June 22, 2009

The NCC Challenge

By Engr Tolu Williams
Colin Powell, who was to become  President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State, was such a successful Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that anytime the American public is asked to name those before him or even his successors, it fails to do so in most cases. But everyone remembers General Powel as someone who once commanded the world’s mightiest military force, with some even thinking that he is in office to this day.



The same thing obtains in Nigeria about the leadership of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). Nigerians usually think Engineer Ernest Ndukwe is the NCC founding executive chairman. But Ndukwe is not even the second chief executive of the regulatory agency.

He was appointed only in 2000. In the same way, most people attribute the idea of the Global System of mobile telephony in Nigeria to him whereas GSM licences were first awarded under the Sani Abacha military regime in the late 1990s.

The major difference between the licences awarded under General Abacha and those allocated by Ndukwe’s NCC is that whereas the former were arbitrarily given to cronies like Abacha’s Lebanese business associates named Chagouri and Chagouri, the latter followed a due and transparent process on a scale hitherto unknown in the country. What is more, the four licences granted by Ndukwe’s NCC yielded huge revenues into the federation account, unlike the earlier ones. Needless to say, the GSM operators during the Abacha regime were going to sell one GSM line for at least 120 000 naira, a product which customers today obtain free of charge.

If there is any sector of the economy which can genuinely lay claim to being transformed it is telecommunications. To use a Nigerian lingo, it is a classic case of rising from grass to grace. As of May, 1999 when an elected government replaced military dictatorship, there were not more than 400 000 telephone lines in a country whose population was then believed to be more than 110million.

This fact means that telephone penetration in Nigerian society was scandalously low, with Nigeria’s teledensity almost at par with that of a country like Afghanistan under the Taliban. Yet, within a very short period, there was an explosion in the subscriber base. As of last December, there were as many as 64million active telephone lines in Nigeria, with the figure increasing by two million since this year. Despite the significant depreciation of the naira against international currencies since 1999, telephone charges have not increased; if anything, tariffs have reduced considerably over the years.

All this has been made possible by the National Communication Commission, the policeman of Nigeria’s telecommunication industry, which vehemently insists that its primary duty is to defend consumers.
The magic of the telecom scenario is that despite the steps taken to protect consumers, telephone operators are in good business, thereby creating a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

The South African GSM operator, MTN, has found in Nigeria its most important market, enabling it to become the biggest telecommunications company in the African region. The NCC, for its part, has not fared badly at all. It used to operate from an office of two blocks in the Garki part of Abuja, but today it has one of the finest edifices in Abuja , adjacent to Transcorp Hilton Hotel.

Its office, an architectural and engineering masterpiece, is a remarkable feature of the Abuja skyline as a modern city of international significance. Also not to be forgotten is that the NCC has contributed over 300 billion naira in licensing fees to the federation account. Only on May 8, 2009, it raked in a little over four billion naira from the winners of the recently bidding regime for the2.3 Gigerherz (GHZ) spectrum. Each of the three companies paid N1.368billion for the licences. All the money went straight into the federation account.

In spite of the phenomenal attainments of the NCC in the last nine years, which are pretty public knowledge, it does seem that the regulatory body’s most important legacy is, paradoxically, scarcely mentioned. One is referring to the establishment of the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI), with headquarters in Abuja and campuses in Kano and Oshodi, Lagos. Designed to be a world class institution, DBI has been training human resources which Nigeria desperately needs for rapid developments in Information, Communication and Technology (ICT).

The recognition of the primacy of the right kind of human resources for 21st century development cannot but have a far-reaching salutary effect on the economy. As the South Development Commission noted in its famous 1990 report, the difference between the developed nations and the developing ones is, at bottom, the difference in the quantum and quality of human resources available in each country.

I was thrilled to read earlier this year a statement credited to Engr Ndukwe after visiting Cyberjaya (or Cyber city) of Malaysia where he saw the ICT University in Selangor. I was in Kula Lumpur in the early 1990s when the then prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammed, was establishing the 3.8billion dollar Multi Super Corridor (MSC) as Malaysia’s answer to Silicon Valley in California, home of America’s ICT.

I never knew that the day would come when any African public officer, let alone a Nigerian, would feel so inspired and challenged by the evolving technological miracle in Malaysia and then decide to do a similar thing in Africa. It is, therefore, with a sense of professional pride that one reports here that Mr. Ndukwe who is determined to make DBI the Multi Media University of Africa is a fellow engineer.

The fact that Engr. Ndukwe visited a truly emerging country like Malaysia and now feels like replicating the Asian miracle in his own little way should, in fact, serve as a challenge to other Nigerian public officers. It is, indeed, a shame that countless public office holders visit both developed and emerging societies regularly, enjoy the bright lights of the cities, but refuse to do anything to lift their own country to scratch.

Malaysia, for example, did not just begin to leapfrog developmentally. Premier Mahathir, for one, felt that if neighbouring Singapore could modernize so rapidly, Malaysia could follow in its steps. Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew itself felt challenged by the example of Japan, a country without any mineral resources and suffers such natural disasters as earthquakes. Still, it developed so fast and within a few decades became the second largest economy in the world.

The only Nigerian public office holder who, to the best of my knowledge, has taken concrete steps to replicate the Asian development miracle here is the Lagos State governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola. Gov Fashola is challenged by the stunning success story of Singapore, which is not more than Lagos metropolis in size and yet became one of the greatest countries on Earth.

When the International Bar Association held its convention in Singapore in August of 2007, Fashola participated so that he could, among others, meet the legendary Lee in flesh and blood. He did meet Lee. As everyone knows, Gov Fashola is on the way to making Lagos our own Singapore as much as possible.

People like Fashola and Ndukwe are the kind of public officers Nigeria needs right now. Such people are called in modern social science theory developmental leaders. That is to say, they are obsessed with the transformational development of their societies, and not the trappings of office and all such shows of vanity. May the tribe of Engr. Ernest Ndukwe, OFR, multiply.

Williams is a Lagos-based telecom Engineer