By Okoh Aihe
He stood for a long time looking beyond the audience. Quite a few watched if the tears were going to drop. But Engr Ernest Ndukwe is a very strong and resolute man. He had spent ten years less two days at the NCC and in a few hours he would have spent his final moments at the imposing NCC building in Abuja.
A few minutes ago he was in a marathon photo session with the workers of the Commission a majority of who are irked to see him go. Some are carrying heavy faces but brighten up when they go to snap with him. It is an epochal moment the sort that a number of people who work at the NCC had never seen.
The telecommunications sector was deregulated in 1992, the NCC being a major fruit of that deregulation. Within the period the NCC has had a history of leadership but none has been lucky to spend a decade or this purposeful to achieve the kind of result that has made Nigeria an attractive telecommunications market.
In fact the venue of the cocktail party is a lethal testimony of what the industry has achieved in so short a time. The party is holding at the foyer of the third floor, some floors above the Chinese garden in the building. Engr Ndukwe has just walked in with some board members and some directors of the Commission and although the occasion was intended to be a very quiet one, some photographers still found their way into the venue and they are clicking away. This mansion of an office, a city landmark in Abuja was built in his time.
Success has a retinue of followership. There was another time like this in history. There was another moment like this.
In 1959. On the day that her play, Raisin in the Sun had a roaring and very successful premiere on Broadway, the first play by a black writer to achieve such feat, Lorraine Hansberry was swamped by autograph seekers who came to share that moment of success with her. Trying to free herself to meet their demand, Hansberry gave her bag to one other great writer of black descent, James Baldwin and said:Â Hold this for me brother; this sort of thing doesnâ€™t happen every day.
Historical moments come in between. But the NCC has had a harvest of history in the past ten years, giving life to an industry that was completely written off and in the process, giving the country something, apart from oil, to hope for.
Quite a few people thought this day was never going to come. Not with all the insinuations in the media and some of the write_ups that were fictitiously speculative. Some of them equally very unfair to the man who had given a decade of his life to a sector without devoting any of that time to any other thing.
Assisted by some of the directors and board members to cut the cake, Ndukwe cleared his voice. â€œWhen I woke up this morning with my wife to pray, I just found myself praising God for what he has done for us in the past ten years. It is rare to see somebody stay this long in service.
When we started ten years ago, we started from ground zero. There was little or nothing to fall back on.Â There were only about 400, 000 connected lines and a few analogue mobile lines.Â But today the industry has grown in leaps and bounds. Just at the end of last month we had 76million connected lines.
Turning to Engr Steve Bello, he introduced him as â€œone of us. The man who would be the acting Executive Vice Chairman, EVC, a man who has been part of the history and growth of the NCC. Please as you have supported me, give him all the support to succeed before the Acting President will appoint a substantive EVCâ€.
However, looking at Engr Bello straight in the face, Ndukwe said:Â â€œKeep my flock. I know your shoulders are broad enough to carry the responsibilities here.â€
These words come directly from John Chapter 21 when Jesus after his resurrection restored Simon Peter to a new commission instead of returning to his old trade of fishing.
There was dead silence. He was speaking extempore and there were no microphones thus making the setting not only natural but also very solemn.
Figuratively, â€œkeep flockâ€ stands for so many things, in fact much more than the human capital at the NCC. Ndukweâ€™s peroration would give more meaning to that expression. Looking at the imposing building, he explained that it takes a lot to maintain this kind of building. When a little thing falls off, please fix it immediately or the cost will escalate.
Speaking about the human capital, Ndukwe explained that every worker of the NCC has contributed to the growth of the organization and nobody should do anything to scatter them. The workers here are our greatest asset. They are well trained and highly motivated to perform. â€œPlease keep my flocks.â€
Giving a regulatory lesson, Ndukwe noted that every regulator should be mindful of his words because a wrong word from a regulator would send the wrong signals to the operators and investors and the industry will simply fall apart. The regulator should be able to balance his relationship with the various stakeholders. They say Nigeria has a big population and a very big market. But I want to say that the country has had a big population since independence in 1960 but nobody was ready to invest in our environment.
He admonished that the gains of the past ten years should not be squandered for any reason.
For most people in the industry Engr Ndukwe is leaving on a very remarkable note and quite a number of them would apply the local clichÃ© that he is leaving too big shoes for his successor.
When he was appointed to the post of the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission in 2000, from the private sector Nigeria had her place firmly in the telecoms hall of infamy, compared only to Mongolia and Afghanistan, war ravaged environments where telecoms development was a luxury.
But supported by an articulate board peopled by professionals and headed by a technocrat, Alhaji Ahmed Joda, the NCC was immediately transformed into a performing government parastatal and confidence grew in the telecoms sector with multinationals coming to play in Nigeria beginning from the Digital Mobile License (GSM) auction of 2001.
In a country where it was said that telephones were not for the poor, those who made that statement, within ten years have lived to see the lie in that submission and can agree quite shamefullyÂ that one commodity available in Nigeria today for the poor and the rich are telephones.
Globally, Nigeria has become a good case study of how things should be done in the telecommunications industry. Across the globe Engr Ndukwe had been invited to tell the Nigerian story and speak on the importance of modern regulation in the telecommunications industry. Those who operate in the industry have found the Nigerian pride again, to raise their heads high wherever they go to.
Speaking late last year in Nigeria, the ITU Secretary_General, Dr Hamadoun Toure, congratulated the country for her contributions to continental and global telecomsÂ growth, informing that Nigeria was way ahead as the biggest telecommunications market in Africa, and one of the fastest growing in the world. He attributed the growth and development to the quality of regulation which the NCC under Engr Ndukwe has provided for the sector.
The country has also done well by way of attracting local and foreign direct investments (FDI) . Speaking at a book presentation titled: The Impact of Mobile Services in Nigeria: How Mobile Services are Enabling Transformation Across Economic and Social Activities, Pyramid Research officials informed that investments in the telecoms industry in Nigeria have hit $18bn, with the sector employing 3million people both in direct and indirect employment. With subscription standing at 72.6m by end of 2009, Pyramid projects that by 2014, the industry will record 128m subscription growth. Investment pre_2000 was $50m.
This could be perhaps why NdukweÂ appealed to Engr Bello and the entire workforce of the Commission to keep the industry together.
For him, life will not stop at NCC. But going forward, Engr Ndukwe who described himself as a home boy who will find it difficult to take a job outside the country although his credentials would readily stand him out for one, confessed his love for Nigerian youths and informed of his plan to build capacity among Nigerian young graduates so as to prepare them for the labour market.
He is concerned about skilled work force for the labour market and he wants to make his contributions so as to make a difference and make young graduates more useful to themselves and society.â€For this reason I may join the faculty of one or two Nigerian universities so that I can help build young minds.â€
Both Engineers â€“ Ndukwe and Bello had worked together for years, each contributing to building the Nigerian telecoms sector. While promising Engr Ndukwe that he would deploy all his energy to hold the Commission and the telecoms sector together, Engr Bello said that one lesson he had learnt from Engr Ndukwe which he will find very handy now is his capacity for hard work.
He admitted that Engr NdukweÂ never worked like a civil servant but as if the commission belonged to him, explaining why he was always closing at late hours. He pledged that the Commission Ndukwe was leaving behind would never disappoint him.
Okoh Aihe, Head, Corporate Services Department, USPF, was Special Assistant to Engr Ndukwe on Media and Corporate Affairs. He contributed this piece from Abuja.