Nigerians without mobile phones 20 years after GSM revolution blame poverty, others

Oladimeji Ramon and Chima Azubuike

Panta Burguse does not know what it feels like to use a mobile phone to communicate. At 80, she neither owned nor ever communicated with one.

For the childless widow, who lives in Sishemvire village in the Yalmatu Deba Local Government Area of Gombe State, it will be a dream come true if she ever owns a phone and to experience speaking through it.

“I often peep at people making calls, looking at them in admiration. Sometimes out of curiosity I will move near the person, trying to hear how a phone call sounds; how the receiver’s voice sounds; because I like a phone,” Burguse, who introduced herself as a farmer, spoke in Tera language during an interview with

Sishemvire hamlet where she lives is nearly an hour’s journey from the state capital, Gombe.

The encounter, facilitated by an interpreter, Ali Ahmadu, a commercial motorcyclist plying Zambukk and Gombe metropolis, was after a long, relentless search.

On arriving in Sishemvire at about 11am on a Wednesday in February, Ahmadu, after making some enquiries, led the way to Burguse’s house but the widow was not at home.

The grandma would have been called on a phone if she had one to find out where she was and to tell her she had visitors at her house.

But our correspondents and the interpreter had to approach a neighbour who told them to wait while he went in search of Burguse in the neighbourhood.

Fortunately, she was not too far away as she appeared a little while after.

“I have never owned a phone since GSM came to Nigeria,” the octogenarian said during a conversation.

“I don’t have money to buy one and no one has given me one.  I don’t have any biological children,” she added.

Asked what she often did if she had to communicate urgently with people in far places, Burguse said, “Since I don’t have a phone, I usually don’t try to communicate with people in far places; all I do is wait to see them. If it is urgent, I look for anyone heading in that direction to help me convey the message to them. I have no mobile number of anyone and I wrote none down. As it is now, if I need to communicate with anyone in a faraway place, I will wait until I see someone who will help me convey the message. There are times when the person whom the message is meant for will not get it till they come to the village.”

Burguse’s situation sounded hard to believe in a country where mobile phones have become cheap and commonplace. But that is the situation at the moment.

She is one of the millions of Nigerians left behind while other citizens joined the rest of the world to communicate with families and friends through the Global System for Mobile Communication, which is one of the new modes of communication.

In reality, one can say Burguse and others in her class are living 20 years behind other Nigerians.

GMS entry into Nigeria

It was in 2001–exactly 20 years ago– that GSM made an inroad into Nigeria, with the arrival of Zimbabwean telecommunications company, Econet (now Airtel), and MTN from South Africa.

Two years after the arrival of Econet and MTN, Nigeria’s indigenous service provider, Globacom, followed in 2003, while Etisalat (9mobile) came in March 2008.

MTN, which recently celebrated two decades of operating in Nigeria, noted on its website about how “the very first (mobile) phone call (was) made at Maritime House Apapa (Lagos) on May 16, 2001.”

Between then and now, million phone calls had been made as the number of GSM subscribers in the country grew to 187.8 million, according to statistics from the website of the Nigerian Communications Commission, the regulator of the country’s telecommunications sector.

Of these 187.8 million subscribers, MTN has the largest share with 73.1 million subscribers (39.01 per cent); followed by Globacom with 51.1 million subscribers (27.28 per cent); Airtel, 50.3 million subscribers (26.8 per cent); and 9mobile, 12.9 million subscribers (6.8 per cent).

Statistics on active, inactive lines

According to the World Population Review, Nigeria’s current population is estimated at 212,928,804. The NCC noted that there were 297.2 million connected GSM lines in the country as of June this year. It added that out of the connected lines, only 187.2 million were active as of June. Invariably, 110 million connected lines are currently inactive.

The Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria, Mr Gbenga Adebayo, told that being inactive meant that the 110 million GSM lines “are not being used for making or receiving calls.”

Industry stated that it was difficult to tell the exact number of Nigerians who owned a mobile phone and those who didn’t.

They noted that the number could not be determined merely on the basis of the NCC figure of 187.8 million subscribers.

Since it is common for an individual to own more than one GSM line, it is safe to conclude that the NCC figure of 187.8 million subscribers doesn’t mean there are 187.8 million individuals using GSM phones in the country.

Adebayo further said that the exact figure of Nigerians with GSM lines could be “between 75 million and 100 million.”

This, he explained, was based on the calculation that one subscriber was assumed to have an average of three to four Subscriber Identification Module cards.

He stated, “The average is three to four SIM cards per unique subscriber; then the average will be between 75 million to 100 million with a SIM card.’’

