By Rotimi Fasan
ONE of the few things for which the 2018 debate for the vice presidential slot will be long remembered are the quips round the fight against corruption. Peter Obi, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, candidate had, while arguing that corruption is not an economic policy, gone on to add that one cannot close one’s shop to chase thieves. To which the All Progressives Congress candidate and current Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, had instantly retorted that one couldn’t leave one’s shop open to be plundered by thieves or there would be nothing left to sell.
Although a matter of interpretation, the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the claimed positions of both debaters. What cannot be denied, however, is that both men recognise corruption as a problem that has to be tackled. But too often when Nigerians talk about corruption, we tend to think of it more in relation to holders of public office and in terms of the pilfering of liquid cash. Yet there are far more sinister faces to corruption that we may all be overlooking to our detriment.
One such face of corruption against which those saddled with the task of combating it may be having a very hard time is in the telecommunications sector. The Nigerian telecoms sector is corruption-driven, riddled as it is by all kinds of malpractices that are not only vexatious but stack up to gross abuse of consumers. A very recent report by the Nigerian Communications Commission, regulator of the telecoms sector, indicates that the various degrees and types of violations of consumer rights by telecoms operators run into billions of naira in monetary terms.
Parliamentary investigations of global operators like Facebook in America, Britain and other parts of the world leave no one in doubt that telecoms organisations are generally not averse to all kinds of sharp practices directed at improving their balance sheet at the expense of the unsuspecting consumers. The unholy alliance between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in the course of the 2016 elections in the US may be one of the more infamous examples in recent times.
But no less scandalous are the activities of some local players in the Nigerian telecoms sector. But unlike elsewhere the Nigerian government, going by the lukewarm attitude of our legislators to such matters, has more or less left Nigerians at the mercy of the telecoms companies. The legislators have become advocates and spokespersons of the telecoms operators and appear more interested in the free services offered some of them in their private capacity. It was not too long ago that MTN was slammed with a multi-billion naira fine for violating validly made regulations meant to sanitise operations within the telecoms sector. Everywhere around the world mobile lines owners are registered and records are kept of such subscribers but MTN obviously did not think Nigeria deserves to have such record in spite of the security challenges that led to the enactment and implementation of that regulation.
Rather than insist that MTN pay its fine, some Nigerian legislators were busy making a case for why the fine must be reduced or set aside, forgetting that no such violation by a Nigerian company would be tolerated in South Africa. They chose to succumb to and parroted the blackmail that the fine imposed on MTN would bankrupt it and lead to many Nigerians losing their jobs with the company. This is as if the positions of Nigerians on that company, or any of the other telecoms operators’ payrolls for that matter, are somewhat connected to the operators’ free exercise of their will to violate with impunity extant laws and regulations in the country.
After the back and forth between MTN and the NCC it’s not too clear what has become of the case between the Nigerian government and the company. If one private company could take the Nigerian state for a ride as MTN has done why would others not attempt similar violations for which they have not been decisively reprimanded? Thus as with MTN, so it is with the other operators in the country. Consumer abuse is the order of the day.
While you are quietly seated minding your business your phone rings, you pick it up and it turns out you’re responding to some automated voice from one of the network operators inviting you to subscribe to some service or competition that is nowhere close to what is on your mind at that moment. A network like MTN that will not hesitate to shut down your line when topping up, should you enter the wrong codes after three attempts, even in error- that same network will importune you with many unsolicited calls and messages in the course of a day. “Does your number ends in 435?
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For several days running now AIRTEL has been bombarding my lines with its “9001” message as it does every other week: “Greetings from Airtel! Please reply to activate AWOOFDEY WEEKLY service. Reply 1 for subscription and auto renewal. 2 for one time purchase.” The ugly thing about this and which is the very definition of corruption is that even if all you do is delete the annoying messages, the next thing you see is another message telling you a particular amount has been deducted from your account for subscribing to a service you surely did not subscribe to!
On some days the messages from these service providers keep coming in even as you proceed to delete them. It is as if they receive some signal (which is not impossible in the face of today’s technology) informing them the previous message has been deleted. This could go on many times in a day or within the space of a single hour without anyone minding the disruption to your peace of mind.
While they are quick in forcing subscriptions out of consumers or automatically activating expired data bundles among other value added services, the networks are very slow to roll over unused data. It is criminal malpractices, clear cases of 419, like this that the NCC says fetch telecoms operators like our banks billions of naira. Surely, the regulatory agency needs to do more as should the Consumer Protection Agency. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission may have a role to play here too. Corruption comes with different faces and sharp practices by telecoms companies come under the purview of financial crime or “obtaining by false pretence”.