Many cellphone users in Nigeria switched off their phones on Friday in protest against poor service and high tariffs charged by mobile networks. The unprecedented action was a response to several weeks of campaigning by a loose coalition of activists who say Nigerians are being ripped off.

Organisers are hoping to get the networks to address their concerns by hitting them in the pocket. By their calculations, operators could lose as much as 200-million naira if all of Nigeria’s two million-plus GSM phone subscribers switch off for just one minute.

Although there was no independent means of determining the degree of success of the action, organisers are claiming victory, while the networks have remained mum over the protests. Last year, the same activists sued the two leading networks - MTN and Econet - over their tariffs. Frustrated that court processes were taking too long, they launched the boycott.

Deolu Ogunbanjo, who heads the National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers - one of the groups behind the campaigns - has been doing the rounds of television talk shows all week. He said the programmes were swamped with callers pledging support. He claimed that close to 80% of cellphone users had joined the protest.

Before the boycott, a local newspaper ran a poll on its website which showed a groundswell of support. Out of 2,595 persons polled, 2,328, or almost 90%, said they would join the action, while 216 said they opposed it. On Friday, sections of the media reported substantial support for the boycott in the southeast and southwest, where the bulk of subscribers live. However, indications were that the organisers’ projections had been overly optimistic, and that the protest received a mixed response at best.

The companies that have been targeted appear to be taking a position that the protests did not happen. A spokesman for MTN Nigeria, the largest of the operators with a base of over a million subscribers, simply said the company "had no response at all" to the action.

The Nigeria Communications Commission last week said that despite its regulatory powers in the telecommunications industry, it could not compel GSM operators to review their tariffs.

SA’s Sunday Times