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Communications Minister’s dopamine and Nigeria’s telecom sector

By Charles Ebele

No doubt, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, has taken the telecommunication by storms, churning out what he often terms broad telecom policy week-in week-out and earning applauses from Nigerians.

Nevertheless, to the discerning minds, especially the watchers of the telecom industry, Pantami is either exhibiting the mentality of classic entry staff in public service, who normally displays high dose of commitment in order to make an impression but can’t help how low he is in terms of competence, or he simply has his mind fixed on destroying the gains in the nation’s most progressing sector.

A brief analysis of Pantami’s 24/7 engagement on his twitter handle, where he impulsively and emotionally takes some far-reaching decisions on the industry reveals a lot about his psychology as a man, who needs help to rid himself from the trap of dopamine, a state of health, where the right balance is needed in a man for physical and mental wellbeing and in taking rational, rather than emotion-based decisions.

The first thing you notice about him is that he has luxury of time to acknowledge every singular praise, deserving or not, with a like or a retweet as he is so much addicted to ovations. It is safe to aver that the young minister easily enters the dangerous zone of withdrawal syndrome whenever the encomium level is low and hence the need to issue a new “broad policy” to satisfy the voracious appetite.

Nonetheless these impulsive actions of the minister are now fast exposing his unskillfulness for the job as every one of them makes him appear like a bull in a china shop, a laughing stock of the industry that bases his irrational decisions as a product of “I was not informed”.

If media reports are anything to go by, it is safe to believe that the over 39,000 base transceiver stations reportedly built by mobile network operators as well as thousands of fibre cables laid across the country are facing serious threats which must be acknowledged by all stakeholders.

While these facilities have been adjudged grossly inadequate to provide optimal services to the increasing number of Nigerians yearning for ‘superlative’ telecoms service – both for voice and data, the existing facilities are also said to be facing major challenges that conspire against operators’ quest to optimally utilise their infrastructures to satisfy their consumers. It stands to reason that no operator desires to have downtime or poor service delivery in a highly-competitive market as we have it in Nigeria.

From lack of direct access to public power supply, to vandalism, fibre cuts, high cost of right of way (RoW) or denial of RoW permits, indiscriminate closures of telecoms base stations by state governments and their agencies, theft of telecoms equipment at sites, among others, telecoms infrastructures continue to face serious attacks.

While all these challenges affect operators, who also must strive to meet the service delivery standards set by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the nation’s telecoms regulator, the Minister has remained pathologically unconvinced that all these challenges are real.

For instance, after a detailed briefing on the challenges confronting the industry by the regulator, the minister had hastily accused the NCC “of defending the operators…” He was also quoted to have said that he was “not fully convinced with the explanation” offered by the NCC with respect to cost of services and quality of service experience by the consumers.

Mast fire
Mast Fire: Vandalism remains one of the major challnges of MNOs

Basic economics should reveal to the Minister that each of the challenges so itemised by the regulator during the reported briefing will naturally increase their overheads and consequently impact the cost and quality of service by the operators.

Instead of taking time to understand the issues and intricacies of the telecoms industry, the Minister has refused to learn. As a populist Minister, he will rather pander to emotions expressed by Nigerians on social media platforms as basis for churning on various directives.

Such emotionally-based decisions characterised the Minister’s directives which set aside a legal determination for the operator’s proposed charges for unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) usage by consumers; then, the directive on data reduction by Minister’s fiat, and then, his latest directive on voicemail.

Operators and discerning industry watchers are quick to point out that the successive directives by the Minister amount to interference into the regulatory matters. They also argue that, if not checked, Minister’s current stance might discourage further investment inflow into one of the country’s critical sectors.

However, the Minister’s recent call to all state governors to protect telecoms infrastructure as critical national infrastructure appears he is now “convinced” about the centrality of telecoms as critical national infrastructure that supports the nation’s economy and security architecture. It appears Pantami has woken up from his slumber to do the right things. This is putting the horse before the cart rather his earlier orientation of putting the cart before the horse.

But, again, in a well-cirvulated statement signed by his spokesperson, Uwa Suleiman early this week which, regrettably, was the Minister’s response to media reports unanimously pointing out his weaknesses, lack of readiness to learn to understand the intricacies of telecoms sector that it is governed by rules, laws, legal determination, directions and regulations, the Minister apparently alleged smear campaign against him.

Gbenga Adebayo
Chairman of Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Engineer Gbenga Adebayo
ALTON Adebayo
Chairman of ALTON, Engr. Gbenga Adebayo

In the statement, he alleged the Nigerian media of conspiracy against him on the one hand and compromises between all regulators and operators in the ICT editors, which he said didn’t start now. The interpretation of this could mean that Pantami as immediate past Director General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) also was involved in “compromising” with players in the Information Technology space.

From all indications, Pantami was not conformable with the media corrections that he needed to take time to understand the industry he is overseeing rather than indulging in unnecessary interferences, especially in the regulatory mandates of agencies under his monitoring. It is sad that the Minister is living in the world of “I know it all” and hence, he cannot be corrected.

With regards to his successive interferences for which he had been checked by telecoms industry stakeholders who vehemently warned that Pantami’s interferences in the regulatory activities the telecoms regulator could have negative impact on investment drive and bring a surreptitious reversal in  the already-recorded gains of telecoms industry in the economy, one wonders if this is the way and manner the Minister of Finance intervenes in the interest rate determination exercise of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

It is sad to note that President Muhammad Buhari who has given the country a consummate Professor of Telecommunication Engineering like Prof. Umar Danbatta as the country’s Chief Telecoms Regulator, who has, in the last four years plus helped to advanced the frontier of telecoms industry, would be sharply contrasted with the coming of Pantami as the new Sheriff for the telecoms industry.

It is very important to follow the laws and regulations guiding the telecoms industry and ensure the protection of the independence of the telecoms regulator lest the rule-governing foundation and nor fiat-based foundation laid by the likes of Dr. Omobola Johnson, former Minister of Communication Technology; Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, former NCC’s boss and Baba Hamed Joda and Peter Egoh, former NCC Board Chairs, among others is not weakened by Pantami’s dopamine of pandering to populism.

*Charles Ebele, a public affairs analyst and commentator, wrote in from Port Harcourt, River State capital.