His explanation was hinged on the fact that an average Nigerian GSM user had at least two SIM cards from different service providers. If an average GSM user in Nigeria doesn’t have two mobile phones, the subscriber is likely using a phone that has two SIM card ports. Many Nigerian GSM users do this to take advantage of competitive tariffs and network clarity among the country’s telecoms service providers.

A report by OpenSignal indicated that 66 per cent of mobile phones in the Nigerian market were dual-SIM card phones.

It placed Nigeria at the top of a list of 20 countries with popularity of dual-SIM cards mobile phones.

Also, a research firm, Geopoll, noted in a report in April 2021 that the number of unique GSM subscribers in the country could be 50 per cent of the population.

Going by these explanations, it is possible that at least 100 million Nigerians do not have a SIM card or are outside the GSM coverage.

Nigeria’s teledensity

Besides, the number could be less given the NCC disclosure that Nigeria had a teledensity of 98.28 per cent as of June, 2021.

The Oxford dictionary defines teledensity as “the ratio of fixed mobile phones to the number of inhabitants within an area.”

It is usually measured by “the number of telephones for every 100 inhabitants.”

In his explanation, the ALTON chairman stated that “teledensity varies widely across the nations and also between urban and rural areas within a country.”

He said, “In our case, that report of 98.28 per cent expresses the number of inhabitants that have access to telecoms (voice/data) services.’’

Going by the NCC’s data, 1.72 per cent of the Nigerian population lacked access to GSM voice/data services. This is the class Burguse falls into.

Nigerians without mobile phones

Seventy-year-old Buba Kari, who lives in Anguwa Gurukutu, Zambukk, also in Gombe State, is another Nigerian in that class.

Like Burguse, Kari, who is also a farmer, said he was still waiting for his first opportunity to communicate by phone.

The farmer, who has two wives, said money was impeding the realisation of the dream. “I don’t have money to buy a phone,” he said when speaking with

Kari stated that he would be elated if he had the opportunity to become a phone owner, adding “I have a challenge with my eye – I am having issues seeing well.”

He added that owning a mobile phone would end his dependence on travellers to relay his messages to loved ones in faraway places.

“There are many people I would like to talk to. First, I will be happy if I can speak to some of my children living afar.

“I will ask them to send me money for upkeep; I will find out how they have been doing,” Kari stated in response to a question on what he would do with a phone.

But until his wish becomes a reality, seeing people communicating with phones will continue to stir “an increased desire to want to own a phone.”

The story is the same for Yohana Dogo, a 75-year-old farmer, who lives at neighbouring Anguwa Floti.

“I have never owned a phone. I have no money to buy one,” was the swift response of the father of four when he spoke with our correspondents in his community.

Asked why his children never bought one for him, “They are not working,” Dogo replied, noting that he would be glad if he got one as a gift.

 “I will be happy to own a phone. If I own a mobile phone today, I will call Ibrahim Hassan, Isah Danda – my relations.  I will ask about their families, tell them about my condition among other issues,’’ he said in an elated voice.

Another woman in neighbouring Anguwa Gurukutu, Zambuk, Mariam Buba, 60, has a similar story.

Buba said, “I have not owned a mobile phone in my life. I can’t afford to buy one. Seeing people using phones, I wish I had one to call mine. If I own a mobile phone today, I will call Ali, one of my distant sons. I will tell him my needs in the home ranging from food, medication to money.’’

In the South-West, Ore precisely, Ondo State, Princess Raliatu Abeke, a centenarian, never used a phone for a different reason.

“I don’t know how to use it and I believe in seeing the person I am talking to. Children nowadays do tell lies on the phone. I don’t believe in it,” Abeke, who incidentally passed away a day after an interview with our correspondents, said in July.

She stated that letter writing remained the most reliable way of communicating with people in distant places. She neither desired a phone nor patronised GSM call centres which once dotted streets in many parts of the country until they fizzled out a few years ago.

“My children help in passing information to who I wanted to talk to and who stayed far away and give me feedback.  Oh my God! Letter writing was better than this yeye phone,” the old woman had said.

Life without mobile phones

But many people nowadays cannot imagine life without mobile phones.

A trader in Magboro, Ogun State, Mrs Funke Adejare, recalled how she once lost her mobile phone and it felt like she lost a vital part of her body.

The 53-year-old trader, who deals in wholesale of household staples such as garri, yam flour, bean, rice, palm oil and groundnut oil, said doing business would be difficult without her phone.

“I can’t recall how many (mobile) phones I have used since I got my first mobile phone, I think, in 2005.

