Battle over NigComSat bill shifts to Senate

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By Prince Osuagwu

If the calculations of the Nigerian Communications Satellite Company limited, NigComSat, is to be relied upon, the senate may soon pass the Nigcomsat corporation bill to become an Act.

The bill which became primary subject of a joint senate committee public hearing in Abuja recently, generated heated debate, divergent and discordant voices, with some of government ministries and agencies, including the Ministries of Communications technology, Science and tech, National Space and Research Development Agency, Nasrda, Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, Galaxy Backbone among others praying that the bill be killed.

Their arguments were that the bill will pitch NigComSat against NASRDA, create double space agencies, encourage duplication of duties among two government functionaries and much more, that the preparation of the bill eroded due processes and procedures of government policies.

In fact almost all the government establishments that made presentations to the joint senate committee hearing, argued that to the extent that the bill allegedly arrogated to NigComSat the powers of being a player and regulator in the satellite space at the same time, passing it into law would give the satellite company undue powers that would make nonsense of government’s sector liberalization achievements.

They prayed that instead of passing the bill, NigComSat should be privatized since the powers it sought in the bill are the same that NASRDA already has.

However in response, the Chief Executive Officer of NigComSat, Engr Ahmed Rufai, expressed shock at how little many of the oppositions of the bill from government agencies, knew of global satellite business, issues and practices.

“Contrary to the fears expressed in certain quarters, I want to reiterate that NigComSat is neither a space agency nor a regulator and I am not aware of any clause in the clean bill from the House, that gives NigComSat such powers.”

Again, Rufai also contended that picking on the issue of competition with NASRDA as a point to kill the bill was also laughable going by the functions of NASRDA as a clear research and development agency of the Nigerian satellite industry while his company deals exclusively with buying and selling (marketing) of satellites.

Going through a long history of world satellite activities, apparently to educate oppositions of the bill, Rufai said “the most interesting thing is that we are not living in an isolated world. It has a fleet of 54 satellites.

“Again, the USA Military has six geostationary satellites called MILSTAR which allow all military formations to coded communications. President of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria {ISPON} Dr. Chris Uwaje, who was also invited by the Senate to make presentations on the bill, spoke extensively on the international best practices where space agencies exist side by side with commercial satellite companies.

Uwaje said that “the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, NASA, existed before Intelsat. If we evaluate the success stories of Communications Satellite Operators like Intelsat, Eutelsat, Pan Am Sat, ArabSat, Sinosat among others, it will mean lack of focus on the part of Nigeria not to empower NigComSat which is truly Nigeria’s answer to these models,” he adduced.

The public hearing at the instance of Senate Joint Committee on Science Technology and Communications, which kicked off at about 2.30 pm last Tuesday, began with a barrage of criticisms against the bill. Although, Communication Technology Minister, Omobola Johnson and Henshaw opposed the bill, both spoke from different perspectives, while Johnson complained that the bill had no role for the Minister and so NigComSat should be privatized , Henshaw simply laid claims to ownership of NigComSat by National Space Research and Development Agency {NASRDA} where NigComSat emanated from.

Representing the EVC of NCC, Executive Director of the commission, Mr. Okechukwu Itanyi opposed the bill on the grounds that if approved, NigComSat was likely to usurp NCC position as a regulator. Director General of NASRDA, Mr. Mohammed Seidu claimed ownership of NigComSat, describing it as a department and consequently opposed the bill because two satellites agencies could not exist side by side.

Meanwhile, even as Managing Director of Galaxy Backbone, Mr Gerald Ilukwe itemized both policy flaws, regulatory and security implications of passing the bill as presented, he also suggested that if the senate could clean the ambiguities in the bill that appeared to conflict with other existing laws, there was nothing wrong in passing it into law.

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