By Okoh Aihe
WHEN a significant matter of interest nearly boiled over in the telecommunications industry the other day, the stakeholders came together on a round table, perhaps minus one party, and at the end arrived on an ingenious solution which returned the load to the subscriber. How very unfortunate!
They say in my part of the world that when birds are being roasted, the hen goes around with red eyes, supposing those are its children. So, it is with Nigerian banks. They don’t kid around with the issues of money; everything must be in their vault or it is considered lost.
Playing such game with the tacit support of the Central Bank, the Nigerian banks massed up a debt of N42bn in just an aspect of electronic money transaction, thus providing a voracious answer to Ola Rotimi’s question in Hopes of the Living Dead that sugar can dissolve only in their mouth. Nearly always, matters come up in the telecommunications industry that need a deus ex machina approach for resolution.
A while back, it was the forced romance between Subscriber Identification Module, SIM, and National Identification Number, NIN, decreed by the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, without which Nigerians will not have access to certain services in the country. The forced love which was targeted at resolving security challenges would nearly invalidate the importance of the National ID Card, the International Passport and even the Bank Verification Number, BVN.
The SIM/NIN registration was the new gobbledegook from the crest of creativity and must thus be given revered reception by the ordinary mortals! Nigerians didn’t love the forced romance. But they loved their phones, one of the few visible democratic dividends since 1999. They poured on the streets in defiance of the deadly COVID-19 to scramble for the lives of their phones, not their own lives, and drew outrage from the remaining few but bold Nigerians who can still look at government eye-to-eye and rebuke its officials for misgovernance and inconvenient decisions.
Shamefaced, the registration exercise window has been extended severally, after many COVID-19 casualties that nobody would ever compute or accept, and the exercise is grinding on. What of reported fraud at the centres, of monies being collected from these desperate, and, some very poor Nigerians, whose only proof of relevance and importance, is their phones? No explanation has ever diced such contumelies.
Yet, life goes on, more like a machine grinding for existence, longing for hope, which those in authority are not anxious to release, even piecemeal. The advantaged is never happy when the yoke bearer complains. And most arrogantly they always compute that such complaints will amount to nothing.
But not this time. Unable to bear the malignant yoke foisted upon them by the banks, the telecommunications service providers who supply the pipes that enable electronic money transaction through the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, USSD, threatened to unplug their pipes by way of remonstrating the debts being owed them.
The Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators in Nigeria, ALTON, who had been corralled into several meetings by the CBN in the absence of the NCC, the telecoms industry regulatory authority, raised a cry that it could not carry the debt any longer, and to continue to serve the subscribers. A government that claims credit for everything apart from the evil in the land, didn’t want the unfolding scandal to add to the convoluted ones already in place, and quickly called for a meeting.
In attendance at the March 15, 2021, meeting called by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy were Mobile Network Operators, MNOs, Deposit Money Banks, DMB, ALTON, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, the sectors regulators – NCC and CBN. Look very closely, dear friend, the subscribers that remain critical stakeholders of the industry were never represented – and there are associations where picks could have been made from.
And this is what happened. When you are absent from a meeting, oftentimes, your hair could be shaved on your behalf. Here are some of the decisions. “We are pleased to announce after comprehensive deliberations …..Effective March 16, 2021, USSD services for financial transactions conducted at DMBs and all CBN –licensed institutions will be charged at a flat fee of N6.98 per transaction.
This replaces the current per session billing structure, ensuring a much cheaper average cost for customers to enhance financial inclusion. This approach is transparent and will ensure the amount remains the same, regardless of the number of sessions per transaction. “To promote transparency in its administration, the new USSD charges will be collected on behalf of MNOs directly from customers’ bank accounts.
Banks shall not impose additional charges on customers for use of the USSD channel,” the statement jointly signed by the NCC and CBN said. The MNOs and DMBs, according to the statement, will also engage each other to work out a payment pattern for all residual debts. It’s all smiles that a knotty issue has been resolved through a collegiate effort! For an industry with a regulator, such collegiate triumph is not salutary.
July 23, 2019, the NCC released a Determination on Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, USSD, to the effect that the subscriber will have to pay for such services. The regulator does not arrive on a Determination lightly. Determination is the result of painstaking effort, near error-free research and in fact application of local and international industry best practices in order to create a local solution.
The Determination may not assuage the feelings of every party of interest but a professionally informed decision would have been taken. After such USSD Determination, the Minister, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, forced the regulator to reverse itself in August 2020, suspending the commencement of end-user billing, submitting that he was “genuinely besieged with a barrage of complaints at the attempted commencement of end-user billing by service providers”.
It would be hackneyed to say that the Minister’s intervention has no place in the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 which empowers the NCC with regulatory responsibilities. There can be no bigger proof than the collegiate decision taken recently by the industry stakeholders, which is a modification of the regulator’s initial Determination. The subscriber must be given documented dues not based on political considerations or the massaged ego or countenances of any politician. The regulator must be allowed to live its own life, even with mistakes.