By Prince Osuagwu
As the drums roll out Friday, signaling the elebration of Nigeria’s fifty years of independence, there is the likelihood that telecom operators and their consumers may be singing a dirge instead. This is following frustrations, sorrow, tears and blood which has become the hallmark of telecom industry lately.
First, consumers of telecommunications services have been groaning under the weight of epileptic service from operators which had in turn affected their businesses, relationships and aggregate economy. But most of the frustrations, according to the operators, are following cable and infrastructure cuts particularly in Lagos and most other urban towns where road construction and maintenance are being carried out. In such cases the operators are left to entirely find alternative method of servicing their customers or sulk and leak their wound.
In most other cases, are when all tiers of government including the federal, states and local councils, replicate both regulation and charges, putting heavy over head cost to the operators who either pass it to the consumers or reduce speed of expansion and put untold pressure to their networks.
The latest is the incidence of last week which saw six men working at a Base Transceiver Station (BTS) of MTN Nigeria slain by unknown gunmen suspected to be armed robbers in Aba. The men who had left their wives and other relatives at home to conduct their professional duties ended on cold slabs in the mortuary by the evening, owing to the ruthless bullets of the men of underworld, who ironically must themselves be users of telecom services.
The gunmen reportedly walked into the MTN site at Gabby Oil, Aba Road, Aba, Abia State, after a team of engineers had apparently just rectified a fault and were waiting for the base station to come back into service after powering the generator. The gunmen allegedly held the team at gun point and demanded for the key to the parked vehicle apparently brought to the site by the engineers.
MTN in a statement said “On Thursday 16th September in Aba, Abia State, six Nigerians lost their lives under very tragic circumstances. The fatalities included two mobile policemen and four personnel carrying out routine engineering and maintenance work at the BTS. They were killed by suspected armed robbers in a bid to snatch their vehicles. Our thoughts are with the families of the bereaved who have lost sons, fathers, siblings and breadwinners who were merely carrying out their official duties and have been killed for no reason whatsoever”.
This development came as a shock to operators in the sector. It was indeed not the first time lives would be lost at a telecommunications site. However, this latest incident is the highest number of lives lost to criminal invasion of telecommunications site in the country. Globacom and Zain as well as many of the smaller operators have variously complained of harassment by criminal elements at base stations across Nigeria.
Many of the operators’ officials have narrowly escaped being seriously hurt or even killed by all manner of criminal elements ranging from area boys who demand payment before allowing any repair work on sites, to full-blown armed robbers who visit telecommunications sites to steal generators, batteries, air conditioners and other such equipment.
With MTN having more base stations than any other operator in the country, the company may have recorded more of these incidents since it commenced operation. According to a very reliable source at MTN, the company alone experienced theft of 178 heavy-duty generators valued at several millions of naira from its sites across the country in 2009.
Between January and May of this year, the company said it lost 46 heavy duty power generating sets to robbers, who are sometimes so bold that they take cranes and similar equipment to BTS to uproot the generators before carting them away.
Vanguard Hi-Tech gathered that at least one guard was killed in one of such incidents some months back, while several others were hurt by the dare-devil armed robbers. A number of MTN guards at the affected stations were hurt by the robbers during some of the operations.
Telecommunications professionals and various bodies and institutions in the country have already condemned the alarming proportions these incidents are assuming.
The president of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr Titi Omo-Ettu, in an instant reaction to the latest incident indicated that matters had come to a head and the government would have to do something decisive about it this time. Failure of the government to immediately tackle the problem, he indicated, posed serious threat to the growth and development recorded in the industry so far, as investors might begin to think differently about ploughing their funds in Nigeria’s telecom sector.
“Peace, investment, life, and living, have now been threatened to a level that makes it necessary to invite president, Goodluck Jonathan, to please intervene urgently,” Mr. Omo-Ettu said.
He noted that while armed robbery is not new to anyone living in Nigeria, the nature of the current incident, especially the number of people killed in one fell swoop makes it an exceptional case and “one murder too callous to be regarded as one of the usual stories”.
“Our association pledges to do all things possible to assist the police in investigating this incident and we invite the attention of the new Inspector General of Police to the need to see this as one case which requires speedy investigation and prosecution of those found culpable, as this will determine where we go from here. Criminal acts of this nature have been encouraged because perpetrators are hardly ever caught and prosecuted,” Mr. Omo-Ettu added.
Analysts warn that this incident requires immediate attention of all stakeholders if only because of its inevitable effect on the so much talked about quality of service. They warn that the moment telecom engineers are reluctant to move to sites to rectify faults as they occur, the quality of service in the country will dramatically nosedive.
“Unless government intervenes and stops this wanton destruction of lives at telecom sites, it will come to a stage when telecom professionals will prefer to risk a sack than go to some areas to rectify telecommunications fault. And when this happens, the ultimate loser is the consumers”
In a related developement Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria, ALTON, Engr Gbenga Adebayo in a recent press conference decried the growing tendency of targeting telecommunications operators by all manner of interests in the hope of laying their hands on some of the perceived huge money they are making. He cautioned that this cannot augur well for growth in the sector.
Adebayo, was speaking in relation to alleged arbitrary shut down and vandalisation of Operators’ BTS by an agency of government, National Evironmental Standards and Regulation Enforcement Agency, NESREA which turns out a torn in the flesh of telecom operators for allegedly not complying with environmental safety regulation requirements.
He drew the attention of the public to the implications of the relentless attack on telecommunications infrastructure by criminal elements and lately by all manner of agencies of government purporting to enforce various policies.
According to him, apart from a recent shutdown of some BTS sites around the country by NESREA, equipment at telecommunications sites are constantly vandalised and stolen. He noted that this has huge implications not only on the growth of the sector, but also on national security.
It seems the government would have to do more than it is doing now not only sustain the telecoms growth in the country but to also protect the overwhelming number of telecommunications services consumers in the country.