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2.3 Ghz impasse, Mobitel boss arrest: Is Mr President’s silence still golden?

By  Prince Osuagwu

JUST as the hen was roosting home one Monday in May 2009, the news flashed that the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Engr Ernest Ndukwe was on the EFCC net, over the way he licensed the 2.3Ghz Wimax licence, to four operators.
The Minister of Information and Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili  had petitioned the EFCC, apparently expressing dissatisfaction in the whole process.

Two hours later, Head, Public Affairs of the NCC, Mr Reuben Muoka sent a counter release, no cause for alarm. The EVC was back in the office. It was a mere request to explain the process. In essence, it was not an arrest.
But since then, the telecom sector has not been the same again. From alleged cancellation of the process to the argument over who has the right or not to cancel the process, the sector has been divided into two camps. Those for Akunyili and others for Ndukwe.

Dora Akunyili
Dora Akunyili

All manner of people have used the opportunity of the disagreement to advance their desires of either becoming telecom advisers or analysts overnight.
Meanwhile in the face of all these, President Umar Musa Yar’Adua has remained silence, even as telecom is the leading light of his administration, raking in millions of dollars in Foreign Direct Investment when other sectors are grappling with success.

The best from the presidency has been to order the two parties in the impasse to maintain sealed lips until the Attorney General of the Federation interprets the telecoms Act and other relevant laws to find out if the Minister was right or otherwise, to cancel a process concluded by the NCC.
But that, however, is not working because parties to the two principal subjects to the issues are talking for them and the industry is worse for it all.

However, there were indications last week, that the presidency was close to making pronouncement on the issue since it was reported that the Attorney General may have allegedly hinted the presidency that the Minister had no powers under the law to cancel a licensing round concluded by NCC.
But until the time of filing in this report, resolution on the matter is not anywhere in sight. Instead parts of the problem are falling out, creating their own separate issues.
For instance, Thursday last week, Chief Executive of Mobitel Nigeria Limited, one of the four companies that won the 2.3 Ghz licence, Mr Johnson Salako was whisked away by the EFCC over the waiver his company was granted by NCC on debt owed the government by former Mobitel Operators.

Salako’s detention is sending shivers into the spines of industry watchers who are expressing fears that the government may have unknowingly began to sing the dirge for the telecommunications sector, which incidentally stands Nigeria out in the international community as an investment friendly environment.
Meanwhile, the Management of Mobitel, weekend, declared the continued detention of its Chief Executive Officer, Mr Salako, as illegal and an action that blatantly disregarded his constitutional rights.
The company was furious that anti_graft agency which is supposed to respect the rule of law was detaining its boss for more than 48 hours, thereby violating his right to liberty according to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

But the  EFCC, is alleging that the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, acted wrongly in granting Mobitel a waiver over its outstanding fiduciary responsibilities to the Federal Government.
Although industry enthusiasts and telecoms industry professionals are wondering why the EFCC is taking the hard stance on Mobitel which allegedly applied for waiver and granted, the anti corruption agency says it knew what it was doing, insisting that nobody would get away with any money belonging to the country.

The Mobitel story is actually a pathetic one. The company was one of the forty companies that participated in the recent sale of the 2.3GHz by the NCC and one of the three that succeeded in paying N1.368bn for the licence.
Before this time, the company was dead after the death of former President of the company, Engr Charles Alaba Joseph in 2005, following a failed bid by the receiver manager appointed by intercontinental bank to take over the company, until it found a buyer last year.

Last year, the company found a buyer. But before it was bought over by its new owners, the company was said to have owed the government in excess of N700m accumulating from the years the company was moribund and out of operations.
Information from officials of the company said that the new owners approached the NCC for a waiver from the bill after it had paid over N500m.

Swayed by feelings for a company resurrecting from the dead perhaps, the NCC granted the waiver.
However the company ran into murky waters, flashing across the EFCC spotlight when it participated in the purchase of the major spectrum and subsequently paid the whopping sum of over a billion within the stipulated time. The EFCC felt that the company was strong enough and would have paid its entire debt if pressed.
Now Mobitel is being pressured to pay back the waiver it was supposedly given by the NCC even as it has reportedly paid N48m and have promised to pay more.

The concern is that whether indigenous of foreign, an investor is an investor and Mobitel is one.
If a country must retain its investment friendliness, it must also learn how to treat its investors fair and firm and this is where industry professionals believe the president’s silence may no longer be golden.
The EFCC, though a Nigerian creation is on the international network. Most of the outcomes of its investigations are subjects of international discuss. Debts and other business related issues should first be treated by relevant internal bodies before making it a global menu.

Nigeria has been known and regarded as a case study for telecommunications growth and development in recent times, it may not pay the country’s international image to destroy that toga, with actions that seems like killing a fly with a sledge hammer


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