GSM operators shut over 240 Zamfara base stations as bandits terrorise state

  •  Leaked letter shows Zamfara govt asked NCC to order shutdown
  • Security experts disagree on directive

In compliance with the directive of the Nigerian Communications Commission that all telecom sites in Zamfara State be shut down due to the “pervading security situation” in the state, GSM operators have shut down their base stations in the state, Sunday PUNCH learnt on Saturday.

A source in the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria confirmed to one of our correspondents that all the telcos had complied with the directive.

Saturday PUNCH had exclusively reported that a leaked memo signed by the Executive Vice-Chairman of the NCC, Prof Umar Danbatta, which was addressed to one of the telecom operators on Friday, stated that the immediate shutdown of all telecommunications services had become necessary due to the insecurity in the state.

In the letter titled, ‘Re: Shutdown of all telecom sites in Zamfara State’, the NCC boss stated that the shutdown, which would last from September 3 to September 17 in the first instance, was to enable relevant security agencies to carry out required activities towards addressing the security challenge in the state.

The memo partly read, “In line with the requirement, you are hereby directed to shut down all sites in Zamfara State and any site(s) in neighbouring states that could provide telecommunications service in Zamfara State. The site shutdown is for two weeks (September 3 – 17, 2021) in the first instance. Your urgent action in this regard is required.”

Meanwhile, the source in ALTON told one of our correspondents that the operators had no choice but to implement the directive of the NCC, being the regulatory authority for the telecommunications industry.

The source said, “It is the NCC that sent the letter and it is for all of the operators. When the government gives directives or when the regulator gives a directive what do you expect the telcos to do?

“Looking at what it means for the residents, we have to ask ourselves why the telecom infrastructure was shut down in the first place. That is the question the citizens should be asking. It is for their benefit. I cannot comment on how the shutting down order works, because as we are speaking, they are listening to us.”

…over 240 base stations shut
One of our correspondents, however, learnt that Zamfara State has about 248 base stations, which have now been shut down.

The NCC in its ‘2020 Subscriber/Network Data Report’, pointed out that there were a total of 33,832 towers belonging to mobile and fixed operators as well as collocation and infrastructure companies in 2020, while the operators had a total of 36,998 base stations.

The report noted that Jigawa, Ebonyi, Gombe, Yobe and Zamfara were the states with the least number of base stations, with Zamfara having 248 base stations. It, however, listed the top five states with the highest number of towers as Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers and the Federal Capital Territory.

According to the report, a base station is a fixed transceiver that functions as the main communication point for one or more wireless mobile devices, adding that it serves as a central connection point for wireless devices to communicate.

A source in the telecom industry said, “Essentially, to shut down the network, you have to shut down the base stations. The average base station in the state is remotely controlled and it goes back to a server somewhere. If I want to shut it down, I click on the shutdown remotely.

“Every base station is saying something. So, the monitoring team is able to control it remotely. Note that this is a government request. I don’t know how the logistics will work, but every base station has a security guard on duty, running the generator every day. They will simply turn off the generator and that is a total shutdown.”

subscribers face 14-day mobile phone blackout as bandits terrorise state
With the implementation of the directive, residents of Zamfara State might be unable to make calls, send text messages or even browse the internet.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria had a total of 192,413,613 active voice subscribers and 144,949,194 active internet subscribers in the first quarter of 2021. Zamfara State, with landmass of 15,352 square miles and a population of 4,353,533, had 2,177,431 active voice subscribers and 1,592,746 active internet subscribers.

A reliable source in one of the telecom companies told Sunday PUNCH that for the directive to be implemented, operators must shut down their base stations and that people would be unable to communicate or use the internet.

The source said, “If all the providers shut down their base stations, it means there won’t be any communication in the state again. The base stations speak to one another; they are connected. It is one base station contacting the next one when you make a call and that is why it is mobile. So, if you shut down base stations in a state, that means there would be no communication. They won’t be able to call, send text messages or browse the internet.

“Although if there is a base station in a border town, and that base station is shut down, it will affect that particular area in the two states, but it is just that area. It won’t affect other states, because their own base stations are active.”

Already, the leaked memo directed the operators to shut down any site(s) in neighbouring states that could provide telecommunications service in Zamfara State.

