Salusi, a Lagos-based commercial motorcyclist from Sokoto, has been unable to contact his sick wife who resides in Isa Local Government Area, Sokoto State via telephone since 5 September 2021. This is not because there are no mobile phones, or there is a lack of airtime at either party’s location. It is a result of the shutdown directive by the government in line with the ongoing operations against banditry by the military in Northern Nigeria.

On 3 September 2021, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) ordered all telecommunications companies to shut down their services in the North West, especially, Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states. The NCC said it issued this directive based on a request by the Nigerian military in advance of planned operations against organised armed groups in the North West. Nigeria’s North-West geopolitical zone has seen some of the worst attacks on villagers carried out by what is now described as ‘bandits’ who are said to be responsible for kidnapping, arson, cattle theft and other crimes. Some of these so-called bandits have affiliations with established Islamist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara are among the worst-hit states in the insecurity that has spilt over to the neighbouring North Central zone.

Residents have complained about their inability to communicate with areas outside Zamfara, but the government at both federal and state levels say the shutdown is achieving its intended result1. Prior to the shutdown, governors of Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara shut down their local economies, ordering weekly markets closed as well as placing a ban on the interstate transportation of cattle while also outlawing the use of motorcycles beyond certain time periods, a measure aimed at stopping attacks by bandits using motorcycles.

Notably, Isa Local Government Area in Sokoto, where Salusi’s wife resides, shares a border with Shinkafi, Zamfara. This clearly indicates that the shutdown is also affecting neighbouring communities that border the three affected states. To assess the impact of the recent shutdown directives on telecommunication operations on residents in the affected states, we conducted a survey in the week ending on 16 September 2021.

A total of 679 people across the target states were surveyed during the course of the study. The breakdown of respondents is as follows:

  • 238 respondents were resident in Kaduna
    234 respondents are resident in Katsina
    207 respondents in Zamfara

Of the total responses received, all Zamfara respondents had lost phone services in their area within the two weeks prior to the survey. Curiously, 10% of respondents in Kaduna lost access to telecommunications services even before the blackout was announced in neighbouring Zamfara. Since the blackout, a further 3% lost access, making 13% of Kaduna respondents without access to mobile telecommunication.

Businesses in Zamfara are also bearing much of the brunt of the shutdown, probably because its economy is more agrarian than either Kaduna or Katsina and is thus less resilient. The loss in earnings has also been significant. 6% can no longer earn a living, the number of top earners has fallen by 8%, and those who earn between ₦1,000 and ₦5,000 has increased by 4%. It means that in total, at least 18% of wage earners have seen their earnings either reduce or be wiped out altogether. In a region already struggling with poverty and a high dependency ratio which puts pressure on incomes, the residents of these states are paying a high price for the ongoing military operations.

This high economic cost leads us to recommend cessation of the telephone shutdown, in order for residents to resume business and for security officials to take a dispassionate look at the efficacy of operations so far. One of the major underlying drivers of the security situation in the North-West is poverty. Any action or actions that are taken which indicate an increase in economic hardship must be short-term and closely linked to results, so as not to pour fuel on the fire.

Another issue with the shutdown of telephone services is the potential lack of accountability for military actions on the battlefield. News coverage out of the North-West is already sparse, and the directives equate to a media blackout which means there is only one version of events. The impact on the fundamental rights of residents in the affected states cannot go unmentioned. as well as the general public’s right to know what actions are being taken in the name of security.

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