go to court to enforce their rights should the Federal Government go ahead to block people’s lines by May 6 and people like us are waiting in the fringes to support such an idea.
“If government is serious with this project, I expect that more registration points will be opened for people to enrol for their NIN. Besides, obedience to court orders on the part of government is a necessity so as to avoid promoting anarchy and disobedient to law and order”,
Ogunade said. Dr. Fassy Yusuf said Federal Government will be acting in contempt of court if it decided to ignore the order after its attention was drawn to it.
He said: “I think first of all we need to establish that the order of the court for the two months extension was served on the appropriate government agency. Once that is established, then, we can safely said that government is acting in contempt of the court’s order, in which case, contempt proceedings can be initiated against the erring government agency. The Federal Government has no option than to obey the court’s order unless it is vacated”. Mr. Kabir Akingbolu submitted that the action of the Federal Government is in clear violation of the spirit of the rule of law in modern democracy. “The moment the court has granted an order of extension for the linking of SIM with NIN, government has no say again than to follow the directive of the court by complying with the time fixed by the court. To now turn around and change the period of time allowed and permitted by the court is to say the least, an aberation of the highest order which goes contrary to the spirit of the rule of law in modern democracy like ours. “It is submitted that if the government make any contrary directive to that of the court, then, it will without any doubt be guilty of contempt of court.
Therefore, it is in the interest of the nation to allow the extension as approved by the court because the time given by the court is more practical and more realistic than that of the government’s one month when many people might not have done the registration, especially given its cumbersome nature.
It is therefore suggested that government should allow the order of court to guide its affairs. Otherwise, it will go down in history to further reshape the human rights record of this administration which has hitherto been very poor”,
Akingbolu said. Speaking in the same vein, Mr. Ige Asemudara, believed it is improper for the Federal Government to treat court’s order with disdain saying it is meant to be obeyed. He said: “Once there is a valid and subsisting court order, the Federal Government must comply with it.
All judgements are to be obeyed. In any event, if the intention is to capture all Nigerians in the database of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), why the rush? Why not do a good and thorough job once and for all?”