Following a directive by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), telecommunications companies in the country shut down all services and operations in Zamfara State, one of the states worst hit by banditry, kidnapping, religious extremism and terrorism in the north. The NCC ordered that telecommunications services in the state be halted for a period of two weeks from September 3 to 17 in the first instance.
The action was prompted by a letter dated August 31 from the Office of the Zamfara State governor, Mr Bello Matawalle, and addressed to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, requesting that telecommunications operations in the state be shut down as counter-measure to the activities of the criminals in the state.
It is understandable that a beleaguered Governor Matawalle desperately wants to find an enduring solution to the rising wave of insecurity in the state. The governor recently lamented that there were over 30,000 bandits living and operating in the state. Earlier, Matawalle had imposed a 6pm to 6am curfew in the state, in addition to banning all weekly markets from functioning, as well as banning sale of petrol in jerry cans at filling stations to stop the supply of fuel to bandits. Schools, markets and even some highways have been completely shut down in Zamfara State and some other northern states in a bid to halt the rampant criminality across the region. In spite of all of these measures, the bandits, kidnappers and terrorists continue to prove a hard nut for the military to crack.
Against this background, it is apposite to ask if the shutting down of telecommunications operations in Zamfara State is a solution to what has become a protracted and complex problem. In compliance with the NCC directive, the telecoms operators have shut down the 248 base stations that reportedly service the state, thus making it impossible for Zamfara’s estimated 2,197,431 voice subscribers and 1,592, 746 active internet subscribers to make calls, send text messages or even browse the Internet. Even though the situation in Zamfara and many other states in the north is indeed desperate and requires prompt and decisive action, governments must refrain from responding in a manner that suggests panic and even some sort of capitulation by the state to criminal non-state actors.
The resort to shutting down telecoms in the fight against criminality exposes, once more, the continuing critical lacuna in the battle to extricate Nigeria from the debilitating stronghold of religious extremism, banditry, kidnapping and terrorism. And this, as this newspaper has consistently said, is the obvious gross failure of intelligence in the prosecution of the war. Intelligence ought to be the most crucial resource of our military in an asymmetrical war like the one we are confronted with. In addition to the huge expenditures on the procurement of sophisticated and hi-tech weapons of war, there is the no less critical imperative to adequately fund, train and equip our various security agencies to be able to play their role effectively in the war against banditry, terror and order crimes.
If, for instance, the argument is that telecommunications operations in Zamfara State had to be shut down to disrupt communication lines between the bandits and their informants, or between kidnappers and relatives of their victims in negotiations for ransom payments, why can’t we utilise their reported dependence on the telecoms networks as our own weapon against them? Beyond that, the blanket shutting down of telecoms operations also prevents fruitful communication between the military in the various theaters of operation and their own informants in the communities.
Again, since the bandits have in the last few years amassed immense fortunes from ransom payments for the release of kidnapped victims, they can easily acquire sophisticated equipment such as satellite phones that can help them sidetrack the telecoms ban. It has also been pointed out that there are digital radios that can be effective for as far as 100km or even more. There is also the possibility of the criminals using telecoms facilities in neighbouring countries to operate in border communities.
The point is that this measure in Zamfara will further hurt the economy, disrupt businesses, increase the unemployment surge and deepen the abysmal level of poverty that is at the root of the rise of the assorted variants of criminality in the first place. And the implications of this transcends Zamfara, as the states that share borders with her may also be affected by the ban.
The government and its military and security agencies have no choice but to outmaneuver the criminals. And the most effective way to do this is to urgently upscale the capacity of our security agencies such that intelligence gathering, analysis and utilisation come to be the core around which our military operations against criminality revolves.