…leaked letter shows Zamfara govt asked NCC to order shutdown

Sunday PUNCH also gathered that the action taken by the NCC was its response to a letter from the Office of the Governor of Zamfara State to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.

AFP reported that the leaked letter, dated August 31, 2021, titled ‘Temporary Shutdown of GSM Networks’ partly read, “Following the escalation, the Zamfara State Security Council resolved that extra measures for public safety and strengthening the battle against banditry in the State should be taken.

“Accordingly, a task force was set up to ensure the new measures are enforced. The council noted that one of the biggest hurdles to combating banditry is the issue of informers who use mobile networks to communicate with bandits about the movements of troops. The bandits also take advantage of the availability of the networks to coordinate their attacks.”

The report quoted a representative of an international non-governmental organisation with presence in the state as saying they could no longer communicate by phone or via the internet with their team on the ground.

Meanwhile, the NCC directive came exactly six months after the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), on March 3, 2021, declared Zamfara State a no-fly zone because of the security crisis. In spite of this and other efforts of the government, over 500 persons have been killed in the state while hundreds including schoolchildren were kidnapped within the same period.

The latest of such abductions was the kidnap of 73 students of Government Day Secondary School, Kaya, in the Maradun Local Government Area of the state.

The Police Public Relations Officer, Zamfara State Command, Shehu Mohammed, said in a statement on Wednesday that the abduction followed the bandits’ invasion of the school at about 11:22 am. A day after, the bandits returned five of the students, while the remaining are still in captivity.

This latest attack, however, forced the state government to order the closure of all primary and secondary schools in the state. The governor, Bello Matawalle, also imposed a 6 pm to 6 am curfew on the state.

Security experts disagree on directive

Some security experts have disagreed with the Federal Government over the suspension of telecommunications service in Zamfara State, while some others described it as a right step in the right direction.

A security management and intelligence specialist, Kabiru Adamu, said inasmuch as he understood what the government was trying to achieve, it might not yield the desired result.

He stated, “We have seen other places where this was tried and it failed. One of the reasons is that some of these locations are border communities, thus it is easy to use lines that are from neighbouring countries. I doubt if the government has reached out to its counterparts in these countries to also ban the usage of their lines in the state and adjourning communities.

“Second, there are satellite phones; these bandits have money. They can resort to using one. Also, there are digital radios that can go as far as 100km and even more. There are options for them to deploy that to enable them to still communicate. The efficacy of this policy is in doubt.”

Adamu also said this would have a great impact on businesses in the area.

He added, “Aside from this, the impact on businesses is huge. I run a consultancy firm and between yesterday and now, two of my clients are already in panic mode. One of them is a bank worker; they have been unable to get in touch with their field officers.

“Many businesses today run through telecommunications. We should not forget that it is not just voice communication; there are a lot of platforms. It would affect the business ecosystem of the state.”

Also, the Managing Director, Agent-X Security Limited, Timothy Avele, said the shutdown would further bring untold hardship to the people, adding that there were better ways to block information leakages with technology.

Avele said, “This is a bad decision. I do not see any benefit in such action; rather it would worsen the already bad situation on the ground. If the Federal Government’s fear is that bandits have people who tip them off, then it simply means absolute failure of intelligence and counter-intelligence. There are better and simple ways to block such information leakages with technology. This is a simple problem companies in Nigeria could solve within two weeks with less than N10m.”

He added that the military could do a simple swap of the operations personnel and that a strict need-to-know policy must be implemented to the core. “The truth is that these operations are supposed to be purely intelligence-based,” he added. “Therefore, it is not everything even the President or the Chief of Army Staff should be aware of until after the operations.”

Speaking to one of our correspondents on the issue, Commodore Abimbola Ayuba (retd.) said more attention should be focused on information leakages, adding that the bandits had sophisticated equipment.

He added, “There is a lot of infiltration into the fabrics of our governance system to the extent that information leakage has become common. This needs more attention; we should tackle this first.”

He said further that some people depended on telecommunication services for their livelihoods and this might cause them hardship. “Also, these bandits don’t rely on this platform, they have sophisticated equipment,” he added.

Meanwhile, a former Director of the Department of State Services, Mike Ejiofor, described the move as a welcome development, saying if there was no conducive environment, they couldn’t do their business.