“As a trader, I find phones to be indispensable. For instance, I can’t just go to Ijebu to buy garri without first calling my suppliers on the phone. Imagine if I can’t call them before travelling only to get there and be told that there is no supply. I would have wasted precious time and energy,” Adejare explained.

On his part, a bank worker, Steve Daranijo, said without a mobile phone he would feel like “not being alive.”

 “I went out a short while ago and I didn’t go with my mobile phone because I was charging it. While I was out, I was uncomfortable because I knew I would have got messages.

“On return, when I picked the phone, there were several messages I needed to respond to. I can say the phone is like ‘blood’, it is life,” Daranijo said in an interview with

Benefits beyond phone calls

The bank worker further stated that these days, the use of a mobile phone had transcended merely making calls. He noted that mobile phones had now become a vital tool in day-to-day business life.

He said, “With a mobile phone, one can transfer and receive money, pay for goods and pay bills from wherever one is. One can check one’s bank account and do so much more. A lot of what we used to visit the bank to do, we can now do right on our mobile phones.

“A mobile phone today is like a mini computer. What we used to visit cyber cafes in the early days to do, we can now do on our mobile phones.”

Similarly, a journalist, Anthony Enebeli, stated that without his mobile phone he would feel like someone in a cave or a dark place.

He said, “It (a phone) is a window, a vista to the world,” adding that he bought his first mobile phone in 2008 and had changed phone about 10 times since then. “One (phone) in two years, that’s how I use phones,” Enebeli stated.

A mobile phone’s many blessings

The National President, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers, Chief Adeolu Ogunbanjo, stated that Nigerians would remain grateful to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose administration brought GSM to Nigeria in 2001.

“GSM has been a blessing and this was brought about by the Obasanjo administration; he blazed the trail and gave us GSM to align with the rest of the world. That was something commendable and we should continue to appreciate him for this,” Ogunbanjo said.

Apart from bringing with it ease of communication, the advent of GSM in Nigeria had also expanded economic opportunities in the country.

In his comment, the ALTON chairman noted that it provided employment opportunities for millions, directly and indirectly.

Adebayo said, “Several Nigerians are employed by the network operators and many more are being employed by service support companies, outsourcing companies and several of them who work in the telecoms ecosystem. Our industry ecosystem remains one of the largest employers of labour.’’

Statistics from the NCC website showed that the telecoms industry was a major contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

According to NCC, from about 7.7 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012, the contribution of the telecoms industry to Nigeria’s GDP has steadily grown over the years and risen to 14.42 per cent as of the second quarter of 2021.

‘Why we’ve never used mobile phones’

Despite the many economic opportunities brought into the country by GSM and the ease it brought to communication, millions of citizens have been left behind.

Burguse and others in her class identified lack of money as the reason for their inability to own mobile phones in the 20 years that GSM has arrived in Nigeria.

Their stories captured Nigeria’s situation where 40 per cent of citizens live below the poverty line.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, about 83 million Nigerians live below the poverty line, spending N137,430 ($381.75) per year or 376.52 ($0.92) per day.

Ogunbanjo described the situation of Burguse and others without mobile phones as unfortunate and incredible.

He recalled that in 2001 when GSM came to Nigeria, SIM cards and phones were expensive, noting that the prices crashed over the years.

The NATCOMS president said, “Honestly, it will be unfortunate if in this day and age, this is the third decade of the 21st century and we are about 20 years old with GSM (we still have people who have never used a mobile phone).

“I do know that the aboki, working as an itinerant tailor, has a mobile phone, the shoe shiner who walks round to get customers and many old people in the village, including roadside sellers of roast corns also have. I will be surprised if someone says he or she doesn’t have a phone. It’s cheap now. SIM cards are free, unlike in those days when a SIM card was sold for between N65,000 and N70,000 in 2001. Today with only N2,500, one can get a phone with a camera; and a free SIM card. I can’t see why anyone will not be able to afford one. It will be a big surprise to find a person who has never owned a mobile phone.’’

Cheap, costly phones everywhere

visit to Nigeria’s veiled Silicon Valley, Computer Village, Ikeja, Lagos, showed that one could buy a phone for as low as N2,500 ($6.08).

Our correspondents, who made enquiries, found many low-cost Chinese brands of phones.

Geopoll, in its report, noted that from an average of $216 in 2014, the prices of smartphones in Nigeria crashed to around $95 in 2018 “and some basic Internet-enabled phones can be bought for as low as $20.”

But for 83 million Nigerians who live on 376.52 ($0.92) per day, a N2,500 ($6.08) mobile phone is still a luxury, as it will take them nearly a week of going hungry to acquire one. Besides, the poor economic situation in the country and the naira-dollar crises would further compound their dream of owning phones. There is also the cost of loading call credit on the phone.

