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For telecoms, a look back in Hope

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telecoms in  Nigeria

By Okoh Aihe

THE above title is not totally my idea. It is inspired by John Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, which played out at the Royal Theatre in the United Kingdom and was staged in parts of the world, thus making the playwright very wealthy and quite popular. But placed side by side with the journey of our recent past, not many people will agree with me. In fact, without doubt, they will get angry, very angry.

What is there to be hopeful about? Is it the socio-political situation with endless deaths? Is it the economy in recession? Is it the education sector with students out of school for nearly a year? Or even the #EndSARS Movement that was brutally repressed to the shame and equivocations of the authorities? What is there to give us hope?

Here is my little story. One quiet evening in the final days of last year, a very nasty year for that matter, when it was heading to its final resting place with its ignoble debris arising from a shock pandemic and government’s failure to address even basic issues, not to talk of the challenging ones, I had the opportunity to sit with Engr. Ernest Ndukwe to ruminate over the past, including the telecommunications industry that has become a major benefit of democracy since 1999. Point to any other sector, the people who endure the daily grind of life will point to the contrary.

Nigeria seems to be witnessing a shaking but Ndukwe, this very night, was cool, very cool. Seemingly unperturbed by the swirl around him. A lot is happening in the industry in which he has enjoyed the status of a super hero, yet he remains calm, and is very optimistic and excited about its future. Perhaps, this is what it takes to enjoy a regeneration and relevance after so many years of being a household echo.

There are indications that in a country where history as a subject has been panned and education allowed to atrophy, not so many young people will remember Ndukwe with reverence in the next few years. But for some of us who remain privileged witnesses of history, he remains a referenced metaphor of the Nigerian can-do-spirit which makes the near impossible happen.

Looking back in time, he told me that night that all he ever wanted to be was to be given the opportunity to manage NITEL for Nigerians to see the potentials of the organisation. NITEL? Who remembers NITEL now? Situated within our meagre aspirations for telecommunications, NITEL with just about 500,000 connected lines for a population of over 119m in 1999 was a niche industry! Very lean aspirations indeed. Ndukwe never got the opportunity to manage NITEL and release its shut-in wealth but he got much more and, in the process, unleashed the growth of a sector which, despite being subjected to serial abuse, has remained very resolute.

His wasn’t a political appointment determined by zoning or, if you properly weigh the corrosive meaning of one of the latest vocabularies, nepotism. He was already a major industry player being the chief executive of GPT and a president of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, a platform he used to campaign for the liberalisation of the telecommunications industry.

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The coming of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 (God bless him always for giving us a globally acknowledged telecommunications industry) gave Ndukwe the opportunity to express himself at the highest level of the industry. OBJ’s plan to quickly green light the economy by breathing life into sensitive sectors found traction in the proselytisation of Engr Ndukwe, to create a better industry where phones should not enjoy the exclusive use of the rich. He was appointed the chief executive of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, in the year 2000.

The Digital Mobile Auctions of January 2001 is usually seen as the tipping point of the country’s telecommunications renaissance. But that fateful night, Ndukwe cast his mind beyond the auctions to look at the solid board that was put in place by the President. The Board was headed by OBJ’s old friend, Ahmed Joda, a technocrat with little appetite for sloppiness. He recalled that working with the board, the Commission diligently put together a core staff that would continue to animate the soul of the industry.

Apart from the air we breathe the telecommunications sector is the only other outstanding benefit of democracy since 1999. The sector which has suffered a regulatory capture of recent due to the meddlesomeness of overzealous government officials, provides the superstructure for even life and every other sector of the Nigerian economy to run. So, it is not out of place to hint that if you unplug the sector, you take down the entire economy of the nation in shreds. Ndukwe would not subscribe to the seamy side of the industry.

Instead, he remains excited about the potentials of the industry, saying there is so much opportunity it offers, so much yet to be done and achieved in terms of service to the people. He observed that with better working relationship between the regulator and industry operators, the country has enough human capital to further explode the sector. If we could do it before, promoted an industry that arrested global attention for over a decade, the industry is much more prepared today with enough knowledge to create another wave of growth.

He is speaking from a position of knowledge. Over a year ago he was appointed to the Board of MTN Nigeria as Chairman, among a crack team that was put in place by the service provider which seemed to be in search of more secured channels to cement its leadership in, and hold on the industry. With scant reference to that development Ndukwe says MTN is a well-run organisation.

Their dominance in the market clearly supports Ndukwe’s testimony. But there is something else. MTN came prepared for the Nigerian market because of their experience in South Africa. Shortly after the auctions that evening, this writer had an opportunity to have a quick chat with Irene Charnley who led the MTN group. Her points were well made. MTN made a mistake in planning for the South African market, she explained, because we were told the black population didn’t have money. But market demands quickly outstripped their preparations.

Drawing from that experience MTN planned for a position of advantage in the Nigerian market and that position has hardly been troubled ever since. The night was ageing and Ndukwe looked at me. “There are so many areas of strength in the Nigerian economy; all we need to do is to approach them in a very positive way. We can draw knowledge and strength from each other as a people to push our nation to the greatest height.”

Vanguard News Nigeria

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