By Oko Aihe
The ephemerality of time is one mystery that humbles my understanding of life. Winks growing into seconds, seconds into minutes, into hours and days and so on. All the time humans are trapped in the transiency, and so many suffer the time warp.
In the undulating contour of this time without end are the activities and efforts of men, put on a scale of performance of success and failure, with the latter gaining the upper hand. In our part of the world, failure is one homogenous cable that binds the affairs of men together; like the colour of the rainbow, you cannot miss it in the sky.
We sew failure into our seams and record more gravestones than mile stones. The fiery ambitions of young men and women are beneath mother earth somewhere in a very cold and desolate environment. And time moves on.
Winks into seconds, seconds into minutes, into hours, into days and so on. Only a few break the odds, they use their heads to break the stubborn coconut and record their achievements in milestones. In the face of untold difficulties, we still remember to sing the praises of this tiny lot. Nigerians are a very grateful lot.
This very moment I am looking at yesterday, to see how far it has receded from the present. It doesn’t look so far away and memories are like the welcoming green leaves of the plantain tree.
Let the riddles stop and let history reveal its secrets. Just like yesterday, Prof Umar Garba Danbatta, came to start a new life at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) as the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC), far away from the academia where he had spent most of his life, to contribute to the regulatory successes of the Commission. August 4, which was yesterday, brought a conclusion to his first five years in office.
Today, he begins another lease, his tenure having been renewed by the President in accordance with the contents of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 which states in Section 8 (4): Subject to sections 11(3) and 11(4) of this Act, each Commissioner shall serve for a term of 5 (five) years from the date of his appointment at the expiration of which the President may renew his term for a further period of 5 years and no more.
Prof Danbatta is lucky. His tenure has been renewed by the President and this writer only hopes that someday he will survive the shenanigans of those who have no respect for the laws of the land. History, sometimes, plays tricks.
With the opportunity of a fresh burst of energy assured, Danbatta is having some moments of introspection in order to prepare the way forward, which I think is the more difficult job. To use his words: “Now in the fifth year of the five-year vision plan, I can tell you that we have recorded appreciable successes under each of the items (referring to his 8-Point Agenda).
We have increased broadband penetration to 41.27 per cent as of June 2020 from 5 per cent in 2015, developed regulatory framework for broadband penetration through the infrastructure companies (InfraCo) Licences, issued wireless broadband licences.
For the second agenda, we have set up Task Force on Quality of Service and continue to engage critical stakeholders to address industry challenges arising from right of way issue, multiple taxations, multiple regulations and indiscriminate shutting down of live base stations.
With respect to item three (optimize the usage and benefits of spectrum), the Commission has encouraged the re-farming of various frequencies to improve their efficiency.
Spectrum monitory has been improved to ensure sanity in the industry……We have also facilitated the listing of telcos on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), we developed and promoted compliance with the Code of Corporate Governance in the industry from voluntary to mandatory compliance.
We also developed a framework for participating in ITU working groups…… Finally, we want to ensure speed of Fifth Generation (5G) technology to, at least, five per cent of the population. Already, the NCC, in November 2019, pioneered 5G trials, becoming the first telecoms regulator in West Africa to proactively begin such trial towards unleashing greater digital revelation.
We have also worked with stakeholders to develop guidelines on the use of Television White Space (TVWS) to extend affordable broadband penetration to underserved and unserved areas.”
This is an abridged version of that document. I searched for the MTN fine but it was not there. It wasn’t so much the money, N330bn, but the deft management of the process which if it went otherwise was enough to sink the industry. You may not fancy this point of view but that was obviously a very trying time for the telecoms sector.
I also thought that the efforts of some state governors, led by Dr Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, in waving the cost of right of way (RoW) which was an annoying impediment for the pervasive laying of fibre optics cable across the nation, needed to have been properly highlighted in order to encourage orders to join their progressive colleagues.
It looks so easy now but not really. Negotiations with governors started long ago but formal results are emerging under Danbatta.
However, the challenges ahead are much more than whatever may have been observed as achievements.
Technology is mutating every day, changing shape, form and usability, influencing an ever-increasing demand in a market dominated nearly in equal measure by both the rich and the poor who have their eyes set on tools and packages of convenience in affordability and service relevance. Danbatta needs to pick a point of impact as he launches into the future.
But he will need to wrestle down the demons which build bogey features around big offices, making it difficult for even good men and women to speak truth to power.
One is conversant will all the stats of achievements in the industry but having featured in the sector for nearly thirty years, you can permit me a little liberty to observe that the industry is at crossroads and needs urgent intervention from the regulator. First point of impact is for Danbatta to retrieve the regulatory independence of the Commission from the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy whose noticeable intrusiveness is palpably overbearing and worrisome to industry practitioners.
There are so many people across the nation who are very concerned about boosting the fortunes, reliability and relevance of our telecommunications infrastructure. Danbatta has readily canvassed his support for InfraCos in deepening the telecoms ecosystem.
Responding to a position expressed in this column recently, a friend wrote: “Any solution that leaves out government direct intervention on the infrastructure side would in my view be cosmetic and palliative in nature. Yes, government erroneously believes that telecoms is much like oil, a natural resource where you can take rent without making an investment but that is wrong-headed thinking.
People need to advocate for government to invest in infrastructure development in the sector as that is the only thing that can unleash the full potentials of the sector. I appreciate that because of the lack of trust in the government capacity to deliver infrastructure, it is toying with alternatives like using subsidy to tackle that deficit.
But I tell you that will be wrong as experiences have shown that such scheme will only end as another bazaar for the anointed and the connected.
We observe what is unfolding in the guardianship of other scarce resources that are near cash only to imagine what will follow when it is direct cash distribution. We need to think outside the box by developing a near developmental model that can deliver the expected outcome.
The kind of example developed for the power sector with the arrangement with Siemens, without the skewed and nepotistic abuse, can be explored if government is serious and focused on economic expansion.”
The NCC should think outside the box speedily to ensure that the entire nation is wired otherwise its dream for pervasive broadband penetration will only be a mirage. Permit to add that without broadband modern society will regress to the Stone Age era. Figures of penetration should have more meaning to phone users.
Danbatta should hold on to the dream of introducing 5G but should expand projected availability beyond five per cent of the population. He should also pursue the elusive quality of service being provided by the operators with undiluted vigour and resist very strongly the temptation to go on media celebration at this time.
As Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, said in an interview with Charlie Rose at the World Economic Forum, Davos in 2015, “You don’t win the world by talking but through hard work.”
The NCC needs to work much harder to enable Nigerians enjoy a better telecommunications industry. Prof Danbatta should resist the euphoric lure of the moment and engage in structured actions so that the next five years don’t end in a whimper but in a bang, a time to build legacy milestone in the sands of history.