According to the NCC industry statistics, GSM operators charge an average of N12.32k per minute of phone call.

Extinct phone call centres

Before now, people like Burguse, without a mobile phone, could visit phone call centres, where they paid to make phone calls.

But the call centres had since disappeared after the influx of mobile phones and the crash of SIMs.

Commenting on the development, Ogunbajo stated that the disappearance of the ubiquitous phone call centres was not unconnected with the fact that mobile phones had become so cheap that nearly everyone could afford one, while SIM cards were also given for free.

He said, “The fact that phones have become really cheap is responsible for the disappearance of the phone call centres that we used to have. The call centres were a source of money for many. But that has disappeared and unfortunately the banks have taken over phone recharging.”

Cheap phones drove us out of business –Ex-phone call centres operators

The advent of GSM into the country brought a myriad of business opportunities. In the early days, when mobile phones and SIM cards were out of the reach of many Nigerians, thousands of people got jobs by operating phone call centres where people without mobile phones paid to make calls.

A store keeper in Magboro, Ogun State, Mrs Gloria Nwafor, recollected that it was good business at the time.

Nwafor stated, “That was my main business at the time. Every day I had customers in a long queue to make calls. MTN gave us a special phone with a special tariff, which was lower than what private phone owners got. Also, there was a bonus. The more customers one had, the more bonus one got. In fact, business was so good that in some months, I didn’t even have to recharge the line. The bonus would be enough to do business.’’

Regrettably, however, she said that business opportunities had been overtaken by current realities in the telecoms sector.

She added, “About five or six years ago, I had to stop the business because there was no more patronage. Mobile phones became so cheap that everyone could afford one and people were no longer patronising call centres to make calls.

“In fact, if anyone approaches me today to say they want to pay and make calls, I will be suspicious that such a person may be a scammer.’’

The woman stated that in the twilight of phone call centres, she and other major operators in Magboro were approached by Sterling Bank which introduced the Point of Sale business to them as a replacement. However, she noted that the profit was not comparable to what she made in the days of phone call centres.

Another woman, Mrs Bridget Obose, remembered with nostalgia running a phone call centre.

Obose said, “I made a good profit during the per-minute billing regime. If a caller spent one minute and one second, I would charge two minutes. That was how I made money.’’

She added that she dumped the business during the proliferation of cheap mobile phones.

“People were no longer coming; almost everybody now has a mobile phone and call credits are now cheap too and people also get bonuses on recharges,” she stated.

The changing dynamics

With advancing years, the nature of economic opportunities in the telecoms industry is changing. As some are getting outdated, others are emerging.

The NATCOMS president stated that the sale of airtime (recharge cards), which used to be business for operators of phone call centres, had been taken over by banks.

He said, “Back then, no bank was selling airtime but they have now taken the job off the ordinary man on the street by venturing into sale of airtime. But in my view, banks should have nothing to do with selling airtime; they should rather face their core business. Let the sale of airtime be left to the ordinary people and when these people make money, they can save in the banks.

“These people used to sell airtime alongside operating paid phone calls, now that the phone call business has been phased out, these people should be kept in business with the sale of airtime. My appeal is that the banks should face their core job and return the airtime business to the ordinary man who needs it.”

When reminded that with smartphones, many phone users now preferred to load airtime online from the comfort of their homes, offices and other places without having to buy recharge cards, scratch and load, Ogunbanjo insisted that there was no reason for banks to take over the space.

He stated that the telecoms service providers should rather invent an app that would keep sale of airtime in the hands of ordinary Nigerians.

He said, “Let them (mobile operators) empower the card sellers, by giving codes to them, so that they can remain in business. At a time, this airtime business employed many Nigerians – the old women, who would otherwise be idle, they could come out to sell airtime, which, in a way, helped their health. Some of our unemployed youths also found it as a saving grace. My appeal is that the banks should stay off, so that these people can get something done. It is important now that even COVID-19 has taken away many opportunities from the people and people need to be commercially engaged to be able to survive.”

However, he noted that beyond airtime, Internet access had opened new vistas of economic opportunities for Nigerians.

“Beyond airtime now is data. Data is everything these days; it is for business, communication, virtual or e-shop. It is everything,”he stated.

The ALTON president stated that 20 years later, the telecoms service providers “have done well and surpassed projections and expectations about the development of telecom services in Nigeria and its positive impact on our economy.”

On what the future held for the industry, he said in the digital space, the figure was good and they were looking forward to connecting more Nigerians and making high-speed connections more available and affordable. He added that they were now preparing for 5G which would be a major revolution in broadband services.