Security measures affecting MSME owners in Zamfara, Katsina, Niger’
Following the measures taken by some state governments in the North, including Zamfara, Niger and Katsina, to curb the menace of banditry and kidnapping, residents of the states have cried out that the measures are affecting their livelihoods.

Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State had about a week ago imposed a ban on all weekly markets in the state. The restriction followed the abduction of about 18 students and staff members of the state’s College of Agriculture and Animal Sciences, Bakura; the abduction and killing of several persons in Rini and Yarkofoji communities as well as the abduction of over 120 people in Goran Namaye.

The directive included a ban on the sale of petrol in jerry cans to stop fuel supply to the bandits; imposition of a 6pm to 6am curfew and directive to filling stations not to sell more than N10,000 fuel to each vehicle.

But residents in different parts of the state said the development was making life difficult for them.

A commercial bus driver, Lawali Bagega, said he used to work between 6am and 11pm but that now he had to be home before 6pm, noting that his income had also dropped. “Now I have to rush back home before 6pm to avoid the wrath of the law,” he lamented.

A restauranter, Maman Rabi, said she had been running at a loss because the curfew forces her to close before 6pm instead of her usual 11pm, noting that she had reduced the quantity of the food she cooks daily by almost 60 per cent because of reduced patronage.

A commercial motorcycle operator, Musa Sani, also expressed anger over the curfew, saying he no longer made as much money as he used to make. He, however, expressed hope that the measures would end the banditry.

He said, “It is not easy, but I think the government has taken the right step to address the problem.”

Meanwhile, in Katsina State, Auwalu Mustapha, who trades in firewood, lamented that his survival was being threatened. He explained that he and his colleagues in the business hire lorries to transport firewood from the forest to Katsina and other parts of the state, noting that due to the new security measures, he had fears they might be out of business once they exhaust their current stock.

He said, “Since the directive came into effect on Tuesday, no truck could enter the forest to transport firewood. This will force firewood prices to go up soon and several households and restaurants that depend on firewood would have to look for alternatives if firewood is no longer available.

“Considering the high cost of gas and unstable power supply, the development may have wider implications. I will appeal to the government to consider the plight of those of us who trade in firewood and many poor people in the state who depend on firewood to cook.”

A Daura-based legal practitioner and activist, Ado Lalu, said the recent approach to end insecurity in the state needed to be modified for the sake of people’s survival. “One of the measures to be taken is cutting off supplies of everything to the terrorists operating in the state as bandits,” Lalu added.

Governor Aminu Masari’s Special Adviser on Higher Education, Dr Bashir Ruwangodiya, had appealed to residents to support the security measures despite the inconveniences.

Ruwangodiya, who is also a victim of kidnapping, said aside from the new measures, the President should help the state by deploying security operatives and military hardware to tackle the challenge.

The Chairman of the Civil Society Organisations in the state, Abdul Rahman, said although the new measures would cause discomfort, especially for those who trade in livestock and firewood, residents must support the government by complying with the directives.

In Niger State, Governor Abubakar Bello cancelled the weekly cattle markets across the state, directing that “any vehicle carrying cattle into the state must show evidence of where the cattle were purchased and their destination.”

The state government also banned the sale of petroleum products in jerry cans or any other container at filling stations. Bello, however, noted that he was aware of the inconveniences the measures would cause, stating that the decision was taken in the interest of the state.

However, some residents who spoke to one of our correspondents lamented the hardship the measures had caused them.

A meat seller, Haruna Ibrahim, said they could be out of business in no time, “Before now, the price of cattle had gone up astronomically as a result of the activities of bandits. We struggle to get cattle to sell and now that they banned the weekly markets, they want to send us out of business,” he added.

A restaurant owner in Minna, Niger State, Hajia Halima Umar, said, “Our customers are already complaining of the cost of food. Now that we have to struggle to get cattle, the price has to increase again.”

On the ban on the sale of petrol in jerry cans, some of the residents described it as a misplaced priority, saying many of them rely on generators.

Niger, despite housing several power stations, has also been suffering from unstable power supply.

A resident, Mary Abraham, said, “The ban on sale of petrol in jerry cans is ridiculous. I wonder how the state government wants businesses that depend on generators to survive. Most of us run our businesses on generators. So, if we cannot get petrol, how do we survive?”

Credit: THE PUNCH.


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