By Okoh Aihe
The big news last week in the telecommunications industry was the reappointment of Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta as the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). In the manner of practice in this part of the world, felicitations are pouring in from far and wide because, as it is in every political office, not one person gets appointed but metaphorically, a whole village or a people.
Let me also extend my congratulations and to wish him well in the performance of his official responsibilities from this moment going forward. If anything the industry will look forward to some level of stability as Prof. Danbatta consolidates on his efforts in the previous years. Which is why I am a little bit bemused that nobody seems to be talking about setting a fresh agenda for the EVC, instead it is a season of niceties, eulogies and composition of appellations at a time demanding very strong leadership for a fecund sector.
I am pained to observe that much of that good development was mired in the way the news was broken, which clearly betrayed the subterranean politics that played out in the process of renewal. Ordinarily such information shouldn’t be for public consumption. But these are no ordinary times, dear friends. Every miniscule achievement in office is laced in very tasty political icing to arrest the angry attention of a frustrated people.
The statement released by the Minister of Information and Digital Economy, Prof Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), and signed by his spokesperson, Uwa Suleiman, stated in part: “Prof Danbatta’s reappointment was based on the recommendation of the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), in line with the Nigerian Communications Act, 2003.”
The question is, which Act is the Minister talking about? My humble sojourn in the telecommunications industry teaches me that there is only one of such documents for the Federal Republic of Nigeria and that is the Nigerian Telecommunications Act 2003. The Act is so well packaged by professionals with hot patriotic blood running in their veins that it has remained the bedrock of a very promising industry which is not in full flight yet no matter our claims to the contrary. This is the reason some of the developments in the telecommunications industry of late should trouble every patriot or those with some love for the industry.
What the Act says
This is the position of the Act in Chapter 2, Part 2, Section 8(2) on the appointment of the EVC. “The Board shall make recommendations to the President on suitably qualified persons for appointment as the Commission’s Chief Executive and Executive Commissioners and the President shall take the Commission’s recommendations into consideration for the appointment.”
A simple observation from the foregoing is that there is no place for the Minister in the appointment process and even if his opinions were sought by the President, his opinion would not enjoy any constitutional validity. However there are more worries than a Minister trying to claim responsibility for what ordinarily is beyond his purview.
There are issues to be addressed in the industry before returning to the hyperactive nature of a Minister that is almost making the industry a joke. The industry is fractured through the centre and whispers are becoming louder from within the Commission to the entire industry. There is the need for the EVC to immediately begin to mend broken fences and appropriate the strength of the Commission and the entire sector for an onward drive.
Here are the lyrics of a 1971 song by The Undisputed Truth titled, Smiling Faces Sometimes: “Smiling Faces Sometimes/Pretend to be your friend/Smiling faces show no traces/Of the evil that lurks within (can you dig it?).”
Among regulatory agencies, the NCC stands shoulders high and can boast of highly knowledgeable individuals; some of them trained over several decades on regulatory issues. But there could be some people within the regulatory system that inadvertently carry the lyrics of the song in their hearts. No institution hits the super highway to the future with that level of fracture. The EVC should stop the drift and redirect their energies. Their knowledge is needed now, so is their strength and their commitment.
Devoid of salt and pepper here are some of the loud murmurs from the industry last week deserving EVC’s attention and this could as well find their way to his agenda.
- Strong leadership that accommodates the strength of every stakeholder for industry growth, initiatives and innovation.
- A revisit of the Spectrum Trading Guidelines which was recently suspended. Industry followers believed that the NCC had embarked on a good cause to make spectrum use more dynamic but truncated it for reasons that remain obfuscated.
- A proper reactivation of the Infraco licenses in order to breathe new life into the industry. Proper rollout by the Infracos will enhance connectivity among operators and make them less dependent on satellite and microwave services. This is on its own will address the elusive quality of service.
- Noted that a major breakthrough has occurred with some of the State Governors knocking the cost of right of way (RoW) for fibre rollout across states or a total removal thereof, some stakeholders observed that such gains could be eroded by multiple taxation which is equally very harmful.
- They suggest a one-stop-shop where operators could get into a state and do their transactions in one location.
- Baseline tariff or floor rate for data should be delivered from political equivocations and be handled professionally.
- NCC should track the status of the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) Bill which was in the 7th Assembly supposedly, and pursue it conclusively in order to help protect the industry.
- They observed that what was recently called an Executive Order from the President was verbal and carries no instrument.
A Return to Section 25(2)
Some suggested that in order to address the foregoing frontally, the EVC should pursue a strong industry governance structure that can create a commodious traction between the industry and the regulator. They frowned very strongly at recent happenings in the industry, including needless controversies, where the regulator seems embedded in the Communications Ministry.
Such chumminess, they bemoaned, can only hurt the industry and create avoidable barrier to much needed foreign direct investment (FDI). Their agonizing cry last week was an urgent return to Section 25(2) of the 2003 Act which says: In the execution of his function and relationship with the Commission, the Minister shall at all times ensure that the independence of the Commission, in regard to the discharge of its functions and operations under this Act, is protected and not compromised in any manner whatsoever.”
Anything short of the aforementioned will result in regulatory capture of the regulator by the Ministry and its Minster and this will not be a good testimony for a regulator that was in the days of yore a regulatory reference point to its peers across the continent, the ITU and GSMA communities.